What happens when you have a 6’5″, 450lbs monster heel that, according to opponents, is “too tough” in the ring? You enlist the help of Sting and Harley Race, of course! Not all was smooth sailing in the transition to the American style of wrestling for Vader.
Before his full-time run with WCW from 1992-1995, Vader (Leon White) had mostly worked in Austria and Germany for Otto Wanz’s Catch Wrestling Association in Japan for Inoki’s New Japan Pro Wrestling and also continued his grueling feud with Stan Hansen in All-Japan Pro Wrestling. He would do sporadic appearances with WCW in 1990, thanks to a tentative working agreement with NJPW.
“Too Stiff” Vader
While in Japan and working with American stars like Bruiser Brody and Stan Hansen, Vader had become accustomed to a very physical smash-mouth style. The booker for WCW was Dusty Rhodes. He wanted to find a way to balance this physical style (strong-style in Japan) that personified Vader and complement it with a lighter, more subtle American style most WCW wrestlers were accustomed to. Dusty emphasized working intelligently in the ring by saying, "You only have so many bumps on your bump card until you have to retire." He added, "You have to work smart so that you can be in it for the long haul and continue to provide for your family for a long time."
He offered to pair Vader with Sting, who would help more with the in-ring work, and Harley Race was expected to fill Vader in on all the other details only a veteran multi-time World Champion as he could supply. These are two key people that Vader credits with eventually helping him transition into a more Americanized style — people who eventually were able to somewhat tame the beast that was Vader.
In his highly recommended autobiography, It’s Vader Time, Vader claimed that he had already realized that after several tours worldwide, he needed to tone down his rougher style because it was not the norm in most places. In wrestling, this is called "stiffness," referring to how hard a wrestler performs his moves and how hard he decides to pull his punches. The art of wrestling makes it look as real as possible but without truly hurting your opponent unless he tells you to just "lay it in!" But watering down his Japanese style of ring work was still too stiff for most of the other workers once he arrived in WCW.
Vader, who calls Sting "one of the greatest wrestlers of all time bar none," was very smart in that he saw that Vader was combining too many styles and tried to explain to him that he could do less to get over and didn’t really have to knock out his opponent like he was accustomed to.
"You don’t have to knock a guy out or do this or that like in Japan, you don’t have to," Sting offered. "I’m going to be there for you. I will make you look like you did."
Sting assured Vader that there was much more selling of an opponent’s move in the American style of wrestling than in Japan. If you really didn’t strike your opponent with enough force, your opponent is usually not obligated to sell to the audience that you did.
"I owe a lot of success to Steve [Borden] (Sting)," comments the real-life Leon White in his book, adding, "He was patient with me. Every now and then, I would hit him pretty stiff, and he would look at it as a work in progress with me."
He’d tell Vader, "You hit me pretty good with that one shot, but that’s okay. The rest of the match was good, and we’ll get there."
But Vader’s transition to where WCW management wanted him to be was a gradual one and didn’t happen overnight, as evidenced by the injury suffered by Joe Thurman after taking a "Vader Bomb" at the end of the match shown below.
Watch: Vader ends the career of Joe Thurman with a “Vader Bomb.”
Vader was asked to "light up a couple of enhancement talents" when he was pitted against TA McCoy and partner Joe Thurman, but watching the match where Thurman gets injured is something that stayed with him for years to come. The term "handicap match" took on a whole different meaning as he recounted in his book.
"Watching this match today is very uncomfortable for me, to say the least,” Vader opened up. “It rattles me to see this match, and it is something I usually avoid. Really, underneath the leather mask and the bad guy image, I am more of a sensitive guy than most would think."
Thankfully, Thurman did not suffer long-term repercussions but never did wrestle again. As of the publishing of Vader’s book, Joe is living in Georgia, working as a police officer, and is a family man. Leon was pleased to learn that Joe did not end up paralyzed and was living a normal life.
Sting and Vader – Lighting it up in the Ring
Sting and Vader went on to have superb matches in WCW, and Vader gave Sting not some, but several stiff shots and slams during their matches that had this teen cringing while watching WCW Saturday Night back in 1992. Recommended matches between the two include The Great American Bash and Starrcade from ‘92 and the phenomenal strap match from SuperBrawl III in ’93.
In an interview with Devon Nicholson for TheHannibalTV, Vader says that his matches with Sting were "one of the better feuds in wrestling history” and that “it would rank up there amongst the top.” Vader professed, “We never had a bad match, ever. He knew how to sell for me, he knew how to come back, and we got to know each other very well."
Vader went on to say that he and Sting were always able to put together something great and believable thanks to the good chemistry they had and that they needed to talk very little about their upcoming matches while getting ready backstage. Vader recalled, "If you know how to improvise well, you can improvise a match in a way that creates passion in every move." He commented in his book that he believes that wrestling today comes off as too scripted at times, and "when someone misses a spot, everything goes right to hell, and that is when the match looks and feels fake." He added, "You lose what this sport used to be about, which was entertaining and suspending belief."
