clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This Day in Wrestling History (July 31): Roddy Piper Passes Away

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

1 year ago today, Roderick George Toombs, best known to wrestling fans as the legendary "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, dies of cardiac arrest in his home in Hollywood, California. He was 61.

Born April 17, 1954 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Toombs was a bit of a wild child. He was expelled from junior high school for having a switchblade; following a fallout with his father, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, he left home and stayed in youth hostels. He would work odd jobs, including running errands for local wrestlers.  In his youth, he wrestled and boxed on the amateur level and was a Golden Gloves champion. He was also awarded a black belt in judo by famed wrestler Gene LeBell.

Eventually, Roddy turned to wrestling, competing under promoter Al Tomko. His first ever match involved midget wrestlers in an audience full of lumberjacks in Churchill, Manitoba. His first match for a major wrestling company... well, let's just say it's a step above midgets and an audience full of lumberjacks: it was against Larry Hennig for the American Wrestling Association.  As his friends played him in on the bagpipes, the announcer introduced Toombs as "Roddy, uh, the, uh Piper". It was cleaned up slightly to Roddy Piper, and the name stuck.

After tours with the AWA, NWA Central States, the Maritimes, Paul Boesch's NWA Houston, and Big Time Rasslin in Dallas, Piper would establish himself on the west coast in the mid-1970s. He was a top heel for NWA Hollywood, but it was in NWA San Francisco under Roy Shire where Piper developed the "Rowdy" part of his character. He would anger the predominately Mexican audiences by insulting them and playing "La Cucaracha" on the bagpipes when he promised to play the Mexican national anthem.

In Los Angeles, Piper had a long-standing feud with the Guerreros, Chavo Sr., his father Gory, and his brother Hector. Piper and Chavo traded the Jules Strongbow Scientific Memorial Trophy. He also defeated Chavo for the NWA Americas Heavyweight Championship, but would lose a few "loser leaves town" bouts to Chavo. He would reappeaer as "The Masked Canadian", and briefly teamed with his rival Chavo. He would wrestle with the mask until his identity was revealed by Chavo's brother Hector.

In late 1978, Piper headed north to the Pacific Northwest where he would experience his biggest success to date. He would win the NWA Pacific Northwest Tag Team Championship with Killer Tim Brooks and Rick Martel and win the NWA Pacific Northwest Heavyweight Championship twice, once each from Lord Jonathan Boyd and "Playboy" Buddy Rose. Around that time, he would also win two championships in the NWA's Mid-Atlantic territory, winning their heavyweight championship from Jack Brisco and their version of the United States Championship from Ric Flair.

Piper would serve as the color commentator for Georgia Championship Wrestling (their TV show would be renamed World Championship Wrestling in July 1982; the promotion itself would go by that name a few years later). He feuded most notably with Bob Armstrong, Dick Slater, and Tommy Rich. In the summer of 1982, Piper became a fan favorite when he came to the defense of his commentary partner Gordon Solie when Don Muraco grew angry at Solie's questioning. Piper would be fired by the promotion late in the year when he showed up late for a match, but would return the following summer after a brief stint in Puerto Rico. Piper rejoined the Georgia territory and would land with Jim Crockett Promotions. He most famously feuded with Sgt. Slaughter, Ric Flair, and Greg Valentine, the latter culminating in a dog collar match at the first Starrcade. Valentine broke Piper's left eardrum during the match, causing Piper to permanently lose more than half his hearing.

After serving out his contract with Jim Crockett Promotions (at Piper's insistence), Roddy joined the WWF in 1984. Initially entering as a manager for Dr. D. David Schultz and "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff (Piper was still healing injuries he'd suffered in the dog collar match), Piper would return to the ring full-time later in the year. His gift of gab garnered him his own talking segment, "Piper's Pit". His most famous such segment came in the segment's early days when he insulted Jimmy Snuka's Polynesian roots and bashed Snuka's head with a coconut. Another segment saw Piper insult Bruno Sammartino. That led to a feud culminating in a steel cage match won by Bruno.

