All hail the heel

He might have thrived during a different era, but Rowdy Roddy Piper was arguably the greatest wrestling heel of them all

Roddy Piper in 2009 (Getty Images)

CHARLOTTE — The Russian Bear Ivan Koloff is much smaller than you would expect. In his heyday, announcers would say that The Russian Bear Ivan Koloff was 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds of pure muscle. Then again, in his heyday, The Russian Bear Ivan Koloff would pledge allegiance to Mother Russia and promise American doom in a thick pseudo-Russian accent even though he’d grown up on a Canadian dairy farm.

The Russian Bear Ivan Koloff walks around the Hilton University Place hotel in Charlotte, and most of the awed fans who walk up to him are actually bigger than him. He speaks in a soft almost squeaky voice. He’s a reverend now. According to his website, he does weddings.

He comes from a different time in wrestling and America, when baby faces were baby faces and heels were heels and you didn’t have to squint to tell the difference. Abullah the Butcher, Krusher Kruschev, the Assassin #1 and, perhaps more prominently, the Assassin #2, the Great Kabuki … these were the bad guys, and they would hit you with chairs, attack you in parking lots, do dastardly and illegal things when the referee’s back was turned. Kabuki, according to his Wikipedia page, was the first to blind opponents by blowing “Asian Mist” into their eyes. So he was a pioneer.

To be the wrestling heel took a special kind of energy and enthusiasm. Ole Andersen, half of the famed and vicious Minnesota Wrecking Crew, also walked around the Charlotte Hilton as part of the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Fanfest. He would say he was stabbed by fans seven different times. In the most violent of those stabbings, he bled profusely as angry fans wildly cheered his bleeding. He considers this one of his greatest achievements.

I don’t follow wrestling these days, but I’m told that the heels aren’t as bad. “They want to sell their own T-shirts,” says Jim Ross, a longtime and legendary wrestling announcer. It makes sense. Bad and good blur in so many ways. Superman doesn’t speak to a new generation of fans because he’s too good, too one dimensional. We like our knights dark and our avengers conflicted.

The Russian Bear Ivan Koloff and Ole Andersen and the heels of his time displayed no such contradictions. This was their power. The greatest heel of them all might have been Rowdy Roddy Piper. He was not an especially interesting fighter — you knew this because his finishing move was the sleeper hold, which is the sort of move you give Bond villains and lethargic wrestlers — but he was so enthusiastically bad, so wonderfully sinister, so joyfully evil that his matches lifted off the ground and felt more important than peace summits.

Friday, Rowdy Roddy Piper died in his sleep. He was just 61. In the hours afterward, many people came forward to talk about what a sweet and nice man he was behind the scenes. He kept that side of himself hidden. That was his brilliance. “I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass,” he used to say. “And I’m all out of bubblegum.”