At Friday’s Hall of Heroes dinner that headlined the evening’s Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends FanFest in Charlotte, the organizers had planned to pay the late professional wrestler Dusty Rhodes the ultimate honor – a 10-bell salute.
Rhodes died in June and main FanFest organizer Greg Price of Monroe said a portion of the program was designed to honor him.
He had to share the billing.
Minutes before about 600 fans, current and retired wrestlers and former promoters filled a banquet room at the Hilton in University City, news spread that another pro wrestling great, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, had died in his sleep on Thursday at home in Hollywood, Calif. News reports say he suffered a heart attack. He was 61.
“What began as a joyous occasion – our yearly family reunion – turned somber very quickly,” Price said. “Phones started buzzing and texts flew around. We couldn’t believe that Piper was gone.
“So at the beginning, (retired color analyst) Jim Cornette announced his passing to the crowd and we gave Piper a 10-bell salute, too.”
Born Roderick Toombs in Saskatchewan, Canada, Piper spent his early wrestling career playing the villain in the scripted world of pro wrestling, in the 1980s often matched up against Hulk Hogan and Mr. T.
Piper knew Charlotte and the Carolinas, where wrestling flourished under the guidance of promoter Jim Crockett Sr. and his family.
“Charlotte was one of those old wrestling territories where he cut his teeth,” Price said. “He was one of the most hated guys you could imagine in the Carolinas back in the early days.”
Piper played the bad guy with aplomb, once cracking a coconut over Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka’s head. He was pompous and arrogant. He wore kilts and entered the ring to bagpipe music to honor his Scottish heritage. He was nicknamed “Rowdy” because of his trademark Scottish rage and quick wit. At one time, he was billed as being from Glasgow, Scotland.
“But he was a brawler too,” Price said. “The fans loved him. He loved being with them one-on-one.”
Piper was best known in the Carolinas for the 1983 “Dog Collar Match” on Thanksgiving night in Greensboro at Starrcade 83, the biggest show the Crocketts ever promoted, Price said. He fought good guy Greg Valentine and the fans booed Piper all bout long.
“In those days wrestling wasn’t as it is now,” Price said. “People like even the bad guys now. Back then, if you were bad, folks hated you. He was as bad as it comes.”
Ultimately, he would admit on an HBO documentary that he hated playing the bad guy.
Piper won 34 championships in various categories. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2005 and ranked first among the top 50 WWE villains.
Since 2004, Piper made several FanFests in Charlotte and always drew a crowd. In 2006, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, but months later said he was cancer free.
Last year, he came to Charlotte for the Mad Monster Party, the convention that celebrates horror and science fiction films, TV and music. Piper, who also acted in movies, mingled with fans and movie and TV stars William Shatner and Henry Winkler.
“There were all kinds of movie stars and old actors there,” Price said. “But you know who had the longest line for autographs? Rowdy Piper.”