Piper was an important figure in the "Rock ‘n Wrestling Connection" era. He feuded primarily with Hulk Hogan and pop singer Cyndi Lauper. The three were involved in the MTV special The War to Settle the Score, which featured a main-event bout between Piper and Hogan. The bout, which also had involvement from Captain Lou Albano, Mr. T, and Lauper, would set up the first Wrestlemania main event. Hogan and Mr. T would go on to defeat Piper and Paul Orndoff when "Cowboy" Bob Orton hit Ornodff with the cast instead of Hogan, the intended target.

In Piper's 2006 DVD Born to Controversy, Piper said he had to keep Mr. T busy to cover for his lack of wrestling ability. Their relationship became hostile behind the scenes, so naturally they were paired up for an on-screen feud which culminated at the following Wrestlemania. Mr. T defeated Piper in a boxing match after Piper was disqualified for slamming Mr. T.

After taking a leave of absence, Piper returned to the WWF in August 1986, but it was a different WWF from the one he left. His Piper's Pit segment was replaced by Adrian Adonis' own talking segment "The Flower Shop", and he even hired Piper's one-time bodyguard Bob Orton. Piper crashed Adrian's show, and it became a beef between the two shows. The beef, one in which Piper was assaulted three-on-one by Adonis, Orton, and Don Muraco, turned Piper face. Roddy escalated it by storming the Flower Shop set and destroying it with a baseball bat. The feud culminated in what was billed as Piper's retirement match at Wrestlemania III. Piper defeated Adonis via submission with help from Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake.

Post-retirement, Piper went into acting full-time. He would score dozens of TV and film credits over the next twenty years, but his most famous roles came following his first retirement when he appeared in cult classics Hell Comes To Frogtown in 1987 and They Live in 1988. The latter film is best remembered for Piper's character ad-libbing the famous line "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum" and the long fight scene between Piper and Keith David fighting over a pair of sunglasses. The fight scene, which has been parodied on shows such as South Park and Adventure Time and in video games Duke Nukem and Saints Row IV, took three weeks to rehearse.

Piper returned to the WWF at Wrestlemania V in 1989 for a live Piper's Pit with talk show host Morton Downey, Jr. That segment was best remembered for Piper hosing down Downey with a fire extinguisher. Piper spent the next few months hosting Prime Time Wrestling with Gorilla Monsoon, but would return to the ring that summer after he cost "Ravishing" Rick Rude the Intercontinental title at Summerslam. The feud culminated late in the year where Piper defeated Rude. Per pre-match stipulations, Bobby Heenan, Rude's manager at the time, had to dress as Santa Claus for an episode of Prime Time Wrestling.

Piper's notable early 1990s feuds culminated around Wrestlemania. He feuded with Bad News Brown in the leadup to Wrestlemania VI (that event is infamous for Piper conducting an interview with his face and body painted half black) and with Ted DiBiase in the leadup to Wrestlemania VII, where he was in the corner of Virgil. He reignited his feud with Ric Flair in late 1991. At the 1992 Royal Rumble event, he defeated The Mountie to win the WWF Intercontinental Championship. He would hold the title until Wrestlemania VIII where he was defeated by Bret Hart. Save for a cameo appearance at Summerslam that August, Piper left the WWF again.

Roddy reemerged from his self-imposed absence at Wrestlemania X in 1994 as the guest referee for the WWF Championship match between Yokozuna and Bret Hart. On commentary, Jerry "The King" Lawler berated Piper, talking about how much he hated him. The feud continued over to Lawler's interview segment, The King's Court on Monday Night RAW. It led to the two veterans facing off in the main event of the King of the Ring event, with Piper donating part of his purse from the event to a children's hospital in Ontario. Piper offered commentary on various events in the WWF with his own segment, The Bottom Line, in the spring of 1994.

Piper would take yet another leave of absence, but would return as a guest referee for the Bob Backlund-Bret Hart I Quit match at Wrestlemania XI. In early 1996, Piper was named the on-screen interim WWF President. He would become the object of affection for new talent Goldust. Piper, pledging to "make a man out of him", met Goldust in a Hollywood Backlot Brawl at Wrestlemania XII. The bout, which used footage of the infamous low-speed OJ Simpson chase, ended with Piper disrobing Goldust in the ring. With Gorilla Monsoon assuming Presidential duties again later in the evening, Piper left the WWF again.

