We were supposed to hate him.
In a world in which shades of gray simply did not exist at the time, the fact “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was the bad guy who was forced down our throats on a weekly basis on World Wrestling Federation television.
There was little doubt Hulk Hogan — tanned, blonde, impossibly muscular and virtuous — was the conquering hero in the white hat, while Piper — he was pale, of average build and always up to the most nefarious of deeds — was born to wear the black hat.
It was all laid out for us to the point where we didn’t have to think. Piper would do something evil, only to have Hogan — the living, breathing Superman — come striding in to save the day and foil the heel. It was Professional Wrestling 101 at its most base form. It was all so simple, really.
Except, of course, when it wasn’t.
A funny thing happened on the way to our Pavlovian response of hating “Rowdy” Roddy Piper with every ounce of our being.
We fell in love with the guy.
For a generation of wrestling fans who watched weekly WWF (now WWE) programming during wrestling’s boom period of the 1980s, Hogan and Piper were the two main players on what was — up until “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock would come along a generation later — wrestling’s grandest stage. They were supposed to be two archetypes on a collision course that was supposed to end with legions of fans cheering on the “good guy” as the “bad guy” received his ultimate comeuppance in the middle of a wrestling ring.
The biggest problem being, however, that Roderick Toombs — the very real man behind the character of Roddy Piper — could not, and just as important, would not, be contained by such a flimsy, cardboard character.
Roderick Toombs was a real man with a compelling story of triumph over adversity. Born in Canada — his entire wrestling career as a Scotsman was indeed a nod to his heritage, but played to the hilt (or, perhaps, played to the kilt) in typical pro wrestling form — Toombs was kicked out of junior high school for carrying a switchblade and, following a falling out with his father, ran away from home at 15.
Toombs would travel across Canada by himself before migrating to the United States. Along the way, he learned how to fight informally on the streets for survival, then formally as a means of getting ahead. He would become a Golden Gloves champion and a black belt in judo. Always undersized and underestimated, he rarely lost a fight — real or pre-determined.
Toombs would quickly become Roddy Piper and through sheer force of will — even a cursory glance of Piper made it evident he didn’t fit the physical mold of the typical professional wrestler — Piper became one of the biggest stars in the business. Blessed with a mouth that never stopped and a wit so sharp it could split hairs, Piper became the ultimate bad guy.
He spit. He sneered. He talked trash. He eye-poked his way to the top.
And, once the initial shock of his evil deeds wore off, we loved him for it. All of it. We loved him because he was real. It didn’t take long for all of us who call ourselves wrestling fans to realize Hogan was a larger-than-life caricature — which may be fun for awhile, but ultimately wears thin, regardless of how big his biceps are.
Piper, on the other hand, was someone we all could relate to. He was the underdog. He was the guy who never had anything handed to him, but showed up every day with lunch pail in hand, ready to punch the clock — along with a few faces — to earn his paycheck. Who couldn’t relate to the average-looking guy who had to claw and scratch his way past giants to achieve even a modicum of success?
He was a hero to all of us who were never class president, never the star of the football team and never got the girl. In a world in which it seems some folks start life on third base, we always had Roddy Piper.
Until last Friday, that is, when Piper died in his sleep at the age of 61. It seems almost fitting that Death had to come for Piper in his sleep — it wanted no part of him while he was awake.
For a generation of wrestling fans, our anti-hero is gone. He won’t soon be forgotten.
We love you, Roddy Piper — no matter what they told us we were “supposed” to do.
Troy’s very own David Fong appears on Thursdays in the Troy Daily News. Contact him at [email protected]; follow him on Twitter @thefong