From stiff shots to hard knocks, Leon White did not have an easy path into professional wrestling. This is the story of the adversity he had to overcome before conquering the world as Vader.
When numerous colleges were looking to recruit a young Leon White for their football program, he jumped at the chance to play for The University of Colorado in Boulder. He had finally found a path that would help him leave Lynwood, California behind.
The city of Compton is where the future Big Van Vader was born and raised — a place where at an early age he learned to be tough, stick up for himself and grow up real fast. He entered this world at almost 11 pounds and 24 inches tall after his mother of only 4’10” was induced to give birth at only seven and a half months.
“There was no more room left in there for me to grow,” Vader describes in his autobiography, It’s Vader Time, written just before his passing alongside co-author Kenny Casanova. “The thinking was that if they did not induce labor when they did, I might have killed my mother when she gave birth.”
Leon White the Football Star and Overcoming Obstacles
At the University of Colorado, he lettered at three different positions on the offensive line: guard (1973-75), tackle (1975-76) and center (1977), and is believed to be the only player in Big Eight history to have done so at all three O-line spots. He started at least one game in each season, the only known player to this day in CU history to start games in five different years, according to an article at cbuffs.com.
Late into his college career and six weeks before the NFL draft, he suffered an injury to his patellar tendon (the ligament that connects the bottom of the kneecap and the top of the shinbone). The Los Angeles Rams knew Leon had been a superb player in college and decided to take a chance on him even while he was rehabbing what most coaches would consider a career-ending injury. They took him as their first pick during the third round of the NFL draft.
On January 20th, 1980, Leon’s Rams faced Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann’s Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California where the teams set an attendance record with a reported 103,985 spectators. The Steelers beat the Rams 31-19 culminating in their fourth Super Bowl win in six years. Leon was still joyful even in the loss.
“We didn’t win, but that didn’t matter to me. I played in the freakin’ Super Bowl. I got a Super Bowl ring and I was already a winner the moment I stepped out onto the field.”
Leon’s NFL dream ended rather abruptly after two seasons because he re-ruptured his patella tendon.
“I really didn’t expect my sports career to be cut so short early on after finally making it into the NFL. They told me it was possible I’d never walk again.”
When this injury was diagnosed in college, it was small and not a complete tear, but it worsened because the team doctors decided to administer Cortisone injections right into the tendon which ultimately weakened it and caused it to tear completely. He sued the team doctor from the University of Colorado and won. This was a small victory for Leon after he believed that some kind of politics were playing behind the scenes where the team wanted him to play out the season instead of getting the needed operation.
Leon was fortunate to be able to fall back on the business degree he earned in college and realized he could make good money in real estate after he sold the beautiful duplex he had in Los Angeles.
In Boulder, Colorado, he met his future wife Debra and continued to make good money selling and buying properties. It seemed like the transition from athlete to a normal day- to- day job was working. The only problem was that he was gaining a lot of weight and was not content with his life after leaving the NFL. Leon felt that he still had a lot left in his body and was not tapping into that athleticism he felt he still had. Depressed and getting bored of what he calls “living the grown-up life and wearing a suit and tie,” he started getting urges to drink a lot as well. Something was missing, but what?
Leon a wrestler?
One day while working out at the gym, he was recognized by a man who remembered him from his college football days. It felt good for Leon to still be remembered. The man told him that he was sorry about the injury that shortened his football career but that he should maybe try pro wrestling or something similar, seeing that he was still very big and could still lift heavy weights. Leon realized that maybe he could transition into wrestling since he was still bench pressing almost 550 pounds. Plus, how many wrestlers wore suit and ties?
Leon White initially showed some regret over the eventual life-altering career change.
“I often wonder, if I had that choice to do over again, would I switch from real estate to wrestling? Knowing what I know now, I am not sure I made the right decision. Because 31 years and 20 world titles later, I’m very beat up and life’s pretty hard…”
Leon White reflecting on his choice to leave real estate to become a wrestler: “If I had that choice to do over again, knowing what I know now, I am not sure I made the right decision. 31 years and 20 world titles later, I’m very beat up and life’s pretty hard…”
Saturday mornings became not only a time for Leon White to be able to watch wrestling but to study it. The AWA is what was available locally and one of the individuals that really caught his eye was Bruiser Brody, but he admits that there really wasn’t one wrestler in particular who turned him onto the sport.
Leon explains, “The whole idea in general of wrestling being both athleticism and performing while entertaining a crowd. I felt there were some connections for me with how I approached football and that also made wrestling interesting to me.”
