Professional wrestling was a large part of my childhood, as was the story for many kids growing up in the late 80s and early 90s. Just as important to me back then was making sure I watched the kid-friendly sitcoms on ABC’s TGIF on Friday evenings.
With the WWE’s announcement the other day that Vader (Leon White) would be posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame, I spent time reflecting upon his career. I was first introduced to Vader when he returned to the United States following his mega-star run in New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1990. As a big fan of World Championship Wrestling (WCW), I first saw Vader sometime in 1990 but really remember him from his match with Stan Hansen at WrestleWar. He’d then go on to a great run in WCW for a few years as the off-and-on World Champion. During his time paired with the great former NWA Champion Harley Race, the big man had legendary feuds with my favorites growing up, Ric Flair and Sting. Sting was already my favorite (still to this day), but his feud with Vader elevated him to new heights in many fans’ eyes and cemented his status as World Champion material.
Leon White is often regarded as one of, if not THE, best “big man” in the business. His high-flying moves from the top rope were unheard of from a man his size both back then and still today. Standing 6 feet 5 inches and over 450 pounds, the former center for the Los Angeles Rams (1978-1980) moved around the ring like an agile cat but had the size, toughness, and ferocity of a bull.
He was slated to participate in my favorite match of all time, the 1995 WCW War Games match, but backstage shenanigans got him fired before showing up in the WWF as “The Mastadon,” Big Van Vader.
It was during this time period that one Friday evening I switched the TV over to ABC for my usual TGIF lineup, and on one episode of Boy Meets World, there was the big man himself, Vader! I remembered Vader having bit parts as the bully’s father, but he was all over the place in this episode. So was Jake “The Snake” Roberts and even “Brother Love” Bruce Prichard! They had a real WWF show and in-ring action, too! I was blown away at such a cool cross-over of two things I really enjoyed.
I had really gotten into watching reruns of The Wonder Years on Nick-at-Nite, and when Boy Meets World came along, it was a lighter, funnier, more modern version for kids my age. As a fun connection between the shows, the star of The Wonder Years, Fred Savage, is the older real-life brother to the star of Boy Meets World, Ben Savage.
Boy Meets World was a wildly successful family-friendly sitcom from 1993 to 2000. Starring Ben Savage as Cory Matthews, Rider Strong as Shawn Hunter, William Daniels as Mr. Feeney, Will Friedle as Cory’s older brother Eric, and (now famous wrestling fan herself) Danielle Fishel as Topanga. The show told the story about Cory Matthews and his friends coming of age in the early to mid-90s in a comedic, kid-friendly sitcom. The show would run until Cory and Topanga were married and in college before returning nearly 15 years later on The Disney Channel as Girl Meets World, centered around Cory and Topanga’s daughter.
At the time, wrestling was still some time away from the culture-changing popularity it would see in the late 90s, but most kids I knew were casual fans of wrestling. At the time, wrestling and the WWF were full of colorful, larger-than-life comic book characters targeted at children and young teens. Vader was the perfect comic book character. An intimidating giant of a man with a gentle soul, he was the ideal fit for a sitcom made for the 16 and under crowd.
Vader would depart the WWF in 1998 and enter semi-retirement. After a few more big appearances in Japan and American independent shows, his in-ring career finally came to an end around 2017.
After years of struggling with his weight, grueling travel schedules, and alcohol abuse, Vader cleaned up his act in 2007. After becoming a born-again Christian, Vader reconnected with long-time rival (and backstage friend) Sting, another (at the time) recently born-again Christian. When Vader announced in 2018 he was suffering congestive heart failure and went through multiple surgeries in March of 2018, his good friend Sting (Steve Borden) visited him frequently at the hospital.
Sadly, Leon passed away on June 18, 2018, following a month-long stay in the hospital with pneumonia. When Vader and the WWF blended with Boy Meets World and my Friday night sitcom lineup, the result was a very memorable event! Here’s what happened when Big Van Vader, the storied pro wrestler, joined a made-for-kids sitcom in the mid-90s!
Boy Meets World was already a hit show when the WWF came to the fictional John Adams High, but ask any wrestling fan, and they will for sure say the best episodes in the series were the three that Vader showed up in.
In 2016, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Vader’s appearance on Boy Meets World, WWE.COM interviewed Boy Meets World creator Michael Jacobs. Jacobs discussed choosing Vader for the role by saying, “We had this character of Frankie Stecchino. We all sat around the table, going, “This guy looks like a wrestler… this guy must have a father who was a wrestler! Who does he resemble? A villain! So, we immediately hit on Vader.”
Jacobs explained they wanted a loving father who moonlights as an internationally famous bad-guy wrestler. Described as an oddball but loving blue-collar family relationship, Frankie and his father didn’t see eye to eye. Frankie was a kind-hearted dreamer, artist, and poet who covered his soft side by being the school bully. His father was physical, intimidating, and rough around the edges. All Vader wanted was for his son to follow in his tough-guy footsteps, and all that Frankie wanted was for his father’s approval as a non-violent artist. A tale as old as time.
Leon Wight made his first of three appeared on May 5, 1995, as part of a wrestling-themed episode in Season Two, titled “The Thrilla in Philla.” The title was a comedic twist on the sitcom’s Philadelphia locale and the infamous “Thrilla in Manilla” boxing match between Joe Frazier and Mohammed Ali.
