Settle in for a triple feature with a look back at the trio of cameos from one Leon White, a.k.a Big Van Vader, a.k.a Francis (Leslie) Stecchino.
First off, for the uninitiated, Boy Meets World was a TGIF version of The Wonder Years. Now, it serves as a prequel to Disney’s Girl Meets World. Just like The Wonder Years, the show’s star was a fellow Savage. Fred’s younger brother, Ben Savage. Following in his brother’s footsteps, Ben took on the role of Cory Matthews, a kid entering his teens and trying to find his place in school and in life. Helping him figure this stuff out along the way is his family, Alan, his dad; Amy, his mom; Eric, his older brother; and his younger sister Morgan, who disappears for a while. Outside his family, Cory relies on guidance from intrusive principal/teacher/next door neighbor, Mr. Feeny, best friend Shawn, and lifetime love interest, and future mother of his children, Topanga.
Throughout the series, Vader made a cameo in three different episodes, throughout three different seasons, while working for the two major wrestling companies at the time, WCW and WWF. First up…
“The Thrilla in Phila”
Season 2, Episode 21
Cory is finishing up seventh grade and after being prompted by Topanga to reflect on his past school year and come up with his biggest accomplishment for the yearbook, Corey realizes he and Shawn have done absolutely nothing. Which in reality makes them like the rest of the 90% of the student body. But Cory takes this to heart and blames the jocks for his own shortcomings, which translates to him not being able to get girls. Which again, in reality, is the goal of any teenager: to land a significant other.
The jocks approach Cory about joining the wrestling team as they have an opening for the 108 pound super confetti weight division. In boxing, 108 pounds lands you in the flyweight division, but super confetti weight is a way better adjective to represent just how light these guys are. The jocks present Cory with a Letterman jacket and wrestling singlet, and he is immediately smitten. Not so much with the Letterman jacket, or wrestling singlet, but with Candy, his literal arm candy upon becoming a jock. Which is kind of weird. Like, are the jocks pimping her out?
In this same episode, Adam Scott shows up in one of his few cameos (he has almost as many as Vader) as Griff Hawkins, the temporary, much more laid back replacement for resident bully, Harley Keiner. He’s less of a bully, and more of a Zack Morris-type of rascal, but also the new leader for Harley’s henchmen, Joey the Rat, and Frankie Stecchino. After coming down on Griff for having Joey and Frankie bring him fresh lobsters for lunch and sentencing him to detention, Mr. Feeny urges the two cronies to have lives of their own. Joey the Rat decides to try out for the wrestling team.
Cory, now known as Cory “The Cory” Matthews (which is a great nickname, and a concept no actual wrestler has thought of reusing), is told by the main jock that he now has to wrestle Joey the Rat (who also has a pretty good wrestling nickname) for the jacket. Cory have their match in front of the wrestling. Shawn, coaching Cory, simply tells Cory to dodge Joey’s attacks. He does as told and then takes down Joey while he’s busy complaining to Frankie about Cory moving out of the way. Cory pins him fairly easily, by literally pinning his shoulders to the mat without using any kind of a finishing move. Or actual amateur wrestling holds.
Joey is beside himself and challenges Cory to an unsanctioned rematch, but Cory walks away. Joey proceeds to taunt Corey by popping up everywhere and calling him “yellow.” You know, what most high school kids in the 90’s (or any time after the 50’s) call each other to provoke a fight. The wrestling team finally convinces Cory to accept Joey’s challenge. Just as he does, Griff interrupts their promo, just like any good general manager might do on an episode of Raw or SmackDown Live, to make the match official and add the details, like when and where it will take place. In this case, the school’s gym after school, seeing as Griff has Janitor Bud’s set of keys.