Leon figured with his size, strength, athleticism and former NFL career, he would be a sure-hire by any promoter. He started training like a powerlifter and ate everything he could to increase his size and strength. Denver promoter Gene Reed was interested in taking a look at him and told Leon that he wanted to see him the next time they were in town.
Fortunately, two weeks later, the AWA was coming to the Denver Coliseum. On the day of the event, he was determined to speak face to face with Gene and convince him to bring him aboard. By this time, Leon was 6’4, 325 plus pounds, benching six-hundred pounds and squatting close to a thousand.
“I got decked out in the best tough guy clothes I could put together to try and make an impression. Wearing a Stetson hat and badass cowboy boots to make me look even taller, I journeyed over to the scene and I was ready.”
Leon White makes a horrible rookie mistake and Bruiser Brody calls him out on it
When he finally summoned the courage to open the door he was facing outside of the Coliseum, Leon quickly realized that he had made the gigantic mistake of barging into the AWA locker room!
Leon recalls, humorously now, a very unfunny situation at the time, “One wrestler was putting the finishing touches on a fake pair of brass knuckles made out of tape and a toilet paper roll. Another couple of guys were planning out the finish of their match. They would be fighting each other in less than an hour.”
The curtain hiding all of pro wrestling’s secrets had been pulled back in front of someone who wasn’t in the business. Kayfabe was very important in keeping the inner workings of “the sport” from all outsiders, and this outsider was Leon White.
He entered a perfect storm where any of these wrestlers could attempt to give him a beat down, with the excuse of needing to “protect the business.” Most of the time, the heels (villains) and the babyfaces (good guys), when possible, had separate locker rooms and did not see each other before the match. Even rarer at the time was the opportunity for heels and faces to socialize and be seen drinking beer and playing cards together as buddies! This was an image that the industry had protected for decades and stories of promoters firing a wrestler for breaking kayfabe was hardly uncommon.
Leon remembers the frightening encounter with his idol that soon ensued.
“I was shoved into a locker hard. Before I knew what hit me, there was a massive cloud of hair in my face, all I could smell was stale beer breath. A hand parted those wiry, wisps of hair and I found myself entranced. I was in a Bruiser Brody stare down.”
Brody asked loudly, “What are you doing in my locker room?!”
Leon answered him coldly, “I’m here to get a job.”
“Brody started breathing hard,” White recalls. “I learned the rules of survival from my days in LA that if you looked away, you showed weakness. So I just stood there, toe-to-toe, with a scruffy-looking Viking who wanted to kill me. Brody moved closer.”
Out of Leon’s peripheral vision, he could tell that this was becoming interesting for the other wrestlers and he recognized Curt Hennig, who moved right up close, not to break things up, but to get a better view of the showdown that was about to take place.
Leon had heard that Brody was known as someone no promoter or wrestler would mess with and he admits, “I didn’t show it at the time, but I just about shit my pants.”
Promoter Gene Reed showed up and was able to convince Brody that Leon was okay and eventually the boys were called off of their prey and continued on with their business. As Brody left, he intentionally brushed his shoulder against the locker room intruder, as a schoolyard bully might do to perhaps remind him who was still the biggest and meanest dog in the yard. Decorated Olympic wrestler and former NCAA Division II champion Brad Rheingans appeared once the others started clearing out and invited Leon to his tryout camp in two weeks time, a camp that was by invitation only. This was a tremendous opportunity for Leon White to show what he was made of.
Leon White learns a hard, unforgettable lesson by Brad Rheingans
Leon went to Brad Rheingans’ camp with his friend Greg Boyd, a former Denver Bronco, who also was interested in wrestling. Greg was there as Leon’s backup, just in case they found themselves in a similar situation as the Brody locker room incident. Leon mistakingly thought that the way to impress Rheingans was by “throwing his weight around and manhandling some people” because he really didn’t see anybody at the training camp as a legitimate threat. When it was time to pair up, Leon decided to have a go at Rheingans because even though he was obviously a great wrestler, he looked smaller than he did on television and if he was able to beat him, word should get back to Gene Reed and the AWA on how tough he was. This surely would put him a step closer to getting a spot on the roster, right? Leon had confidence in his strength and size. Unfortunately, he was about to learn that wrestling is much more than that.
“We locked up,” White remembers. “I did pretty well for about 10 to 15 seconds or so until Brad had enough. He used my own weight against me and slammed me into the shithouse door face first in Brad’s backyard where the camp was taking place. My mouth started to bleed and, before I knew it, Brad was pushing my face right down towards the bowl. My face was in pain but that wasn’t the worst. The worst thing was the last guy in the outhouse didn’t flush. It was so close to my face I could almost taste it through my nose. I don’t know whose nasty dump that was, but from that moment on, I decided that dealing with Brad’s shit was better than dealing with bad shit in a porta-potty.”