In this episode, Cory Matthews (Ben Savage) joins the school wrestling team since he’d be the only member of his weight class. Seemingly the golden ticket, Cory quickly earned all of the perks of being a jock but without having to do anything for it since he faced no competition in his weight range. Joey “The Rat” Epstein, played by Salute Your Short’s Blake Soper, longs to step out of his sidekick role of the school bully, Frankie Stecchino (Ethan Suplee), and challenges Cory to a fight to determine who gets the spot on the team. Cory easily wins, and Epstein demands a rematch. The rest of the team sets up another fight after school, having pulled a ton of favors and even sold tickets to the event. Celebrities Yasmine Bleeth (Baywatch) and Hollywood icon Robert Goulet appear as the school’s gymnasium fills with rabid fight-seekers.
Vader appears shortly before the fight as Frankie’s father. Vader warns Cory that if he beats Joey the Rat, Cory will have to fight him next. After Cory easily defeats Joey, Frankie steps into the ring, drawing Cory’s older brother Eric out of the crowd. Vader enters the ring and begins tossing Eric around. While he has Eric up on his shoulder, Principal Feeny and teacher Mr. Turner enter the ring to stop the fight. Mr. Feeny demands he put Eric down, and when Vader refuses, Mr. Feeney lets on that he used to teach Vader when he was younger. Whispering his real name, “Leslie,” Feeney gets Vader to drop Eric before Vader sulks off as the episode comes to a happy end. This would also be the first episode that revealed Topanga has genuine feelings for Cory beyond young puppy love.
Vader’s second appearance on Boy Meets World was very brief in a season three episode titled “New Friends and Old.”
In that episode, Frankie Stecchino, Jr., still the school bully, gets in trouble with Mr. Feeney following a prank that involved forcing Cory and Shawn to wear cheerleading outfits. Vader makes his presence known during a short scene in Principal Feeney’s office. He’s wearing a suit, apologizes for Frankie’s actions, and promises to make sure his son knows right from wrong. After that, Vader disappears for the rest of the episode. He does make one final appearance during the post-credits scene when he burst through the Matthew’s kitchen door in full wrestling gear with a generic championship belt. Cory’s Mom jokes that “Francis” doesn’t act like this at PTA meetings. Vader then takes out his frustration on Eric again, picking him up and slamming him to the ground before leaving the Matthew’s home. In this episode, and his third and final episode during Boy Meets World, Vader’s name was changed from “Leslie” to “Francis” or “Frankie, Sr.”
Vader’s final appearance on the series is where things got really entertaining and is likely the episode wrestling and Boy Meets World fans remember most.
In “Sixteen Candles and 400-Pound Men,” Cory struggles with his grades in Mr. Turner’s poetry class. Frankie is secretly, and surprisingly, a great artist and poet who offers to help Cory with his homework. In exchange, he wants Cory and Shawn to help him earn his father’s approval. Big fans of wrestling themselves, Cory and Shawn jump at the chance to teach Frankie everything they know so that Frankie can bond with his father, Big Van Vader. The problem, however, is not only does Frankie not know anything about wrestling, but he has a deep hatred of the sport because his father spent so much time away from home traveling because of it. When Vader finds out Frankie is taking an interest, the wrestler is elated and insists that Frankie be at ringside for his next big match. If he beats Jake “The Snake” Roberts, he’ll get to have a match against Shawn Michaels, the champion! Cory and Shawn eagerly agree to tag along to help Frankie fake his way through the evening.
Unfortunately, Cory already has other plans. His girlfriend Topanga’s Sweet Sixteen party is on the same night. Thanks to the power of television, her party is being held DIRECTLY ACROSS THE STREET from the Philadelphia Spectrum arena where the WWF and Big Van Vader will be that night, so Shawn creates a detailed plan to save his best friend. Having once seen Fred Flintstone do this on an episode of the cartoon The Flintstones, Shawn claims the law of physics says it’s possible to be in two places at once as long as you never spend more than 75 seconds in one place. Cory is justifiably nervous that this plan won’t work, but as the night goes on and he runs back and forth from the arena to the party, it seems to be working.
The in-ring scenes were filmed using WWF’s cameras at a real-life WWF house show (a non-televised event). Bruce Prichard does the introductions as his Brother Love character and then provides a voice-over commentary for the in-ring segments. The show seamlessly switches back and forth from WWF television to a family sitcom for nearly half the episode, and the wrestling fan and the kid watching sitcoms in me loved every minute of it.
Eventually, Cory gets caught up in Vader’s match and spends too much time at ringside, leaving Topanga alone on the dance floor for the all-important last dance. Topanga is alone and devastated when Cory finally returns, but rather than lie, he admits his scheme. She accepts his explanation as thoughtful and sweet for helping Frankie grow closer to his father. The episode closes with the memorable scene of the young couple dancing under the spotlights in the middle of the wrestling ring.
Frankie and Vader discuss some new wrestling moves during the closing credits, having grown very close. As Cory and Topanga share a romantic moment together, Vader yells and does a backflip off the top rope to show off for his son. As the episode fades to black, Vader is lying on the mat giving his son a thumbs up, finally connecting with his eldest son.
Show creator Michael Jacobs said, “The thing was, the character worked. … the audience recognized that there was such a sweet soul in this father who wanted his relationship with his child to be right. Cory Matthews saw through Frankie (the bully) the same way Frankie saw through his father (the tough guy). So all of those metaphors were in the story, and they all worked for us.”
Vader’s appearances on the show told a charming, well-meaning story about finding a connection between father and son. Although Vader only appeared in three episodes of Boy Meets World, they continue to resonate with wrestling fans.
Leon White sadly passed away on June 18th, 2018. He left a significant impression on fans worldwide through his work in the ring and his appearances in shows like Boy Meets World. On April 1, 2022, Vader will finally assume his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame, forever celebrating his legendary in-ring career.