How Roddy Piper Ushered In Modern Pro Wrestling

Aubrey Sitterson
Roddy Piper

Professional wrestling as we know it today simply wouldn’t exist without “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. That sounds like an exaggeration. And given that we’re discussing wrestling, where hyperbole is the name of the game, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. But you’d also be wrong, as Piper not only straddled the line between wrestling’s gritty territory days and the pop culture sensation of 1980s WWF (finding massive success in both worlds) but he did as much as anyone to create the predominant archetype for a contemporary wrestling villain.

The story of Piper’s earliest wrestling days seems almost too perfect, too “carny” to be real. He broke in at the age of 15 – not doing high spots in backyards full of pals, but wrestling little people in front of lumberjacks in the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” Churchill, Manitoba. There’s even a story about the young Canadian sneaking into the United States in the trunk of another wrestler’s car, and then, without any identification, finding himself unable to return home for years. It’s possibly apocryphal, which perfectly illustrates the reality of wrestling in the 1970s, where the truth was as hazy as the air in the venues that hosted the matches. Besides: Who wants to live in a world where stories like that aren’t true?

As if his earliest outings didn’t do enough to solidify Piper’s link to wrestling’s old school days, he wrestled his first major professional match against a man who personified the territory wrestler philosophy: Larry “The Axe” Hennig, the father of WWE Hall of Famer Mr. Perfect and the grandfather of present-day WWE Superstar Curtis Axel. The Axe was a stalwart part of Verne Gagne’s AWA roster, one that – especially in those days – emphasized legit wrestling ability and tough guy aesthetics. By Piper’s own account, Hennig didn’t go easy on him, welcoming the teenager into the big leagues by beating the brakes off him.

In AWA, Piper would sometimes be accompanied to the ring by bagpipes (which he had played since childhood) but when he arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-70s, the instrument an integral part of his character. There, working for NWA Hollywood Wrestling, run by the LeBell brothers, Mike and the legendary Judo Gene, Piper honed an ability to whip the crowd into a frenzy by any means necessary. He feuded with Mexican legends like Gory Guerrero and his son Chavo (father of the Chavo Guerrero best known to WWE and Lucha Underground fans), infuriating audiences so much that he once caused an actual riot.

This was the job of a villainous wrestler: To rile up the crowd at any cost, to make them demand to see him get his comeuppance, and Piper was among the absolute best at it. Ronda Rousey explained, “He was a true heel. People hated him. And he chose to make them hate him. He decided how he wanted to affect people and made it happen his way.”

A guy like Piper, who could talk fans into the building, then get them absolutely frothing at the mouth, then actually deliver in the ring, was in high demand, so he worked all over, including California, Portland, Georgia, and Puerto Rico. In Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic territory, he feuded with Ric Flair and Greg Valentine, the latter of which he faced in a brutal dog collar match at the very first Starrcade. But all of this, as great as it was, was still very much in the old school territory wrestling mold. Piper’s biggest innovations – and greatest success – would come next, when he moved north to the rapidly evolving World Wrestling Federation.

It wasn’t the first time that he’d stepped foot in the dominant northeast promotion. He’d actually wrestled there briefly back in 1979, when the promotion was still run by Vince McMahon’s father, Vince McMahon Sr. But even then, it was clear that the wrestler – only 25 years old, but a 10 year veteran – was a different breed than the heroic brawlers and monstrous villains that were the promotion’s bread and butter. At the time he was playing his own bagpipes on the way to the ring, but legendary wrestling manager Freddie Blassie, either as a rib or a purposeful effort to sabotage the young Piper, stuffed the instrument full of toilet paper, ruining his entrance and his chances of success in the territory.

By the time Piper returned in 1984, however, the WWF was a very different place, as the younger Vince McMahon was in the process of creating a new, even revolutionary type of wrestling promotion. Their focus had moved fully away from long, realistic contests with tough guy competitors and legit grapplers, toward shorter matches with colorful, almost cartoonish characters. And Piper, with his characteristic, lilting, cracking screech, fit right in.

“Roddy Piper had his own distinct style. He didn’t take pauses for reactions – he just had this style of saying exactly what was on his mind.” Rousey told us. “It was the kind of thing where he could be speaking non-stop and leave you wondering how he did it without taking a breath and where the last five minutes of your life had gone.”

