Only Father Time could silence “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
Piper’s sudden death left the wrestling world in shock this past Friday. Piper—whose real name was Roderick Toombs—died in his sleep at the age of only 61 years old on Thursday from cardiac arrest. Family, friends, and fans spent the weekend grieving the loss of the greatest heel in the history of professional wrestling.
Bret “The Hitman” Hart was among those who struggled to accept the loss of his friend.
“I would be a footnote in this business without Roddy Piper,” said Hart. “Roddy took a shine to me and took me under his wing. Maybe it was because I was a Canadian kid like he was, but he protected and looked out for me right from the start from the first time I met him.”
Although Piper was introduced as hailing from Scotland, he was in, fact, Canadian.
“Roddy’s last name was Toombs, and I told him my dad had family with the same name on his side of the family,” explained Hart. “Roddy was from around the Saskatoon area, and my dad was from Saskatoon, so we toyed with the idea that we might be blood-related.
“As it turned out, when Roddy and my dad got to compare notes when he came to Calgary, we determined there were two different spellings—Toombs and Tombs. So we weren’t related, but from the very first day that we always wondered about it, Roddy always called me, ‘Cuz.’ We never called each other Roddy or Bret, we always called each other ‘Cuz’ right up until he died. Along with my brother Owen and Jim Neidhart, the closest guy to me in the business was Roddy.”
Hart’s first step to superstardom took place in his match with Piper at WrestleMania VIII, a match for which he is still grateful.
“Piper passed the torch to me at WrestleMania,” said Hart. “I think I was the first guy who pinned him in the ring. Roddy was one of the first guys to help make me into a main attraction. I was supposed to work, at one point, with Ultimate Warrior, but he never passed the torch to anybody. [Hulk] Hogan didn’t have enough respect to put me over or help the next generation. When I think back about my career, with the exception of Mr. Perfect, Roddy Piper was the only guy who said, ‘I’m going to help make one of these new guys into a star for the next generation.’ I’ll never forget that. Roddy was always about business and trying to help the young guys, and he did that for me.”
The WrestleMania fight between Hart and Piper allegedly escalated to the point where the two men were looking to fight one another, off-camera, after the match. Hart admitted it was all part of the show.
“We gave the allusion that it was a real fight,” said Hart. “You weren’t allowed to have blood in a match in WWE, but we had blood in that match. Then we staged a confrontation giving the impression that we were going to fight when we got back to the dressing room. We’d planned that all out. The funny thing about that is [Ric] Flair and Macho Man [Randy Savage] went on right after us and they had blood in their match, and they got fined. Flair got fined $5,000 for having blood without permission. Macho Man got fined, too, just because he was in the match. They thought it was the hard in our match—we never got fined.”
Jake “The Snake” Roberts was devastated to have lost one of his closest friends in Piper.
“There was something between Roddy and I that I never had with anybody else,” said Roberts. “A deep, deep connection. I think it’s from a rough upbringing. Roddy went through some tough times when he was young, but he was a fighter. A never-give-up fighter.
“Roddy and I made a couple road trips during our time in WWE. We talked about some serious things that happened in our lives. He had some dark areas, too. We talked about those dark areas, and over the years we became very close because of that. We both had substance abuse problems, and each time we’d try to pick the other one up. It’s just unbelievable to me that this [death] has happened. To go through this after losing Dusty [Rhodes], come on, it’s just too much. I said a prayer for him, and I don’t know what else to do. I know for a fact I’m going to have to sit down in the next day or two and get private and let it all come out. I need to grieve.”
Roberts, who has had more than his fair share of close calls, shared the story of how he first met Piper. Fittingly, it turned out to be a near-death experience.
“The first time I’d seen Roddy was in Mid-Atlantic,” said Roberts. “I came out there and was just trying to fit in. It’s funny, but I picked up a damn snake somewhere along the way. You think girls like a puppy dog? Try chasing them with a snake—now that gets you laid. But I had the snake with me during my interviews. Greg Valentine came up to me one day and told me, “Roddy loves snakes.” I thought it was so cool that Roddy liked what I was doing, and I really wanted to meet him.
“So I got the snake out and tapped Roddy on the shoulder. He turned around and went completely white. He had this briefcase with him, and he reached for it. I asked what he was doing, and he opens up his briefcase and pulls out a 30-millimeter pistol. I said to myself, “Holy s---.” Then I turned to my left and saw Valentine going, “Hah hah hah.” But that was not funny to me.”
Snakes aside, Roberts eventually gained Piper’s respect from working with him in the ring.
“I wrestled him a couple of times in Mid-Atlantic, and he was just so easy to work with,” said Roberts. “We would just go out and did what we do. The next time I saw him was in the WWE, and he was the top dog. “
Roberts—who is an imposing sight at 6’6”—was particularly impressed with Piper’s ability to cultivate an intimidating persona at only 6’0”.
“Roddy didn’t have the stature, but he was so electric,” said Roberts. “He was constant motion. He was a fight waiting for you. He was that brawler, that guy who wasn’t going to go down. He’d bite you and scratch you – it was like a bad date, if you will. That’s what was so awesome about him—he was ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, with those bagpipes, and the grit and the grind. If there was ever a working man’s hero, it was him. He was middle class, he had to fight his way up, and he had to fight all the way through.”
