Growing up watching professional wrestling was second best only to re-enacting professional wrestling with my brothers. There were a few competing leagues vying to gain the stronghold of an emerging sport, or entertainment. The leader among several of those leagues was the World Wrestling Federation, the WWF (now known as the WWE). The marketed their league better than the other leagues and were able to do so because they could afford the high-priced talent and the charismatic stars. You had Hulk Hogan (recently revealed as a terrible human being), Andre the Giant, Randy Savage, Ricky Steamboat, Junkyard Dog, Ted DiBiasi and Dusty Rhodes. Good guys or bad guys they were good for their sport and helped the WWF become the entertainment behemoth it is today. They also had a really confusing guy, Rowdy Roddy Piper.
I could never figure out Roddy Piper when I first started watching him, nor could a lot of fans. That's a bizarre thing in a sport where, especially in the 1980's, there were good guys and bad guys and not a whole lot of grey area. Roddy Piper seemed to be the only grey area. The good guys didn't like him, so I thought he was bad. But the bad guys didn't like him either. He was a man without any alliance. It was just him, his kilt, a T-Shirt with the word "Hot Rod" printed across it and a microphone. Seemingly that was all he needed to carve out a niche for himself in the pro wrestling world.
Piper also couldn't wrestle. He was terrible. He had two maybe three moves and unlike every other wrestler ever did not have a signature finishing move. Of course, wrestling being what it is, this was all part of his act. Truth is he could wrestle and was a highly skilled athlete. In fact, one thing he excelled at was making other wrestlers look better, engaging them in ways that covered up their own deficiencies, even at the expense of his own ring prowess. This is just one thing that made him beloved by his peers; his willingness to sacrifice his own manufactured glory so they could manufacture their own.
The one exception to this is when he did as much for Mr. T at the first Wrestlemania. Mr. T saw this as an affront, in real life that is, not in the made-up world that exists in the WWF The WWF quickly grabbed on to that and built a story line between Piper and Mr. T around this. It culminated with a boxing match in the next Wrestlemania when Roddy Piper, apparently sick of Mr. T and his whining disqualified himself by body slamming Mr. T. I have no idea if that was supposed to happen and it remains one of the WWF's best kept secrets, but I like to think it wasn't in the script. I remember watching it as a kid and being shocked that Piper would pull such a stunt, but now I hope he did it just to shut Mr. T up. It's wrestling after all and Piper knew that, and he knew how to give the crowd and his peers what they wanted.
Piper also found another way to carve out a new niche for himself after that, showing up with his microphone and yelling bizarre, funny, mean things into it. He even took a fire extinguisher to loudmouth Morton Downey, Jr. He became wrestling's provocateur who didn't wrestle. He was just this crazy guy in a kilt holding a microphone. It was gorgeous and I loved it. I was just sad never to see him wrestle, but he was so entertaining in anything he did I was just happy he was around.
Piper retired shortly after that, only to make the brief career revival. Upon his return, with little explanation, he became a fan favorite. The WWF was even kind enough to make him Intercontinental Champion, winning the title from The Mounty. Of course Piper lost the title in his next match, but for his fans it was nice to see him have a brief moment of glory. That was pretty much the end of wrestling for Piper.
Piper sought a career outside of wrestling as an actor in a number of B-Movies. Then he hit pay dirt, landing the lead role in the John Carpenter classic They Live. Piper now reached an audience beyond devout wrestling fans and is probably better known for his role in this one movie than he is for a wrestling career that spanned five decades.
Roddy Piper might be one of the most overlooked entertainers in recent times. Not many people sacrifice their own shots at glory to improve the industry they work for, but Piper did. The WWF/WWE likely wouldn't have made it out of the 80's with the success it did if it didn't have that charming asshole all the fans hated, but kind of liked too. He was the most unique personality in an industry filled with unique personalities. His peers spoke highly of him throughout his own lifetime and since his passing more and more wrestlers, past and current, have come out and started telling their favorite stories about what Roddy did and how Roddy helped their careers. But my favorite story I've come across was retold by a fan of his.
Bill Hanstock, longtime wrestling fan and writer at SBNation wrote this about Piper:
In recent years, Piper was the type of performer to do anything for his fans. He was repeatedly one of the kindest and most patient pro wrestlers I've ever interacted with. The first time I met him was at the catastrophic Wrestle Fest in San Francisco in 2007, a disastrous weekend that started poorly and went downhill fast. Amid fights, no-shows and wrestlers not being paid, Piper was just beginning an autograph and photo session when the promoter of the entire affair decided to literally take the cash box and run. Piper not only followed through with the autograph signing, he stayed behind for hours after it was scheduled to be over, as fans realized they could just grab unattended autograph tickets and join the line. He spoke to everyone at length, softly, listening to their stories patiently and smiling, giving them hugs and handshakes and reassurance that they should follow their dreams.
For a guy who was the best bad guy ever saw, he was also wrestling's best person, greatest gentleman and a true ambassador for the industry. On July 31, passing from a heart attack the entertainment world lost one of its most genuine, selfless voices. Rest in peace, Hot Rod.