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Vader Time in Philadelphia, Part Deux

We were at a bit of a loss for this week’s column, as our Pog collection hasn’t quite taken shape just yet.  But then something rather magnificent happened last week.
Vader stormed back into the WWE.
We addressed Vader before, but in case you don’t recall, Vader is the better known alter ego of Leon White, an American professional wrestler who found his greatest success in the ’90s.

White grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and faced a tough childhood thanks to his large size and greater than average strength.  He was able to use his physicality to his advantage on the football field from high school through college, and even into the NFL before a knee injury cut short his career.

After a successful stint in real estate, White decided to find a more physical outlet, pursuing professional wrestling.

He debuted in the American Wrestling Alliance as “Baby Bull” (later “Bull Power”) Leon White, but was too green to truly break through.  It wasn’t until tours through Europe and a stay in Japan that he really began to develop his craft.  He finally broke through in New Japan Pro Wrestling.  His gimmick was Big Van Vader, inspired by a Go Nagai manga character.  (This was not unheard of in Japan; wrestlers Tiger Mask and Jushin Liger were also inspired by manga characters–Liger, in fact, was also created by Nagai.)

As Vader, White stormed through New Japan with ferocity, causing a riot in his debut by destroying New Japan founder and WWE Hall of Famer Antonio Inoki; the thrashing was so definitive that the fans rioted.  Vader would go on to have memorable wars with opponents such as Riki Choshu and real-life friend Stan Hansen, the latter of whom accidentally popped Vader’s eye out during a match.  (Vader famously put his eye back into his socket and kept wrestling.)  In his travels through Japan, Germany and Mexico, Vader would become the only man to hold heavyweight titles simultaneously in all three nations.
Vader finally made his way back to his homeland and signed with World Championship Wrestling.  There, he won their World Heavyweight Championship three times, in violent feuds with legends including Ric Flair, Sting, and Mick “Cactus Jack” Foley.

In another moment of gruesome infamy, Vader is credited with ripping off Foley’s ear during a match in Germany.  In truth, Foley’s ear was accidentally torn off when his head was caught between the ropes and he tried to pull himself out.  Still, Vader was a man feared by all but the toughest in the business, and admired by fans not only for his strong, stiff style–honed during his years in Japan–but also his surprising agility and speed.  Vader was one of the first super-heavyweights who could confidently fly off the top rope.

Vader spent the last high-profile years of his career in the World Wrestling Federation, feuding with the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels.  It’s in the Federation where we find him making appearances on television shows such as Baywatch and Boy Meets World.
The year is 1996. It’s episode nine of the fourth season of Boy Meets World entitled “Sixteen Candles and Four-Hundred-Pound Men.” 
Two seasons prior we learned that school bully Frankie Stechino is the son of wrestling badass Vader. He came in during the “Thrilla in Phila” and helped Joey and Frankie fight the Matthews brothers before Mr. Feeny put an end to the madness. Then we learned that Vader’s real name was Leslie (even though it’s Leon in real life). But this time, he makes a return cameo appearance as Frankie Sr.  The show wasn’t that big on minute attention to canon.

This episode episode starts in English class. Cory and the gang are studying poetry, and of course, as we learn, Frankie may look just like a big bully, but he is quite the wordsmith. Something is bothering him, he says his soul is in, “deep, turbulent waters.” Cory and Shawn thinks he’s fallen for a girl so in exchange for the big guy helping them with poetry, they agree to help him find this love he’s looking for.

Click to play Video

We then meet back in the Stechino household in Philadelphia’s finest trailer park. (Never understood a wrestler of Vader’s stature living in a trailer park…whatever.) And we learn that Frankie is not seeking the love and affection of a young lady, but his father. Frankie has trouble connecting with his dad. He’s Shakespeare, Vader is the guy who tore Mick Foley’s ear off. And we meet Herman, the youngest Stechino, who “woofs” like his dad and wants to follow in his wrestling footsteps, making Frankie feel even more alone. Vader learns Cory is a big wrestling fan after Mr. Matthews praises Vader for beating Psycho Sid at the Spectrum (Love that reference for whatever reason.)

