MIKE MOONEYHAM: Rowdy Roddy Piper: From Pit to Pinnacle
It’s been nearly 28 years since “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine did battle in a match that will live forever in Mid-Atlantic wrestling lore.
The bout was part of arguably the biggest and most ambitious show ever staged in this part of the country.
The inaugural Starrcade was held on Thanksgiving night in 1983 in Greensboro, N.C., and was designed to be the closed-circuit prototype for future mega-shows produced by Jim Crockett Promotions.
Starrcade ‘83 was headlined by an NWA world title match in a steel cage between challenger Ric Flair, the champion of the future, and eight-time titleholder Harley Race, the respected veteran who was being asked to pass the torch. The match would serve to launch Flair’s second run as National Wrestling Alliance champ.
But the bout destined to take its place in the annals of Mid-Atlantic history was a special dog collar match between two bitter rivals whose feud had come down to an innovative gimmick bout.
Eight matches were broadcast on closed-circuit television that evening throughout the southeastern part of the country.
Behind the scenes, though, the event had far-reaching ramifications for the entire industry.
“Starrcade at that time was the ending of the ‘Civil War’ between the North and the South. Bruno Sammartino and Larry Zbyszko had gone into Shea Stadium and drawn $500,000. Starrcade was Jimmy Crockett’s answer to that,” says Piper, who would go on to become one of the biggest stars in the wrestling business.
It wasn’t until the bell rang, says Piper, that the significance of his match with Valentine really sunk in.
“It dawned on us that all the important people in our business were looking at us. It was a pride issue. We had a responsibility to make them proud and make history if we could.”
And make history they did.
“Hot Rod”, who will be one of the major attractions at the NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest in Atlanta on Aug. 4-7, has fond memories of that night and his battle with Valentine.
The main purpose of the match, he says, was really quite simple.
“They wanted Greg and me to have a match that was so brutal that people would keep coming back to see it.”
Promoter Jim Crockett Jr. and booker Ole Anderson gave Piper carte blanche to come up with some original ideas for the match. Piper took the challenge seriously.
“I went and got a 12-foot logging chain and leather collars with spikes,” says Piper. “It really hadn’t hit me what I got myself into until that moment for some reason. At that point I took the dog collars back and got sheep’s wool.”
Piper says he figured that “Greg, “being like his dad (the legendary Johnny Valentine), was going to kill me.”
Valentine didn’t “kill” Piper, but he did bust the wrestler’s left eardrum, leaving him with a 50 percent loss of hearing in the injured ear and irreparable damage to his equilibrium.
“There’s a famous picture of Greg with the chain around me, and I’m down on the mat. My ear’s bleeding badly, and he’s screaming at me while he’s wailing away. But I can’t hear him because I’ve got a blood clot in my ear. He’s (ticked) off for some reason and I don’t want him to be any more (ticked) at me than he already is,” laughs Piper.
The sheep’s wool didn’t really help either.
““I thought I’d give my neck a break with the sheep’s wool,” says Piper. “But because I put sheep’s wool in it, after using that dog collar a couple times, we both developed terrible rashes around our necks. I was putting baby powder on my neck and Greg started wearing a turtleneck.”
Valentine’s constant trash talking, recalls Piper, provided some comic relief during the grueling match.
“Only a man would put sheep’s wool in a dog collar,” Valentine would bellow, apparently unbeknownst to the sellout crowd, as he pounded away on his opponent.
Piper says the rugged Valentine was the perfect choice for an adversary in that type of bout.
“We were both young and stout then. I didn’t pick Greg (as my opponent). They (the promoters) did. I don’t think I would have been smart enough. But there wouldn’t have been anybody else — or at least anybody I knew in the business — that could have pulled that off like he did.”
A key to the match, says Piper, was figuring out how to begin it.
“That chain was so heavy. It got taut and very tight from the beginning. There was a moment when I’m looking Greg in the eye and he’s looking me in the eye, and we’re wondering what we’re going to do next.”
The education, experience and ring psychology Piper had derived from the business up to that point quickly kicked in.
“We knew that once we got to each other, we would be finished. We knew we had to go backwards. That’s years of psychology being beat into us. Most guys would have come charging at each other. But because of our education, we backed up and looked at each other. Then Greg got that look in his eye. When he’s working he hits hard. He’s stiff as a son of a gun. But there was that moment where the pro in us kicked in.”
