Leon White, a.k.a. Big Van Vader in WCW and Vader in WWE, has been very public in recent months about some serious health issues. Sadly, fans were reminded of this once again on Thursday night, as the pro wrestling legend reportedly collapsed at a show commemorating the 45th anniversary of Japanese icon Tatsumi Fujinami’s in-ring debut.
A major star as an offensive lineman for the University of Colorado, Leon White was a third-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams in the 1978 NFL draft. While he spent almost all of his two-year pro career on injured reserve, he did see action in Super Bowl XIV, where the Rams had lost to the Terry Bradshaw-led Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-19. Several years after retiring from pro football, he entered the world of professional wrestling, now weighing at least 150 pounds heavier than he did in the NFL and using the ring name Big Van Vader.
Aside from his WWE and WCW runs, Vader had also made a big impact in New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he stood out as one of the top gaijin (non-Japanese) wrestlers in the company, before returning home to the U.S. and signing a full-time deal with WCW in 1992.
Vader’s WWE run lasted from 1996 to 1998, but was widely considered a disappointment, as he failed to win any championship belts; with WCW, he was a three-time World Champion and one-time United States Champion. He was also a three-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion during his time with NJPW.
— Sportskeeda WWE (@SK_ProWrestling) April 20, 2017
In recent months, 61-year-old Vader opened up about his health problems but has nonetheless continued to wrestle on occasion, including a match against Japanese legend Riki Choshu on Thursday night at the Tatsumi Fujinami 45th anniversary show in Tokyo, Japan. Unfortunately, it was also a match where he collapsed but didn’t lose consciousness afterwards, according to the first-hand account of a Reddit user with the handle “kamatacci.”
“(Keiji) Muto and Akira (Maeda) were giving him water and trying to keep him cool. He eventually rolled out and walked to the back with minimal help, but he did somewhat stumble there too. Once in the match after he and Riki were exchanging blows, he very much legit fell to one knee.”
The Reddit user also explained that Vader, despite his health problems, was quite active, and willing to perform basic, yet intense spots, much to his potential detriment. Vader reportedly has another two matches remaining in his ongoing Japanese tour.
“He was surprisingly active during the match, and even did a turnbuckle spot, but he’s in terrible shape and wasn’t looking too comfortable in the ring.”
Vader’s WWE, WCW, and NJPW runs are all fondly remembered by wrestling fans in one way or another, but as he himself had said in November 2016, it may have been his wrestling and football careers that had contributed to his diagnosis with congestive heart disease. One month later, he spoke to Hannibal TV (quotes c/o Wrestling inc.) and explained his earlier tweet, and how his much-quoted “two years to live” prognosis had actually come from his doctors.
“They said ‘We’ve been looking at your heart’ and I said ‘Who are you?’ I didn’t recognize the guy. He said ‘You have two years to live. We’ve been looking at your heart, and that’s the deal.'”
Despite the warnings from doctors, Vader asserted that he’s still taking bookings and working out in preparation for them. He also said that he was going to get help from recently-inducted WWE Hall of Famer Diamond Dallas Page, and planning to go on Page’s DDP Yoga program in an effort to lose weight. But the Inquisitr wrote in February that Vader had again sent out a dire tweet suggesting that he’s about to “enter (his) final days.”
Reactions to the earlier Reddit post suggest that many fans are genuinely concerned about Vader’s health, though others took a tougher approach, calling the former WWE and WCW monster heel out for insisting on wrestling despite his age and his congestive heart disease diagnosis.
[Featured Image by WWE]