A&E BIOGRAPHY: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper
A&E Biography aired its second feature in its WWE series with a two-hour documentary on Roddy Piper.
The documentary was strengthened by the focus on Roderick Toombs than simply the performer, which was two distinct personalities. Over time, the fictional version appeared to overtake the individual from a public standpoint in how Piper presented himself.
Unlike the Steve Austin documentary, this one dove deep into his family and personal life yet the common thread between the two was the unforgiving toll this industry takes on the families and performers. For a documentary that had WWE involvement and cooperation, it wasn’t painting the industry in the brightest light. If you are an A&E viewer with a cursory understanding of the business, I can’t imagine you left with a strong affinity for this form of entertainment given the sacrifices required.
Piper’s history has always been difficult to navigate because fact and fiction were blurred for so long that the result was Piper having his own understanding by mixing them together. After he died, his children finished his autobiography and set out to separate the facts from the fiction because there was so much of the latter.
They focused a fair amount on his work in Los Angeles where he really broke out as one of the best heels in the industry for his promo ability. This era was obviously enough of a priority for the doc makers as they interviewed Gene LeBell and historian Rock Rims (who has written excellent books on the territory). There was enough existing footage to support a chapter in the documentary as it was his feud with the Guerreros that drew significant attention especially given that the show aired in other markets including New York.
In the Austin doc, his upbringing and pre-WWE career were encapsulated in just over twenty minutes. In this one, they focused a lot on his work in Los Angeles, Portland, Mid-Atlantic, and Georgia Championship Wrestling. In the case of Georgia, it was his usage as an announcer with Gordon Solie that lifted ratings to the already surging program while Piper continued full-time in Mid-Atlantic. This era climaxed with the Dog Collar Match against Greg Valentine at the first Starrcade event one month before Piper made his debut for the WWF at a taping in St. Louis.
The substance of the documentary was who this man was off-camera through the words and memories of his immediate family. Besides Kitty, there were lengthy interviews with son Colt, and daughters Ariel and Falon. Ariel has gotten involved in wrestling since her father passed away and between this documentary and interviewing her in the past, she is a tremendous speaker.
The home videos of Piper with his family came off endearing and were a rapid juxtaposition going from those moments to the out-of-control character on screen. The family clearly had their concerns about Piper acknowledging his partying and declining health in later years.
They didn’t shy away from the drug use, specifically noting cocaine with a scary reality outlined by Bret Hart that “the wrestlers became their own doctors” while on the road nursing pain with the breakneck schedule of the ‘80s, which was out of control. It was telling to hear from other wrestlers that on the scale of wild, Piper was as far out there as anyone without getting too specific.
It also outlined depression issues Piper suffered from stemming from his childhood trauma, which again, no one got specific regarding incidents other than the abuse he suffered at a young age appeared to be a burden he never was able to take off his shoulders.
The most significant wrestling portion of the documentary was dedicated to the first WrestleMania and the lead-up on MTV after The War to Settle the Score. The footage was incredible to relive given the sheer heat Piper generated from the angle involving the record being smashed over Lou Albano’s head and kicking Cyndi Lauper at Madison Square Garden. The War to Settle the Score aired on MTV six weeks before WrestleMania and generated a 9.1 rating featuring Hogan vs. Piper. The purpose of the match was to set up the main event of WrestleMania with the involvement of Mr. T.
It was explained in easy-to-understand terms for the non-wrestling fan of Piper’s aversion to working with Mr. T much less to lose to the outsider at WrestleMania. Hogan described himself as the babysitter and cited the old-school instincts of Piper and Paul Orndorff that missed the larger picture of what Mr. T was there to accomplish. Make no mistake, without Mr. T, WrestleMania is probably nowhere near the success it was and did mean the most of the four men involved in the main event match. The match was geared towards Mr. T pinning Piper, but the veteran wouldn’t go for it (demonstrating just how much influence Piper possessed and was willing to exert) leading to the compromise of Orndorff taking the pin after Bob Orton hit him with the cast.
Hogan said Piper made a large miscalculation by not agreeing to lose to him during the ‘80s as each could have made a lot of money if Piper was willing to lose. The mindset of Piper was that losing to Hogan was the one card he could always hold onto and the day he cashed that one in, his heel status would diminish like every other heel that was built up for Hogan to chop down. The reality is that Piper could talk his ass off and there was always going to be a prime spot for him. The two did reunite in WCW and did strong business together where Hogan got his long-awaited win after interference from Randy Savage in February 1997.
In a mild surprise, they did cover the HBO Real Sports interview that led to Piper’s firing from the WWE in 2003. Piper had returned three months earlier at WrestleMania in Seattle for his latest program with Hogan. The interview had been shot prior to Piper’s return but the air date was in June. Piper was vocal about the staggering death rate within the industry and included the eerie line that “I’m not going to make it to 65”, which sadly, he did not. None of Piper’s claims from the HBO interview were refuted and Vince McMahon stated they needed to part ways and could not believe the words coming out of Piper’s mouth.
It’s a complex topic and one that can’t solely rest on WWE; however, they are the industry leader and the subject of pensions and health care are still pertinent ones today where ex-wrestlers are frequently reliant on Go Fund Me campaigns for health ailments. Critics of Piper’s stance would argue that wrestlers must be responsible with their money as they are many that were not. However, we are living in an era where television rights fees and now streaming deals for WWE are astronomical with talent not sharing in that revenue but that’s a hill the talent needs to climb and won’t be concessions WWE, or UFC will make voluntarily by cutting talent into a piece of that revenue. There is no argument regarding WWE and UFC fighters being underpaid, only by how much and whether they have the organizational capacity to assemble and fight for a larger piece. History has determined that is not the case and is a great benefit to both promotions to avoid collective bargaining or any kind of organizational apparatus for its wrestlers and fighters.
Towards the end, they focused on Ronda Rousey extending the lineage of Piper within wrestling after adopting the “Rowdy” moniker during the early days of her MMA career. The day after Piper’s death in 2015, Rousey fought Bethe Correira in Brazil and spoke about Piper during her post-fight speech with Joe Rogan, which would have been a great clip to include.
Overall, I thought this documentary explored some more interesting aspects primarily with the family, which I found so much more engaging than any of the wrestling portions. In both documentaries, the toll is so great on the family and those are the ones you sympathize with. It takes an unbelievable drive to succeed at this level, but another reality is that it requires selfishness too. The trade-off is the top talent will provide for their family and give them a better life, but the cost is high with a father than is rarely present. When you hear your child or spouse state their wish was to have more time with you, it’s awfully difficult to reconcile that.