While suiting up in the locker room, Cory reasons that the whole situation is dumb and not worth the jacket. Shawn follows him out to the gym where Cory plans on forfeiting until he sees that the entire school is in attendance. Not only that, but Griff has gone all out to add the pomp and circumstance that most sold-out indy shows don’t even have. Forget general manager, Griff Hawkins is a Vince McMahon in the making. Not only does he have the bright lights, vendors, and an actual make-shift wrestling ring, complete with ropes and posts, but the most visionary aspect of Griff’s promoting skills is hiring “stars,” like Robert Goulet to sing the national anthem, and serve as the ring announcer. And having Yasmine Bleeth come in as a spectator, thanks to some convincing making-out skills on behalf of Griff. Wait, how old is Griff? Did Yasmine Bleath hook up with a minor? How did some random ass cool high school kid from Philadelphia hook up with Yasmine Bleath, during the height of Baywatch, in the first place?
Rounding out the list of VIP’s in attendance, is none other than the “eleven times heavyweight wrestling champion of the world” Vader. Vader menacingly makes his way through the gym doors with accompanying villainous music, sporting the WCW U.S. Title. Which makes sense, as this episode released during Vader’s run with WCW, and his attire is circa his WCW run. Vader gets in 13-year-old Cory’s face and threatens to get the job done if Joey can’t. He concludes his professional wrestler scary voice promo, after dropping gems like “I am fear,” only to have Cory taunt him by simply asking “I’m sorry sir, I didn’t get your name.” Which is the best type of response to the typically loud wrestling promo and one that should be used more often.
Shawn stupidly rings the bell, and Cory instantly runs away from Joey. Backed into a corner, Cory has no choice but to kick an oncoming Joey in the gut. Cory then proceeds to pick up Joey and gingerly slam him down on the mat. He scales the second rope and dives onto Joey. Again, employing no amateur wrestling moves whatsoever. Although, in fairness, this is an unsanctioned high school wrestling match. Not wanting to lose to Cory twice, Joey decides to tag in Frankie.
The oversized bully enters the ring and starts to circle Cory. Eric pops his head in between the ropes, urging Cory to leave. Cory does and Frankie makes sure that Eric takes Cory’s place by dragging him inside the ring. Eric tries a shoulder tackle, but does little to deter the big man. He then goes for an eye-poke, which stuns Frankie enough for Eric to deliver a head-butt that causes even more damage. Vader decides to tag himself in as this whole thing is taking too long. The crowd boos, but no one bothers to report to the proper authorities that a grown adult man is about to murder a high school student. I get that Philly has a reputation for being a tough city, but damn.
Vader grabs Eric by the throat then hoists him up Gorilla Press Slam style. Cory, the only decent person in the building, jumps back into the ring to help out his older brother. He charges at Vader’s gut, but instantly goes down. Probably with a concussion. Out of nowhere, Mr. Feeny shows up and orders Vader to put Eric down. He then jumps over the ropes and approaches Vader. Vader tells Feeny he can no longer tell him what to do now that he’s not one of his students, despite the fact that he’s a grown man trespassing on school grounds, about to beat an underage student of that very same school.
Mr. Feeny, being the clever fellow that he is, doesn’t even have to resort to violence (like he could), or threaten to call the cops. Instead, he whispers Vader’s real name (which is Leslie in this episode), and that’s enough to get Vader to put Eric down. Remember, kayfabe was something wrestlers still cared about in the early 90’s. Vader warns Feeny that there will be a next time and when that time comes, it’ll be a Texas death match, loser leaves town altercation. Mr. Feeny dismisses this with a “Yeah… Yeah… Yeah…” and walks away from the man they call Vader. Vader is left standing there confused, probably slowly realizing that he’s not in an actual pro wrestling situation, but inside a high school gym (that’s not an indy wrestling show) along with his son’s underage peers.
The next day, Cory hands his Letterman jacket back to the jocks. Topanga shows up again to ask Cory about his quote for the yearbook. He asks her what she put, and she recites something romantic and thinly veiled about them ending up together one day, and Cory asks her to put the same thing down for him. And there you have it. This whole episode is just one main wrestling storyline, no B or C stories to clutter it up. This is how most TV shows should write their wrestling episodes.
