Pro-wrestling has had so many shocking deaths over the years. A few hurt really hard for me since certain wrestlers meant an incredible amount to me as a fan, especially those I grew up with. Roddy Piper, the Hot Rod, certainly was one of the most influential wrestlers that impacted my life in a large number of ways and hearing his passing has stung me quite deeply.
I wasn’t really a fan of sports growing up. I tried doing things like soccer, baseball, etc. but I never had any sense of athleticism. Eventually, I just gave up because I lacked size, speed, coordination. My father was a huge sports fan though and watched baseball and basketball mostly. Occasionally, he would catch football too but for myself it was annoying as I never had any passion for those things.
Pro-wrestling though gripped me like nothing else. I think I randomly caught some commercials of the first issue WWE (then WWF) toys while watching Saturday morning cartoons around the early 5th grade. I know Roddy was one of the figures they were marketing but the commercial didn’t highlight him as much as the others. Nonetheless, while flipping through channels, I caught my first WWE show. I somehow made the connection in my tiny mind between the two and the entire program gripped me.
That started my pro-wrestling addiction early on. I think the first time Roddy Piper really caught my eye was on a Saturday Night Main Event where they were setting a major feud between Jesse Venture, Cowboy Bob Orton and Roddy against the Hillbillies. Being young I preferred the Hillbillies because they were associated with Hulk Hogan so I couldn’t stand how Roddy and Jesse were taunting them. But at the same time, I couldn’t really forget what Roddy was saying since he had a very unique way of describing situations.
Then on another angle while they were preparing to set him up for his boxing bout against Mr T, Roddy made me a huge fan when Orton and he captured the midget, tied him down, taped his mouth and shaved his hair to resemble Mr T. It was such an outrageous move at the time because most TV in the 80s was pretty safe and formulaic (especially when you’d watch stuff like Gimme A Break, Different Strokes and Highway to Heaven as part of your indoctrination programming). Either way, that move made me realize just how crazy Roddy was as well as how fun pro-wrestling could be.
The rest of that year leading up to Wrestlemania 2 had Roddy being the ultimate jerk. All pro-wrestlers have egos but heels at that time would magnify that ego a billion times by consistently proclaiming themselves the best, lying about their weaknesses and acting condescending about their opponents in some obnoxious way. It was formulaic too once you realized what they were doing but only the smartest of the pro-wrestlers could take this formula into a new realm. Roddy figured out the maze of uniqueness and defined how to be a jerk in ways jerks would never conceive.
Part of the best programming on pro-wrestling was Piper’s Pit. That’s where all the shit “got real” at the time. If the bad guys were on, Piper would compliment them and make them seem like the perfect specimen. If any good guys came on, he would hurl insults and start friction. But you always had to be careful as a good guy just because Orton was around. I think one of the funnier segments was with George the Animal Steel. Roddy insulted a guy playing a retard and George would just nod his head up and down agreeing to every insult Roddy through at him. Of course, George got back by lifting Roddy’s kilt up and exclaimed, “Elizabeth!” in reference to Roddy having a slightly feminine quality in being the only pro-wrestler male to wear a kilt. But that’s Roddy for you and how the business worked at the time.
Eventually, Roddy took some time off and would be replaced by the Flower Shop. I wasn’t conscious of his absence since there was a ton of wrestling programming and the WWE did a superb job masking certain wrestlers’ absences. There was only an hour of TV time with tons of commercials so you only could see a few matches each week with your favorite people. Nonetheless, the Flower Shop and to a degree The Body Shop even weren’t close to what Roddy had started. I wasn’t all that comfortable with what they were doing with Adrian Adonis and started to miss Piper’s Pit.