Hart and Roberts were both especially impressed with Piper’s ability on the microphone.
“Roddy changed the way promos were done,” added Hart. “He changed the way business worked, and he raised the bar, and I don’t know if anyone ever topped him. You talk about Austin and The Rock and some other guys who were great promo guys later in their career, but none of them ever surpassed Roddy.”
Piper also changed the business with his Piper’s Pit talk segments.
“Roddy started the whole idea of the ‘Pit,’” explained Roberts. “That was his baby. He went to Vince McMahon and said, ‘Give me three minutes a week on television and I’ll get over without doing a squash match.’ Roddy was one of the best with a microphone. He had that energy to make you sit back and think. There were a lot of other guys who had that type of show—[Jesse] Ventura, Brother Love, [Brutus] Beefcake—but no one cared. Roddy went to Vince and said, ‘I want to be different. Give me three minutes with the mic, and I’ll get over.’ Vince, being one who likes to watch you hang yourself, gave it to him. But Roddy didn’t hang himself—he came out on top.”
Some of Piper’s most meaningful work was accomplished behind the curtain.
“Roddy and Macho Man were leaders in the dressing room, and they’d both reach out to guys who were in the middle and the bottom of the card,” said Hart. “They’d give advice and were always encouraging. I think of guys like Hogan and a lot of the supposed big names of the era, they never did anything for anyone on the undercard. Hogan came to his private locker room with the star on the door and no one was allowed to knock on the door, but Roddy sat his bag down with all the young guys in the dressing room then shook every single wrestlers’ hand. He was always a class act.”
Marty Jannetty and Shawn Michaels arrived in the World Wrestling Federation in 1987, and Piper played also played a critical role in their development.
“He was a real mentor to us,” said Jannetty. “Everyone who ever met him talked about what they’d learned from Roddy. His psychology of the sport, as well as his philosophies in life, were just amazing.”
One of Jannetty’s favorite moments with Piper occurred right before the 1991 Royal Rumble.
“Shawn and I got to the building in Miami and found out we were in the first match against the Orient Express,” said Jannetty. “We were both surprised – we’d work so hard but were still the opening match. Roddy overheard Shawn and I talking about it, and he called us over to the corner.
‘This is a compliment,’ Roddy told us. ‘It’s the biggest compliment you can get. The two biggest matches of a pay per view are the opening match and the main event. The opening match has to set the pace, tear it up, and get people going.’ And, to this day, that’s one of my favorite tag matches of all time—we had the crowd going from the opening to the end. And Roddy was the announcer, but when the match was over, he left the announce table to speak with us. ‘See what I’m talking about?’ he shouted at us. ‘That’s the way to start a show!’”
Jannetty also saw the wild side of the “Hot Rod.”
“There is a reason he was called ‘Rowdy,’” said Jannetty. “We were in Ireland, and all the boys had hit this one club. But in the club scene, there’s always going to be a guy or two who is jealous of the wrestlers getting all this attention. And the more they get drunk, the more they decide to talk s---.”
The trouble began when Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart came over to Piper, Jannetty, and Michaels.
“Anvil was tugging on his beard,” said Jannetty. “He walked over and said, ‘There could be trouble here tonight—just be on guard.’
“Roddy goes, ‘Where?’
“Anvil had been around Roddy long before Shawn and I got to WWF, and already knew how Roddy was, and said, ‘Just calm down, Roddy, wait until it breaks out.’ But Roddy wasn’t listening.
“Roddy shouted, ‘Just show me where they’re at! I want to be the first one to know where they’re at!’
“Anvil goes, ‘Oh s---,’ and tells him. Roddy went right over to their table, and Anvil was holding me and Shawn back as we watched four guys scoot down in their seats. Roddy defused the whole thing without throwing a punch. We knew we had a badass with Roddy around.”
Roberts grew emotional as he discussed Piper’s legacy.
“My best wishes to the family,” said Roberts. “Right now, they’re going through the toughest time of all.
“But when you say 80’s, you’ve got to say Piper and you’ve got to say Hulk. But if you say Hulk, you’ve got to say Piper. Roddy’s the one who kicked it off. He and Hogan really started the WWF.”
Hart tried to put Piper's passing in perspective while still dealing with the loss of his friend.
“The loss of Roddy Piper was like the loss of Robin Williams to entertainment,” said Hart. “There was nobody like him. Nobody was ever able to replicate the way he did things. He was instrumental in getting Hogan over in the first place, and Hogan is the guy who kicked the door in on wrestling and changed it forever. It’s easy to forget about Roddy and the impact he made to the business.
“Everything he told me was right. I followed his advice all the time. He told me how to walk into Vince’s office about getting promos. He told me I needed to go build a rapport with Vince, and slowly I did. I was never a guy you’d put money on to ever become a star in this business, but I can look back with pride and know that Roddy Piper gave me the key to make it. He taught me how to make it to the top. I owe so much to Roddy – I’ll always be indebted to him for his advice and direction.”
Piper was famous for saying, “Just when they think they got the answers, I change the questions.” But in this case, the answer is clear—“Rowdy” Roddy Piper will be forever missed in this world.