"Rowdy" Roddy Piper passed away on Friday at the age of 61. Like far too many professional wrestlers, he died too soon. Unlike most professional wrestlers, he was a household name, a true icon of the business and one of the greatest talkers his profession had ever seen. He was also the first heel in the modern era who was so singularly good at being bad that it became cool to like him.
Growing up in the 1980s, it was impossible to avoid Piper as a symbol of pro wrestling. He was the main antagonist on the animated Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling. He was in Cyndi Lauper's "The Goonies R' Good Enough" video. He was everywhere. Everyone hated his guts, because he was just so damn good at getting you to despise him. For the majority of his career, he mostly relied on two moves in the ring: the sleeper hold and a finger to the eyes. It didn't matter, because his overwhelming charisma, microphone work and character were so powerful he probably would have been just as popular without any moves at all.
Piper was a genuine superstar, despite only ever holding one singles championship in WWE or WCW and never becoming world champion in any promotion. He didn't need a belt. Just point a good guy against him and you've got an instant money-making feud. That's how good he was at being a bad guy. So good, in fact, that the crowds began to cheer him and legitimately laugh at his cutting barbs. By 1986, he was a good guy, where he would remain for more or less the remainder of his career. If all of that isn't enough, he also happened to have the lead role in one of the greatest cult films of all time.
During his wrestling career, the "Hot Rod" was a terribly divisive character beyond being a bad guy who would say anything to get a rise out of fans. He had a history of moments that look regrettable in hindsight (and some of which looked plenty bad at the time). One of his most famous moments as a heel was insulting Jimmy Snuka's Fijian heritage by attacking him with a coconut. His turn from a bad guy to a good guy in 1986 was fueled by a storyline hatred for "Adorable" Adrian Adonis, a gay panic character. And perhaps most infamously, Piper's feud with Bad News Brown culminated at WrestleMania VI, where Piper painted half his body black. Being a fan of Piper at the height of his popularity was a complicated situation.
Just last year, fans got to see a different side of Piper when he appeared as a cast member on WWE Legends' House, a WWE Network show that he seemed pretty conflicted about. On the show, he continually struggled with the person he was at 60 years old, which was eternally at odds with what people seemed to want and expect from "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.
He struggled with substance abuse for years during his heyday. On his WWE-issued DVD set from 2006, Born to Controversy, he lamented his dedication and love for pro wrestling, which kept him away from his family for years. He also claimed to dislike the person that he becomes when he's "Rowdy" Roddy 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. Every subsequent time I met him, he was just as cordial, genuine and welcoming, albeit thankfully under less stressful circumstances.
Pretty much everyone who grew up as a fan of wrestling during the 1980s and 1990s was a fan of Roddy Piper at one time or another. One of my favorite Piper moments came in 2008, when he was a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble. It was intended for pure nostalgia, but the look on CM Punk's face will forever stick with me. He crouched in the ring, grinning ear to ear, just going nuts for one of his childhood heroes. His body language and expression scream, "I can't believe I'm in the ring with 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper." It's wonderful.
I understand why Punk was smiling, because we've all loved Roddy Piper that much at one time or another. You'll be missed, Hot Rod. Just when we thought we had all the answers, you changed the question one last time.