Of course, when Roddy made his return, he made his return in a huge way. Strangely, the fans reacted extremely positive to The Hot Rod’s return and gave him a massive ovation. I didn’t really understand what was going on at the time because Roddy never really changed. But it was obvious later to me how people just respected and loved Roddy that much. When he showed up on The Flower Shop, Roddy dismissed the controversial Adrian Adonis character as wrecking the image and precedent he started with Piper’s Pit. That angered Adonis who Pearl Harbored Roddy along with Muraco and Orton, leading them to “break” Roddy’s leg. Roddy ended up going berserk in that segment, screaming out incoherent ramblings that made you believe he was crazy.
That segment was so well down, especially from Roddy that I became extremely concerned about his condition. I think Adonis painted his face to humiliate Roddy, which led to Roddy going mentally berserk. Roddy hobbled out of the area but was still infuriated. That pretty much sealed Roddy’s change into a fan favorite, which was a landmark thing since Roddy defined heeldom the previous few years. No one could compete with all the dastardly things he did to others and he was always topping the charts on the “mark” magazines as the ultimate unpopular guy.
But that’s the thing about Roddy. He wasn’t the biggest guy in the room. By his own admission, Roddy was just a scrawny kid when he started, bullied and just managed to stand up for himself once he began learning how it worked. However, he was an expert at making himself seem larger than the world. He was the loudest guy around and would do anything to make sure he could out top the next guy one way or another. That kept you interested in just what he would do or say.
I gradually started to lose interest in pro-wrestling at that time just prior to Wrestlemania 3. I had an incident with my mom that got me into trouble. I don’t remember exactly what it was but it was traumatic enough to make me blame pro-wrestling for the issue. However, something as influential as pro-wrestling on my life would never be permanently gone like that. A few years later, I started watching again, more focused on the NWA/WCW since I branched out with other federations.
Eventually, I returned to the WWE and learned that Roddy became a full time announcer. Since I missed Wrestlemania 3, I didn’t find out about Roddy’s first retirement until later on. But things only make sense when you have a tool like Wikipedia, etc. that brings history out in full context. Nonetheless, Roddy, along with Randy Savage, Bobby Heenan and Jim Neidhart would become the voice of every show. By this point, he was a full fledged fan favorite but only as an announcer.
Roddy was decent as a color commentator but he lost his edge from his earlier years. Even then though he was still Roddy Piper. I think one of the bigger angles he was involved with in the early 90’s was with Virgil. Virgil had just left Dibiase and both were embroiled in a bitter feud with Virgil holding the Million Dollar belt. On one Saturday Night Main Event, Sensational Sherry (whom I forever will love) was at ringside and causing Virgil grief. Roddy had been one of the people mentoring Virgil on the side during this period. So once Sherry got her nose involved too much, Roddy lost it and chased Sherry away with a broom.
It might seem simple but when you see how Piper could take something as simple as a broom to chase Sherry away, you couldn’t help but remember an incident like that for the rest of your life. Few people could make such an image work but Roddy knew how to bring it together. Things like that made you believe just how crazy Piper was and those moments made you love him.
Then in 1992 I remember seeing a movie called They Live. It wasn’t a fantastic movie compared to say Star Wars, Aliens and the Godfather. Some parts looked cheap with the aliens and their skull-like faces. But the message was incredibly powerful. But Roddy made that movie for me. I already loved Roddy as a fan so I had to check it out. Anyone who has seen the movie will consistently quote the infamous Bubble Gum/Kicking Ass line as well as the epic street fight scene between Roddy and Keith (can’t remember the actor’s full name). Then when Roddy sacrifices himself to expose the global conspiracy, your heart gave out as Roddy represented the every day man.
If you followed Piper on Twitter, Piper would quote from that movie all the time. Sure, part of him doing that was part of merchandising, but I do think he believes a lot of what went on in that movie exist. And it does. But it makes you realize where Piper stands in all of this. The ironic part in life is how despite being the ultimate villain type in the mid 80s, he really was the ultimate rebel, an element that society (or those in control as depicted in They Live) considers a reprobate, a pest that needed to be eliminated. Roddy’s tone never really changed because at the basis he was always this person who believed in himself and was fighting for his family and beliefs at all cost. Yet the mass media (i.e. Vince/Hogan etc) had blinded us with their rhetoric and brain washing media strategies to see Roddy as just a villain during that period when in truth he was the hero.