Eric Bischoff believes that the matches between Sting and Vader were effective because of their chemistry, but Vader was also physically at the top of his game in ’93. Both men were able to push and motivate each other, and great matches were the result.
Sting helped Vader greatly hone his skills to a more appropriate but still very hard-hitting style for American consumption in WCW. Harley Race also played a big part, albeit a different one, as we shall soon see.
Watch: Vader talks about how proud he is of his feud with Sting.
The Pairing of Harley Race with Vader
The self-proclaimed "Greatest wrestler on God’s green Earth," Harley Race was still wrestling during Vader’s first run in WCW, but his in-ring career was winding down. Once Vader began working full-time for the organization, Harley had just finished managing Lex Luger, right before he jumped ship and joined WWF, where he then morphed into the "Narcissist."
Dusty was confident that some of Harley’s extensive experience could improve Vader’s career and serve as guidance for the masked 450 lbs super heavyweight. Though in their daily relationship, because both Harley and Vader had strong and perhaps stubborn personalities, they many times clashed.
Vader compliments Harley on his accomplishments. "He was a grizzled ring veteran that had done just about everything you could think of in the sport. He wrestled around the world for every major promotion and held most of the major titles at some point." But with accomplishments, Vader felt like Harley had become a little set in his ways with an attitude of "it’s my way or the highway!"
Vader also set the record straight on how Harley Race would claim many times why he had been paired with him. "Harley would tell you that he wasn’t paired with me to help mentor me or help me transition out of a different style of wrestling, but instead, it was to ‘babysit Big Van Vader.’ That’s reinventing history, and he was trying to put himself over. That line is total BS because, half of the time, I was looking after him just as much as he was looking after me!"
In his book, Vader seemed hurt each time he would hear that Harley said that he was "the only man who could control the monster," and he wasn’t sure why he would say things like that. Vader also mentioned that they never had any heat or a real dispute about wrestling but admits that life on the road between the two didn’t go as smooth as perhaps both had hoped for, and sometimes, hilarity ensued!
The Harley Way (or the Highway!)
Vader claimed, "Harley was used to being in charge and having everything his way; the wrestling ring, the driving, which hotel to stay in, and what to do while we were at the hotel." He further explained, “‘The Harley Way’ meant room service in the morning every day at about 8 AM (after coming in at 4 PM) because he wanted eggs. So we would get the eggs, then go back to sleep until noon, get some more room service, and then get some more sleep. Then we would go into tapings at about 5 PM. Forget about whatever gym time I wanted!"
Vader also remembered when they were late for TV tapings, and he wasn’t moving at the needed "Harley Way" speed. Vader wanted to speak about the previous night’s match to get some feedback, but Harley just wanted him to get into the shower so that they could leave. ‘God damn it, Leon! Shut up and get in the shower,’ Harley snapped.”
Vader talked of the times he could see Harley’s "OCD kicking in" and decided to mess with him a little. He took all his clothes off and jumped back into bed, and continued to ask Harley about the match to annoy him purposely. Harley, fuming when he saw that Vader wasn’t going to get out of bed, yelled even louder, "Get in the GOD DAMN SHOWER!" He then threw the television remote at the wall and reached into his suitcase, pulling out a 50,000-watt taser gun and zapped Vader right on the thigh!
After that, things changed, and Vader would get into the shower quickly, sometimes not even saying “good morning” to Harley. Vader didn’t need to be told twice!
A Thrifty Hustler
Even though the contract Vader had in WCW covered car rental and hotel expenses, Harley had a strange way of keeping records for himself and kept journal expenses of every penny spent. He wanted copies of Vader’s hotel receipts as well! In this way, Vader describes Harley as "old school thrifty."
Harley did like to make money on the side by shooting pool, though. He and Vader would hustle the locals, similar to the 1986 movie starring Tom Cruise and Paul Newman called The Color of Money. He’d job for Vader making sure the locals were watching, and then see if anybody could beat him. Of course, Harley would then take the unsuspecting opponent to the cleaners!
Watch: Harley Race puts Vader over in an amazing promo
Harley Race – Mentoring Vader
According to Vader, feedback from his matches wasn’t always willingly given by Harley Race, and that the mentor insight he was looking for had almost to be forced out of Race.
Vader explained, "It was always the same old thing. Every ride I went on, I had a walking encyclopedia of wrestling in my car, but I always had a hard time flipping through his pages to get to any good, useful information." When asking Harley several times to tell him how he would’ve done something better, eventually Vader would get the needed feedback he craved.
"Those fine-tweaking moments are what I was looking for, and when I got them, they really did help me improve how to call a match.” Vader continued, “His grasp of psychology was second to none. Harley wasn’t really super gifted with athleticism, but he had one of the best-experienced minds in the business."
But when Harley Race gave advice, he expected you to do it EXACTLY how he told you to do it, not just use some of it. He demanded Vader committed all the way or else, as Vader explained, "He’d bitch me out in the car the whole ride because I only used 80 percent of his idea!"
Wild Rides with “King of the Road” Harley Race!