“New Friends and Old”
Season 3, Episode 13
The episode opens with Cory and Shawn sporting cheerleader outfits. Apparently, this was Frankie Stecchino and Joey The Rat’s doing, as Cory and Shawn turn out to be the actual rats and get Joey suspended by snitching to Mr. Feeny. A little while later, Frankie Stecchino is inside Mr. Feeny’s office alongside his father, Vader, awaiting his own punishment. Vader is also no longer Leslie Stecchino, but instead referred to as Francis Stecchino. So much for continuity. Mr. Feeny questions Frankie as to who was behind the prank that led to students having their clothes burned, and being forced to dress as cheerleaders. Frankie, unwittingly drops the dime on his friend Joey, despite Joey already being suspended.
Feeny questions Frankie’s own fate, but Vader loudly exclaims, as only Vader can, that Frankie is going to straighten up and tow the line. As the 11-time champion of the world, Vader gives Feeny his guarantee, followed by a couple of “woofs” because this is now one of Vader’s defining traits as a wrestler. A sullen Frankie Jr. ponders what his future will be like without Joey, but Mr. Feeny urges him to seek out new friendships. As Mr. Feeny thanks them for coming down, the giant father and son duo step aside to reveal a tiny Mrs. Stecchino standing right behind them all along. The rest of the episode details Cory and Shawn’s attempts to make good with Frankie by pretending to be his friend, only to realize that there’s some added perks that go along with it. And then later, realizing they’re terrible people for exploiting Frankie’s reputation and that he too is a human being with feelings that they should try to get to know better.
At the end of the episode, the tag (as they say in show biz), Frankie is hanging out at the Matthews’ household. Vader stops by in his ring gear, with a random championship belt since he’s no longer an actual champion of a wresting company. Vader cuts a promo, talking about how he gets worked up when he has to defend his world title. He’s also sporting his singlet on backwards. The same one he’s been wrestling in for years! Vader then dares Cory, a 14-15 year old kid, to try and take his belt from him. Mrs. Matthews comes down to see what all the noise is about, and Vader continues cutting a promo. She no sells Vader’s intensity and says he doesn’t act this way during the PTA meetings. Eric strolls into the kitchen making light of Frankie’s newfound softer image, failing to notice Vader to the side of him. Vader then hoists Eric onto his shoulder, picking right back up from the previous episode Vader had guest starred in, while continuing to bark.
“Sixteen Candles and Four-Hundred Pound Men”
Season 4, Episode 9
This episode starts off with Cory reading a poem about someone who reaches out for an unattainable love that hits a little too close to home for one Frankie Stecchino, one-time bully, and forever frenemy of Cory and Shawn. Cory decides to help Frankie in his quest for love, if he in turn helps out Cory and Shawn understand their poetry assignments. This isn’t the first time Cory and Shawn meddle in Frankie’s love life. Last time, it caused a riff between him and his leader, Harley Keiner.
At Frankie’s house, the guys try to needle Frankie about who this unrequited love interest is. Before he can answer, his father, Francis Stecchino Sr. a.k.a. Vader, enters their trailer park home. Because, at this point, the WWF devalued Vader as a performer so much that he was basically getting paid on the independent wrestling scale (which wasn’t as lucrative in 1994 as it is now). Seriously, how does an 11-time former world champion end up in a trailer park while still employed by the WWF? They live in the same trailer park as Shawn Hunter, whose dad could barely hold down a job! In real life, Vader was a pro wrestler and a goddamn real estate developer on the side. He was good with money. Trailer park living is only supposed to happen when you’ve burned through all your money and you’re 20 years past your prime, like in The Wrestler.
Because championship belt replicas weren’t being mass produced at the time, Vader’s trophy and belt collection consists of a few actual trophies and championships, and some of WWF’s foam children’s belts from the 80’s. Vader barely has enough time to put his bag down as Frankie excitedly tries to show off his latest addition to the Norton Anthology Collection of Modern Poetry. Personally, I’m a fan of their short fiction collection. Vader shuts that shit down and immediately laments the fact that Frankie could’ve been somebody, like a sumo. It’s kind of fucked up that Vader pigeonholes his son as a sumo, because Frankie Jr. happens to be bigger than him. There were pro wrestlers who were just as big, or bigger. Also, Frankie’s still in high school, he still has his whole life ahead of him to be somebody. Cut the kid some slack, Vader!