Leon had learned a lesson of respect and now knew Brad was in charge. Once respect was shown, Rheingans, who was considered by many to be one of the best trainers in wrestling, gladly showed him the basics of moves and reversals.
Verne and Greg Gagne showed up at the training center and took notice of Leon’s superior size and athleticism plus his ability to do high dropkicks and high-risk moves from the top rope. They along with Brad were indeed impressed and soon had him wrestling on television tapings for the AWA and not the smaller regional promotions most rookies start out on. This quick rise to the top did not sit well with the others. To stir things up even more, he was allowed to continue living in Boulder, Colorado and was flown in when he had a show, instead of having to endure the frigid Minnesota winters like everybody else. This special treatment especially upset his first opponent, who was none other than Bruiser Brody.
Leon recalls, “Talk about throwing me under the bus. For my first match (in 1985), I actually had to wrestle Brody. I remember very little of it, and maybe that is a good thing. Maybe I have little memory of my debut because it was a horrific beating that my mind wanted to blackout. I don’t know. What I do know, however, is how it felt afterward. It hurt like hell.”
Leon found himself most nights having to face one of the stiffest, hardcore wrestlers of all times.
A sidenote: Brody was called “King Kong” Brody in the AWA because Dick “The Bruiser” would not relinquish his moniker while in the same company. This also affected the arrival of “King Kong” Bundy who in the AWA needed to then be named “Boom Boom” Bundy because of Brody’s moniker. “Boom Boom” was a name that, according to Leon, “sounded like a stereotypical loose woman on a bad ‘70’s sitcom!”
At first, they didn’t know how to use Leon properly and booked him with just about everyone. The super heavyweight monster heel that would later strike fear in the hearts of wrestlers and fans everywhere, was going by the somewhat unflattering name of Leon “The Baby Bull” White. He didn’t really have a problem with the “Bull” part but the “Baby” part, which was Verne Gagne’s idea, did irk him somewhat.
Complaints soon later started coming in about wrestlers not wanting to work with Leon because of his bad timing and stiff shots in the ring.
“You don’t know your own strength and getting body slammed is like getting drilled through the mat.”
He even claims that Terry Gordy believed he was too stiff after he was thrown into some tag matches with The Freebirds. Leon, being very new to wrestling, still thought that using full force was the way to go so that things could look legitimate in the match.
When Verne called him into the office, Leon thought he was going to be let go. Instead, it was suggested that maybe the thing he needed was a mentor. This is when he was put into a regular program with Brody.
Bruiser “The Stiff Mentor” Brody
The idea of working with Brody was so that “The Baby Bull” could learn about ring psychology and improve his timing. But this actually had the opposite effect!
Leon recalls, “The beatings I took from Brody made me further believe that most of the moves were supposed to be stiff. The way he hit me made me think that aside from the characters and personas, the wrestling part was real. His clotheslines every night made me feel like I was getting hit by a car full of bricks.”
Leon continued to elaborate, “Back in the ’60s, ’70s and even some of the ’80s, many trainers didn’t smarten guys up until their first matches or so. A guy like Kamala as a rookie was working $10,000 battle royals and didn’t know wrestling was fixed yet, trying to collect the money!”
WATCH: Very early footage of Bruiser Brody wrestling Leon White in the AWA. Huss! Huss! Huss!!
Looking back, Leon theorized that perhaps Verne was testing him and had Brody lay it on him to prove himself. Or it could also have been Brody was still upset at the barging in of the AWA locker room and the subsequent intense staredown they had. Few people up to that point had stared Brody down and were able to tell about it later and not from inside a hospital.
Leon does admit that in this six-week program, “King Kong” Brody eventually eased up just a little and did teach him how to work a crowd, play with their emotions, and slow things down so that the moves would seem more important.
Elaborating on this, White said, “He also taught me how to sell big like a big man should. If I didn’t give the proper facial emotions or body language to show that something hurt, he would just lay in harder so it actually did.”
Learning when it was time for him to look good, and when it was his opponent’s turn, was another valuable lesson.
As Leon continued to improve, Brody suggested he do something with his hair because he was balding and looked older than his real age. The idea was to maybe imitate Road Warrior Hawk’s double-horn mohawk with Brody promising to get Leon booked in Texas after he updated his look.
A very nervous Leon went to go ask Mike Hegstrand (Hawk of the Road Warriors) permission for this change.