Before every show, Harley Race, accompanied by Vader, would have to stop by a convenience store somewhere to make sure preparations were made for their trip to the next city. This meant that they had to fill Harley’s special cooler that fit perfectly in his car’s trunk. It even had his name written in marker, and they would line the inside with a big Hefty bag where it would be filled with ice and beer for the road.
Vader recounts a potentially dangerous scenario every time one would drive alongside Harley Race after the shows.
"When we left a show, without words, I knew Harley was driving. He would be okay the first hour or so, but the King of the Road would start driving really fast with 8 or 9 beers on him. The horrible part about this whole thing is that you had to be an enabler if you were sitting shotgun. He had everyone who rode with him well-trained. If you were sitting by his side, it was your job to monitor his drinking and know exactly when he had polished off that can of beer. When it was gone, your job was to put a fresh can in his hand, open and ready to drink. You also had to make sure that the hole was at the six o’clock position so he could lift the can straight up to his mouth without having to look down at it and adjust it accordingly.” Harley would also smoke the entire trip, causing even more friction between him and Vader.
"Now, don’t get me wrong, in the golden days, there was a whole lot of liberal drinking and driving going on, but when it came to booze behind the wheel, Harley really was The King."
Harley also had a way to break the built-in "speed governors" most rental vehicles are equipped with. The governor kicks in once the car gets up to about 120mph, and then it would drop to 60. It is a safety precaution built into the vehicle, but Harley knew how to beat it.
According to Vader, Harley would reach speeds of 120mph, to which he would ask him to slow down, only to be ignored as if he didn’t exist. Then Harley would slow down a tiny bit and then "drive slam the pedal down to break the governor. He’d adjust his speed a little bit, then rev it up, and then boom! No more governor."
Even though there were butting of heads between the two, Harley always recognized that Vader was a very gifted athlete, and there was nobody like him at the time, and maybe ever since.
When referring to Vader, Harley Race once said, "The most natural athlete that I’ve ever had the pleasure of being around or being associated with, and thank god I never had to wrestle him!"
Watch: Vader shares his appreciation of Harley Race.
Harley Race – The Politician
The above are just a few of the road stories shared between Harley Race and Vader, and although Harley was crucial to Vader’s WCW career, it was more in a diplomatic sense. Behind the curtain wall where champions are made and workers are easily replaced, one must know how to play the game and have strong allies if one’s career is to advance. If not, you can be at the bottom of the rung quicker than a ref’s fast count of "1-2-3."
There was a constant power-struggle behind the scenes of WCW that would make it a difficult place to work, and many times cost people their jobs along the way. Eventually, Vader believed that the politics cost him his spot, like it had many others, but not because Harley didn’t do his part.
When Harley Race retired from wrestling in the early ‘90s, he seemed to sink into a depressive state, according to Vader, and couldn’t cope with not being in the spotlight anymore. His alcohol consumption greatly increased, and so did his weight because he had stopped working out and didn’t have the physicality of wrestling anymore to keep his weight in check. As a manager, he would always play second fiddle to whoever was at his side, and Vader theorized that this made Harley feel old. Being a proud man, perhaps Harley was unable to handle it.
After a terrible incident, Harley’s health and future sadly took a turn for the worse.
Vader opened up, "After one night of drinking his sorrow away in January 1995, he crashed his car into a concrete barrier near Kansas City. The impact fractured his forearm and crushed his hip. I felt horrible that this was the end for him. Not only was I emotionally hurt for him, but selfishly, I knew my career would suffer as well."
This is when Vader finally realized that Harley had played a big part in his career, winning battles behind the scenes that helped Vader secure his position within the company when many wanted his spot and thus more money. "Harley was the political guy, and with him gone, I was left alone to float alone in a sea of politics where I, unfortunately, didn’t know how to swim. He really looked out for me when nobody else would."
Overall, it can be said that Leon White, as Big Van Vader made a huge impact on American soil when he outpowered and steamrolled his opponents in WCW during the early to mid-’90s. With his intimidating look and claiming that he "feared no man and felt no pain," we played witness to a monster heel who was not only extremely intimidating but also frighteningly mobile inside the ring.
But surely he could not have done it on his own. Until his passing in 2018, Vader remained grateful to Sting and Harley Race for their help. According to Leon White’s son Jesse White, Sting was very supportive in Leon’s last months before he died, and the relationship was nothing short of a blessing. The physical matches with Sting and the crazy times on the road with Harley were all taken as learning experiences by the big man, and he became better due to it. We, the fans, are happy with the outcome we saw in the ring and are lucky to have witnessed the man called Vader.
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss these recommended articles on our site:
- Harley Race | Tales of His Tenacity and Strength
- Leon White – Rookie Mistakes and Stiff Lessons Courtesy of Bruiser Brody
- Wrestling Road Stories: The Good, the Bad, and the Bizarre!
Quotes from this piece are mostly sourced from the highly recommended autobiography It’s Vader Time with Kenny Casanova. Any other sources have been cited accordingly.