They both realized that the stakes were high — not just for them, but for the company they were representing.
“After we went backwards and that chain got tight, I didn’t lay off him much at all when I was hitting him, nor did he lay off of me, because it was all about working for the Carolinas. New York had done this. It was a pride issue, and we had been given the gauntlet. It was our job to perform. We knew we had to get it done. And that was the attitude right from the bell.”
Three decades later, Piper sums up the match in one word.
It was a hardcore match years before ECW revolutionized that genre of wrestling.
It also was the first of a number of dog collar matches between the two. Although the return bouts weren’t nearly as high profile as the first, Piper and Valentine didn’t let up on the violence.
“The rest of the matches were pretty close (in brutality),” says Piper, whose ear problems would persist.
“I’d wake up in the morning, and the pillow would be stuck to my ear. It would drain every night. You weren’t allowed to go to doctors back then. I would be pouring hydrogen peroxide in it, and it hurt so bad. But you weren’t allowed to complain.”
The sheer brutality of the match, along with the rave reviews, didn’t escape Vince McMahon’s radar.
The World Wrestling Federation owner, who to the north was building a national wrestling empire, brought Piper into the WWF fold several months later.
But not before Piper fulfilled his Mid-Atlantic obligations for Crockett.
“I wouldn’t come and work against Crockett,” says Piper. “I wouldn’t work against Jimmy Crockett and I wouldn’t work against (Pacific Northwest promoter) Don Owen until the time came. I got a tremendous amount of heat, but there’s got to be some kind of honor there.”
Piper, who was versatile enough to be one of the most hated performers in wrestling history as well as one of the most beloved, spent his first few months in the WWF as a manager while his ear recovered.
“They kind of had me floating around. I managed (Paul) Orndorff for a couple weeks. They were waiting for the ear to heal.”
Piper was one the first performers signed as part of McMahon’s expansion. His impact was immediate. Piper helped kick off wrestling’s “Rock ‘N Wrestling Connection,” became one of WWF champion Hulk Hogan’s greatest foes, and would headline the first Wrestlemania — all celebrity-ridden events that put pro wrestling on the pop culture map.
He also would host one of the most memorable interview segments in WWE history: Piper’s Pit. An unforgettable moment in Piper’s Pit history came when Piper brutally attacked his guest, Jimmy Snuka, and laid him out with a coconut.
Piper’s success would eventually transcend the wrestling business.
He became a crossover celebrity whose charisma would attract Hollywood’s attention, and would star in a number of movies and direct-to-video action films.
The charismatic Piper, one of wrestling’s all-time great interviews, has a memorable line in the 1988 John Carpenter cult classic “They Live” in which he ad-libbed:: “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick (butt), and I’m all out of bubble gum.”
School of hard knocks
Born Roderick George Toombs 57 years ago in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Piper broke into the wrestling profession during a time when rookies were treated harshly and the weak were quickly separated from the strong.
“The guys who broke Greg and myself in were the guys that were at the end of the Gorgeous George era,” explains Piper. “They were absolutely brutal. They were so cruel to me for the first four years of my career. But I understand it because they felt like they got cheated out of their main events because the business got exposed back then. They were 35, 37 years old, well into the business, with nowhere else to go. They had broken into the territories. And here comes a young kid with bagpipes. They told me to get out.”
Piper’s first pro match, as a 15-year-old, 167-pound amateur against veteran 300-pound heavyweight Larry “The Axe” Hennig, lasted all of 10 seconds. His second bout, a televised match against Superstar Billy Graham, “might have broken the 10-second rule,” he jokes.
“They didn’t want me in the business,” says Piper. “It was simple as that.”
The fact that Piper wore a kilt and played bagpipes as part of his ring act made it all the worse.
“Bagpipes is a woodwind instrument, so you have to warm it up. But in a wrestling dressing room? You’ve got to be kidding me. I was just so scared but I had nowhere to go. Here’s this young kid screeching these bagpipes out in the dressing room, and these wrestlers are coming in. I’m on the first match and they don’t want to be bothered.”
The cruelest thing that happened to Piper, he says, wasn’t necessarily the most physically abusive.
The youngster was working on top at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles when L.A. promoter Mike LeBell told WWWF promoter Vince McMahon Sr. about “this young kid (Piper) who was drawing money.”
The two promoters shared a working relationship and often exchanged wrestlers.