Frankie’s kid brother, Herman, who’s standing next to Vader, vows to carry on the family’s tradition, seeing as it’s too late for way too sensitive, Frankie. But the kid even talks like Frankie, so there’s not much hope there. Even his “woofing” needs work. Oh yeah, Vader continues to bark as part of his character. And yet, it’s not any worse than Vader calling himself a big fat piece of shit. Cory thinks Herman’s cute, and Vader doesn’t take too kindly to Cory’s sensitive influence on Frankie. He remembers Cory and promises to crush him like garlic and put him in his spaghetti. Because that’s what 90’s pro wrestling threats on TGIF sound like. Cory remembers this line from one of Vader’s promos against Sycho Sid and suddenly wins Vader over. Vader tells Frankie he should be more like Cory, as he leaves. A crestfallen Frankie proclaims that he still loves him. Cory, putting two and two together, realizes what he needs to do.
The next day at school, Topanga gives Cory an invite to her sweet sixteen party. She seems overly anxious about him going, despite him being her long-time friend and current boyfriend. After school, Frankie is schooling Cory and Shawn about understanding poetry. Vader suddenly enters and announces that he’s finally gotten his rematch against Jake “The Snake” Roberts for a shot at the title. Because in the TGIF Universe, 1996 Jake Roberts is a top contender for the WWF World Title. Cory suggests that Frankie take his own advice on understanding poetry and see things from the perspective of his father. Meaning he should share in his father’s love of wrestling. Just as Vader reenters the living room, Cory tells Frankie to coach his father about improving his move the “Vader Bomb.” Cory, like any true smart mark wrestling fan, offers up his opinion and suggests that Vader is setting up his move way too slowly. Frankie advises his dad on setting up the Vader Bomb a lot quicker, because fuck pacing and telling a story. Because this is some kind of revelation to him that he had never considered before in his entire career, Vader is so impressed with Frankie’s tip that he asks him to be ringside for his match against Jake.
After class, Frankie thanks Cory for his help and tells him he’ll see him tomorrow night for the most important night of his life. If you’re wondering if Vader’s match against Jake Roberts for a shot at Shawn Michaels’ championship title at Madison Square Garden happens to be on the same night as Topanga’s sweet sixteen party, then congratulations, you’ve seen this episode. Or, you’re old enough to have seen the episode of The Flintstones that Boy Meets World acknowledges they lifted this plot from. At first, Cory tells Frankie he can’t make it, but then gives in and tells Frankie he’ll be there. When he sees Topanga, Cory tries to get out of attending her birthday party because that’s the kind of thing a 16 year old girl would be totally cool with. She freaks and Cory also assures her that he’ll be there.
Back at Cory’s house, Shawn brings over a tape of The Flintstones episode in which Fred has to be at Pebble’s birthday party and the big bash at the Water Buffalo Lodge on the same night. He reasons that by watching the video, Cory will be able to pull off the same thing. They watch the video, as Shawn breaks down a couple of key factors in pulling this off. Such as, always remembering to do a costume change before heading back to each event. And that Cory cannot spend more than 75 seconds at each place. Cory explains that this was a cartoon and that time was compressed. There’s no way they’ll be able to pull it off because they’re real and that they’re in real time. In a very meta moment, Shawn tells Cory to trust him because it’s the same thing. He might as well have looked at the camera and winked.
I’ve only been to Philadelphia once, like twenty years after this episode aired. I have no idea what the layout of the Philadelphia Spectrum looked like, or the surrounding area in 1996, but even if Topanga’s party was the noted 3/10 of a mile from the Spectrum, I’m sure it would’ve taken at least 15 minutes just to leave from the ringside area of a WWE event, exit the building, walk on foot (I’m assuming), and attend the party. That’s already the average length of a wrestling match. And it would probably take longer just to make it back into a WWE event, what with security and all.