One of the best parts in the early 90s was seeing Piper get the Intercontinental Belt. I think as a fan you always want to see your guy/girl get some form of recognition through a title. Piper finally got his title and defended it the way Piper would. His biggest defense came when he fought the popular Bret Hart. It was another huge moment in wrestling history as this was one of the few pre-NWO/ECW days where a hero would get to fight another hero.
The main storyline going in was seeing if Piper would go full feel at some point. We all knew he was capable of cheating. Both could do that but Bret at the time was billed as a technical wrestler. The big moment in the match came when Piper had the opportunity to use a chair (or maybe it was a time keeper’s bell). Piper was about to clock Hart when the crowd told him otherwise. He ended up listening to the crowd which led to his downfall. But he and Bret hugged after the match to demonstrate their respect for sportsmanship and their love for one another. It was a simple but very effective storyline but it also showed what a strong character Piper had built up over the years and could draw upon in the right conditions.
Later on, when the NWO got hot in WCW during 1996, Piper did another unthinkable thing and showed up around Halloween Havoc. It was a massive coup for WCW that continued to show their war coffer against the WWE. Even if Piper was past his prime in the ring at this point, he had such a huge presence that he would make you turn the channel just to see what he would do or say. The big angle for him was getting back at Hulk Hogan and both ironically were in opposite roles. While their match was far from a classic, I think the attention it garnered demonstrated the legacy both men built.
The other interesting parts came with Flair and Piper. You could see Flair being fired up more than usual with having one of his best friends around again. Both are masters of the promo and you could see them feeding off one another. Piper though really was well past his prime and the matches weren’t what people wanted sadly. There was the infamous “age in the cage” match where Hogan and Piper spent long, boring minutes just attached to the side of a cage whereas the WWE had the cutting edge Hell in the Cell between Mick Foley and the Undertaker. I think the important thing though is that Piper still just loved the business and didn’t know how to quit.
Another interesting moment came later on when TNA hired him and spun an angle with him and Russo. Piper “shot” against Russo and hit a sore point by connecting Russo with the death of Owen Hart. It’s impossible to say if Russo was ultimately responsible (it’s a huge claim) but the main thing was to create a cathartic moment for fans in having the stand up, traditional guy in Piper call out a guy whose legacy was creating horrible angels. The thing is that by this point, many wrestling fans had recognized pro-wrestling for what it is, making many people cynical. However, even for a small show like TNA at that time, Roddy managed to suspend your disbelief. Few wrestlers have that ability to find that spark and make you believe once again. Roddy was one of the few left who could magically conjure up those feelings.
In later interviews, Roddy mentioned something that profoundly affected me. He talked about what pro-wrestling gave him: a family. His WWE Hall of Fame speech was legendary since he described pro-wrestling as a fraternity. So his family was two fold, both his family by marriage and the one he married into for life in his heart. And he loved both equally.
I think that speech along with how he felt about what pro-wrestler provided him showed what he really wanted in life. He didn’t need a huge amount but just wanted something to care about and have something care about him. He was a rough kid who fought his way to the top. He was the James Dean, the Rebel without a Cause, fighting just to fight because it’s all he had.
For myself, hearing him talk about what the business gave to him reminded me of what my own business gave to me. Good food, the opportunity to travel to Japan, have a few relationships and some ability to give back to my parents (even though I lost both tragically). Roddy clearly appreciated the business and he could see the whole picture on what it really meant. That’s why he gave so much to the business himself.
You can’t help but to respect Roddy Piper. He’s the ultimate stand up guy that managed to define generations of wrestlers and wrestling fans alike. No one will come close to a fraction of what he contributed to the business, helping to mold the foundation of why we love it. It’ll be sad knowing we can never hear another crazy interview from him but we can all appreciate his accomplishments and for making our lives a little better in his own way.