McMahon made the decision to bring Piper, who weighed about 180 pounds at the time, into New York.
Piper’s first foray backstage at Madison Square Garden was a night he’ll never forget. To say he was scared and intimidated would be a gross understatement.
Piper painfully recalls that grizzled manager Captain Lou Albano was the first to greet him.
Pinching Piper’s cheeks and giving him a hug, Albano growled, “Hi Paisano, we’ve been watching you, you’re too good, we don’t want you!”
Next was outspoken manager Classy Freddie Blassie, who poked Piper with his cane, all the while exhorting, “You pencil-necked geek! We don’t want you here!”
Piper immediately put his bagpipes up and began doing pushups.
“I wanted to look like 182 pounds,” he says.
When it was time for Piper to make his entrance to the ring, he asked the fans to be quiet while he played the Scottish national anthem. He quickly received another harsh reception.
“Madison Square Garden was just 24 thousand Puerto Ricans with knives,” jokes Piper.
When it came time to actually play the bagpipes, however, Piper would get another dose of humiliation.
“Nothing came out ... absolutely nothing. Freddie Blassie had shoved six feet of toilet paper up the chanter (melody pipe).”
“When they said they didn’t want me, they meant it,” says Piper.
The crestfallen wrestler returned to the dressing room and was given one final message.
“Don’t call us — we’ll call you.”
Piper went home that night in a cab.
The episode turned out to be a turning point in Piper’s career.
“I got real mean there in my career. That’s when I started getting real wild,” he says.
To this day Piper still thinks about the cruelty. But it came with the territory back in those days. It made him stronger and wiser to the business.
“Nobody really knew what went on until they started laughing about it. After about a year all the old-timers started to realize that was a horrible thing to do. Next time I saw them I was endeared to them in the weirdest way. But I just can’t tell you how badly I felt.”
The saving grace, says Piper, was that the wrestling business had given him something to cling to. He once had been a teenager playing his bagpipes on the streets for quarters to get into youth hostels. Wrestling gave him a shot at being somebody.
“I wasn’t a big guy, and I guess God was just taking care of me,” he says.
Piper may not have been a big guy physically, but he worked a big-man style.
“Andre (The Giant) taught me,” he says. “I’m one of the very few guys who dropped Andre down and he got blood, and they tried to carry him out on a stretcher in Madison Square Garden. I think he was thanking me for all those years.”
Piper says most opponents didn’t understand how to work with Andre.
“Against Andre, guys would get in there and fly all over the place, and that was exactly wrong. What you needed to do with Andre was to get on him and do something to him and make him feel comfortable in the ring. If you got on his eyes where he could sit on that turnbuckle, and when he hit you, of course you took a bump, but you got right back on him. It made him feel comfortable where he could sell for you. He taught me how to wrestle big. It was a world of education.”
Living the gimmick
Piper misses the days where grapplers lived their own gimmicks and cut their own promos without the help of a script written by a member of a “creative team.”
Wrestlers like Wahoo McDaniel and Ole Anderson were exactly like the performers they portrayed.
“Wahoo was a real chief and Ole was a real bully,” laughs Piper.
Piper recalls an incident involving Anderson that helped shape his ring psychology.
“Ole was booking Charlotte, and (Ric) Flair and I were on our first or second roll around the territory. We were in Richmond, Va., and we went about 45 minutes. And, as every wrestler will say, ‘they were hanging from the rafters, and every building was sold out.’
People were screaming, and we come to the back. The boys are saying, ‘That was great, that was great.’ Then we get to Ole, who says, ‘Well that sucked ... you’re flying around out there like a couple of Mexicans. You don’t look like fighters. How are you going to draw next time?’
“You know what? He was right because when you fly around like that, they’re paying to see a fighter. Sure, you can do it, but why come back to see it again? It changed my psychology about that.”
Piper admits that Ole’s words “took the wind out of the sails,” but it was just another learning experience.
“Blackjack Mulligan came up to me and said, ‘Hey, one game don’t make a season,’” says Piper. “You had to have thick skin, and by that time I did.”
Piper also recalls when Anderson, known for both his toughness and gruffness, stuck up for him when he first arrived in Atlanta to do color commentary with Hall of Fame announcer Gordon Solie.
