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The Piper Primer: He Will Be Missed by Mike Holland

It seems that every time cyber pen has to put to cyber paper for TJR lately, it’s been largely bad news. It’s hard to think of worse news for the wrestling world and its fans than the stark and utter reality that “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s time on this earth has come to a close. As you no doubt know by now, Piper passed away due to cardiac arrest on Thursday and was discovered Friday. Fans of professional wrestling long ago came to terms with the sad fact that tragedy follows the sport around, but this is a particularly cruel blow, especially when you consider it comes on the heels of the loss of another of wrestling’s true greats, Dusty Rhodes, such a short time ago. There can simply be no overstatement of what Roddy Piper meant to wrestling. His absence is frankly a void that will never be filled. To say you won’t see someone’s kind again is perhaps a trite maxim, but I can’t fathom a truer turn of phrase in this case. Below you’ll find a few reasons why the Rowdy One has forever carved himself a niche in wrestling legend. His shadow looms large, and his spirit looms larger. Rest in peace, Roddy.

He Was An Everyman

One of the things about wrestling that people can find remarkably irritating is that they don’t find much of themselves in what they see in the ring. Even when the hero is presented as an everyday Joe, it’s all a bit laughable, unless that Joe spends large amounts of time in the gym, wearing jean shorts, and getting their own pyro. Everything about wrestling has always been larger than life, pomp and circumstance, and that’s (sort of) how we like it. One need only look at SummerSlam’s impending four-hour event to see that World Wrestling Entertainment continues to go for quantity and pizzazz over quality and substance. Roddy Piper, then, stands out to me as someone you could see yourself in. He had the singular quality of being the guy you wanted to tell off and go to the bar with all at once. It wasn’t an accident. Piper wasn’t ever going to be a titanic muscleman, so in order to keep pace with the way wrestling was headed, he had to rely on his other talents. If you’re going to do that at all realistically, you have to bend the rules. And Piper didn’t just bend them, he decimated them. He laid waste to the rules and regulations of the ring and turned over any stone possible to gain an advantage on his opponent. The genius part of that calculated decision? It put you in his corner despite his attitude. It’s hard to root against someone you find yourself relating to. This is the intrinsic problem with Tough Enough, WWE’s reality hybrid-cum-talent search. In their effervescent zeal to pluck the next supermodel or He-Man, the company misses the mark. How else to explain how two of the biggest challenge failures on the show continually garner large fan support? We see ourselves in them, and we long to see that reflected on the screen. Piper gave credence to the idea that sometimes regular guys make it to the dance, even if they don’t always go home with the prom queen.

He Was The Anti-Hogan

Following last week’s painful Hogan news and his termination by the WWE, it may seem a bit callous to reflect on him further at this point. That said, any conversation about Piper and his legacy would be ridiculous without addressing his ties to his biggest on-screen (and sometimes off, natch) rival. Hogan is different things to different people, or perhaps all of them wrapped up in one self-tanned bow: the culminating exemplar of WWE’s boom period, or an aggrandized, huffy blowhard whose talents added up to far less than his look. This fundamental principle explains perfectly why Piper became the ideal foil for him. Nothing about Piper seemed at all fake, and his callous desire to blast both Hogan and those who followed his word to the letter vaulted him to the forefront of villainy faster than anything else he could ever do. For the Hulkamaniacs in the audience, it allowed them to have a face to associate with true and utter heelishness. This was not a man who simply cheated to gain an advantage; this was a man who enjoyed every second of his duplicity to an unhealthy degree. For those who were on the other side of the fence, including yours truly, Piper was even more important. Here was a man who said what we were thinking, albeit in a much more entertaining way. Here was a guy who stood up and decried wrestling’s blending with the entertainment industry and its tenets (Mr. T, Cyndi Lauper, et al) even as he pursued Hollywood stardom. Piper became reviled and beloved all at once, and did such an effective job with his rallying cry against Hogan that people to this day think the two hated each other. That’s Andy Kaufman-like effectiveness.

