Usually, Japanese fans are very reserved, but not on this night. In his NJPW debut, Big Van Vader ended the winning streak of Antonio Inoki in the most horrible way they could imagine. They wanted blood, Vader’s blood. After their hero’s defeat, a riot broke out in sold-out Sumo Hall. NJPW was subsequently banned from the arena. Here is how it all went down, flaming seat cushion frisbees and all.
In 1987, New Japan Pro Wrestling was looking to have a new, larger-than-life, practically unbeatable “super wrestling villain” to wreak havoc, dethrone Antonio Inoki, and breathe new life into a promotion that had gone stale. Inoki hoped that “Big Van Vader” Leon White could shake things up a little and help them become Japan’s number one promotion once again. Vader created a shockwave within the puroresu scene that is still talked about today.
Big Van Vader – From Baby Bull to Bull Power
In the AWA, Verne Gane had slapped the “Baby Bull” monicker on Leon White, trying to get him over as a fan favorite, but Leon never liked the word “baby” in his name. Needless to say, when most people play word association, “baby” is not something that usually denotes toughness. Big Otto Wanz headed the CWA (Catch Wrestling Association) that held shows across Austria and Germany and thought that the word “baby” made Leon sound green and inexperienced. So Leon became “Bull Power,” which was a marked improvement.
Leon’s first major title was the CWA World Heavyweight Championship, which he won in Denver, Colorado, over Otto Wanz. After holding the title for four months, he dropped it back to Wanz in Austria. Leon later won his first major tournament title by defeating Rambo (Luc Poirier) in the “The Bremen Catch Cup” finals. There, sticking out in the crowd of Germans like a cat in a dog pound, was Masao “Tiger” Hattori, a very well-known referee from Japan. He was there to scout Leon because Masa “Mister” Saito had been whispering in the ear of Antonio Inoki trying to convince him to bring Leon into NJPW for a big tour they had planned. Thanks in part to Stan Hansen, Leon already had a contract with rival AJPW for when he left CWA to go to Japan. Fortunately, one call from Tiger Hattori to Giant Baba brokered a deal for him to work for Inoki’s NJPW.
NJPW and Antonio Inoki
Antonio Inoki had positioned himself as the star of NJPW, the company he founded in 1972 after it splintered off from the JWA (Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance) Rikidozan founded in 1953. Inoki was always very ambitious and left JWA for another smaller company in the Tokyo area only to later return to JWA in 1967. After allegedly being fired trying to take over the promotion, NJPW was born under his philosophy, and puroresu was presented through his vision. He attached the label “King of Sports” to its logo, trying to position professional wrestling as a style of fighting, equally as effective as other martial arts disciplines like Judo and Karate. Inoki began to have matches against many practitioners of different fighting styles (always worked — appearing as though it were real but where it was, in fact, part of the show) where he would win, thus putting himself and pro wrestling over.
“Strong Style,” as it became known with its striking and submission holds inspired in part by wrestler Karl Gotch, was never static but instead, always evolving and dynamic. NJPW had many prosperous years, but 1987 saw the promotion losing much of its luster. The more traditional but internationally infused AJPW (All Japan Pro Wrestling) thanks to its affiliation with the NWA, was winning the hearts of fans. International stars regularly brought for tours like Stan Hansen, Bruiser Brody, Jimmy Snuka, Ted DiBiase, the Ortons, and the Funks were vital in the promotion’s recent success. As for NJPW, the last “Gaijin” (foreigner) wrestler that seemed to have made an impact was Bob Backlund several years before.
An unfazed Inoki, never a person known to submit in the ring or business matters, had a plan to turn the tide. The project involved a dark samurai warrior originated from Japanese folklore, the same artist that helped create Jushin “Thunder” Liger and Leon White.
Dark Origins of Big Van Vader
“Big Van Vader would be an unstoppable samurai in the ring that would only be stopped by death,” according to Leon White.
