What-If-Wednesday: Vader in the WWE

Today we found out that wrestling legend Vader passed away after a bout of pneumonia. For younger fans, it might be hard to understand how big Vader was in the early 1990s: the former NFL player had honed his skills in the AWA and then Japan before rising to prominence in the US with his time in WCW. He had feuds with the likes of Sting, Cactus Jack, Davey Boy Smith, and Ric Flair. After a locker-room brawl with Paul Ornderf, Vader returned to Japan for a time, and then debuted in the WWF.

And then...well....

So as an honor to Big Bad Vader, I thought I would crank out a short What-If-Wednesday about his time in the WWF --- a period in Vader's career where he appeared to be headed for bigger things, but ultimately was under-utilized by the company.

Brief note: I've actually been thinking about this piece since we debuted this feature, but just never got around to finishing it.

One could make a case that Vader had perhaps one of the best debuts in WWE history: after being heavily promoted by the company, he debuted at the 1996 Royal Rumble and made quick-work of a good deal of the roster. He then attacked Gorrilla Moonsoon on Raw the next night and was suspended (in reality to give him time for shoulder surgery), but Vader immediately got heat and attention for not only nearly winning the Rumble, but also manhandling an authority figure. Ya know, before it happened on a weekly basis and before authority figures were Randian assholes who never got their just deserts. *looks in the direction of the WWE*

While Vader healed, the company promoted the idea of Vader going against Yokozuna at that year's Wrestlemania but instead had Vader face the "Japanese" giant in a six-man tag match while Shawn Michaels faced Bret Hart and Diesel faced the Undertaker. It's here where things get complicated: Diesel and Razor Ramon were getting ready to leave the company, so Michaels would face Diesel over the course of the next few months while Vader would face-off in a match against Ramon (which was fine) and then feud with Yokozuna (partly set-up by Vader beating Yokozuna so badly that the latter had to be fork-lifted to an ambulance). Vader would then enter a feud with Shawn Michaels for the championship at Summer Slam.

A lot of fans comment that the program with Shawn Michaels was were Vader's WWF career went off-the-rails, but the thing about all his high-profile matches to this point was that Vader wasn't exactly made to look strong: sure, he beat Yokozuna apart at times, but his match with Razon Ramon was fairly even (Ramon even kicked-out of a Vader Bomb finisher), and his match with Michaels -- while really good -- was marred by restarts, interference, and managerial distractions. By the end of the year, Vader was feuding with the Undertaker, and by the following year would get wrapped up in the weird USA - Canada feud, and by 1998, Vader was losing to Kane and became a glorified jobber.

Why is another question. For a lot of people, it was Michaels's reputation as a backstage-politician that ruined Vader's chances (Jim Cornette has often said as such, and there's probably a good deal of truth to that). But Vader also had a reputation as a stiff-worker --- he was involved in a number of matches where wrestlers were injured in WCW --- and allegedly Shawn Michaels condemned Vader for working too hard at a live-event (WCW had a much lighter travel schedule, so wrestlers tended to work harder in live events in that company). So perhaps there was some heat backstage on the big man.

But in another sense, Vader probably came to the WWF at possibly the worst time for long-term feuds. By the end of his first year, two of the company's bigger stars had gone to WCW and the company was in the process of transitioning into the Attitude Era WWF we all know and love. And one thing about the Attitude Era --- or the transition period from Late-Era The New Generation to the Attitude Era --- was that there weren't many strong heels and Vader could have been an excellent one. Instead, because of his 50 / 50 booking (in essence), he lost all momentum he had coming into the company within a year and a half.

So in my alternate timeline, I would offer a couple simple fixes. First, let me look like the total monster heel he could be. Keep the early booking as is -- big impression at the Royal Rumble, big Raw appearance, let him have the shoulder surgery --- and then let him be a vicious heel. Let him then fight Yokozuna at Wrestlemania (yes the match would be a slogfest, but a good one!), let him win, and then make sure whoever he wrestles next make him look good. No kick-outs from finishers. No managerial interference (actually some would be fine because Jim Cornette is great). But make him look legit in every sense of the word.

Also, have Vader win the Fatal Four Way at the previous In Your House PPV to face the Undertaker at Wrestlemania 1997. No Psycho Sid. Come on now.

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