But sheer bulk composed within a mammoth frame wasn't all Leon White, who passed away Monday at age 63, on top of a battery of lingering heart issues, had to offer professional wrestling. As Vader (or even under names like Baby Bull and Bull Power), White could've followed in the crater-deep footsteps of the beasts that came before him in pro wrestling, relying more on explicit presence and size to be his calling cards than demonstration of athletic skill.
To hear White tell it in a shoot interview conducted close to 20 years ago, he wasn't the type to take it so easy. When his professional football career ended due to injury in the early 1980s, White took a job in real estate, where he admitted that the money was good, but he was growing bored. He said he still felt his amply-nimble body had something more to offer.
Rather than continuing get heftier and happier in "civilian life", White pursued wrestling. And instead of taking perhaps a lighter share of bumps that would be afforded to many "hard-to-topple" gargantuans, the man eventually called Vader almost quite literally threw himself into that life, displaying the same grace and vigour that were more expected of men half his size.
The sheer sight of a man of Vader's build balancing his feet on the top rope, then throwing his body into an elegant-looking back-flip onto some poor bastard on the canvas, was enough to make your jaw drop. "He's close to 500 pounds," you'd think, trying to reconcile the unfathomable sight of a red-and-black boulder making a pancake out of some guy whose lungs comfortably worked once.
No doubt, Vader was the perfect Goliath for a variety of Davids to attempt to slay. Matches with Sting, Ric Flair, and Shawn Michaels underscore what made Vader more special than the near-unanimity of monster heels that have roamed the landscape with their thudding steps. It's one thing to be a monster that absorbs blows and laughs them off. It's another to be one of Vader's ilk, moving just as quickly and fleet-footed as the protagonist while dishing out strikes that scramble brain cells and loosen teeth.
Many monster heels could play defense on autopilot, and afford to do so based on accepted tropes in wrestling. Vader was one that played offense, a Kodiak bear not content to be stationary.
Some of Vader's best matches came in anarchic scenarios. First coming to mind is the series of wars that he would have with Cactus Jack in 1993-94. Mick Foley is easily one of the most giving wrestlers that has ever lived, and he was just the type to feed his body to the unpulled strikes of WCW's answer to Doomsday. Whether it was their historic matches on WCW Saturday Night, or their wild Texas Death Match at Halloween Havoc 1993 (not to mention the legendary "lost ear" match in Germany), Vader and Cactus arguably produced the best main event feud in company history that involved neither Flair nor Sting.
Like Foley, Vader just didn't have it in him to leave any colour on the palette untouched.
You might recall a few years back when Vader inducted Stan Hansen into the WWE Hall of Fame, Vader making reference to "Stan the Man" knocking his eyeball out of its socket. During the speech, Vader made light of the grisly moment using a comedic pair of spring-eyed glasses, but as you might expect, the real incident was more stomach-turning. A man having his eye knocked out in a wrestling match might sound unbelievable, but what's even more alarming as that Vader, after hastily shoving his eyeball back in place, continued to work the match.
Vader the wrestler really felt like your retired father, the one who can't just sit around and do nothing all day. Nobody expects your pop to continue working his hands to his bone well into his sixties and seventies, just as nobody would've blamed a super-heavyweight like Vader if he had done less between the ropes, if he had taken it a little easier on his bigger bones.
Vader's success is not measured in championship gold (of which he won plenty, including the top belts in WCW, New Japan, and All Japan), but rather the trail he blazed. While he might not be the most popular wrestler today due to the sparse schedule he enjoys, Brock Lesnar is a by-product of the Vader mould, the leviathan whose doled punishment goes beyond minimal requirements, and even raised expectations.
To see prime Lesnar rip apart John Cena or CM Punk with creative malice and a satisfied smirk is to see Vader bat Sting around like a cat toy, or gleefully relish in pummeling Flair in front of his family. That awe that fans felt when they saw Lesnar loftily breaking ground mirrors how Vader made crowds in the 80s and 90s feel as he did things that no quarter-ton terror had ever dreamed of doing.
A younger Vader would've been a sight to see trading blows with Kevin Owens or Samoa Joe or Minoru Suzuki. Vader battling Braun Strowman would send onlookers fleeing, as though Godzilla and Gamera were wrecking both the city and each other simultaneously.
It's so easy to imagine a younger Vader tearing up the business today, because he was already so far ahead of his time during his hallmark years.
Perhaps it's the best tribute to Leon White that, while there are many that have used the tools that he assembled toward forging their own paths, the root pioneer still stands out above the fray, more than a generation after he first hit it big.
There are very few wrestlers in the business' long history that have ever mixed grace with guts, agility with anarchy, poise with pandemonium, as seamlessly as Vader did for so long. It's why he stands out among a lifetime's collection of heavies, and why nobody who ever saw him will ever forget him.