Monday, 17 August 2015


My obituary of Roddy Piper, the wrestler and actor, is in today's Daily Telegraph; you can link to it online here. As you'll see, the last few grafs were mostly lost, in the time-honoured tradition of cutting from the bottom, but a few small points were lost along the way: I've expanded my original copy slightly to give slightly more detail than I imagined the Telegraph's audience would expect.

There is a danger in doing wrestling obits, trying to decide which pieces of biography are real and which are 'works', because the wrestling business is itself a work. Yet its denizens do come to believe in it: in a sense they are marks for their own work, and Piper no less than many others.

I also ignored the drug scene. Piper never had the genetics to become a muscle-freak, but I would not doubt that he used steroids. His recreational drug use became a matter of public record, and controversy, at least twice. I don't know if I'd add him to the long list of stars of the 80s and early 90s who've died young, but he's close. He gave an interview a few years ago in which he said he did not expect to reach 65--it was why he continued working, because he worried he would never be able to collect his WWF pension. I included that in my first, but then edited it out. It resonates with me still.

As it happened, I had shown my 11 year old son They Live just a couple of weeks before Piper's death. Nate was surprised; he'd liked the movie and liked Piper. I found him less convincing than I remembered (I hadn't seen it since it was released) but thought the movie might be even more relevant today. I also would have liked to have mentioned the incredible marathon fight scene with Keith David, which remains awesome but seemed more of a distraction thirty years on!

I think I was just about 11 when I first got into wrestling, the old WWWF from New York and Washington. It's a shame there's nothing as comparatively straight-forward for Nate to come to now. But Piper was one of the men who enabled that change of direction.

Here's the copy I filed to the Telegraph, slightly amended:


'Rowdy' Roddy Piper, who has died aged 61, was a key performer during the explosion of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF—now known as WWE) to massive popularity in the 1980s. Considered by many the greatest 'heel' (or villain) wrestler ever, Piper sold his 'beserker' persona, capable of anything in or out of the ring, to gain credibility in an age dominated by steroid-fuelled muscle-men. More importantly, his ability to perform on microphone and camera meant he could create instant hatred with opponents and audiences alike, thus stoking the flames of money-making feuds. He was equally successful as a 'babyface' (or good-guy), often billed as hailing from Scotland, and entering the ring wearing a kilt and playing bagpipes. 'Only people who can't draw money need belts (ie: championship titles)', he said. 'The only thing I need is a great opponent'.

His talent led to a second career on screen, though he never matched the success of his second leading role, in John Carpenter's excellent science fiction B movie, They Live (1988). Equipped with glasses that reveal aliens who have taken control of earth, Piper, armed with a shotgun, enters a busy bank and announces, 'I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubblegum!'

Born Roderick Frederick Coombs April 17, 1954 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and descended from the secretary of state of the Confederate States of America, Piper had a fractious relationship with his father, at one time a member of the RCMP. He was expelled from junior high school for carrying a switchblade, and eventually ran away from home. He was only 15 when he made his wrestling debut in Winnipeg, against Larry 'the Axe' Henning. He made his entrance playing bagpipes, as 'Roddy the Piper', which quickly was shortened into his ring name.

At 19 he was wrestling full-time in California. NWA Hollywood promoter Gene LeBell taught him judo, and recognising his heel ability staged a feud with Mexican-American Chavo Guerrero and the entire Guerrero wrestling clan which, with its racial stereotyping, did huge business. At its peak Piper lost his hair versus a hair match to Chavo, and had his head shaved. This was followed by a 'loser leaves town' match, ith Piper leaving LA. But he returned, in disguise under a mask, as 'The Masked Canadian', wrestling as Chavo's tag-team partner, until he double-crossed the Mexican and started the feud again.

He moved to Don Owen's Pacific Northwest promotion, and eventually settled in Portland, Oregon. He feuded with 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair in Mid-Atlantic before joining the fledgling World Championship Wrestling, Ted Turner's cable-television showpiece, in 1983. For the first time he played face when two heel wrestlers he managed turned on announcer Gordie Solie. He then reunited with Flair at Jim Crockett Promotions, turning villain again before leaving for the WWF. In his final match for Crockett, at Starrcade, wrestling's first pay-per-view broadcast, Greg 'The Hammer' Valentine broke Piper's eardrum during a dog-collar match, causing a permanent loss of hearing.

The WWF was going national, and supremo Vince McMahon gave Piper an television interview segment, Piper's Pit, where he smashed a coconut over the head of 'Superfly' Jimmy Snuka, mocking his Polynesian heritage, and starting another huge feud. But nothing matched 1985's 'War To Settle The Score', which saw Piper take on Hulk Hogan in a special aired on MTV, with Cyndi Lauper, Capt. Lou Albano, and the A-Team star Mr. T in Hogan's corner. This set up a tag-team at the first Wrestlemania, with Piper and 'Mr. Wonderful' Paul Orndorff against Hogan and Mr. T. Which led to Piper and Mr. T's boxing match as part of Wrestlemania II; Piper lost patience and body-slammed Mr. T senseless; losing the match by disqualification.

Piper established a unique role, able to take long absences, yet return to big events successfully, often interacting with mainstream celebrities, most notably when he hosed down right-ring talk-show host Morton Downey Jr at Wrestlemania V. This helped his burgeoning film career, which saw his first leading role in Hell Comes To Frogtown (1988) another sf film in which he needs to rescue (and impregnate) some of the women who now run the earth but have been captured by mutant frogs. His later career was mostly confined to straight-to-video action films, but in recent years he'd played in the two Canadian Billy Owens fantasy films, a nostalgic wrestling film, Fancypants (2012), and the self-explanatory Pro Wrestlers Versus Zombies (2013).

Meanwhile he moved between promotions, including independents, capitalising on nostalgia. In 2005 he was inducted into the WWE's Hall Of Fame. He was treated successfully for Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2006, but resumed wrestling. He had predicted in a 2003 interview he would not reach age 65, blaming his lifestyle, and needed to continue earning. In 2009 he, Snuka, and Ricky 'The Dragon' Steamboat lost a handicap match to Chris Jericho at Wrestlemania XXV, and at Wrestlemania XXX, in 2014, Piper, Orndorff, Hogan, and Mr. T came together to bury the hatchet. He recently started a revival of the Portland Wrestling show, featuring his son Colt, whom he trained.

In 2013, Piper he and Kitty appeared on Celebrity Wife Swap with Flair and his girlfriend; Piper had been best-man for the first of Flair's four marriages. The programme featured his Oregon home, though he also lived in Hollywood. Piper died after a heart attack, in Hollywood, 31 July 2015. He is survived by Kitty, Colt, and four daughters. Ric Flair called him 'the most gifted entertainer in the history of pro wrestling'.

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