A press conference was being held at the world famous Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, a hallowed building for both boxing and wrestling events, and Ali, ever the promotional master, issued a challenge to a young wrestler sitting nearby to enter the ring with him. The 22 year-old-Canadian wrestler entered the ring, not knowing what to expect and when Ali, who had been boasting that no wrestler could defeat him, locked up with the grappler and whispered to him, “Hip toss,” he was quite surprised. But he did what he was told and Ali ended up with his back on the mat. While Ali was obviously trying to increase buzz over his impending bout with Inoki, hoping that wrestling fans would fork over there cash in hopes of seeing a pro wrestler defeat a boxer, that young wrestler, Roddy Piper, was also convinced that Ali was looking to give him a break.
“Muhammad Ali was such a great man,” said Piper many years later. “He saw this skinny kid just sitting there that needed a break, and right in the middle of everything, he just …boom! – gave me a rub. I’m up. He continued on. That’s a great man.” While he undoubtedly was appreciative of what he felt was the boxing champ’s effort to ‘give him a rub’ and boost the attention that the young wrestler would receive, for the wrestling fans of Los Angeles, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was most definitely already “up.”
It was only five months before that the young man who claimed to be from Glasgow, Scotland but was in fact born and raised in Canada, had arrived in promoter Mike Lebell’s Southern California wrestling territory. After an inauspicious start, territory booking genius Leo Garibaldi had the idea to turn the young baby face or “good guy” wrestler into a “heel”, a wrestling “bad guy.” And the rest as they say, is history.
Less than two months after that fateful decision to turn Roddy Piper heel, he was the holder of the Jules Strongbow Scientific Trophy, a co-holder of the America’s tag team titles and had recently defeated his nemesis Chavo Guerrero for the America’s Heavyweight Wrestling title. While Guerrero was definitely the top baby face of the late 70’s in Southern California and a great draw, a territory is only as good as its best heel, and Piper was inarguably that top heel. He was the Joker to Chavo’s Batman, the great antagonist that every would-be hero needs to battle in hopes of achieving heroic status. For what need would there be for a hero if there was no villain to overcome?
The pairing of Piper and Guerrero was magic for the wrestling promotion and gave it the boost it needed after the previous Freddie Blassie-John Tolos feud had run its course. With his charisma and gift of gab, Piper was phenomenal at inciting the hatred of his fans and opponents alike. And the culture of the largely-Latino fan base as well Chavo Guerrero and his wrestling family members comprised Piper’s favorite targets. Whether it was by offering to play the “Mexican national anthem” on his bagpipes, only to follow that offer by playing “La Cucaracha” on the instrument; or by wearing a t-shirt that said “Conqueror of the Guerreros”; or by hurling insults at a mile-a-minute during one of his high-energy interviews, people hated the things they saw and heard from him but loved that they were there to witness it.
Roddy Piper may have started his career a few years before entering California, but California was the first real platform he was provided to display what he had to offer to the wrestling world. It was the first place he was given the ball to run and run he did. And just like Walter Payton in his prime NFL years, they gave Piper the ball over and over, and he ran and ran and ran. It wasn’t unheard of for him to appear in or near the wrestling ring for the majority of the night, in a single’s bout, a tag bout and as a wrestling manager. For the better part of three years, he was the “go-to” guy of the Southern California promotion.
It wasn’t long before the wrestling czar of the northern part of the state, Roy Shire, brought the “Lean, Mean Machine” as Piper called himself, up to Northern California for occasional appearances to see how the fans responded to him. Fans in some of the towns up north had seen his antics via broadcasts of L.A.’s “Lucha Libre” television show, telecast in Spanish over the Spanish International Network. While Piper’s charisma and star power were certainly out of this world, at first he didn’t lend much to the first several live wrestling cards he appeared on for Shire. But eventually he found himself in another memorable feud, this time with United States Champion Lonnie “Moondog” Mayne.
It’s hard to imagine that as memorable as the Piper-Mayne feud was for Northern California wrestling fans tuning into it during the summer of 1978, that the “feud” only consisted of a mere three matches over a five week period. Oh, but what a feud it was! The intensity of their matches was unbridled, and the fans in attendance at those live events in San Francisco’s Cow Palace were on the edge of their seats during the entirety the bouts. Even so, it’s safe to say that their promotional TV interviews building up to the matches were even more of a highlight.
In Los Angeles, the TV show was taped lived and everything moved just a little faster than they did in San Francisco’s shows. Both men gave compelling interviews but Piper, having the edge in his gift of gab and ability to verbally improvise, was truly remarkable. But with the interviews in Sacramento’s KTXL studios being taped after the matches were taped and with more time being allotted for the interviews, wrestling fans in Northern California were able to enjoy more of Piper’s manic and extremely entertaining rants. But regardless of what part of California he was doing interviews for, he made the fans alternately yell in anger and laugh out loud over what he said and did.
Roddy Piper may have started in Canada, may have made an impact virtually everywhere he went after that, and was thrust into the national spotlight in the World Wrestling Federation during the 80’s, but it was in California during the late 70’s that Roddy Piper first became a wrestling star. – RR
Source for Roddy Piper’s comments:
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper talks about handing his nickname over to Ronda Rousey, by Sarah Kurchak, Fight Land Blog