“Rowdy” Roddy Piper is dead. I can’t believe I just typed that. But according to TMZ Sports, it’s true. He was only 61 years old. He leaves behind a wife and four grown children.
30 years ago, when I became a professional wrestling fan, Piper was my guy. He was loud, flamboyant, hilariously obnoxious, a bit nuts and an underrated worker. There was just something about him that drew me to his constant antics, even when they went over the line. (He once called Bruno Sammartino a “wop” to his face.) Without question, he was the most entertaining performer in the World Wrestling Federation.
Growing up in Canada in the 1950s & 60s, Piper had a tough upbringing. Tired of not getting along with his parents, he left home at age 12 where he became a street kid for years. As a teen, he fell into pro wrestling and boxing thanks to a kindly priest who saw potential in him.
His first match was the stuff of legend. Wrongly introduced as “Roddy The Piper”, he lasted 10 seconds against Larry “The Axe” Hennig, Mr. Perfect’s father. (He would later wrestle Curt Hennig in the early 1990s.) He was 15. From there, he moved on to the AWA where he put over the company’s stars of the early to mid 1970s. He had a long program in the NWA’s San Francisco territory with the Guerrero family where he generated tremendous heat for his insulting stunts. One time, as a “goodwill gesture”, he announced he would play the Mexican national anthem on his bagpipes. Instead, he played La Cucaracha. The fans wanted to kill him. And nearly did.
In the second half of the 70s, he landed in the NWA’s Mid-Atlantic territory, where he became lifelong pals with Ric Flair, his frequent rival, occasional tag team partner and favourite drinking buddy. With his plaid trunks and forceful personality, he stood out. As the decade closed out, Piper also had a successful albeit short run in the Pacific Northwest where he got a couple of championship pushes. He also did his first movie, a Henry Winkler comedy called The One And Only with Chavo Guerrero, Sr. (Piper wasn’t credited.)
Near the end of his NWA run in the early 1980s, he became a babyface and feuded with Greg Valentine. During the infamous dog collar match at the first Starrcade event in November 1983, Valentine hit him so hard with his chain, Piper lost half his hearing in his left ear. Ironically, the dog collar gimmick was The Rowdy One’s idea. Piper won the match. Curiously, Valentine’s US title was not on the line.
To give him time to somewhat recover from his devastating injury, Piper entered the WWF as a manager of heel wrestlers like “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff (who he later feuded with) and “Dr. D” David Shultz. In early 1984, he got his very own promo segment, the pioneering Piper’s Pit, which was almost entirely improvised and eventually became a staple of live events as well as weekly TV. (Valentine was a guest and cryptically referenced their NWA program.)
Once he was ready to go back into the ring, he kickstarted a memorable feud with Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka. During Snuka’s second Piper’s Pit appearance, Hot Rod dominated the conversation by repeatedly insulting him and then, out of nowhere, smashing a coconut in his face. As Snuka destroyed the set by walking right into it, Piper kept on attacking him. After rubbing a banana in his face, Piper started whipping him with his belt. At one point, he even spat on him. An infuriated Snuka was not quick enough to catch him as Piper promptly exited the scene. Good thing that door was locked.
Near the end of the year, Piper’s role as perennial antagonist became far more important. During the Christmas 1984 house show at Madison Square Garden, he interrupted a special ceremony for Cyndi Lauper and Captain Lou Albano who were both being honoured for their charity work. In one of the most significant moments in WWF history, Piper destroyed Albano’s award right on his head, kicked Lauper while she was down and powerslammed her then-manager David Wolff.
The incident paved the way for the first WrestleMania as Piper would start challenging Hulk Hogan for his world championship. The War To Settle The Score, which took place during another MSG house show in February 1985 (and aired live on MTV), led to the direct booking of that supercard’s main event. Piper never did get his deserved world title push (like TWTSTS, he came up short during a rematch at The Wrestling Classic that November), but without his involvement in this risky storyline, WrestleMania and the WWE would not be where they are today. As Piper noted on his Born To Controversy DVD, the fans didn’t come to see Hulk Hogan, they came to see Hulk Hogan kick “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s ass. Big difference.
