I wasn’t a wrestling fan as a child. I guess to be one you had to have a family member who would allow the TV to be on World Of Sport on a Saturday afternoon and – other than my granddad, who used to come home from a lunchtime drink to watch the horses – no-one in my family was particularly sporting.
I was nineteen before I started watching wrestling, and it was the WWF on Sky. This Tuesday In Texas was my first PPV and, by the time the Royal Rumble came around, I was hooked. The Rumble, of course, has thirty men in it, and the 1992 edition ended with Ric Flair taking the win. But, for me, one man stood out.
Entering at number fifteen, and staying in for over half an hour before Sid Justice threw him out, was Roddy Piper, a guy I knew from B-movies like They Live! and Hell Comes To Frogtown, and he had a cool t-shirt and wore a kilt and had this crazy look in his eye.
Piper’s second run with the WWF didn’t last much longer (but did include an epic with Bret Hart at Wrestlemania VIII) but he’d made a huge impression on me and I was overjoyed to see him return a couple of years later for his last run with the company. The sheer weirdness of his Hollywood Backlot Brawl with Goldust at Wrestlemania XII, cashing in on OJ Simpson’s flight from the police two years before, again emphasised that Piper just didn’t do things the usual way.
Piper left for WCW after that match, and with opportunities to see Nitro and WCW PPVs limited in the UK, I didn’t see much more of him. He popped up on Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, as Louis’s “new friend”, but by then I’d started to delve into his history, and realised that the craziness Piper brought to the WWF – remember that time he painted himself half-black, half-white to hype a match with Bad News Brown? – was just the tip of a huge, Leonardo di Caprio-killing iceberg.
My favourite clip of Roddy Piper is from Portland, in 1980, where he proves that he’s crazier than the batshit mental Sheepherders by smashing a bottle over his own head. Not a gimmicked bottle, an actual bottle. Tag-team partner Rick Martel looks on, no doubt thinking “what have I done?”, as Piper addressed the camera with blood pouring down his forehead.
Those early days in Portland, and in Georgia and the Carolinas, show a very different Piper to the one that found national fame in the WWF. By that time he had already slowed down due to injuries and his work, although compelling because of his incredible charisma and innate psychology, wasn’t at the same level. But it didn’t matter, because those qualities made him a mainstream star – well, as big a mainstream star as anyone not named Hulk Hogan managed before The Rock came along in the new millennium.
After his inevitable retirement – he had two replacement hips and still worked on – Piper hung around wrestling, because what else what he going to do? He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2005, and still managed to get involved in, and actually work, matches and angles, right up until his final appearance on Raw last December, where he – and this was classic Piper – managed to get Rusev’s name wrong.
The best thing about Roddy Piper – and the thing most missing from the modern WWE, which is over-scripted and worried about offending anyone except foreigners – is that you never knew what might happen when he stepped through the curtain. He was unpredictable, dangerous, infectious, and engaging. At his best as a villain, he never lost the crowd through even the most despicable acts, and isn’t the worst kind of villain the one we might identify with, however little?
There’s nothing in modern wrestling that resembles Roddy Piper now. Dean Ambrose shows flashes of it, even on such a tight leash, but the loss of a Piper – and also a Dusty Rhodes, a Harley Race, a Terry Funk, and more – is as big a loss as losing Piper himself.
But he lived a life – man, what a life! – and that’s all any of us can hope to leave as a legacy. I’ll re-watch some Roddy Piper this weekend and smile a big smile as he breaks coconuts over people’s heads, tears into his own flesh, and plays that most hateful of instruments, the bagpipes.
Now put on the glasses…
Roddy Piper, April 17, 1954 – July 30, 2015