Life takes things from you as you get older. Friends become engaged in their own lives and the weekly expected contact slips to a quarterly catch-up or near annual review. Your social circle shrinks to work colleagues and family – it can be difficult to untie yourself from these often unwanted embraces. As a child of the ’80s, I find myself romanticizing my youth with each year that slips by. Simpler times when the passing of the seasons could be marked by a Liverpool league victory or an All Ireland for Cork.
The rise of the WWE comprised a large part of my childhood. A golden age of wrestling marked by icons like Hulk Hogan, Andre The Giant and The Ultimate Warrior. The WWE presented a safe narrative to an impressionable child – the bad guys might get ahead for awhile but the good guys would always win the day. An era when little boys believed Hulk Hogan’s strength was achieved by taking his vitamins and saying his prayers. Steroids? No Chance.
One of the main villains from my childhood was a kilt wearing ‘Scotsman’ who spoke with an American accent and played the bag pipes. ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper was the counterpoint to Hulk Hogan’s All-American schtick. He cheated, he trash talked and he entertained. He made Hogan’s victories feel more important and on the back of his performances, WWE grew into the giant corporation it is today.
Roddy Piper was born Roderick Toombs in the Canadian city of Saaskatoon in 1954. His father was a mounted policeman – a Mountie – and Piper’s life changed course when he was expelled from school age 13 for carrying a switchblade. An inevitable row with his father ensued and Piper ran away from home – never to return. He threw himself on the mercy of youth shelters in Winnipeg and stayed on the streets when no bed for the night was forthcoming. He later recalled fighting a homeless man who wanted to take a piece of cardboard that Piper was sleeping on – he grew up fast.
Piper began hanging around a local gym and picked up a job running errands for boxers and wrestlers that trained there. With little else to fill his days, Piper took up boxing and progressed rapidly. He won a local Golden Gloves tournament but broke his hand shortly after and boxing was no longer an option. Through his contacts at the gym he landed a gig on the local wrestling circuit and aged 15 fought his first match – against Luke Hennig whose son would go on to become Mr. Perfect. Piper lost the brief match but his act and trash talking brought him a regular role.
Searching for a character, he revealed he could play the bagpipes and was of Scottish descent on his father’s side. If ever asked in future years where he had learned to play the bagpipes, Piper brushed off the question and said he couldn’t remember. Most likely the memory of the father he left behind was too difficult to recall.
On his entrance to the ring at his debut match playing the bagpipes, the announcer introduced him as ‘Roddy the Piper’ as instructed, but his mumbling was heard as ‘Roddy Piper’ by the commentator and the moniker stuck. Not quite a ‘One small step for (a) man…’ mistake, but fateful nonetheless.
Piper proceeded to bounce around the various wrestling territories throughout his late teens and twenties honing his craft. He was taught judo by the famous American wrestling instructor Gene LeBell and by the early 1980s had established a reputation as a fan favorite on the wrestling circuit.
By 1983, when Vince McMahon set out to build a coast to coast wrestling promotion with Hulk Hogan as its frontman, Piper was in prime position to act as Hogan’s nemesis. McMahon recruited Piper and built up the rivalry to culminate as the main event at the first Wrestlemania in 1985 at Madison Square Garden. Piper formed a tag team with Mr. Wonderful that fought a dream team of Hulk Hogan and Mr. T.
With WWE continuing to grow, Piper returned for Wrestlemania II to fight Mr. T in a boxing match. Piper was thrown into a six week training camp before the bout with professional boxers that included Evander Holyfield. The fight turned into a farce given both men’s bulk and by the fourth round, they were reduced to exchanging blows as their hands hung at their sides. Piper ended up bodyslamming Mr. T and getting himself disqualified to end the fight.
As the 80s became the 90s, Piper became embroiled in the FBI’s case against a Pennsylvanian doctor, George Zahorian, who was suspected of supplying anabolic steroids to his patients which included WWE wrestlers. At the ensuing trial of Zahorian in 1991, Piper was called as a witness and admitted taking steroids supplied by Zahorian.
Piper’s only WWE title came in 1992, when he won the Intercontinental Title, defeating The Mountie – he must have enjoyed the irony. He lost the title shortly afterwards to Bret Hart at Wrestlemania VIII in front of 62,000 fans at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis in an epic match that is still regarded as one of the greatest Wrestlemania contests.
Inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2005 and subsequently voted WWE’s greatest ever villain, Piper has left a legacy that WWE’s stars reap today.
Piper passed away last Friday from a cardiac arrest while sleeping, survived by a wife and four children. He joins other wrestlers from the era, Macho Man, The Ultimate Warrior and The British Bulldog who have suffered similar fates. A piece of this writer’s youth, passed away with him. Let the pipes play him home.