Kiyoshi Nagai, better known as Go Nagai, is a prolific Japanese manga artist known for conceptualizing Cutie Honey, Mazinger Z, and Devilman, just to name a few of his more famous creations. March 11th, 1989, saw the debut of the anime series called Jushin Liger, which eventually became the basis for the look of wrestler Jushin “Thunder” Liger. Seeing this, NJPW owner Antonio Inoki commissioned Nagai to create the character of “Big Van Vader” including a backstory as explained in the highly recommended book, Vader Time: The Story of a Modern Day Gladiator by Kenny Casanova.
“The ‘Vader’ part of the name came from the story of a samurai warrior named ‘Wada,’ which also meant ‘father.’ Wada Yoshimura once had great strength and defeated the ‘Lord of Hell’ to open a pathway to heaven with his son Asahina Yoshihide.” (“Wada” was also coincidentally the same name-source that George Lucas used for his main villain in Star Wars, Darth Vader which means “Dark Father.”)
Big Van Vader’s backstory had him connected to the gods, not unlike Hercules of Greek mythology, but Vader was a feared samurai warrior from an ancient Japanese tribe. During this time, if two towns had a dispute, they would take their very best fighters and leave them off on a little deserted island for a fight to a finish. The two warriors would fight day and night, non-stop, in a ‘last man standing match’ scenario until only one man survived, and Vader was the best of these warriors.
Instead of having whole villages fight each other and losing many in battle, each town sent one person, the very best to represent them. According to his backstory, Vader fought his final contest for 72 straight hours, with both warriors dying at each other’s feet. This story is said to be heavily inspired by the famous and ill-fated “Musashi Miyamoto Duel” that took place in Ganryu-Jima island, pitting two of the all-time greatest Japanese swordsmen on March 13th, 1612. Unlike Go Nagai’s twist to the story, in this duel, there was a winner.
Vader, as a wrestler, would “have a black mask and be very evil and mysterious.” He did not debut with a mask, but it later became part of his trademark, along with red lightning all over his black ring attire. Sometimes, he’d even come to the ring with a long scepter with a skull on its top. The designs of the massive elephant-like metallic headpiece that shot fire they wanted him to wear impressed Leon. “It was nothing short of awesome,” recalls Leon White. It was supposed to resemble the battle armor that samurai warrior used to wear, and if anyone asked, he’d say it was a “magical mythological god that blew smoke,” treating it as an entity all to its own. He even had a helmet ceremony where he would kneel in front of the sometimes temperamental hardware, hoping that it would shoot its steam in the air.
Built off stylized animation art, it looked both futuristic-looking and ancient. The big iron helmet headpiece attached to the shoulder pads had eyes that lit up, two CO2 tanks built-in underneath, and a motorized engine system in the back that shot up colored steam. It also had a wireless microphone so that he could talk to the audience over the intercom in the arena. A wrestler named Black Cat would use a remote and be assigned to bring it to life and needed to be at ringside incognito at every show. When alive, Leon got asked if he would ever consider selling the headpiece, and he said that he kept it in his basement, but the sale price would be $50-75 grand.
Did you know? Masa Saito was the most instrumental person in getting Leon White to Japan and later becoming Big Van Vader. Believe it or not, The Ultimate Warrior and Psycho Sid Vicious were two wrestlers Inoki had his eyes on to play the role of his new “super wrestling villain.” When things fell through, Masa Saito helped with the casting and convinced Inoki that Leon would be perfect for the role, even better than the two previous options.
Vader Time or Riot Time?
Leon White, now as Big Van Vader, certainly brought the pain on December 27th, 1987, at the world-famous and sold-out Sumo Hall in Tokyo, Japan. The whole event was plagued with strange booking alterations when the anticipated match between Antonio Inoki and Riki Choshu almost didn’t happen. When the two eventually did face each other, the encounter was brief and lasted a little over six minutes. Choshu bled profusely after being thrown out of the ring and hurled towards the ring post. Inoki won by DQ after applying his Octopus Hold submission on Choshu, and Hiroshi Hase ran in to save Choshu because he refused to give up on his own.
Vader making his way to the ring was a fearsome sight to behold. Already an imposing man at 6’2” and around 370 lbs, add to that the elephant head-like shoulder and helmet attire. The crowd seemed genuinely confused and maybe even a little too confident that Inoki would dispose of Vader just like he had so many before him.
