Date: August 30, 1995
Location: Center Stage in Atlanta, GA
Source: Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Wrestlinginc.com, Awesome Wrestling Interviews, The LAW
Big Van Vader was WCW’s top heel in the early 90s, but a backstage fight with Paul Orndorff led to his getting fired and losing out on a ton of money he surely would’ve made as WCW took off a year later.
This is among the most famous brawls of the modern era, mainly due to the number of witnesses, and because of the unexpected result. But there are lots of facts, details, and angles that need to be explored in order to get the entire picture, and we’ll attempt to document them here in the most fair manner possible. The legend has grown over the years to favor Orndorff as the hero who backed down the big, bad, bully Vader, but a closer look tells us that’s not quite the real story.
There are two parts to the fight, with most versions pretty similar on the first, and less similar on the second. But the circumstances leading up to the confrontation have been overlooked by most reports, which is unfair to Vader. Eric Bischoff, who was running things at the time and gearing up for the first ever episode of WCW Monday Nitro, was adamant that Vader appear for a company photo shoot or else he’d be fined. Vader had no-showed the last few photo shoots, and this time Bischoff wasn’t going to let that happen.
The problem was that Vader was booked for the WCW TV tapings at Center Stage that day, mainly some pre-tapes (promos) with Gene Okerlund that were very important. Vader told Bischoff he was worried about being late for them. Bischoff told him it’s ok, that he’d inform the crew in Atlanta that he’d be late, and that this photo shoot was more important.
Vader made the photo shoot, which he said was a lot of work because he had to get in gear, look all menacing, and pose and flex for a long time as they shot a million photographs. The shoot was at CNN Towers, and the pre-tapes were at Center Stage. By the time he fought traffic and made it to the studio, he was over an hour and a half late.
Apparently Bischoff never told the film crew that Vader would be late. When Vader got to Center Stage, he was sitting with Meng (Haku) when Orndorff stormed in. Orndorff worked behind the scenes as an agent, assisting with some of the tapings and backstage tasks. He was by no means Vader’s boss; Bischoff was his boss and that’s whom Vader reported to.
Vader claims Orndorff was screaming at him, asking him where he was and saying he was late. Orndorff claims it was in a calm, conversational tone. However it started, it eventually ended with both guys screaming. Vader told him not to yell at him, saying Bischoff had him booked to do a photo shoot and he couldn’t be at two places at once. It’s not clear why Orndorff didn’t comprehend this, but Vader said he was guilty of making it clear to Orndorff that he wasn’t his boss, and each humiliated the other in front of the boys. The language got more and more abusive from there, with no rhyme or reason for it.
It should be noted that some very reliable reports said there was existing prior heat between the two. Vader denied this and said the two never had a problem. In fact, he said that when his Labrador dogs had puppies, he had one shipped to Orndorff because he was looking to train a dog for hunting (Orndorff was an avid hunter, and the joke was that he was so tough, he didn’t need a gun).
After a lot of yelling, Orndorff walked away. Vader then told Terry Taylor (who also worked in a backstage capacity) about the double booking and why he was late. Taylor, who was far more professional than Orndorff, said he understood and that if they had known that (as Bischoff promised said he would do), then there wouldn’t have been a problem.
Orndorff was upset because the delay caused the production crew to stay late. They were likely union workers and it was expensive to hold them over. If they didn’t finish the interviews soon, WCW would’ve had to contractually buy dinner for the whole crew.
It’s understandable why Orndorff would be upset, however Vader had a very valid excuse. The blame for this misunderstanding lies with Bischoff, who said he would tell the crew, and didn’t do so. This was before cell phones were commonplace, so it’s not like Vader could’ve called or texted them to say he’d be late.
Taylor apologized on behalf of Orndorff, and asked Vader to take his shirt off and put his mask on. He obliged, and started walking towards the area where the pre-tapes were done. Orndorff, who was furious, saw him and got in his face. His face was just a few inches from Vader’s, and he was calling him out, saying “Come on, you’re supposed to be a tough guy!”
Orndorff was agitated because Vader had treated him with total disrespect, and told Vader to take his best shot. He also called him a “fat prima donna,” among other expletives. It was described as how a high school football coach would yell at one of his players. This lasted for about a minute before Vader took him on his dare.
The First Blow
By all accounts, Vader dropped his right hand and threw an open hand slap to Ornforff’s chest. The blow sent him tumbling head over heels, with Vader saying his head came just a few inches from striking a wooden shed that contained steel tools used to put the ring together. If his head had made contact with the shed, the impact of the blow would’ve caused a serious head injury and possible death.
When Vader saw that, he internally freaked out and froze up. He also feared he’d lose his job, or worse, go to jail. He also feared losing his house and jeopardizing his kids’ college education. The fear took over him, and at that point he decided he wasn’t going to hit him again or fight back if Orndorff retaliated.
Vader at the time was between 400 and 430 pounds; a full 200 pounds heavier than Orndorff. At 39, was also seven years younger and considerably stronger (he could bench 600 lbs). Orndorff also had a very weak left arm from a previous nerve injury. If Vader wanted to finish him off at this point, he could have.
What happened next is unclear. One report said Orndorff got up and attempted to tackle Vader, while the other wrestlers tried to pull them apart in what was described as a pathetic manner. Vader’s version is that once he saw Orndorff landed on his head, he went over and put his hand on his shoulder to ask him if he was okay. He said Orndorff slapped his hand away and got up to charge him.
In another interview, Vader said he backed up against the wall, with Sting to his right, and crossed his hands in front of him to signal he wasn’t going to fight back. Orndorff struck him a few more times, cutting his lip and puffing up his eyes. Vader claims he had his hands on his side and let it happen. Others claim Orndorff hit him with a left (his weak arm) and knocked Vader silly and that he “hit the deck.”
