How Wrestling Legends Harley Race and Sting United to Soften ‘Stiff’ WCW Star

It’s Vader Time

Photo Credit: WWE.

Vader struggled to transition from Japan to the American style of wrestling in ’92, and his opponents were legitimately getting hurt. Here is how Harley Race and Sting were brought in to help mentor (and tame) the monster!

Vader in Japan

Photo Credit: New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Before his full-time run with WCW from 1992-1995, Vader (real name 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.

Dusty Rhodes Has A Plan

Photo Credit: NWA.

While in Japan and working with American stars like Bruiser Brody and Stan Hansen, Vader became accustomed to a very physical smash-mouth style. WCW’s booker was Dusty Rhodes and 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."

Harley Race and Sting: Uniting to Tame “Too Stiff” Vader in WCW

Harley Race: Secret Tales of His Tenacity Outside the Ring

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.

Toning Down Vader’s Stiff Style

Photo Credit: WWE.

In his highly recommended autobiography, It’s Vader Time, written by Kenny Casanova, 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.

Working Snug

Big Van Vader was promoted as an indestructible and untamable monster in WCW, but according to management, a toning down of his stiffness in the ring was needed. Photo courtesy of WCW Worldwide.
Photo Credit: WCW Worldwide.

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 (sometimes working snug) 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.

Guidance from Sting

Photo Credit: WWE.

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. Over 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."

“Light Up a Couple of Enhancement Talents”

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 Light it Up

Photo Credit: WWE.

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 encounters that had me 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 claimed, “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 and Sting, Mutual Respect

Photo Credit: WWE.

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, resulting in great matches.

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.

The Pairing of Harley Race with Vader

Photo Credit: WWE

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 the native from Buffalo, New York 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.

However, because both Harley and Vader had strong and perhaps stubborn personalities, they many times clashed in their daily relationships.

Vader compliments Harley on his accomplishments though. "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 even with these triumphs, Vader felt like Harley had become a little set in his ways with an attitude of "it’s my way or the highway!"

Harley Race: Mentor or Babysitter?

Photo Credit: WWE

Vader also set the record straight on why Harley Race often claimed 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!)

Harley Race, My Friend: A Side Not Often Seen

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, Race, and a Taser

Photo Credit: WWE.

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. ‘Leon! Shut up and get in the shower,’ Harley would snap.”

Vader talked of the times he could see Harley’s "OCD kicking in" and decided to mess with him a little.

Once he took all his clothes off and jumped back into bed, and continued to ask Harley about the match to purposely annoy him.

Harley, fuming when he saw that Vader wasn’t going to get out of bed, yelled even louder, "Get in the G.D. 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 at lightning speed, sometimes not even saying “good morning” to Harley. Vader didn’t need to be told twice!

A Thrifty Hustler

Photo Credit: WWE.

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 hustled 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 people were watching, and then see if anybody could beat him.

Of course, Harley then took the oblivious opponent to the cleaners!

Mentoring Vader

Photo Credit: WWE.

According to Vader, feedback from his matches wasn’t always willingly given by his manager, and that the mentor insight he seeked practically needed to be pried 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 commit entirely or else, as Vader explained, "He’d yell 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!

Vader had all the physical tools to stay on top, but Harley’s influence on WCW management ensured that he stayed there for several years.
Photo Credit: WWE.

Before every show, Harley Race, accompanied by Vader, stopped by a convenience store somewhere making 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 then be filled with ice and plenty of brews 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 also smoked heavily 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."

Reaching High Speeds

Photo Credit: WWE.

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 120 mph, and then it dropped to 60. It is a safety precaution built into the vehicle, but Harley knew how to bypass it!

According to Vader, Harley reached speeds of 120 mph, to which he would ask him to ease up on the gas, 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!"

Harley Race – The Politician

Photo Credit: WWE.

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 made it a difficult place to work, and many times cost people’s 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 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.

Harley’s Health

Photo Credit: WWE, Pro Wrestling Illustrated.

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."

Forever Grateful: Aftermath

Photo Credit: WWE.

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," fans witnessed 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.

He became a better person and more effective performer in the ring.

We, the fans, are happy with the outcome we saw in the ring and are lucky to have witnessed the man called Vader.

Vader’s Shocking Rookie Error Against Bruiser Brody

Leon White (who would later become Big Van Vader) had many stiff run-ins with Bruiser Brody in and out of the ring early on in his career.

VADER: "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!”

Read Vader’s Shocking Rookie Error Against Bruiser Brody

Harley Race: Secret Tales of His Tenacity Outside the Ring

Harley Race, seen here representing the sport’s oldest world heavyweight title (the NWA World Heavyweight Championship) with pride, was a tough-as-nails wrestler known for his intimidating fighting prowess in and out of the ring.

“Hulk Hogan was in the back when Harley Race stormed in, punched him, and knocked him to the floor. He then pulled out a gun.”

Bobby Heenan once said the only two men Andre the Giant feared were Meng and Harley Race. But what was Race like behind the scenes?

Read Harley Race: Secret Tales of His Tenacity Outside the Ring

Hulk Hogan and Sting – The Mess at WCW Starrcade 1997

Hulk Hogan and Sting face off at WCW Starrcade 1997.
Photo Credit: WWE.

“Sting walks in, and Hulk Hogan and I had the same reaction. It was shocking.”

The stage was set for an epic showdown between Hollywood Hulk Hogan and Sting at WCW Starrcade 1997. However, the long-awaited event turned out to be quite the failure…

Read Hulk Hogan and Sting – The Mess at WCW Starrcade 1997

Rick Rude: A Ravishing Man with a Tragic End

Rick Rude was more than "Ravishing."
Photo Credit: WWE.

“He refused to budge.”

Rick Rude was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime kind of wrestler. He went by the nickname “Ravishing” — and rightfully so. He had a solid moveset, great looks, and unbridled arrogance with the in-ring skill to back it up. He played hard in the ring but even harder out of it.

Learn his tragic story.

Mr Perfect Curt Hennig – A Great Life with an Unfortunate End

On camera, Curt Hennig was arrogant, and he backed up his Mr. Perfect persona brilliantly. However, outside of the ring, it was a different story. Here is the story of an extraordinary life with an unfortunate end.

On camera, Curt Hennig was arrogant, and he backed up his Mr. Perfect persona brilliantly. However, outside of the ring, it was a different story.

Learn the story of an extraordinary life with an unfortunate end.

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Javier Ojst is an old-school wrestling enthusiast currently residing in El Salvador. He's been a frequent guest on several podcasts and has a few bylines on, where he shares stories of pop culture and retro-related awesomeness. He has also been published on Slam Wrestling and in G-FAN Magazine.