He Was The Pre-Rattlesnake

For those raised in the Attitude Era, it’s tempting to think that the world starts and stops with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. It’s a good story, but an incorrect one. No offense to Austin, who managed to take a gimmick built on an anti-Bible tirade for heaven’s sake and get it over with the masses to a ridiculous degree, but his efforts were merely piggybacking on mountain climbing started in the previous decade by the Rowdy Scotsman. No matter what Piper did to be vilified, from attacking Captain Lou Albano to antagonizing Superfly Snuka with tropical fruit to luring Hogan into harm’s way against former friend Andre the Giant, he could not help but hear segments of cheering from the stands. He is wrestling’s first real anti-hero, unable to shake his growing popularity until the point where the dam breaks and the floodgates open to allow the inevitable face turn. These days, such a thing is commonplace and dare I say it, trendy. In those days, nothing was further from the truth. This was an era where what you saw was pretty much what you saw, and people that were big jerks on television were obviously big jerks in real life. Putting together a cycle that can go from questionable shaming of Snuka’s heritage to extinguishing (literally) the face of contentious rancor in Morton Downey, Jr. is an impressive feat indeed. To be simultaneously acknowledged as the WWF’s greatest heel and one of its most enduring, popular stars is an unheard-of one.

He Was No Frills

When it comes to your “character” in wrestling, it’s almost become its own odd art form. Most characters in wrestling are rather transient, after all: elements of the character continue on, but the essence of it adapts to fit whatever particular era and opponent one has at any given time. When characters do stand the test of time in wrestling, they are often larger-than-life. Who’s been more effective at portraying the same role than The Undertaker, year after year? What makes Piper special is that he did the exact same thing, but without an urn or a casket or Paul Bearer. He simply showed up with a kilt and a huge Cheshire cat grin, and that was it. In today’s overbooked and underdelivered era, no creative worth his salt or diploma would blink at the thought of just playing up a wrestler’s “heritage” (legitimate or otherwise). That’s way too old school. You’ve got to have a love interest and a translator and political overtones and a massive backstory that may or may not be revealed. But simple can be tremendous, and it was here. Canadian-born Roddy Piper came to the ring in a kilt because he was Scottish, and he had a temper because he was Scottish, and that’s pretty much all he needed. Simplistic? Sure. Effective? You bet. Piper was the same person as hero or villain, and that worked so well because of how simple the gimmick was. The same things that made you hate his guts caused you to go crazy for him when he was tearing through one of your most hated workers. Wrestling is at its finest when it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It might put it on a slightly better car, but it’s the same damn wheel. This is a lesson they might never figure out again, sadly.

He Was The Talker of All Talkers

My first column at TJR was regarding the art of the microphone. It’s something that anyone who writes can likely appreciate. The ability to generate emotion or interest through communication is an art in itself, and one that very few do consistently effectively. Piper was the great communicator of wrestling, a guy who could achieve highs on the microphone like the WWE’s version of Robert Plant in Led Zeppelin’s heyday. Just like Plant, Piper didn’t have to make sense to be effective. In fact, it was better when he didn’t, interrupting his staredown with whatever upcoming opponent he had in mind with a random childhood story or odd throwaway phrase. But just like Plant, it worked beautifully, much of that due to the fact that it didn’t sound like anybody else out there. It doesn’t have to be original when you say it your way. Piper’s Pit will likely always be the best interview segment ever done in wrestling, and that’s supported by the fact that anything since has attempted to be in some small way Pit-esque. (This trend has jumped the shark to the point where that factoid in itself has been fodder for feuds, from the Flower Shop to The Highlight Reel.) Having something original to call your own in a sport where repetition is inherent is tough enough. Doing it as the interviewer is the stuff of legend.

I encourage you to think about that for a minute. Once again, in today’s day and age, just about every ex-athlete in any sport immediately transitions to some kind of announcing gig. Blink and another ten guys just retired and joined the local broadcasting team. Then, though, wrestlers were wrestlers and interviewers were generally suit-wearing nebbishes separate from the bruisers and monsters. There was no thought to having an active wrestler being the one to ask the questions. There were no active wrestlers CAPABLE of asking the questions. Then Piper came along and changed all that. His show was amazing because it gave you that can’t-miss, what’s-going-to-happen-next feeling in the pit of your stomach that all prospective P.T. Barnums crave. Even when it didn’t really worked, it still worked. A ton of that credit goes to the personality behind it. Had it not been for Pipes, your favorite interview segment wouldn’t exist. No matter which one it is. Years later, Piper revealed in his autobiography that a ton of the material in these segments was ad-libbed. That’s a major hint as to some of what wrestling lacks right now. To trust a talent to go in there and create is a rarity. When it’s a unique talent doing the creation, the result is usually epic. That’s a statement that applies to anything, incidentally, from acting to music to interviewing wrestlers. Piper changed the game, and everyone else is still playing catch up.