So Frankie sees Cory’s wrestling knowledge as a gateway to his father’s cold heart. Cory tells Frankie to tell his old man that he should set up his Vader Bomb faster. What a great piece of advice for a scripted sport! Vader loves it and tells his son to keep the tips coming.

While all of this is going on, Topanga’s sweet 16 is coming up. She invites Cory, hoping he’ll be there. He says yes, to no one’s surprise (They’re destined for each other, duh.) But then we learn, the same night of Topanga’s big day is Vader’s rematch with Jake the Snake Roberts in Philadelphia. Winner gets a shot at Shawn Michaels’ championship at Madison Square Garden. Frankie wants Cory and Shawn to be there and because of his great heart, Cory says yes.
Cory then hints that he might not make the love of his life’s biggest birthday to date, and she has to tell him how much the day means to her. During this scene I thought about all of those times Cory would pontificate to everyone in his path throughout the series that he was always destined to be with Topanga. So, obviously he loves her so much he would skip her Sweet 16 party to go to a wrestling match, helping a guy who used to strike fear in him and his father who threatened to kill him and his brother two years earlier. Got it.

Click to play Video

But it leads to one of T.J.’s favorite scenes in the history of the show. Shawn comes up with a plan for Cory to be able to be in two places at once. He busts out a tape of The Flintstones episode, “Pebbles’ Birthday.” The conundrum is that Fred has to be at his daughter’s birthday party and the big bash at the water buffalo lodge at the same time. Perfect in Cory’s situation because the big match is only .3 miles away from Topanga’s Sweet 16. Shawn explains that Cory has to spend 75 second intervals at each place for this all to work out; Cory can give Frankie advice and be with Topanga for her special dance while everyone watches and says how cute they are together. In the smart, ironic exchange that the show was good for at times, Cory tells Shawn that Flintstones was a TV show but this was real life so it was impossible. 
Cory: “A television show can cover many days in one half-an-hour program.” 
Shawn: “Trust me, it’s the same thing.”
So the big day has arrived. It starts at the wrestling match.

Keeping with the show’s tradition, there’s an exterior shot of an arena that is not in Philadelphia. Jake the Snake is in the ring and Vader makes his entrance with Frankie, Cory and Shawn who act all fanboyish. Brother Love is doing the ring introductions and even does commentary. Even watching it as a 10-year-old boy, T.J. was thinking, “That’s not right.”  F13, on the other hand, suspended his disbelief at the time.  Subsequent viewings, however, haven’t been nearly as kind.

The match kicks off, but Cory and Shawn run out of the arena to make it to the party .3 miles away.

Cory runs in and tells Topanga he’s been looking everywhere for her. Shawn is keeping time, and tells him it’s time to go, so Cory pawns Topanga off to her aunt Ruthie. As they return to the match (with Vader masks on), Vader is in bad shape. Frankie doesn’t know what to do. Jake does the traditional DDT hand gesture and Cory tells Frankie to tell his father, “Watch out for the DDT!” Wow Cory, what a great tip! Vader, a multiple time world heavyweight champion, the face of death, one of the legit badass wrestlers on the planet, needs some kid to tell him to watch out for the DDT? Vader counters, all is good and Cory and Shawn run the hell out of there. (How are they running in and out of an arena? Once you’re out, you’re out!)

