While most know Vader from his stints in the WWF and WCW, in Japan one of the biggest foreign stars of the ’90s was the man known as Big Van Vader. A former NFL line backer, young Leon White was forced into retirement due to a knee injury and wound up in the world of professional wrestling. Starting his career with the AWA, Leon was trained by former US Olympian Brad Rheingans and showed great promise thanks to some astounding agility for a man of his size, agility that would soon be matched by formidable wrestling skill. Just under three years into his career Leon was given a remarkable opportunity and signed with the biggest wrestling promotion in Japan, who dubbed him ‘Big Van Vader’.
The night Vader made his debut for New Japan Pro-Wrestling at the year-end show in the legendary Sumo Hall has become somewhat infamous. The billed main event was a match between New Japan patriarch Antonio Inoki and the hugely popular Riki Choshu, who had returned from a three year stint in rival promotion All Japan with his sights set firmly on Inoki. However, Inoki had also been having a war of words in the press with comedian and actor Takeshi Kitano, who said he would start his own pro-wrestling dojo and invade New Japan. On the night Kitano and his trainees interrupted the show before the tag bout in which Vader was set to wrestle, Kitano challenged Inoki to a match and goaded him by saying he couldn’t beat a man such as Vader. Inoki said he would wrestle Vader, but the fans (who in huge numbers had paid to see Inoki vs Choshu) hated the idea and reacted accordingly.
Choshu then came out to try and start his match with Inoki, but instead wound up being forced into taking Vader’s place in the tag match. The fans at this point were livid and were throwing trash into the ring, as well as doing damage to the arena (which would have serious consequences for New Japan). Choshu won the match, but the fans would not be placated. To try and salvage the mess, Inoki returned and wrestled Choshu as promised, but the match went only six minutes and saw Choshu bleed heavily before Hiroshi Hase would run in to make the save, giving Inoki the DQ victory. Again, this did nothing to ease tensions. Inoki got on the mic and called out Big Van Vader. At the time, Vader said he was sitting in the back drinking beer when Inoki made the call and had to rush out to the ring.
The resulting match was of huge importance, at just under three minutes long it was another disaster on the night that saw fans cause chaos in Sumo Hall. So much damage was done that New Japan were banned from the building (although this would last just 14 months) and they also lost their prime-time TV slot due to the bad press. With less TV money coming in, pay cuts had to be made and when Akira Maeda, Nobuhiko Takada and Yoshiaki Fujiwara refused they quit New Japan to reform the UWF. Meanwhile, the Kitano storyline was quietly shelved and his trainees released, but it wouldn’t be the last NJPW saw of three in particular: the future Jado, Gedo and Super Delfin.
But what of Vader? Although the initial debut was troubled, once the dust had settled one thing remained: Vader had handed Antonio Inoki only his third pinfall victory in the last 12 years. It was a victory that not only made the record books and made the young career of Vader, but it was one that symbolised the beginning of the end for an era in New Japan and the resulting fallout from that controversial night forced NJPW to be bolder going forward as the decade wore to a close. Although Inoki predictably got a measure of revenge against the big man, it wasn’t long before he was in the hunt for the top prize in New Japan Pro-Wrestling.
After injury forced inaugural title holder Antonio Inoki to vacate the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in early 1988, a match was held to determine a new champion. The obvious first-choice for the bout was Big Van Vader, who had shockingly defeated Inoki months before. The next in line was Tatsumi Fujinami, heir apparent to Inoki’s throne and a man who had come through New Japan ranks from a junior to an international heavyweight, achieving every goal laid out before him except the one Vader had accomplished in his debut, defeating Inoki. The match demonstrated the fearsome power of Vader, as Fujinami struggled to find any answer to the big man’s dominance. In the end a disqualification gave Fujinami the victory and the IWGP title, but just a few months later he had to face Big Van Vader once more and would have to find some way to defend his newly won title.
As before, Fujinami struggles to deal with the big man right from the outset. Vader’s content to set a leisurely pace as he manhandles Fujinami about the ring, but there are brief flashes of a comeback from the champion that have the crowd jumping to their feet. First he takes Vader over with a beautiful Judo throw, then later goes to work on his legs and locks in a figure four, while later still he even manages to bodyslam the big man! But this is Vader’s time and he’s learnt from his mistakes in the last match, taking Fujinami to the outside to do some damage, but also not getting carried away and costing himself the title bout. There’s a brief glimmer of hope for Fujinami after a backdrop driver earns a big near-fall, but it looks certain Vader’s on his way to victory as they head into an exciting finishing stretch.