Piper would reappear a few months later, but not for the WWF. He joined WCW in October 1996 and confronted Hollywood Hogan at the end of Halloween Havoc. Piper and Hogan split a pair of bouts late in 1996 and early 1997; Piper defeated Hogan with the sleeper hold at Starrcade in a non-title match, but Hogan would defeat Piper with the title on the line at Superbrawl VII. Piper and Flair would join forces against the New World Order in the spring of 1997 before feuding with one another. Late in the year, Piper defeated Hogan in a non-title steel cage match atHalloween Havoc.

Piper would feud with Hogan again in 1998, as well as with Randy Savage and Bret Hart. The next year, Piper won the WCW United States Championship and became WCW commissioner. He feuded once again with Flair over control of WCW. Late in the year, Piper was the special referee for a WCW world title match between Bret Hart and Bill Goldberg. By order of the "powers that be" (an unseen Vince Russo), Piper called for the bell when Hart locked Goldberg in the Sharpshooter submission, even though Goldberg clearly did not submit (yup, it was a rehash of the Montreal Screwjob two years earlier). Piper assumed special referee duties again at Superbrawl 2000 when he was the special referee for a world title match between Sid Vicious, Jeff Jarrett, and Scott Hall. It would be his final appearance for the company; Piper was fired in July in a cost-cutting measure. Piper sued WCW the next year, citing age discrimination.

Piper made non-wrestling appearances on the independent circuit and was the commissioner of the short-lived Xcitement Wrestling Federation. In 2002, Roddy published his autobiography, In the Pit with Piper: Roddy Gets Rowdy.

Roddy returned to WWE in 2003 after a seven-year absence from the promotion. He ran in during the Hulk Hogan-Vince McMahon street fight and attacked his old rival Hogan with a lead pipe, cementing him as a heel for the first time since the mid-1980s. Despite that, Hogan would go on to win the bout. Piper would align himself with Sean O'Haire, and he would defeat Rikishi at Backlash.

In May, Piper reignited his feud with Hulk Hogan...sort of. Hogan, who was banned from the WWE at the time, ran around as the masked Mr. America. Piper, McMahon, and O'Haire all tried to prove that Hogan and Mr. America were one and the same. The storyline saw Piper pull the prosthetic leg of one-legged wrestler Zack Gowen. Piper would be defeated by Mr. America at Judgment Day.

In June 2003, Piper appeared on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel where Roddy talked about the darker side of the industry, primarily drug-related deaths among wrestlers. Piper predicted that due to his poor health, he wasn't going to make it to 65, and that he only returned because he could not access his pension fund until then. Piper's part in the interview angered McMahon, and WWE terminated his contract less than a week after the story airs. WWE's statement following his release:

"Since March 31, 2003, World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. and Roderick Toombs, p/k/a "Roddy Piper," have attempted to negotiate the terms of an arrangement for Roddy to appear on WWE programming through August of this year. The parties have been unable to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. On Tuesday, June 24, Piper appeared on an HBO program and revealed disturbing facts about his own personal drug use. Piper stated that he used drugs for many years while working in professional wrestling and that he does not like the person that he becomes when he actively performs as a professional wrestler. In view of WWE's inability to reach agreement on a contract and to assist Piper from engaging in any self-destructive behavior, the WWE is ending any further discussion with Piper regarding a contract. The WWE sincerely hopes for Piper and his family that Roddy can find happiness."

Piper claims in his 2006 DVD that HBO took parts of the interview out of context to make wrestling look worse.

Piper would make a few appearances for TNA from late 2003 to 2005; he briefly feuded with Vince Russo, reconciled with Jimmy Snuka at Victory Road 2004 and refereed a bout between Scott Hall and Jeff Hardy at Final Resolution in January 2005.

In Feburary 2005, Piper announced as an inductee for the WWE Hall of Fame, and was inducted the night before Wrestlemania 21. He frequently appeared for WWE in the following decade, and even was briefly a champion. At Cyber Sunday in 2006, the team of Ric Flair and Roddy Piper won the World Tag Team Championship from the Spirit Squad. They would lose them just a week later on RAW to Rated RKO (Edge & Randy Orton). It would be Piper's last championship run. In 2008, Piper returned to the ring for one night only in the Royal Rumble match when he attacked Jimmy Snuka; he would be eliminated by Kane. He had a series of confrontations with Santino Marella later in the year, including one on the late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live!.

