Friday, July 31, 2015

Roddy Piper - RIP

It was sadly announced today that "Rowdy" Roddy Piper died from cardiac arrest Thursday night. He was 61 years old.

Piper was one of the biggest stars during a peak era of American pro wrestling and certainly one of the absolute best on the mic. He broke into the wrestling business by paying his dues all around America until finally developing his natural talent as a heel in the NWA territories. He generated white hot heat with the Mexican crowds in California by routinely playing "La Cucaracha" on his bagpipes, an early precursor to the race-baiting that would eventually (though regrettably in retrospect) make him a worldwide star. He later moved to the Southern region, battling his friend-for-life Ric Flair for the U.S. championship and partaking in one of the most brutal matches of the 80s, the dog-collar match against Greg "The Hammer" Valentine at the very first Starrcade. He then moved up north to the WWF.

He first made his mark on a national stage by being given a talk show called Piper's Pit. Though granted a crude set and be forced to feature everyone from the top stars to the local jobber, Piper's exceptional verbal skills and fiery flair made the segment utterly legendary. Here, he would deliver some of the most famous off-the-cuffs remarks in wrestling history. Examples include, "Just when they think they have the answers, I change the questions!" and "You don't throw rocks at a man with a machine gun!". The most renowned edition came when he interviewed Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka. After crudely insulting Snuka by giving him tropical fruit to make him feel "home", Piper cracked a real coconut over Snuka's head, causing him to smash over the facades.

Piper then moved on to a far, far bigger target: Hulk Hogan. This feud became national news when pop superstar Cyndi Lauper got involved in the wild proceedings of the WWF and help get the one-on-one showdown, dubbed "The War To End The Score", to be broadcasted on MTV. His ire and controversial mouth grew bigger when Hogan was joined by TV star Mr. T. In the build-up to the very first Wrestlemania, where Hogan and Mr. T would face Piper and "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff in the main event, Piper unleashed some of the most heinous yet darkly humorous remarks towards Mr. T and his skin color. Just to remind you, though this was all despicable then and now, Piper's skill at race-baiting helped make the federation and generate vast interest and a paying audience to see the heroes win over the racist asshole and his buddies. Plus, crowds were so uncouth and easily provoked that a group of people infamously held up a bed sheet that read "Piper Has AIDS". The blood feud between Piper and Mr. T, however, would become very real when the former "shot" on the latter in the money match largely to protect both of them from harm and become even more heated a year later when the two battled in a badly drawn-out worked boxing match.

By the time Wrestlemania III rode around, where he helped build up the Hogan-Andre The Giant title match while building his own match against Adrian Adonis, Piper chose to retire from the sport in order to work in Hollywood. He quickly made his mark with his lead performance as John Nada in John Carpenter's They Live. The sci-fi/horror/action/comedy film was one of the most biting satires of the 80's, severely mocking the Reagan era and the gross commercialism that was running rampant. Piper would make movie history with his role, first by improvising the immortal badass line, "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all outta bubblegum" and then fighting Keith David in a brilliantly staged back-alley brawl. His career in Hollywood wouldn't be for long largely due to the stigma of pro wrestling and him being a non-thespian but he continued to work in B-movies until the present. Other notably acting gigs include the bizarre post-apocalyptic cult film Hell Comes To Frogtown, the failed TV pilot Tag Team where he and Jesse "The Body" Ventura are cops, and as himself in the video game Saints Row IV.

When he came back to wrestling at Wrestlemania V to interview talk-show host Morton Downey Jr., his luster began to quickly falter. He was still being heavily cheered by the fans but his wrestling skills were becoming a bit lazy and he started to act more like an obnoxious goofball than a demented undermining genius. The biggest lowlight of this time was when he decided to paint half of his body charcoal black in the lead-up to his match against Bad News Brown at Wrestlemania VI. Orchestrated in order to get Brown motivated for the battle, the puzzling and somewhat racist display hampered the popularity of Piper. It did lead to a great story though: The boys in the back ribbed him by changing out his body paint, causing Piper to walk around with it still on in public post-event until finally retreating to his house in order to sweat it all out for several weeks.

We now reach a time when it becomes personal. In 1992, Piper finally won his very first title in the WWF, defeating The Mountie for the Intercontinental Championship at the Royal Rumble. The noteworthy celebration, in my hometown no less, would be short lived as he was set to face off against Bret "Hitman" Hart at Wrestlemania VIII and drop the title to him. The feud was simple: Piper knew and loved the Hart family in real-life and treated Bret like a wet-behind-the-ears young boy; Bret got on his nerves by saying he's the better wrestler and the one who could out think him. I watched them fight it out on PPV way back when and even at that time, I knew I just saw one of my absolute favorite matches of all time. Though Bret was great in the ring, the show was all on Piper and he delivered with flying colors. He carried the story of the match, constantly trying to avoid regressing into his former persona and win the match through chicanery and heel tactics. The match beautifully ended with Bret getting the better of Piper, reversing his signature sleeper hold into a pinfall. Piper gave Bret a clean pin (the first in a very long time) and passed the torch to the future of the WWF.

Piper would make sporadic appearances in the WWF from then on, often being the referee to some less-than-stellar matches. He became the on-air commissioner of the WWF in 1996 and took part in the horrific O.J. Simpson-inspired, hate-crime-played-straight "Hollywood Backlot Brawl" against Goldust at Wrestlemania XII. By the end of the year, he joined rival promotion WCW to do battle against long-time rival Hogan, now going as the nWo mastermind "Hollywood" Hogan. Though Piper was now running on fumes in the ring thanks to a hip replacement, he did draw big numbers for WCW and could still work a microphone. He popped back into the new-christened WWE as part of the Hogan-McMahon feud in 2003 but would later be fired when he did an interview with Bryan Gumbel for HBO's Real Sports. The hatchet was buried again two years later when Piper was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. He would do the occasion appearance or match from then on.

Piper was one of the best talkers in the business, able to work up a crowd into a near-riot. He was also one of the slim few to lead a major motion picture and help make it become one of the most popular cult films in cinematic history. He could wow you, piss you off, and ultimately make you laugh.

He will sorely be missed.

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