Piper was never fond of Mr. T (and vice versa) which gave their worked feud genuine heat. (Piper didn’t think T respected the business or pro wrestlers in general. He also didn’t think he belonged in the ring. Many years later, however, they eventually made peace.) Although the “boxing” match they had at WrestleMania 2 was, in retrospect, rather pitiful, the events that led up to it were typically provocative. Piper and bodyguard “Cowboy” Bob Orton shaving T’s pal, The Haiti Kid, to give him a Mohawk on Piper’s Pit. Orton holding down T after their “boxing” match as Piper whips him with his belt on Saturday Night’s Main Event. Not to mention the constant put-downs.
After being disqualified for bodyslamming T at WM 2, as he left the ring with Orton and his cornermen, the crowd started chanting “Roddy! Roddy! Roddy!”. After a brief hiatus, inevitably he returned to a hero’s welcome as he squashed AJ Petruzzi with one arm behind his back during one of the WWF’s weekly TV tapings.
Piper’s ‘face turn led to a terrifically tense program with “Adorable” Adrian Adonis. During his time away, Adonis got his own talk segment, The Flower Shop. Now that The Rowdy One was back, this led to a conflict and ultimately betrayal. Once loyal bodyguard Orton jumped ship to side with Adonis, as did the “Magnificent” Muraco. After all three attacked him, Piper went on to destroy The Flower Shop set. As he battled his new rivals throughout the rest of 1986 and right into 1987, behind the scenes Piper made a big decision. After 15 years in the business, it was time to go to Hollywood full-time.
At WrestleMania 3, in what was supposed to be his retirement match, Piper put Adonis to sleep (not very persuasively, by the way) and let Brutus Beefcake shave him bald (a stipulation to humiliate the loser).
A year later, he starred with Keith David (who would later do narration for numerous WWE documentaries) in the John Carpenter secretive alien invasion horror film, They Live. The film’s most famous line – “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum” – wasn’t in the original script. Piper had it jotted down in his notebook which he often used for promo ideas during his wrestling career.
Just 2 years after walking away from the WWF, Piper made a surprise return to host Piper’s Pit at WrestleMania 5. Now sporting longer hair and a slimmer build, he took down Brother Love and the late Morton Downey Jr. with his usual acerbic comments as well as a handy fire extinguisher. (Downey kept blowing cigarette smoke in his face.) Shortly thereafter, Piper would resume his in-ring career. At SummerSlam, he helped The Ultimate Warrior regain the InterContinental Championship by coming out to moon Ravishing Rick Rude. They feuded for the rest of 1989.
In retrospect, his decision to paint half his body black for his WrestleMania 6 encounter with Bad News Brown was probably not a wise one. (As he noted on his Born To Controversy DVD, thanks to a purposeful mix-up perpetrated by some of his cheeky colleagues, it took weeks to wash it all off.) And while his early 90s feuds weren’t nearly as compelling as his 80s work with Snuka, Hogan, Orndorff & Mr. T, he did have a short, decent run with the IC strap. He beat The Mountie for it at the 1992 Royal Rumble. This led to perhaps his best WWF match at WrestleMania 8 when he dropped the title to Bret “The Hitman” Hart in a rare high-profile battle of the good guys.
Throughout the next decade, Piper would only make occasional appearances in the WWF. He refereed the Bret Hart/Yokozuna world title match at WrestleMania 10 in 1994 and the Hart/Bob Backlund submission match at WrestleMania 11. It didn’t have a great ending & the storyline that inspired it was rather anti-gay, but Piper’s “Hollywood Backlot Brawl” with Goldust at WrestleMania 12 was brutally entertaining.
As the NWO angle started gaining tremendous traction in WCW in 1996, Piper revived his 80s feud with world champion Hulk Hogan. At Starrcade, during a non-title encounter, The Rowdy One finally pinned The Hulkster. The following year, he beat him in a cage match, as well. Long after aligning with a reformed Four Horsemen as they battled the NWO, Piper had a brief US title push and even feuded with old pal Ric Flair.
In 2003, Piper would return to the WWE and interfere in the Mr. McMahon/Hulk Hogan match at WrestleMania 19 when the referee was knocked out. This led to a less than convincing heel run with the late Sean O’Haire as his new bodyguard. (By this point, fans wanted to cheer Piper, not scorn him.) Piper got more heat during his infamous appearance on Bryant Gumbel’s HBO show, Real Sports, where he spoke out about pro wrestling drug abuse than he ever did feuding with Mr. America (Hogan in a mask.) The interview got him fired from the WWE.