“Ric Flair had taken me to a clothing store in Richmond called Franco’s. I was a blue jeans guy, but he hooked me up with a bunch of new clothes. When I was in Mid-Atlantic in the studio working, some old redneck had made the comment that it was like putting perfume on a pig. The first time I got to Atlanta with Gordon Solie, (Georgia Championship Wrestling owner) Jim Barnett said to Ole, ‘Oh my goodness, fire that boy, I thought you said he could talk.’ Ole told him, ‘Jim, he just went out and bought a whole bunch of new clothes, so give him one more shot.’”
“The next time I came,” says Piper, “it was the first time I worked the desk, and everything was fine. Thank you Ole.”
Anderson was a heavy hitter back in the day, and Piper was awed by his stature.
“I pulled Ole out of a couple of riots ... he’s a tough guy with a glass jaw.”
Piper recalls when he was around 16 years old, working for promoter Paul Boesch in Houston, watching the great Johnny Valentine wrestle.
“Finally the match finishes, and I go back to the locker room to get out of the way. Johnny Valentine comes in the locker room, and as he’s passing me, he just grabs me by the throat and slams me against the wall. He’s choking me, and I don’t have a clue what’s going on. I still don’t know. He looks at me, and I based half my career on this philosophy, and says, ‘Kid, I can’t make you believe wrestling’s for real, but I sure as hell can make you believe I am.’”
Piper is still awed by that elite group.
“Holy cow. Guys like Ole Anderson, Gene Anderson, Mad Dog Vachon, Johnny Valentine. I love them to death. I’ll love them forever.”
Piper looks back at his illustrious career with great pride. He always gave it his all, he says, and never mailed it in.
He remembers sitting around one evening with Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, and talking about the business.
The group was discussing how the game had changed, and Nash emphasized how performers now had more TV shots to fulfill.
“He was talking about how you had your B game with the house shows and your A game with the TVs. I said I never did have a B game. I only had an A game ... no matter where I was. And so did Greg. I’m sure we got tired and we weren’t as crisp as the first one (dog collar match), but in our hearts we were trying just as hard. It didn’t matter if we were at County Hall in Charleston or Madison Square Garden in New York. You got the same amount of energy.”
Piper says he realized that fans were spending their hard-earned cash to see athletes and entertainers perform at a high level.
“It was our responsibility to deliver. They would bring their family, and sometimes we’d do the math. They might bring two or three kids, and they had to park and buy some popcorn and Coke. We’d go out there and get it done no matter how we felt. Sometimes I’d just be as sick as a dog, but that wasn’t accepted. Every time we had that match we gave it all we had.”
Piper says he is honored that fans still remember his exploits from the early days, and that his dog collar match with Valentine ranks near the top of a lofty list.
“That’s quite an honor. What it has going for it is that it’s hard to beat the first one. You didn’t have a road map. Same thing with the first Wrestlemania. First Starrcade was the same. There were no road maps.”
His Mid-Atlantic run, says Piper, put him on the wrestling map.
“There was the greatest talent in the world in Mid-Atlantic. It’s very close to my heart. It was the culmination of all the great workers there, and the fact that they would let me go on interviews.”
Piper remembers getting up on Tuesday mornings and cutting promos for all the towns in the territory. Sometimes they’d cut as many as 50 at a time for towns several weeks in advance.
“It was close to the end of the day, and the greatest interviewer in the world, Dusty Rhodes, was there. We had to go back to back. He’d go and I’d go. And you know what? He’s better than I am, but I just happened to have a better day that day. None of the boys left. It didn’t even dawn on me. They had kept it secret, but Pro Wrestling Illustrated (magazine) had voted me the best heel or something of the year. Jimmy Crockett came to the dressing room and asked to see me. They gave me this award, and everybody stood up and clapped.”
Piper says it was a feeling that’s hard to describe.
“Holy cow ... I’ll never forget it. There were the Briscos, Funk, Rhodes, Steamboat, Flair, Mulligan, Ole Anderson. When you get those guys to stand up and clap, it doesn’t get any better than that. It was a wonderful time in my life.”
And, to top it off, Charlotte was where his first of four children was born.
“At Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte. I love it with all my heart ... with all my heart.”
Piper’s pride in wrestling is matched only by his pride in his family — his wife of nearly 30 years, Kitty, and his children, Stacia, Airiel, Colt and Falon.
He has no regrets, but he admits the fame hasn’t come without a price.