At the Spectrum, Brother Love a.k.a. Bruce Prichard, who hadn’t been on WWF television since, like 1991, just so happens to be the ring announcer and commentator. On an episode of Something to Wrestle With, Bruce explains that one of the producers of Boy Meets World happened to be a fan of Brother Love, and had asked Bruce if he would play his old character. And the fact that Bruce just so happened to be the one setting up the logistics behind this episode as the WWF contact person at the time had nothing to do with it. You can also see Gerald Brisco at ringside with Brother Love during the match.
The cool part about this match is that it was shot during an actual WWF house show. So it actually looks like a big deal, and it’s not just a ring set up on a sound stage made to look like it’s at your local high school gym. Vader makes his entrance with Frankie, Cory, and Shawn, as Brother Love announces them by name and introduces them as Vader’s special advisors. The crowd’s not really audible here, or really throughout the match. At least, not enough to let you know whose side they are on. Which is a good thing, I guess. Seeing as it’s in Philadelphia, these guys would’ve shat all over the idea of Vader coming out with these goofy-looking high school kids. Jake doesn’t care for Cory and Shawn pandering to the crowd and busts out his new albino snake, Revelations, to scare them out of the ring.
The match starts and Vader gets an early advantage on Jake, smacking him around a bit. Before they can really get going, Cory and Shawn decide to take their first of many leaves. Frankie questions where they’re going and Shawn lies that they need to get a program in order to tell the “players” apart. Players? They prefer sports entertainers. Even Frankie doesn’t buy it, as he questions how hard can it be to tell his father apart from not his father.
Cory ditches the Vader shirt and throws on a jacket in time to greet Topanga. He definitely spends less time with Topanga than the allotted 75 seconds before taking off once more. Shawn and Cory put their Vader shirts back on and newly acquired Vader masks. At this point, Jake gets the upper hand on Vader. Even Brother Love, who’s privy to a lot of information here, announces that the guys’ advice has not been paying off. Which we can blame Cory for. Jake signals for the DDT. Cory tells Frankie to tell his dad to counter the move, or he’s a goner. That’s it? These guys got ringside access to give that golden nugget of information? Like, that’s the other 50% of wrestling, countering the other guy’s holds and moves. Cory could’ve at least suggested how to counter it, since he’s such a huge wrestling fan and all. Frankie shouts at Vader to watch out for the DDT. Jake goes for it, but Vader shoves Jake into the corner. Success! Just as Vader mounts a comeback, Cory and Shawn bolt again.
They show up and Shawn takes the Vader mask from Cory before he can approach Topanga, who’s at the punch bowl, looking like the saddest sweet sixteen ever. Seriously, it’s her party, why’s she all alone when she has friends and family there? I guess that’s what happens when you spend your entire high school career being the third wheel to two schmucks who rather be hanging out with themselves. Cory lies and tells Topanga he’s been looking for her. She asks Cory about dancing with her for her special dance. Which shows how patient and understanding Topanga is that she’s totally cool with Cory just roaming about her party, and not dancing with her throughout the night, so long as she gets that one last song with him. As she goes to talk to the DJ about the song, Shawn points out that Jake’s taken the snake out of the bag again. Oh yeah, the match is playing on a TV above the bar, where a couple of guys are watching. And yet no one’s noticed Cory and Shawn being there. Cory explains that Jake taking out the snake means Vader’s history, like it’s a signature move that helps set up the DDT. This ain’t the short-arm clothesline, man. As Cory and Shawn leave, the DJ cues this “Happy Birthday” slow song. As everybody pairs off, poor Topanga is left standing alone.
