Written by David Taub, wrestling historian, for WrestlingObserver.com
Reminiscing upon the storied career of Roddy Piper, fans may remember the time he smashed a coconut over the head of Jimmy Snuka. Others will recall his battles versus Ric Flair for the world title, or when Piper main evented the first WrestleMania opposing Hulk Hogan and Mr. T.
There was one match, though, that took place in Fresno that is not listed in any record book. There is no video to watch on YouTube or the WWE Network. Piper’s wrestling nickname was “Rowdy,” and he lived up to it 30 years ago Friday.
Piper, who died last year at the age of 61, was one of wrestling’s greatest bad guys. In the mid-1980s, he was at his peak of driving the fans into a frenzy. His motor mouth and cutting insults elicited a thundering of boos and bloodlust into the audience he drew to the arenas. In 1986, Piper was still on top of the then-WWF as its most hated competitor. The WWF came to Selland Arena for its monthly showcase on February 12, 1986. The official main event will go down as a Piper loss to nemesis Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff.
But that was only the beginning of the fireworks.
Piper’s most infamous match in Fresno took place in the wee hours the next morning. It was not sanctioned by the WWF or any athletic commission. It wasn’t really a match as much as an anything goes handicap street fight battle. Piper teamed up with fellow heels “Cowboy” Bob Orton and “Magnificent” Don Muraco to take on the Fresno police department in and around downtown.
An estimated 6,400 fans attended that Wednesday evening of wrestling. Piper vs. Orndorff highlighted a house show (non-televised event) for the WWF in the midst of a west coast tour. It was common for the WWF to run up to three shows a night in various parts of the country, criss-crossing the U.S. with its larger than life stars. Other legendary names to wrestle that night included Bret Hart, Ricky Steamboat, and Pedro Morales.
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Fresno became a regular stop on the WWF tour in the mid 1980s when the organization expanded beyond its northeast U.S. base to hold matches around the world. The weekly television show aired Saturday afternoons on KFSN (ch. 30), the ABC station. Events were held monthly at Selland. Piper, Orton and Muraco were notorious in the locker room for their after-hours partying and not necessarily playing nice with authorities. It was hard to know when the wrestling character stopped and when the person began. Perhaps that is why millions of fans bought in to the ultimate soap opera for men.
The end result saw Piper arrested, Orton subdued with a stun gun while naked, a destroyed rental car, and a bar fight. Piper disappeared from Fresno rings for nearly four years. While covered in the Fresno Bee and other wrestling publications, the fight drew limited national attention in the days before TMZ, cell phone cameras and 24 hour news cycles.
Photo: Fresno Bee
Describing the incident a few years ago on WWE Network’s Legends of Wrestling, Piper said the bad guy trio were enjoying a post-match Mexican feast at a local eatery.
“We were over so much, everything was on the house, including the tequila,” he said. “We decided to take off because we needed more beer, of course.”
According to the Bee’s accounts, the trio’s next stop was the Old Fresno Hofbrau on Tulare Street downtown, shortly before the 2 a.m. closing time. The server told Piper the bar was closed, which didn’t sit well with a thirsty and perhaps hangry pro wrestler. Piper started jawing with a patron at the end of the bar by the name of Nash Lara. When things got too heated on Piper’s TV segment called “Piper’s Pit,” the Hot Scot tried to calm things down by saying “This is verbal, this isn’t physical.” It was a way for Piper to weasel out of a beating that fans would have to buy tickets at the local arena to see.
Apparently, this did not apply to Lara.
“Somehow, the construction worker on my left hand side gets knocked down. We don’t know how that happened,” Piper recalled telling the story on TV. According to reports, Piper picked up Lara and slammed him to the ground. “We take off because I say ‘we should go.” The trio of professional wrestlers then left for parts unknown.
The timeline of what happened next was murky, but police found the rental car abandoned on the railroad tracks in Chinatown at Tulare & G streets. Not only was the car damaged, but it managed to take out a railroad crossing arm. A comically failed effort to get the car off the tracks was aborted once a train whistle bellowed in the distance, according to Piper. By the time Piper, Orton and Muraco returned to the Holiday Inn, “There must have been 140 policeman in the lobby,” Piper recalled, likely with exaggeration. The police came to question the wrestlers. One of those policeman is current Fresno police chief Jerry Dyer.
Muraco was questioned, but claimed he saw nothing. Piper refused to answer any questions, and was arrested for being drunk in public. Orton chose the path of most resistance when confronted by police. Allegedly drunk and belligerent, he stood naked on the fifth floor balcony overlooking the lobby. Piper, defending his friend years later, said it was just an accident and that he exited his hotel room naked and the door closed behind him.
The “Cowboy” challenged the cops to a fight. Four policeman tried to subdue the ornery Kansas City native, but their attempts were futile. Police used a stun gun, first nailing Orton in the leg to no avail. A second stun gun shot took Orton down. They allowed him to dress, before taking him to the hospital. Piper spent the night in jail, before bailing out and resuming his spot on the WWF tour two nights later in Los Angeles. But his legal troubles in Fresno continued the next time was scheduled to appear in the Valley.
The first week of December 1986 saw Piper make his west coast dates in Spokane, Tacoma, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles. But one date he missed was on December 4 at Selland Arena.
In the intervening 10 months, Piper became a face. With the same veracity that the fans booed him, they now cheered him. Instead of insulting and berating other good guys, the bad guys were now Piper’s target, and he was scheduled to main event against Randy “Macho Man” Savage for the then-prestigious WWF Intercontinental title.
Thousands of fans awaited Piper, but so did Fresno sheriff’s deputies armed with an arrest warrant. Perhaps coincidentally, Piper was scheduled for a court appearance to answer for his rowdy behavior earlier in the year, but he no-showed. He failed to appear at the arena as well, and the ring announcer told the crowd that Piper had to miss the show for a “family emergency.”
Piper retired from the WWF after WrestleMania III in March of 1987. His plan was to become a full time Hollywood actor, and he did land starring roles in cult films such as “They Live” and “Hell Comes to Frogtown”. But a retirement in wrestling really means just an extended sabbatical. Piper returned to the rings in the fall of 1989, but still steered clear of Fresno until January 1990.
Court records fail to shed too much of a light on how exactly Piper resolved his court case. A spokesman at the Sheriff’s Department said that Piper or one of his representatives took care of the situation by 1991.
As a wrestler, Piper engaged in many wild and memorable matches that are preserved on video and easily found online. But his wildest match lasts only in the memories of those in law enforcement one downtown night 30 years ago.