He Was Controversial In The Best Way

Wrestling loves controversy (usually), and the idea that any news is good news has some merit. Piper played this idea up for his own benefit, and the results were largely excellent. I’m not sure that anyone but Roddy could have pulled off the strange, ripped-from-the-headlines showdown with Goldust (including OJ Simpson references) and made it work, but Piper did. I’m very sure that very few individuals could have entered the off-putting brew of the Vince Russo WCW days and remained with integrity mostly intact. Piper had no problem taking both real and perceived personal drama and bringing it into the ring, and he was equally comfortable making brash statements and letting them stand where they may. There are no pipe bombs without Piper Bombs. Who else could stand up to Vince McMahon or Hogan or Ric Flair and make a compelling argument? There was no doubt that Piper was his own man, and eventually would say something to anger somebody and get him ousted for a few weeks or months or longer. But there was even less than zero doubt that he’d return, because the business was better with him in it. Unlike a lot of controversial figures, though, Roddy is consistently regarded as a great guy off-camera. I never met the man, but I believe that’s spot-on. Piper loved the business he became a star in, and understood that fans wanted things to remember when they came to see a show. If that meant occasionally getting your ire up, he knew you’d eventually come around. And we did. Operating without a safety net can be a remarkable thing to witness with the right performer. Nobody hit that nail harder (and more dead-on) than Piper.

He Was Hilarious

I don’t know that there has ever been anyone funnier in the wrestling business that I’m aware of than Piper was. His reactions and explosive delivery is the stuff of legend, and his movie appearances are pretty damn entertaining as well. (Assuming there’s anyone out there that hasn’t watched They Live, get thee to Netflix.) Wrestling has always had a comedy element, and unfortunately for most of us, that element is overplayed to an unfortunate degree by Titan Tower. We like to laugh at ourselves, and we like laughing at some of wrestling’s absurdity, but we don’t like to feel stupid about it. Piper’s humor was rarely “dumb” humor. It was instead its own version of frenzied, virulent standup comedy, like mixing Sam Kinison with whooping cough. I don’t know that I ever saw a Piper appearance where he spoke that didn’t make me laugh out loud at least once. I’m rather sure he’s all by himself in that regard. Piper’s fierce independence could be tiresome (witness the late-stage kerfuffle over Stone Cold’s podcast), but his ability to wring every drop of entertainment out of the towel is on its own level of awesomeness. He may have run out of bubblegum, but he never lost the ability to entertain. What can be more prized in wrestling?

He Could Go

All of this, and I haven’t even really discussed his wrestling. It stands to reason that Piper’s verbal skills outpaced his physical ones, but that’s more a question of the excellence of the former rather than a condemnation of the latter. You know you’re in a different era when you’re discussing a sleeper hold as a finishing move, but it’s quintessential Piper: knowing what you’re looking for and giving you the opposite at times for his own amusement. What’s more ironic than wrestling’s equivalent of lightning in a bottle using a finisher that literally puts the opposition to sleep? Piper had excellent matches both prior to and during his WWF run, and went up against just about every big star of the era. More important than that, perhaps, is the interesting and oft-overlooked fact that the Rowdy One never had a World Championship run. When you consider the current state of affairs where anyone who’s anyone gets a cup of coffee with the top gold (ahem, Great Khali!), this is a very big deal. The simple truth is that Piper didn’t need a belt. He was already super popular, and capable of generating nuclear heat with a comment or a wink of the eye. He could control people’s emotions in the palm of his hand, and flip the switch in a millisecond. When you have that sort of power inside you, what good does a gold belt do you? There frankly is no bigger high. That Piper could reach that level of excellence without ever having a World push is another testament to the man and the gimmick. That those two things are utterly inseparable even in death is a postscript anyone would wish to have.

Wrestling and the world around it lost its greatest villain ever yesterday. Simultaneously, and in typical ironic fashion, it also lost one of its greatest heroes. Piper will forever be a legend because he never needed to be a legend, and that was cool. Being passionate has become a bit of a buzzword, but Piper’s passion knows no bounds. We that remain behind will at least have the benefit of watching what Roddy brought to wrestling and enjoying it over and over again. There is a timelessness in his mischief that makes us all kids watching wrestling. It’s infectious, it’s delightful, and it’s fun. The bagpipes may be silent for a bit, but their noise will be heard once more.

Rest easy, Roddy. You have most certainly earned it.

Twitter: @DharmanRockwell

Email: coffeyfan@hotmail.com

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