Vader claimed that on the fourth or fifth punch, he blocked it and got Orndorff in a front face lock, sending both to the floor. At that point Orndorff broke free, stood up before Vader did, and kicked him in the face five or six times in his shower shoes. At that point it was broken up, and by the time Vader got up, Orndorff had been rushed into the agent’s room.
Other witnesses said the kicking happened after Orndorff knocked him down with a punch, which stunned Vader, and that he was in the fetal position absorbing the kicks until it was broken up. It was said that if Orndorff had been wearing cowboy boots instead of shower shoes, the damage to Vader would’ve been far worse. As it was, his face was still a mess.
One report said most of the wrestlers left Vader on the floor and went back to doing their thing. Most were probably in shock at what they had just seen. He was reportedly on the ground for several minutes until he got up. The hallway was not well lit, which may have accounted for some of the different versions of the story.
When Vader recovered, he heard Orndorff telling people he got sucker punched. He saw people patting him on the back. This angered Vader, who later claimed that if he really wanted to fight, he certainly wouldn’t have slapped him, let him get up, and stand there with his arms by his side. He was furious about the accusation that it was a sucker punch, saying Orndorff was inches from his face begging him to take his best shot. How exactly, he asked, was that a sucker punch?
If Vader didn’t want to fight before, he certainly wanted to now.
He kicked down the door to the agent’s room where Orndorff was. Bischoff was not there, but Tony Schiavone was, and possibly a couple other agents. Vader asked Orndorff if he wanted to finish the fight, saying he hadn’t thrown a single punch yet, and that they could go outside in the parking lot. Orndorff did not back down, but the agents were trying to prevent any further physical violence. Vader kept calling him out, and finally the two went at it again.
It’s not clear if this happened in the agent’s room or outside in the hallway. Vader claimed Orndorff threw a punch that he blocked, and again got him in a front face lock until Meng, who had gone out for a hot dog, came by to break it up. Other versions said the two traded punches, with Orndorff getting a black eye and bloody lip, and Vader’s face getting more messed up when it was over.
As for what really happened, clearly Vader threw a few blows because Orndorff did have damage to his face. In an interview years later, Orndorff did admit that Vader got him a few times. If Vader’s face looked worse than before, either Orndorff got a couple shots in too, or his face continued to swell up from the initial kicks earlier. Regardless, it was over at this point. Vader later told Meng why he went after Orndorff again, and Meng said if he had known that, he wouldn’t have broken it up. And if he hadn’t, Orndorff might have had far worse damage done to him.
Orndorff was still able to go out and do a squash match at the taping later that day. Vader was sent home after going to the hospital, as he had thrown the first punch. He was later fired, depriving him of a contract that was paying him close to $750,000 per year until ’98 or ‘99. That figure would’ve surely gone up as Nitro got off the ground and PPV buyrates rose, and Vader would’ve been a pivotal part of the early Monday night wars. He ended up going to the WWF and was a top star there, but it didn’t last long and he didn’t make anywhere near as much money as he would’ve with WCW. Orndorff ended up staying with the company for five prosperous years in a backstage capacity.
Vader was apologetic to everyone after it happened, realizing he was on the bubble and about to lose out on a ton of money. On Nitro, the announcers never mentioned Vader’s name, and the returning Lex Luger was all the talk in the company. For his part, Orndorff said he would have no problem with Vader coming back and didn’t want to stand in the way of his return.
The two saw each other at an autograph show many years later, at which point Orndorff had throat cancer and couldn’t speak. He came up to Vader and the two hugged, with Orndorff pointing at his throat to let him know he wanted to talk to him, but couldn’t.
As the years have passed, the legend of the fight has grown to paint Orndorff as the hero and Vader as the villain. Vader has accepted responsibility for laying his hands on Orndorff, saying that no matter what was said to him and how much he was egging him on, it was wrong to hit him. He regrets the incident and said it cost him a lot of money. He admitted to drinking a lot back then, and has no harsh feelings towards him today.
The story has always been unfair to Vader. He was certainly in the wrong for striking him, and should’ve been reprimanded for sure. However, Orndorff was also wrong for antagonizing Vader and challenging him, begging him to take his best shot. He should’ve been reprimanded as well. He put Vader in a position where he couldn’t back down, because it was in front of the boys and he would’ve lost respect for not doing anything, even if he shouldn’t have. Bischoff was also to blame for causing the misunderstanding in the first place. While nobody was going to punish Bischoff for that, he should’ve been more accepting of the blame and allowed Vader to stay. A simple fine would’ve taught both guys a lesson, and allowed WCW to utilize Vader instead of sending him to the competition. As it was, WCW flourished in his absence anyway. Still Vader vs the likes of Kevin Nash, Scott, Hall, the Giant, and Goldberg would’ve been big money matches they missed out on.
Did Vader really choose not to fight back? Or was it a way to save face in light of how Orndorff was crowned a hero? Most likely Vader did freeze up after the initial blow to the chest, and there’s no other explanation for why he didn’t go after him instead of just standing there and not hitting him back. Orndorff probably fought back harder than he expected, which stunned him. And when he realized how it came off to the boys, he probably felt the need to redeem himself, which probably didn’t work since most people now only remember the first part of the story with the shower shoes. Bobby Heenan even joked about it at a WWE Hall of Fame years later, saying it sounded like a round of applause as Orndorff kicked him with the shower shoes.
Surely Vader wouldn’t have struck him in hindsight. However, if he knew he’d have been fired after the first blow, he probably would’ve been far more aggressive and not let Orndorff get up. And he certainly would’ve fought back more once Orndorff started punching him back.
The whole incident was a huge negative for Vader, and his career never recovered. Vader was very smart with his personal business and finances, and this fight cost him dearly. And he knows it.