Although ultimately unsuccessful in his first title challenge, Vader would get another chance to take the gold the next year as he defeated Fujinami to advance to the finals of the IWGP tournament (Fujinami had relinquished his title so he would be eligible to compete). There, Vader faced a hugely popular up-and-coming wrestler, the first of a new generation that made such a mark on New Japan over the next three years they’d be dubbed the ‘Three Musketeers’ of NJPW: Shinya Hashimoto. Like Vader the year before him, this was Hashimoto’s first shot at the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, but unlike Vader Hashimoto was a product of the gruelling NJPW Dojo system and determined to defend his promotion’s honour against the marauding foreign invader.
The resulting match is not a pretty one by any stretch of the imagination. Vader has the size and strength advantage, but not by as much as he’s used to. What’s more, whereas Fujinami had the sense and ability to change his tactics on the fly, Hashimoto sticks with what he knows best: hitting people really, really hard. Early on Vader rocks Hashimoto with a backfist and a lariat, but Hashimoto’s chomping at the bit every time they lock up and Vader’s not taking any chances. Hashimoto scores big with some kicks to the arm before locking in a Kimura, but is caught by surprise when the big man launches into a picture perfect dropkick! Hashimoto tries to fight back focusing again on the arm, but after another pair of lariats it’s all but over and special referee Lou Thesz brings his hand to the mat three times to crown Vader the first ever non-Japanese IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
At the start of the ’90s business was booming for pro-wrestling in Japan. The Reborn UWF had just drawn a record crowd in the Tokyo Dome and, desperate to outdo them, Inoki wanted to put on his own supershow and re-set the record. To do so, he looked to WCW. The NWA had always been staunch allies of Giant Baba’s All Japan promotion, but that relationship didn’t survive the transition to WCW, who instead were courted by Inoki. Baba, meanwhile, looked to a relationship with the WWF, who were eager to expand internationally. But Inoki found dealing with WCW difficult, and this reared its head when the proposed Great Muta vs Ric Flair NWA title match was called off by WCW, leaving New Japan without a main event. Inoki turned to rival AJPW, who were banking on their own Tokyo Dome supershow with the WWF to turn their finances around.
An exchange of talent was agreed upon, with AJPW wrestlers appearing on NJPW’s Tokyo Dome supershow and vice versa. In the end both shows did great business, Inoki’s event selling 63,000 tickets and returning the Tokyo Dome attendance record to NJPW. But while Stan Hansen vs Big Van Vader wasn’t the main event, it was certainly the most memorable match from a star packed show. These were the two toughest, meanest, hardest hitting wrestlers of their respective promotions and neither was about to back down from the challenge. The end product is a brutal, no-nonsense affair with both Hansen & Vader throwing vicious punches right from the off. It’s one of these punches from Hansen that pokes Vader’s eye out of its socket early into the match. Vader takes his mask off and, remarkably, continues the match for another fourteen tough-as-nails minutes in one of the most memorable and infamous matches in pro-wrestling history.
Although they had begun as enemies in New Japan, Vader and Bam Bam would go on to form a formidable tag team and in early 1992 won the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Titles from Hiroshi Hase & Keiji Mutoh. Now, just two days later, Hase & Mutoh attempt to reclaim their championship gold from the most fearsome super heavyweight tag team in all of wrestling at that point. The challengers give up a lot of size and strength to the champions but, with a combination of Hase’s technical ability and Mutoh’s explosiveness, manage to give a good account of themselves in the opening minutes. Both impress with feats of strength on Vader, Hase hitting the big man with an overhead belly to belly and later Mutoh hitting a huge German suplex.
Inevitably, Vader and Bigelow manage to bring their strengths to bear and regain control of the match, working over an injured Hase and busting his bandaged forehead wide open. Hase is bleeding buckets, but the crowd rally behind him and eventually he and Mutoh mount a huge comeback. Hitting an uranage into the moonsault, the challengers almost regain the titles but for a diving headbutt from Bam Bam to break up the pin. The match spills to the outside and things get messy, Bigelow somehow managing to DDT Hase at the same time as he suplexed Mutoh. The champions go to work as the match heads into an exciting close with some big nearfalls, the crowd erupting as Hase somehow kicks out of the big men’s tandem offence. Just a super fun tag match that displays the best of all four guys, and a fantastic example of why tag wrestling in early ’90s NJPW was on such a high.