Big Van Vader was one of the greatest superheavyweights in pro wrestling history because he excelled at breaking the rules regarding how big men were supposed to work in the business.
Vader -- real name Leon White -- died Monday at the age of 63 carrying with him a legacy that stretches back three decades. When he first came into the wrestling business, it was a world that had long said giants should act like behemoths and keep to the ground, leaving high-flying tactics to the smaller wrestlers. That's why Vince McMahon Sr. instructed Andre the Giant to take moves like dropkicks out of his matches -- McMahon figured Andre was such an overpowering titan that it shouldn't even occur to his character to learn how to do aerial maneuvers.
This rule didn't apply in Vader's world, though, as he made the off-the-top-rope moonsault a standard part of his high-spot repertoire. Vader practiced the move on a trampoline in his backyard before trying it out in a practice wrestling ring, so he knew he had the physical skills to pull the move off, but he still had to overcome booker Ole Anderson pushing back hard against having that type of high spot put into a big man's match.
The ironic part of what eventually became known as the Vadersault is that Vader was so good at performing this dangerous move that he did less actual damage via this seemingly dangerous stunt than he did when grappling in the ring. Vader's "stiff" style led to a long string of legitimate injuries to his opponents, as well as a fair number of serious injuries for Vader himself.
Vader also came around at a time when some in the wrestling world still held on to the idea that a superheavyweight should not be the champion. The idea here was that a champion's matches can't get over unless the audience believes the belt could change hands, and it's difficult to believe an overpowering big man could lose to someone much smaller than him.
It took some work, but Vader was able to defy this rule throughout his in-ring career with memorable runs as world champion in WCW, New Japan Pro Wrestling and All Japan Pro Wrestling. That quality was clearly on display in his Starrcade 1993 title bout against Ric Flair. Vader was arguably at the peak of his career and almost certainly outweighed Flair by a legitimate 100 pounds or more, but he sold Flair's multiple knee shots like a champ. This selling ability made Flair's desperate rolling pin attempt more than credible enough to pop the crowd when referee Randy Anderson counted to three and gave Flair one of his 16 career world championship wins.
This was not an isolated incident, as Vader's match against Sting at Starrcade 1992 was another classic instance of how a big man should work a believable match against a smaller opponent. Vader worked his tail off to give Sting the shine early in the battle, as he took big bumps for a shoulder tackle, dropkick and clothesline, jumped into the air for a huge belly-to-back suplex, flung himself backward on an over-the-top-rope clothesline and then took an over-the-top-rope bodypress from Sting to finish the offensive display.
Vader established dominance for most of the rest of the match and thus kept his leviathan credentials despite the elite selling -- and saved his most impressive performance for the end when he adjusted one final top-rope spectacle in midair to allow Sting to convincingly turn it into an off-the-top-rope powerslam that helped Sting pull off the upset win.
It was probably inevitable that the combination of superheavyweight size and aerial maneuvers would lead to a string of injuries that kept Vader from performing at this level for the entirety of his career. But the efforts he made before the physical ailments took hold showcase a man who broke the mold of what a giant was allowed to do in the world of pro wrestling.