“The business has taken a toll on me,” says Piper, who has battled and beaten Hodgkin’s lymphoma, suffered spinal injuries, been stabbed several times and sports a titanium hip as a result of more than three decades of taking bumps. “I’m not as sharp as I used to be. But if the creek don’t rise ... I think I’ll be OK.”
And he’ll never forget towns like Charlotte and Atlanta.
“Those wonderful, wonderful bonding moments that all happened around Charlotte and Atlanta. They were a huge reason why Wrestlemania worked. By the time I got to New York, it wasn’t Vince McMahon that got me over. It was the fact that Charlotte and Atlanta had already given me tremendous exposure. And they let me do what I wanted to with all the other great talent that rolled into New York. But my credit goes to the Mid-Atlantic, Charlotte, Jimmy and Davey Crockett. They were wonderful to me. And I’ll never stop loving it.”
Piper will be making his first-ever appearance at the NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest Weekend at Atlanta’s Airport Marriott Hotel. He will be appearing on both Aug. 5 and 6, and will be taking part in two special photo opportunities.
Piper will join former foe Greg Valentine in a special “Dog Collar” photo-op where fans will be able to use as props the actual dog collars and chain from their classic Starrcade ‘83 war.
Also on hand will be the authentic original U.S. championship belt that Piper and Valentine fought over in the Mid-Atlantic area in the early 1980s. Piper also will be doing photo-ops in his famous Hod Rod shirt and Scottish kilt in a replica of his famous “Piper’s Pit” set.
Piper is bringing son Colt, an aspiring professional mixed martial arts fighter, with him to the event.
“When we’re at the NWA Legends, it’ll be his 21st birthday, on Aug. 5,” says Piper. “I should try to figure out something special to do.”
“Holy cow, he’s quite a kid, he’s beautiful,” says Piper, who adds that his son is “much more level-headed” than Piper was at 21.
“We’d hit our share of signs with beer bottles. I’d sit in the back of the car, and my job was to shut up and make sure all the beers were open and to get rid of them if the police came,” says Piper, who admits that it was a different time and a different era.
What he really learned during those long road trips was something you can’t teach at a wrestling school today.
“I heard stories over and over again. And I was so sick of them. But I look back, and they were teaching me. I guess I must not have been a quick learner, because they had to say them over and over.
“They were great stories and they had unbelievable psychology to them. They taught me the psychology of our business. I had the best in the business teaching me — Leo Garibaldi, Mad Dog Vachon ... the list just goes on and one. They hammered psychology into me.”
Piper laments the fact that aspiring wrestlers today don’t have the luxury of learning on the road.
“That’s hard-core, on-the-job training, and it shows. These guys today can’t stay over long-term. I’ve been back and forth with Vince (McMahon) a couple of times lately, and one of the things that he tells me is that they don’t know how to talk on the mic. There’s all kind of psychology in there. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a natural.”
Some of Piper’s best ideas, he says, came from those long drives from town to town.
“For years and hundreds of thousands of miles, I drove with one knee, with the eight-track and the light dome on in the car, and a yellow pad, just writing down random ideas. I had notebooks and notebooks. The next morning I’d go, “Whoa, what was I thinking?’ But there’d be one or two ideas that weren’t that bad. I spent years of hard labor at it, and you don’t see that anymore.”
Piper, who was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2005, has been heartened by what he’s seen from C.M. Punk over the past several weeks.
“He says what he felt. Imagine if we had people writing them (promos) back in the day. C.M. Punk has possibly struck a chord that maybe things have gotten mundane. I’m really proud of Punk. It’s great what he did, and good for them for letting him go with it.”
Piper also will inducting his former broadcast partner, Gordon Solie, into the Hall of Heroes the evening of Aug. 5, and will perform a special late-night standup — “All My Rowdy Friends!” — on Aug. 6.
Also being inducted into the Hall of Heroes are Ted Turner, The Assassins (Joe Hamilton and Tom Renesto,) Ronnie Garvin, Sir Oliver Humperdink, Ray Stevens and The Masked Superstar (Bill Eadie).
For more information on the NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest Weekend, visit www.nwalegends.com.
-- Dick Bourne of the Mid-Atlantic Gateway site has compiled a nifty reference book on the Anderson wrestling family titled “The Minnesota Wrecking Crew.”
For more information or to purchase the book, visit www.MinnesotaWreckingCrew.com. The book also will be available at the Highspots booth at the NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest in Atlanta, and at all conventions and events where Highspots is a vendor.