If you happen to be one of the hardcore fans of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) back when it was known as the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in the 1980s, the character of ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper easily qualifies as iconic.
First, there was the signature Piper outfit: the kilt matched by the bagpipe entrance music. Piper was actually a Canadian, but owing to his Scottish heritage he decided to embrace the culture upon his arrival in the wrestling scene. Piper even earned the alternate nickname ‘Hot Rod’ for the number of occasions he displayed his “Scottish rage.” And then there were the big fights that stretched from 1969 until his official retirement in 2011. Piper took on just about every noted grappler in the business, from Hulk Hogan to Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka.
For a guy who was known for his histrionics and eloquence, Piper peacefully passed away on July 30 at the age of 61. Reports have it that he succumbed to a heart attack while in his sleep, but before his untimely demise Piper had battled an assortment of health issues which included being diagnosed with Lymphoma cancer in 2006.
Piper was born Roderick Toombs on April 17, 1954, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to parents of Scottish descent. His childhood was a troubled one, and by the age of 12, constant friction with his strict policeman father led him to run away from home. For the next three years, he moved from place to place, living wherever he could.
Joining organizations designed to keep teens off the streets, Piper soon found ways to keep busy and channel his anger. He excelled in amateur boxing (Piper won the 167-pound Amateur Wrestling Championship of Manitoba at 15) and wrestling, and even began learning to play the bagpipes, a nod to his Scottish heritage.
At age 15, Piper was approached by Winnipeg promoter Al Tomko and offered US$25 to complete in a pro wrestling match. He eagerly accepted the offer. Piper weighed just 167 pounds in his pro debut and had the misfortune of facing Larry ‘The Axe’ Hennig (the father of former WWF star Currt ‘Mr. Perfect’ Hennig) who at the time was a former world champ, 35 years old, and weighed around 320 pounds. Piper lost the match in 10 seconds.
Unfazed, Piper knew that he had found his calling and chose to pursue wrestling as a career, despite being one of the youngest competitors ever. Through the early ‘70s, he plied his trade across North America, including Frank Tunney’s Toronto promotion and Paul Boesch’s Houston Wrestling. He lost most of his early matches but persevered nonetheless.
After a brief campaign in San Francisco in 1978 (where he defeated Moondog Lonnie Mayne for the United States Championship), Piper headed to Portland, Oregon and competed in Don Owen’s Pacific Northwest territory. It was in the Pacific Northwest territory where Piper became a top draw. On December 31, 1978, he teamed up with ‘Killer’ Tim Brooks to collar the area’s version of the National Wrestling Alliance’s (NWA) tag team championship. Two years later, Piper would also forge a successful partnership with Rick Martel.
Piper left Owen’s group in 1980 to compete in several flagship organizations (Jim Barnett’s Georgia Championship Wrestling and Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling) of the NWA. Piper became a star in the NWA and in 1984 he finally set foot in the biggest mat organization in the world – the WWF.
The WWF initially brought in Piper as a manager due to his amazing gift of gab. Piper was given a weekly interview segment known as Piper’s Pit. In one Piper's Pit, Piper had an infamous interview with ‘Superfly’ Snuka. Piper started insulting Snuka's heritage (Snuka hails from the Fiji Islands) by bringing out pineapples, bananas, and dropping coconuts onto the table. Snuka took offense to this, and Piper then attacked Snuka by hitting him over the head with a coconut and shoving a banana in his face. He followed this up by whipping Snuka with his belt. Piper then left before Snuka could fight back. This incident instantly made Piper the top villain in the WWE. He started wrestling again on a full-time basis, and immediately entered into a brutal war with Snuka that raged for months.
At the start of 1985, Piper’s stock rose further when he crossed paths with then WWE superstar Hulk Hogan. At the time, Hogan was the WWE’s ultimate superhero and the rivalry between ‘The Hulkster’ and Piper would become one of the most fondly remembered of all time. It started because Roddy, who detested rock music, took exception to the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestlin’ Connection” that had been formed between Hogan and ‘80s pop star Cyndi Lauper.
On March 31, 1985, at Madison Square Garden, Piper and Paul ‘Mr. Wonderful’ Orndorff teamed up to challenge Hogan and actor Mr. T in an a wrestling event christened by the WWF as Wrestlemania. Piper’s team lost but Wrestlemania became such a huge moneymaker it became the WWF’s staple event.
By the mid-1980s, Piper had become so popular he started doing movies, too. In 1988, Piper’s first major film, John Carpenter’s They Live, debuted in theatres. It was in They Live that Piper uttered his now famous line, “I came here to kick ass and chew bubble gum. And I’m all out of bubble gum.”
Piper would do several other films, including Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987), Buy and Cell (1989), Immortal Combat (1994) and Code Black (2005).
On January 19, 1992, Piper stepped back into the ring at the WWE’s Royal Rumble and defeated The Mountie (Jacques Rougeau Jr.) for the Intercontinental Championship. It was Piper’s first title in the WWE and his reign lasted just three months as he dropped the hardware on April 5, 1992 to Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart.
Three years later, in April 2005, the WWE accorded Piper the ultimate honor by inducting him into its Hall of Fame. Piper was inducted the night before he hosted a special Piper’s Pit at Wrestlemania XXI with ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin as his guest.
Piper was still active in pro wrestling when he was diagnosed with Lymphoma cancer. Doctors found a cancerous tumor on a disc in his spine. The problem started late 2005, when Piper was forced to leave the WWE’s European tour because of searing pain emanating from his back.
Late last year, Piper declared himself cancer-free and credited the fans’ support for extending his life. Piper’s demise thus caught many by surprise. Piper may have been a villain for the most part of his wrestling career, but today wrestling fans all over the world are remembering him with deep respect and admiration.
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