Leon White was a gifted athlete from an early age, starting his football career at the University of Colorado where he earned All American honors. After a brief injury plagued stint with the NFL's Los Angeles Rams, he retired from football to pursue other interests. After being spotted working out in a local gym, White was trained and debuted for the AWA under the persona of "Baby Bull."
In the late 80's New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) took notice of the monster's size and agility. The organization brought him in and quickly changed is gimmick to reflect a warrior based on Japanese folklore. This is where he first donned a mask, although a very different version than the one that is recognizable today. With the new ring gear, his name was changed to "Big Van Vader." He was pushed into the spotlight immediately feuding with the likes of Antonio Inoki, Riki Choshu, and Stan Hansen.
His first major title victory came during an eight man tournament, where he won the International Wrestling Grand Prix (IWGP) Heavyweight Championship, the first of only four Americans to ever do so.