Dubbed by Ric Flair (via Sportskeeda) to be “the most gifted entertainer in the history of professional wrestling,” “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was one of the most memorable fighters to enter the ring, and one of the biggest stars during the pro wrestling boom of the 1980s. Remembered for his quick wit, his (yes) bagpipe skills, and his service as providing a foil to Hulk Hogan, Piper (whose real name was Roderick George Toombs) fought his way to dozens of championships, and even a fairly successful film career, more than a decade before Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
He also, as it happens, once wrestled a bear.
The match in question was, of course, years before he was headlining cable TV specials and starring in films; it was back when wrestling was barely even a thing, at least outside a handful of local promotions. Here are the facts.
Understanding professional wrestling requires understanding its humble roots: as a carnival sideshow. Before Vince McMahon turned it into a big, global business in the ’80s, wrestling as we know it was something done mainly to attract crowds to circuses, which meant there were both no rules and an abundant supply of large carnivores.
Decades before Piper, wrestling bears was actually a pretty normal thing
As Bleacher Report puts it, this meant that at one point — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when circuses and carnivals were at the height of their popularity — the wrestling of bears wasn’t even a particularly unusual thing. Further, because the bears were domesticated and trained, they were often “performing” as much as the wrestlers, and frequently learned complex moves like full nelsons and flying mares. Even comedian W.C. Fields once got in on the trope, making a long, extended gag of training to wrestle a bear. “Wrestling with that bear’s going to be a cinch compared to making an athlete out of me,” he joked.
By the time Piper got around to doing it, though, the practice had long been on the wane, which meant he really had no clue what he was getting into when he agreed to the gig.
In his autobiography “In the Pit with Piper,”Piper relates that, in the early days of his career, a wrestling promoter asked him if he would come and wrestle a bear in Fresno. “I had never heard of this guy called ‘The Bear,'” he writes, “but I took the booking anyway.”
It was, as he tells it, not until he walked into the locker room to prepare for the fight that he realized he was fighting an actual bear, and he claims to have found out in the most dramatic way possible: by coming face-to-face with the 650-lb. Kodiak, who was standing on his hind legs in the locker room and chugging Wild Turkey bourbon straight from the bottle (he washed it down with a bottle of Coca-Cola, which Piper claims he swallowed in a single gulp).
Piper was not even remotely prepared for what wrestling a bear would mean
The promoter quickly explained that the bear had been declawed and had had his front teeth removed, but that it could still easily kill Piper through sheer strength if he gave it a chance. Piper’s job was to get close to the bear, let its trainer poke it in the rear with a stick to make it stand up, and then pin it.
While Piper was deliberating over whether or not to go through with the match, a colleague came up behind him and slapped him on the rear for luck — a move whose significance Piper wouldn’t understand until it was far too late. And then the fight was on.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, the fight did not go as planned. In the first place, as Piper puts it, “bears don’t got no shoulders” — so how was he supposed to pin the thing? Worse, the aforementioned pat on the butt turned out to be a cruel prank — Piper’s “friend” had actually rubbed his rear end with honey, resulting in a match where the bear was mainly trying to strip Piper naked. The fight’s climax, according to Piper, was him desperately trying to pull his shorts up and escape the ring. Piper ended up faceplanting, shorts around his ankles, on the concrete floor beyond the rope.
Fortunately for Piper, he went on to bigger and better things in his career. We’re not really sure what happened to the bear, though.
A&E’s “Biography” continues its “WWE Legends” series on Sunday, May 2, with a look at the career of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
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