But he would come back two years later to get inducted into the imaginary WWE Hall of Fame with Hogan the night before WrestleMania 21. At the Showcase of the Immortals, Piper interviewed Stone Cold Steve Austin and took a stunner. The following year, he reteamed with Ric Flair to win his only WWE tag team championship. The reign lasted eight days.
While booked to work a traditional elimination tag match involving 4 legends (including Flair) & The Spirit Squad at Survivor Series 2006, Piper got dealt a huge blow. He was diagnosed with cancer. He was ultimately replaced by Ron Simmons.
Although he would make a full recovery, Piper was never the same. During the 2008 Royal Rumble match, he briefly revived his feud with Jimmy Snuka. Neither man looked ring ready in what was thankfully a short nostalgia spot. (They ended up eliminating each other.) At WrestleMania 25 the following year, Piper teamed with Snuka & an ageless Ricky Steamboat (Flair was in their corner) to tangle with a villainous Chris Jericho in a 3-on-1 handicap elimination match. (Piper first worked with Y2J in 2003 during the launch of the latter’s Highlight Reel, one of the many promo segments inspired by Piper’s Pit.) Hot Rod threw a dropkick so pathetic I felt sorry for him. Only The Dragon proved a worthy adversary for Jericho who went on to defeat all three men.
Piper would continue to make occasional appearances in & out of the WWE right up until this year as well as host the odd Piper’s Pit segment (the last one was in 2014). I just finished watching WrestleMania 31 earlier this week and there’s a funny moment where Hot Rod congratulates the then-new IC Champion Daniel Bryan backstage by kissing him on top of his head.
In between all his numerous wrestling gigs, Piper racked up dozens of TV and mostly straight-to-video film credits. (He also contributed his voice to the video game Saints Row IV in 2013.) None were as acclaimed as They Live which has gone on to become a cult fave. At the time of his unexpected death, Piper had at least five productions completed and had booked at least three more to shoot. Despite being a middle-aged cancer survivor he still maintained the boundless energy he possessed during his 80s heyday. (Jesse Ventura tweeted that Piper once worked 91 days without a day off. Top that, Darren Young!)
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s pro wrestling legacy is so essential that without his contributions to the business, particularly in the 1980s, Hulk Hogan, Vince McMahon Jr. and the WWE would not be household names today. (Piper’s Pit played a major role in promoting the Hogan/Andre The Giant match at WrestleMania 3.)
Every hero needs a prickly villain to vanquish. Piper was that villain, the right man at the right time paired with the most popular star of all time. (In later years, he actually wore a black VILLAIN T-shirt.) He was also a very likeable albeit crazy babyface which explains why he got along so well with The Bushwhackers. The only weak spot in his wrestling career was his stint as a colour commentator. As good as he was at hyping his own fights & tossing off memorable lines that endure to this day (“I was rowdy before rowdy was cool!”, “Just when they think they’ve got the answers, I change the questions!”), he was no Jesse Ventura or Bobby Heenan when it came to witty analysis during in-ring action.
When I was a kid, I dressed up as Piper for Halloween. My wrists were taped, I wore a kilt, a cheapo red Piper T-shirt (I never did find a Hot Rod one) and brown winter boots with painted on “laces” and the initials “RP”. (Thanks, Mom.) But because it was so cold that night, I had to wear a winter coat over much of the outfit. I was so bummed.
As I reflect on his career now, I’m grateful I had the chance to see him wrestle live even if it was just the one time. It was December 13, 1986. Piper got an InterContinental title shot against Randy Savage (who we lost in 2011). It was the second ever WWF house show at the then-named Copps Coliseum and the first to be captured on tape. (This match can be seen on the most recent Randy Savage DVD collection.) All I remember now is that they brawled outside the ring and The Macho Man won by count-out. Still, what a thrill to see him in person.
For a man who so strongly defined professional wrestling in the modern era and influenced countless others (The Rock and CM Punk clearly studied his promos), it’s a great injustice he was never world champion. It also sucks he never established himself as a proper movie star. God knows he had the talent and the charisma.
Regardless, in anybody else’s hand, it was just a microphone. When it was in “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s hand, it was a nuclear bomb. May he rest in peace.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, August 1, 2015