I was 11 years old. Right at the age where you **kind of** know wrestling is fake, but you’re still hanging on and suspending disbelief. I was interested in the feud between Ric Flair and the Macho Man. It had received a good build with Flair taking deeply personal shots to get under Savage’s skin and I was anxious to see how it ended. So we ordered one of the only two WWF Pay-Per-Views that has ever aired in my home, and Wrestlemania lit up my TV on April 5, 1992. I was excited and hoping to see Flair take the win… He didn’t. It wasn’t even that good of a match and the ending seemed like a complete blow-off to weeks of build and anticipation. It was a letdown.
But that didn’t matter. Because about 10 minutes before that match aired, I had seen what is still the single best wrestling match I have ever seen in my life. I had seen Rowdy Roddy Piper fight Bret Hart for the Intercontinental Title.
The match was 13 minutes and 51 seconds long. In that time, I think Roddy Piper changed from face (good guy) to heel (bad guy) three or four times. Hart would win the title, but in my mind Piper won the match. That was the moment I became a Roddy Piper fan.
It started in the back during an interview. Piper was babbling (as he was wont to do) about how he remembered Bret as a little kid and Hart eventually had enough and tried to brush Piper away. Piper shifted his tone immediately to a gruff, aggressive, “if you want to get tough, we’ll get tough” demeanor and you knew right then it was going to be a stiff match.
Out in the ring, the match went back and forth between being an amateur wrestling clinic to an all-out street brawl. Piper was getting booed, but was putting on such a show he was starting to get cheered. The ref got knocked out (like ya’ do) and things got ugly. Piper beat Hart to within an inch of his pink and black spandex and then went outside and grabbed the ring bell. Piper stood in the ring with a nearly unconscious Hart at his feet, the ring bell raised, and Bobby Heenan on commentary shouting, “Hit him! Hit him! Give it to me, I’ll hit him!” the crowd booing…
Piper looked around, at first looking furious…then his face settled, he looked slightly confused and you could even SEE him wonder how it came to this… How did it go so far, and why was he even THINKING of doing this to Bret–the kid he used to see running around Stu and Helen’s house that he was so fondly remembering earlier? And Rowdy Roddy Piper threw the bell away. He then lost the match, but saved his soul.
I didn’t have to Google any of that.
There’s a turn-of-phrase in the wrestling world. “Telling a story in the ring.” If you don’t know what that phrase means, all you’ve got to do is watch that one match. I don’t remember there being ANY buildup to the match in the previous couple of weeks, although I’m sure there had to be. I went into it completely disinterested. I’m sure that the pre-match interview with Piper gushing about how close he was to the Harts was not entirely true, although I believe that in later years Piper referred to the Harts as his “cousins” (which may or may not be an actual blood-relation). I have my doubts that Piper did have any particular memories of Bret growing up at all…
But watching the match, you felt like you were watching a 30-year-old family feud play out and resolve right before your eyes. Roddy Piper told a story in that match and it’s stuck with me for over 20 years.
Today Roddy Piper died. The story is over.
There are celebrity deaths that pass me by and I barely even notice. Even recently with the passing of The American Dream Dusty Rhodes, I wrote a short Facebook status and about a sentence here and moved along, even though Dusty was one of my all-time favorite color commentators. (I still yell “DANDY!” at random due to the way he cheered on Mexican superstar El Dandy in a battle royal in WCW.) I don’t know why Roddy Piper’s death gets a full post while Dusty’s gets a brief mention. But it does. Roddy Piper was something else.
It is impossible to mention the Hot Rod without also thinking/talking about Hulk Hogan. Hogan is in some trouble right now, but if you were alive in the 80s, you spent at least a few hours cheering Hogan and booing Piper. And if you hung on through the 90s, you reversed those roles, when Piper took on Hollywood Hogan in the nWo (and won). And one of the last things Piper did in his life was defend Hulk Hogan to the press. Full circle.
I should mention “They Live,” too, I know… So let’s go out this way…
Roddy Piper has gone to Heaven to chew bubble gum and kick ass… And he’s all out of bubble gum.
Kick ass, Hot Rod. Give our love to Dusty.