“Rowdy” Roddy Piper (1954-2015): The All-Time Great That Wrestling Fans Loved to Hate

At UFC 190 over the weekend, Ronda Rousey dismantled Bethe Correia in just 34 seconds. (Combined length of Rousey’s last three matches: 64 seconds.) Following the match, Rousey gave a shout out to “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the wrestling legend who passed away last week at the age 61. Piper was one of Rousey’s heroes and friends. She’d spoken to him just a few days before, and it’s from Piper that the Women’s Bantamweight Champ inherited the nickname “Rowdy.” Rousey, elated by the win but showing hints of sadness, said she hoped Piper and her late father enjoyed watching the fight together.

Roddy Piper is the latest wrestling legend to die this year. While I always enjoyed Dusty Rhodes’ promos (and I regret not writing about his passing a several weeks ago), I always had more of a connection to “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. He was a tough-guy madman, a prototype for heels and tweeners in the era of professional wrestling I grew up watching. Roddy Piper was the raging, motor-mouthed Daffy Duck of the squared circle, just the sort of crazed SOB that people were supposed to love-to-hate.

But really, in the end, people just wound up loving Roddy Piper.

While discussing the documentary Bodyslam: Revenge of the Banana!, I mentioned that the best wrestling characters are really just extensions of a person’s real personality. If that’s the case, Roddy Piper was probably a certifiable loon. I think he once said he had more issues than TV Guide, and it played into his larger-than-life character. He’d blast out invective, often at high speeds, much of it crazed, and yet consistently compelling and oddly brilliant. Re-watching several of his promos over the weekend, I noticed again how his delivery had a zonked-out sing-song. He was part obnoxious schoolboy and part deranged parrot.

Listen to him again. Piper’s voice is like an oscilloscope gone haywire, or perhaps the highs and lows in his voice were like a seismograph that registered every tremor of fear from those nearby. How much of this stuff had Piper written ahead of time and how much of it did Piper ad lib on the spot? The brilliance is that the audience, even contemporary smarks, aren’t sure. The character’s shtick is so well realized that even in the cartoony world of 80s pro-wrestling, it seems real.

Roddy Piper was born Roderick George Toombs. His childhood was a rough one, and he ran away from home around junior high or high school. The old cliché was you’d run away to join the circus. Running away to join professional wrestling doesn’t seem much different, really. The circus and the squared circle are built on spectacle, performance, entertaining danger, and the workers learning how to speak a dialect of carny so the marks in the crowd don’t catch on.

Piper made his in-ring debut in Winnipeg at age 15 against Larry Hennig, the father of the underrated all-time great Mr. Perfect. Piper was enhancement talent during the rookie years of his career (aka a jobber, aka he made other wrestlers look good by losing) and learned the ropes of the business the old-fashioned way. Eventually Piper turned up in Los Angeles to feud with Chavo Guerrero Sr., and then Georgia to tussle with Ric Flair and Greg Valentine. When he signed with the WWF in the mid-80s, his career took off. Though Hulk Hogan was the company’s primary draw, Piper was Hogan’s antithesis and adversary. As much as Hogan and the other wrestlers on the roster, Piper was instrumental in making the first WrestleMania and subsequent wrestling events of that era major hits.

Piper’s odd place in pop culture is mostly rooted in that Rock ‘n’ Wrestling phase of the 80s. He did make a few films, many of which are cult-movie also-rans, but the best of which is John Carpenter’s 1988 masterpiece They Live. In it, Piper plays a tough drifter named Nada who uncovers an alien plot to turn humanity into a bunch of compliant, passive consumers. There’s a high-minded critique of the 80s similar to Alex Cox’s Repo Man, but there’s also a schlocky B-movie quality that’s perfect for the nature and execution of the conceit. How do you fight consumerism? Sunglasses and shotguns, buddy. In that weird intersection between low-brow and high-brow, They Live and professional wrestling were two primary influences on artist Shepard Fairey.

It’s Piper’s persona as a badass that comes through in They Live. Perhaps Kurt Russell could have played Nada, but the whole feel of the film would have been different. Without Piper’s in-ring work as a wrestler, Carpenter probably wouldn’t have included the kookiest street fight in cinematic history, let alone allow the scene to go on as long as it does. Piper’s a great fit for the movie for much the same reason that the Roddy Piper character was an ideal wrestling gimmick. Piper is just playing himself, or at least an extension of himself. He may have been born Roderick Toombs, but Roddy Piper wound up being the genuine article.

There’s one particular promo from Piper that I’ve always loved. In it, Piper smashes a real beer bottle on his head. Bleeding profusely from his brow and possibly only half-conscious, he then constructs a monologue that’s part intimidating rant and part logical syllogism. There’s determination in his voice, and some of that may just be hyper-focused concentration so he doesn’t pass out. Somehow, Piper is cognizant enough to form sentences, and even, like the pro he is, turns so he’s facing the correct camera when the angle is switched. Piper pauses as the cut happens, composes himself, concludes his speech, and then walks off.

Maybe he passed out when he was away from the crowd and the camera. Probably not, though. I want to believe in the character of Roddy Piper.

Just watch that promo. Seriously, don’t mess with him. Remember the line he delivered in They Live?

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

Truth is, Piper was always out of bubblegum.

Hubert Vigilla

Hubert Vigilla is a writer living in Brooklyn, which makes him completely indistinguishable from four-fifths of people living in Brooklyn.

Leave a Reply