It didn’t take long for Piper’s unique verbal talents to find the perfect outlet, the groundbreaking Piper’s Pit. At the time, it was something of an oddity: A faux talk show in the middle of a wrestling event, with the wrestler himself acting as the interviewer. But the show-within-a-show proved to be a hit, and became an ideal way for Piper to not only establish and develop his own feuds but even sow the seeds of rivalries featuring other wrestlers (perhaps most notably the Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant that climaxed at WrestleMania III). But while there have been countless wrestler-hosted interview segments since then, few have reached the frenetic, unhinged heights of Piper’s Pit. There was something magical about the way that Piper could remain so charming, so charismatic, but still continue to whip both the crowd and his guests into a frenzy. Rousey explained, “He would be the journalist that makes you want to hit him, and then he would get in there and someone would actually punch him in the face!”

In the mid-80s, Hulk Hogan – as the massive, tanned, heroic rock star – was crucial to WWF’s success. But a hero is only as good as his villain, and Hogan was fortunate enough to find himself standing across the ring from one of the best in the business. The Hogan/Piper rivalry received unparalleled and groundbreaking exposure in 1985, when a match between the two was aired on MTV as part of The War to Settle the Score, the follow-up to the massively popular Brawl to End It All.

WWF’s partnership with MTV – dubbed the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection – granted McMahon’s brand of sports entertainment unprecedented exposure to new fans, many of whom had never watched professional wrestling at all. It was a colossal success, due in no small part to how easy it was for even the newest wrestling fan to wrap their brain around Hogan-as-hero and, just as importantly, Piper-as-villain. The rivalry between the two was further solidified for a generation of young fans with the cartoon Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling, which saw Hogan as the leader of the heroic wrestlers, squaring off against a group of villains led by, you guessed it, Roddy Piper.

Then, the month after The War to Settle the Score, Piper was an integral part of one of the most significant nights in the history of professional wrestling: The inaugural WrestleMania. The event was the direct result of McMahon’s new approach to wrestling (one best exemplified in Piper) and the success of the MTV specials and cartoon (both of which heavily featured Piper). Fittingly, Piper found himself in the main event of the first WrestleMania, tagging with Paul Orndorff against Hulk Hogan & Mr. T. The match held within it the entire DNA sequence of the WWF approach: A massive, charismatic muscleman joining forces with a celebrity to square off against an equally charismatic villain and a reliably excellent wrestler.

Wrestling today wouldn’t be the same without WWF’s success, which has all been predicated on that very first WrestleMania, which, in turn, simply couldn’t have happened without Piper. It was his silver tongue, his oozing charisma, and the wrestling acumen honed from years traveling from territory to territory that made the future of wrestling popular in the 1980s. But aside from all but creating what we think of as contemporary wrestling, Piper’s legacy also extends to the countless wrestlers who have drawn inspiration from his peerless oeuvre, particularly his legendary promos.

“Roddy taught me that I don’t have to conform to what’s expected of someone in terms of how they speak,” Rousey explained. “He spoke in a way that was natural to him and he made it work. My wrestling career is still in its infancy but I try my best to emulate him by being more of myself if that makes sense. I emulate him by not emulating him, finding what works for me and doing the best version of it possible.”

But while Piper’s skill with the microphone is typically the first thing people mention about him, his exquisite work inside the squared circle shouldn’t be ignored, nor should its influence on present-day wrestlers. “In the ring he was an example of just how important selling is. Not selling things isn’t the way to look tough,” Rousey told us. “Piper could make anyone look amazing and super, super strong. By watching him, I learned to elevate my opponents and not be so self-centered and focused on myself. In that regard, it’s the opposite of mixed martial arts.”

Roddy Piper left an indelible mark on professional wrestling history. Not only did he straddle two very different eras – the territory days and the flashier 1980s “Golden Age” – not only did he find success in each, but he was a crucial component of wrestling’s glorious return to pop culture prominence. It’s hard to imagine what wrestling would even look like today without him. Fortunately, Rousey had some final thoughts to share with us:

“Without Piper wrestling would look very formulaic, with a single mold for how every match should be promoted and performed. Without him, there wouldn’t be anywhere near as much variety as we see today.”

Aubrey Sitterson is the author of The Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestlingavailable wherever books are sold. You can find him at his website or babbling on Twitter.

You can go back and Watch Roddy Piper’s classic matches on the WWE Network

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