Roddy would be involved in the leadup to Wrestlemania 25 when he was on a team of WWE legends that were insulted by Chris Jericho. The feud culminated at the event when Piper, Jimmy Snuka, and Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat were all defeated by Jericho.

Piper's last WWE match came in June 2011 when Piper won $5,000 from The Miz when he defeated him on RAW.

Piper would have sporadic Piper's Pit segments over the next few years, including with John Cena in November 2011, Daniel Bryan and AJ Lee in April 2012, The Shield in January 2014, and with some of the participants in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal just before Wrestlemania XXX. At that event, Piper buried the hatchet with Paul Orndorff, Hulk Hogan, and Mr. T, the four men who fought in the first Wrestlemania main event. Piper's final WWE appearance came at Wrestlemania 31 when he congratulated Daniel Bryan on winning the WWE Intercontinental Championship.

Just before his passing, Ric Flair alleged that Piper had lost his WWE Legends contract due to his public feud with Steve Austin, a feud that ultimately resulted in Piper leaving PodcastOne. Piper later apologized to Austin.

Piper's last documented match came for Juggalo Championship Wrestling in August 2011, when Piper and Cowboy Bob Orton defeated Mick Foley and Terry Funk in a tag team match (the bout was originally Piper versus Funk, but was changed mid-match). His final Piper's Pit was for Maryland Championship Wrestling during the 15th Annual Shane Shamrock Memorial Cup just two weeks before his passing.

Roddy has over a dozen television roles to his credit, including Walker, Texas RangerThe Outer Limits, ITV's Celebrity Wrestling, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. His voice appears on a 2006 episode of Robot Chicken, a 2015 episode of Adventure Time, and in the 2011 animated feature Green Lantern: Emerald Knights. Movie-wise, he's appeared in over 40 films, many of them either direct-to-video or low-budget. His last film was the 2016 release The Masked Saint, based on the 2009 book of the same name.

In November 2006, Piper was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma; on his website, Piper thanked his fans, as he would never had known had he not gotten the vote to be Ric Flair's tag team partner at Cyber Sunday that year. He had been declared cancer-free in November 2014. In his autobiography, Piper claimed he was a cousin of Bret Hart; Hart said in his autobiography that he was the only wrestler to visit him in the hospital following his stroke in 2005.

Piper is considered one of the greatest talkers and villains in wrestling history; his Piper's Pit segments were innovative, as it was the norm at the time that only top stars got to talk, and wrestlers were the interviewees, not the interviewers themselves. Bobby Heenan once praised his promo skills: "he could leave Piper in a room and return 20 minutes later having done a class-A promo". Wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer credited Piper as one of the key figures in the growth of the WWF in the mid-1980s, especially leading up to the first Wrestlemania.

On July 31, 2015, Piper died in his sleep in his home in Hollywood, California. He was 61. His death certificate states cardiopulmonary arrest caused by hypertension as the cause, listing a pulmonary embolism as a factor. He received a ten-bell salute in his honor at the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest after Dusty Rhodes, who had died a month earlier, received one in his honor. Another ten-bell salute in his honor opened the August 3, 2015 episode of RAW.

The "Rowdy" nickname lives on in mixed martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey. Initially rejecting the idea to use it professionally, Piper gave Rousey the okay after the two met through Gene LeBell. Rousey dedicated her fight at UFC 190 to Piper and noted him first in her post-fight interview the next night.

In addition to being a WWE Hall of Famer, Piper is a member of the inaugural Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame class in 1996, and won the publications Best on Interviews award from 1981 to 1983, and won for Best Heel in 1984 and 1985. He was Pro Wrestling Illustrated's Most Inspirational Wrestler of 1982 and Most Hated of 1984 and 1985, and the Most Popular Wrestler of 1986. He was ranked the 17th best singles wrestler of the PWI Years in 2003. He was posthumously given the Stanley Weston Award in 2015 for his lifetime contributions in wrestling. Roddy is also a member of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame class of 2007 and was a Reel Member Inductee of the Cauliflower Alley Club in 2001. In a 2012 article by, Piper was named the greatest villain in wrestling history.

Piper at the time of his passing was survived by his wife of 33 years, Kitty, their son Colton, and their three daughters Anastacia, Ariel, and Falon, as well as four grandchildren.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Cageside Seats Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your pro wrestling news from Cageside Seats