Click to play Video

Upon returning, Cory is in his suit but still has the Vader mask on (Like Fred Flintstone’s water buffalo helmet.) Luckily, Shawn warns him to take it off, and Cory acts like he’s been looking for Topanga. They meet and she’s ready for the big, once in a lifetime Sweet 16 dance. But Cory and Shawn notice on TV that Jake is getting the snake out (dirty joke not intended) and they run out to probably give Vader another obvious tip like, “Don’t get bitten by the snake!” The Sweet 16 song plays, Topanga looks around and Cory is gone, and she feels terrible as everyone else dances and looks at the birthday girl all alone. 
As tweedle dee and tweedle dum, aka Cory and Shawn, return to ringside, Vader is in bad shape. 
He’s knocked outside of the ring and asks his son for advice. Frankie looks to Cory, who is out of obvious tips. (I was hoping he would say, “Get up, don’t get counted out!”) Frankie then spills his guts to his dad, telling him that no matter what happens, “You will always be champion of the world in my heart.” (Deep stuff) That motivates Vader. He gets in and destroys Jake, finishing him off with a Vader Bomb (He still took long to set it up, he obviously didn’t listen to that tip.) Cory and Shawn come in and celebrate with the Stechinos in the middle of the ring. But all that excitement meant that Cory and Shawn lost track of time and they miss the majority of Topanga’s birthday. Get the frying pan ready!
As they return, Topanga asks Cory how the fight was. 
How did she know? Oh yeah, it was on TV. Cory apologizes and Topanga isn’t acting as upset as 99 percent of all women would be acting if this were actually happening. They look back at the TV and Frankie Sr. and Jr. are embracing because of Cory’s hard work and obvious wrestling tips. Shawn reminds Cory that Frankie owes him a favor (which was supposed to be helping with poetry). And so the episode ends with Topanga getting her Sweet 16 dance in the middle of the ring.
This is one of T.J.’s favorite episodes and example 5,928 of “TV series episodes that are not realistic in the age of cell phones.” Basically if there were cell phones, Cory could have just gone to Topanga’s party, watch the match on TV and just text Frankie tips like: “OMG Watch out for DDT!” “Just give Jake a drink LOL.”  (Okay, that one may be a little mean.)
F13 enjoyed it too, even with Brother Love inexplicably handling ring announcing duties and commentary (he’d been known to do color commentary sometimes, but was not at all a ring announcer–also, the ring announcer and commentator are never one and the same in the WWF/E) and the terribly unconvincing exterior and interior shots of the Spectrum.  (No, that looks nothing like the Spectrum.  Why could you have not shelled out the cash to get real exterior shots of the Spectrum, Michael Jacobs?)  That’s not to mention the plot which gleefully rehashes the old “two places at once” sitcom cliché.
Then again, like the WWE these days, Boy Meets World could be hilariously, cleverly metatextual at its best.  The Flintstones references, Shawn’s insistence that their plan can work in real life, and the worsening execution of their plan have fun with the trope while good-naturedly embracing it.  Watching this episode again, F13 was surprised to remember just how sharp the script was here.  And despite its lack of Feeny (instead we got hip, young Mr. Turner, who was later written off in a motorcycle accident), the cast was at their peak.
Special mention has to go to Ethan Suplee as Frankie, who seems to be the one who enjoyed the most post-BMW success.  
Originally created as a bully for Cory and Shawn, Suplee gave Frankie a nobility and melancholy that helped him transcend that status.  Notice here that Frankie never has to threaten Cory into helping him in this episode.  His sensitivity draws Cory to his plight, and Suplee delivers on that even in the chaos of the wrestling sequence.  And Vader shows a natural charisma and inclination toward comedy.  (Jake Roberts was sadly underserved by the script.)  
Were it not for his battles with addiction and pain, perhaps Leon White could have found a second career as an actor.  But within a couple of years, he was gone from the WWF.  After almost a decade more of wrestling around the world (with a one-off appearance at WWE in 2005), he finally hit bottom: his wife left him, and infections following knee replacement surgery forced him into a month-long coma.
But there’s a bright ending to this story.  White turned his life around, and devoted himself to helping others, especially soldiers, who deal with traumatic, crippling injuries.  He also reconciled with his son, Jesse, who wrestled for WWE’s developmental territory Florida Championship Wrestling and now on WWE’s NXT show as Jake Carter.
And then, one Monday night in June, the big mastodon returned, taking down the boastful Heath Slater with such force and skill that the live crowd cheered, “You still got it!”  It was the ultimate show of respect to a man who went from the back of the herd to the front of the pack, then back down and up again, with a few stops in (fake) Philadelphia in between.  
Vader showed off his moonsault in the closing moments of that Boy Meets World episode, and even with two fake knees, it looks like if Leon White wanted, he could still fly.


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