At this stage of his career, he didn’t realise that using nicknames in the locker room was okay. Hawk started to give Leon a hard time and seemed mad at his request. But the moment Leon started to walk away feeling that he’d done something wrong, Hawk assured him that he was only ribbing and he saw no problem with him also sporting the double-horn mohawk because there was no way people would confuse him with “The Baby Bull.”
“I knew it would be hard to look badass if I looked like I was losing the battle against baldness. I also didn’t want to just admit defeat, shave my head and go all ‘King Kong Bundy’ on everyone.”
It was a relief for Leon.
That very night, with a hand-held mirror and a borrowed trimmer, he had an open PWI magazine with a folded picture of the Road Warriors and slowly started to see the future “Big Van Vader” iconic look appearing. He never did get booked in Texas by Brody but he ultimately gained respect for him and did appreciate his advice. And for that, he would always be thankful.
One last memorable story between the two took place in a match for AWA All-Stars at the Denver Coliseum just mere hours after Leon’s son Jesse was born. Leon asked Brody for a special favor. He asked if they could have a simple match and not the usual brawling, stiff matches they were accustomed to doing. Leon didn’t want to be all beat up for the next couple of days because he wanted to be able to hold his son. Brody seemed to agree and patted Leon on the shoulder before they were called out into the ring.
Once Leon “Baby Bull” White was introduced and the crowd was informed of his new son, there was an enormous pop from those in attendance. He even showed them the footprint of his new son on his palm he’d gotten at the hospital. When they finally locked up, everything seemed to be normal and Leon felt that Bruiser was showing him respect on this special night. Regrettably, this was just the calm before the storm.
“Out of nowhere, Bruiser kicked me in the mouth as hard as he could and cut my lip in half. Dazed, I fell outside the ring the hard way. He jumped outside, grabbed a chair and nailed me again even harder.”
“How’s that?” he asked. “Is that what you had in mind?”
To say that the match was a rough one is a big understatement. “Baby Bull” was awarded the win but as Leon explains it, “Brody had practically killed me once again, beating me an inch from death.”
After showering and maybe seeking some solace at the bar across the street from the Coliseum to have a couple of beers and even getting some bought for him by fans congratulating him on his win and his child, in walked Bruiser Brody.
As Leon recalls, “The door swung open and it felt like a scene out of the old west. Brody stepped in and came right at me. He then did something he probably almost never did before; he dropped the character and shook my hand. The fans cheered and Brody bought me a drink that night. That was one of the greatest nights of my life, but it was also one of the last nights I ever saw him.”
Leon White talks how it was like to work with Bruiser Brody:
Leon’s learning curve didn’t get easier after his program with Brody was over. Next up, he “only” had to work matches with Jerry Blackwell. Nicknamed “The Mountain From Stone Mountain”, he had a stunt he’d sometimes perform during live interviews where he’d drive nails into 2x4s using only his head. “Still paying my dues so to speak, I became a softer target than a nail for Blackwell.”
Leon was still unsure if the stiff shots he received from Blackwell was how pro wrestling really worked. So he just had to answer him back with shots just as hard.
Then came Stan Hansen who’d blame his hard-hitting style on his poor eyesight. He claimed that he had problems with “depth of perception” and this hindered his ability to pull a punch properly. Years later in a match in Japan between a then past his prime Hansen and a Vader who was on his way up, Stan, by accident, gouged his thumb deep into Leon’s eye causing it to pop out of its socket.
These were only Leon White’s early battles in pro wrestling and just a tiny peek into his storied career. Later on, he would wreak havoc and lead a trail of destruction as Big Van Vader all over the world becoming what Mick Foley considers, “The most believable, most talented ‘monster’ wrestler of his generation.”
His peak years in the sport were during the early to mid-’90s where after numerous title wins in Europe, Japan and in the U.S., in 1993 he was voted “Wrestler of The Year” by both Pro Wrestling Illustrated and the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. The former also inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 1996. Deservedly he was awarded “Best Heel” by the former in ’93 as well. Curiously, he also obtained a “Slammy Award” in 1996 during his RAW debut, for his heinous assault on WWE president Gorilla Monsoon. He had the honor of inducting Stan Hansen in the WWE Hall of Fame in 2016.
Leon surely learned difficult lessons living in Compton, playing football, and in professional wrestling. But he was able to in due course succeed because of a simple but effective philosophy.
“What I would do is take things one day at a time. Be it Brody, Blackwell or Hansen, I would just look at each match as yet another obstacle I had to overcome.”
All quotes are from “It’s Vader Time: The Story of a Modern Day Gladiator” written by Leon White and Kenny Casanova. This highly recommended book can be purchased here.