I’m never sure what to say when a wrestler passes away. How do you sum up a thirty year career in just a few pages? What stuff do you make sure to get in and what stuff do you leave out? Those are the questions I’ve been trying to answer since I heard the news of Rowdy Roddy Piper passing away last week. I don’t think anyone can sum up an entire career in such a short space so instead I’ll be trying to sum up why Piper worked so well at everything he did.
Starting back in 1984 when he showed up in the WWF, Piper debuted as a heel and had his major run with Hogan, but after taking a sabbatical from the company just after “Wrestlemania II”, Piper came back to destroy jobber A.J. Petrucci with one arm tied behind his back. The fans suddenly loved Piper and he was a full fledged face by the end of the year. Save for a few lame heel runs in WCW that almost no one remembers and in which Piper rarely even wrestled, Piper was a face for almost the rest of his life.
Think about that. Piper, the greatest heel of all time (and I don’t argue that he’s one of if not the best ever), was really only a heel on a national level for about 10% of his career. Given his reputation as a heel ever since, it really does show how much he packed into those few years and how big of an impact his character really did have.
That brings us to the most common question about Piper’s career: how much credit should he get for the first “Wrestlemania”? The more I think about it, the more credit Piper deserves for it. Yes Hulk Hogan’s popularity had a lot to do with it, but could you imagine such a reaction over Hogan vs. Big John Studd, Killer Khan or Bob Orton?
Now maybe Piper was in the right place at the right time and could have carried the show into history almost entirely on his own, but I’ll go back to what Paul Heyman said the night after “Wrestlemania XXX.” Sure, a lot of people could have been Hogan’s chief rival and launched the company to new heights and sure a lot of people could have done this or that. As Heyman said: “So why didn’t you?” A lot of people could have been the big foil to Hogan, but Piper was the one that actually did it.
So why did Piper work so well? It certainly wasn’t his physical abilities or being an imposing figure. Instead, it was because of his intelligence and his big mouth. Piper was one of the first in a long line of wrestlers that you would pay to see get beaten up and get what was coming to him for all of his crimes. That’s where the money is for a heel. It’s not about what he says or does but about what the hero does to get even with him.
That’s where Piper shined. He could go out there with anyone and just talk his head off until you wanted someone to punch him in the face to shut him up once and for all The key to Piper though was he could do this with anyone and find a way to make it work, which is where we get to Piper’s Pit.
Maybe above everything else, Piper’s Pit is the one thing that people remember about Piper. Almost every important wrestler in WWF history has been a guest on the Pit at some point and there was always something memorable going on. As the Miz put it on “Monday Night Raw” earlier this week, there have been a bunch of shows that tried to duplicate Piper’s Pit but absolutely none of them would have worked if they hadn’t been copying the original.
From cutting the Haiti Kid’s hair to beating up some random jobber from Columbus, Ohio to shouting awesome catchphrases to being way too close to Bob Orton, the show was often much more about watching Piper’s dog and pony show instead of most storyline developments. As is the case with almost all big moneymakers in wrestling, it was the talking that made the money, not what happened in the ring.
Of course, there were several editions of Piper’s Pit that set up major storyline developments, including setting up the main event of “Wrestlemania III” to busting a coconut over Jimmy Snuka’s head to telling John Cena to embrace the fans who are booing him, Piper could go from just doing his own thing to being a major force driving the rest of the show forward.
Now that being said, people often forget how good Piper really was inside the ring. He could talk and perform as well as anyone else, but Piper was very underrated as a wrestler. For someone remembered for his talking, he really had a long list of classics, ranging from Greg Valentine at “Starrcade 1983” to Bret Hart at “Wrestlemania VIII” to a series of great brawls with Rick Rude capped off by a cage match in Madison Square Garden to a series of great brawls with Jimmy Snuka to more classics than can be listed with Ric Flair, it was rare to see Piper not have at least a passable match.
With all of those things taken into account though, there was one thing that set Piper apart from the masses in this history of wrestling: it seemed important to him. This is one of those things that you can’t teach to someone and you either have it or you don’t. It’s a look in a wrestler’s eyes where you can just see how much they love being out there. You could feel how much Piper cared when you watched him perform and it made things feel special.
How many wrestlers today, or anywhere throughout history for that matter, seem like they come out there, have their match or segment, and then go back to whatever else they’re doing? By comparison, look at Piper when he won the Intercontinental Title at “Royal Rumble 1992”. The look on his face seems like he really accomplished something and it seems that he’s thrilled to be trusted and recognized as one of the most important wrestlers in the company.
Roddy Piper loved wrestling and the fans were lucky enough to be able to watch him all those years. He was one of the old school wrestlers that you hear about from so many legends: it was real to him and Piper gave it everything he had whether he was in front of 300 people or 93,000. You don’t find many wrestlers like that in the world and Piper was one of the best ever. It’s been a rough few months for losing legends with Piper and Dusty Rhodes passing away, but I think James Storm summed it up as well as anyone else could have on Twitter a few days ago:
“Just when you think Heaven is calming down, in walks these two.”
Piper was one of a kind and that’s probably best for everyone. I don’t think the world could handle another of him, but it would have been fun to try.
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