With two brutal running tackles, an impressive gorilla press slam, a couple of solid elbow drops, and a running slam to finish it off, Big Van Vader handed Antonio Inoki his first loss in two years, and only his second loss in a decade. Inoki, the people’s champion, their now fallen hero, hadn’t put up a fight, but this was all part of the plan. Inoki sensed that his long winning streak had reached its peak of interest with the fans, and it was time for a change and a new challenge.
Vader wasn’t satisfied with just a quick pin, though. “After the match, we decided to further the onslaught to add insult to injury. Fans watched in horror, as I continued to beat on Inoki in the corner after the bell had already sounded. They were pissed! It was white heat, man, real anger!”
Leon claims in his book that he had a briefing with Inoki backstage before the match and had specific instructions on how he wanted the bout to transpire. “This is what I want,” Inoki said. “I want you to just rush in after my match. Punch me in the face just as hard as you can. Now, I don’t want you to knock me out, but I want you to break my nose and cut my lip, whatever you need to do. You are a monster.”
After the slaughter of their hero, just like in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein novel, the people wanted to burn the castle and were thirsting for the monster’s blood. “We knew that the audience was not going to like it, but we had no idea to what extent of dislike we would get. Usually, Japanese fans are very reserved, but not on this night. I ended Inoki’s streak in the most horrible way they could imagine. This action led the Inoki fans to riot. They wanted blood, my blood.”
Watch: Big Van Vader debuts in NJPW against Antonio Inoki (8:33)
The arena was on elevated risers, and the fans sat on cushions instead of chairs. Many industries have long praised Japanese ingenuity, and on this night, they created a new invention, well, more like a weapon: “flaming seat cushion frisbees.”
Masa Saito cut Vader’s locker room celebration short by saying, “You got to get out of here. Fans are going to be back here in the locker room at any minute, and they want your ass.”
It took police an hour to control the rioting, and a few days later, NJPW was banned from Sumo Hall for two whole years by the Tokyo Sumo Association. They had previously banned Giant Baba’s AJPW after they had signed sumo wrestlers Hiroshi Wajima and John Tenta (Earthquake in the WWF).
Vader continued his path of devastation through NJPW and faced Antonio Inoki on many occasions to sell-out crowds, just not in Sumo Hall anymore. “The Big Van Vader character took off as a money-making gimmick from day one,” says Leon. “The Japanese people really ate it up. Vader was selling thousands and thousands of more ticket sales for New Japan. Angry fans wanted to see him lose.” He continues. “The other NJPW wrestlers started getting in line to face me. I was like the centerpiece, and others would surround me in a circle, each eventually taking a turn to challenge me. We built the promotion around wrestlers trying to take down the unstoppable monster.” AJPW and NOAH would also use this method to push him as a monster heel when Vader worked for them later on.
On a humorous note, Leon recalls kids kicking him in the shins without him being able to avoid it, thanks to his diminished visibility while wearing the headpiece. He even claims that once, he was cracked on a knee by a pair of nunchucks!
The high point of his almost four years in the company was winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship on April 24th, 1989, against Shinya Hashimoto. Afterward, Vader gained instant worldwide credibility and different endorsement opportunities.
Just in case you were wondering, there were never any hard feelings between Big Van Vader and Antonio Inoki. Going to Japan and later becoming the IWGP Champion was one of the best career decisions Vader ever made. “Antonio Inoki was the man. He would find the best Shiatsu masseuse in the area possible, you know, one of those girls who could do wonders on your back and take off their shoes and walk all over you in the right places? Anyhow, they would just randomly show up unannounced in my hotel room and Shiatsu the hell out of me, free of charge. I never knew when this was going to happen, but boy let me tell you, I liked that kind of surprise. I could be hanging out and minding my own business and then all of a sudden, knock, knock, knock…Shiatsu!”
Watch: Big Van Vader helmet ceremony, before facing Antonio Inoki once again
You can order the book “It’s Vader Time: The Story of a Modern Day Gladiator” by Kenny Casanova here.
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- Leon White – Rookie Mistakes and Stiff Lessons Courtesy of Bruiser Brody
- How Sting and Harley Race Tamed “Stiff” Vader in WCW