Back at the Spectrum, Jake DDTs Vader. Which would signal the end of the match, but we can’t tell if Jake even tries to pin Vader because in typical WWE fashion, they cut to something else. In this case, Shawn and Cory arriving at ringside. A pissed off Frankie tells Cory that his tips are not working. What are you talking about, dude? The last thing Cory said was to counter the DDT, which worked. Unless, Cory had previously given him a list of tips, what else was there that Cory might’ve told him? Even then, the DDT didn’t put Vader away, so things are not all bad. Cory assures him that his tips are gold and that Vader will turn the match around any second. Which is more wishful thinking than it is strategy. Vader then gets clotheslined out of the ring.
Frankie approaches Vader. All seems lost and Vader is begging for some kind of inspiration. Frankie looks over to Cory, but Cory admits that he’s all out of ideas. If your were keeping track, Cory had one pointer to give during this entire match and that was to counter the DDT. That’s it. Frankie says he has no tips about piledrivers or scoop slams, but all he has is his love for his father, and no matter the outcome he will always be the champion of his heart. Apparently that’s enough to motivate Vader, as he would rather win for a chance to become an actual champion than the figurative champion of his son’s heart. Or maybe Vader was just looking for his son’s love and approval, as well. He takes down Jake, body slams him, then corners him and starts throwing those Vader haymakers. He then puts Jake in position and hits the Vader Bomb. Vader gets the three count and celebrates with his son and his son’s friends with a big group hug. Now, you can blame WWF and Boy Meets World for neutering the Vader of old. Shawn alerts Cory that they’ve exceeded their 75 second limit and haul ass back to the party.
Cory arrives to see Topanga sitting at a table alone in the middle of a now empty room. Topanga asks how the fight’s going and motions to the TV sitting atop the bar, replaying Vader’s celebration with Cory and Shawn right in the middle, having their hands raised by Vader, while Frankie is cast off to the side. Damn, these guys really only do care about themselves. Cory explains how he was helping Frankie get closer to his dad. They happen to look up at the TV just as Frankie is finally left alone to celebrate with his father. Cory apologizes that they weren’t able to have a special dance in front of everyone, still missing the point. Topanga tells him it wasn’t about dancing in front of everyone, it was about the two of them sharing a special dance together.
Shawn tells Cory that Frankie still owes him a favor. Even though that original favor was helping them with their poetry assignment. But because they’re selfish, they figure Frankie still owes them seeing as he not only connected with his father, but they also had a very small hand in Vader winning his match. Cut to Topanga and Cory dancing in an empty arena in the middle of the ring, as Shawn and Frankie creepily look on, because Shawn can’t ever leave Cory’s side, even when he’s with his girlfriend.
As Cory and Topanga finish up dancing to their song, Vader decides it’s the perfect time to show Frankie his new move, The Vadersault. Which he’s really been doing for years at this point. He also tells Frankie that it’s okay that he doesn’t want to become a pro wrestler, like him. Which is the closest thing Frankie’s going to get to his dad accepting him and his poetry. And, in a weird visual, the show ends with Cory and Topanga waltzing out of the way, as four-hundred pound Vader moonsaults just a couple of feet from them onto his stomach. He also doesn’t sell the pain at all. Frankie simply exclaims “all right, dad!” As this is as good as it’s ever going to get.
If you guys want to know how that match with Vader and Shawn Michaels turned out, here’s Vader explaining it. Also, it’s worth noting that the match between Vader and Jake lasted the entirety of a sweet sixteen party. Which is unreal. Even though Jake was only 41 at the time of this episode premiering (WWE Champion AJ Styles is currently 40), it was a hard lived 41 years that included demons. Lots and lots of demons. There’s no way Jake and Vader could’ve gone 60 minutes, let alone the length of time it would take for a sweet sixteen party to start, end, and even clean up after.
What’s worth noting even more, is that this wasn’t the only time pro wrestling and love would cross paths for Topanga (Danielle Fishel). Danielle found herself at a PWG show in 2017, alongside her boyfriend, former rapper, former WWE writer, Gallery 1988 owner, and executive producer of Drop the Mic, Jensen Karp. Despite wrestling almost destroying her sweet sixteen party at one time, “Topanga” still enjoyed herself and even became Lio Rush’s number one celebrity fan.