Every week, the Masked Man, Deadspin's pro wrestling correspondent, honors the sport's fallen and examines their legacies — famous and obscure alike. Today: André the Giant, who died of a heart attack in 1993. He was 46.
When Hulk Hogan and André the Giant met in what is still considered the biggest wrestling match of all time, exaggeration was in the air. According to various contemporary reports, there were 95,000 people on hand at WrestleMania III to see the 7-foot-5, 525-pound André square off against the goldenboy Hulk Hogan, who stood 6-foot-8 and weighed 320 pounds and whose biceps measured 24 inches around. Probably the only number in that last sentence that's unimpeachable is the III.
Pro wrestling is abundant with such embellishments (and misdirections, fabrications, and lies of omission), even within the context of the sport's carefully crafted unreality. But when André was involved, the mythologizing always hit fever pitch. It's a testament to his outsized greatness that reality — as impressive at it was — couldn't do him justice.
It should be said at this point that every detail of André's life is subject to fantastical reinterpretation, and failing that, normal human error. For every stated fact that follows, there is a contradictory fact somewhere out there. I am indebted to Michael Krugman's André the Giant: A Legendary Life for its "official" timeline of André's early life, but even with that aid, "truth" hereafter should be graded on a curve.
Born André René Roussimoff in 1946 at the foot of the French Alps, in a town called Grenoble, André was normal-sized at his birth, but with adolescence came an incredible growth spurt — details are hazy, of course, but various stories put him at 6 feet at the age of 12, 6-foot-7 at the age of 17, and 7-foot-4 by 19. (There is much dispute that he ever actually reached 7-foot-4.) He had an affliction called acromegaly, a syndrome wherein the pituitary gland overproduces growth hormone. (There are stories that his grandfather in Bulgaria had the same affliction, and grew to a height of 7-foot-8.) Legend has it that when he made the long walk to school as a child, he would sometimes hitch a ride from his neighbor, Samuel Beckett. In his teen years, André worked on a farm, in a factory, and as a woodworker before he was discovered (not by Lord Alfred Hayes, as some legend suggests, though Hayes did meet him early in his career) and introduced to the world of wrestling. He traveled widely almost from the start — throughout Europe, where he was known as "Monster Eiffel Tower," into Japan, where he was dubbed "Monster Roussimoff," and at home in France, where he called "The Butcher" or simply "Giant Roussimoff." Soon, though, he took on a new moniker: "Jean Ferre," a play on the name of Geant Ferre, sort of a French Paul Bunyan. At a time when a wrestler's name printed on a billboard had to sell tickets, it was obvious almost from the start that mythology was the only means of adequate articulation of André's presence.
By now he was in Montreal, where, under the tutelage of wrestler/promoter Frank Valois, he was first exposed to the rabid wrestling audiences of North America.
Fans all over the continent began to hear whispers about this new monster, this "Eighth Wonder of the World." This was, of course, after the heyday of P.T. Barnum's sideshow exhibitions and before the modern era of the YouTube phenomenon. Likewise, his career peaked before the cable television era, before the world at large could keep tabs of his every match and movement. André's first major feud (and first in a long, long line of giant-vs.-giant programs) was against Don Leo Jonathan, who stood at 6-foot-9 (or, in real-world terms, 6-foot-6) . Their feud electrified Canadian audiences. Even so, it would take a deliberate hand to ensure that crowds didn't tire of André; the unbeatable monster is fun once, maybe twice, but it soon lost its luster. So Valois delivered André's career to the only promoter who he thought could manage such a legend in the making: Vincent J. McMahon, father of Vincent K. McMahon and paterfamilias of the WWF empire.
Vince Sr. took the reins in 1973, and his first matter of business was to change "Jean Ferre" into something more straightforward, but nevertheless something duly mesmerizing: André the Giant. Although McMahon's territory encompassed only the northeast, he knew that keeping André on the move was the only way to keep him fresh. For the next 10 years, André stayed on the road, lumbering from territory to territory, as McMahon rented him out as a special attraction to promoters across the U.S. and the world. André would almost always play the good guy, coming to the rescue of the area's top hero when the heels began to outnumber and overpower him. André was billed as being undefeated, which was presumably untrue but functionally valid; he certainly never lost a straight singles match to pinfall or submission during this period. He didn't need to, though — he would elevate his opponents in the audience's eyes just by letting them get in a few good minutes against the giant. As Jerry "the King" Lawler, one of the many local heroes to get the rub from André, put it to Krugman: "He'd let you do anything you wanted in a match. Other than beat him… But if he didn't like you, he'd make you look like crap, and there wasn't anything anyone could do about it." This became a pattern in André's career, the willingness to make his opponent look good, unless he personally disliked the guy. The explanations for this are assorted — that André was protective of his place on top of the food chain, that André respected the tradition of wrestling and detested anyone who didn't — but the result was a legend of André's temperament that was less a story of personality dispute and more like the old tales of the angry and unpredictable Greek gods. And if you were one of the unlucky few whom André decided to smite, well, god help you.
By this time, André was undeniably a megastar. In 1974, the Guinness Book of World Records named him the highest paid professional wrestler, with a one-year take of $400,000. The Washington Redskins offered him a tryout — and even viewed as a publicity stunt, it shows the degree of André's celebrity. He appeared (in costume) on The Six Million Dollar Man, playing a dastardly Sasquatch. In 1976, on the night that Muhammad Ali fought Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki in a terribly ill-conceived inter-disciplinary match, André fought ham-and-egger Chuck Wepner (the inspiration for the Rocky movies) in Shea Stadium.
In the pro wrestling world, he was feuding notably against another big man, Ernie "the Big Cat" Ladd, the San Diego Chargers behemoth who became a wrestling star in his off-hours, and he won the NWA tri-state tag-team titles with Dusty Rhodes as his partner. For a star of his wattage, André held very few titles over the course of his career. Partly this was because he moved through territories so frequently (in fact, he vacated two tag-team title reigns simply by never being there to defend the championship), and partly it was because he was a "division killer" — once he won, he had no credible opponents. But the truth of the matter is at once more subtle and more obvious: As famed WWF ring announcer Howard Finkel put it in Krugman's book, "André didn't need a title." In pro wrestling, wearing the title belt is sometimes less an indicator of your popularity as it is an instrument to earn you as much popularity as possible. André was such an attraction that there was nothing a championship belt could do to add to that. If anything, it would serve only to unduly humanize him.
In 1980, André first faced an up-and-comer named Hulk Hogan. Hogan was a villain — he came to the ring flexing in a metallic cape and headband accompanied by his manager "Classy" Freddie Blassie — but he already had visions of superstardom. André looked at Hogan and saw a presumptive bodybuilder more interested in fame than in wrestling, and in their first matches, André took it out on Hogan in the ring. But after the two men toured Japan together, and Hogan had shown sufficient deference to the Giant, acting as his personal barback and even offering up a case of fine French wine in fealty to André on his birthday, the men soon reached a sort of détente. And in mid-1980, when the two did battle at the Philly Spectrum and later at Shea, André won both matches but gave Hogan the gift of a disqualification ending in the former bout and a post-match bloodying in the latter. The degree to which this established Hogan's career can't be easily quantified, but the effect was profound. When André broke his ankle getting out of bed the next year — it was sold to wrestling fans as the result of a diabolical attack by Killer Khan — Hogan was elevated to the role of top star in the new world of the WWF, as Vince McMahon took over from his father and dismantled the territory system in the U.S., hiring away the top stars from around the country and taking his promotion national.
Vince had André under contract, and he let him continue to wrestle in Japan but not for any other American promoter. André agreed to this deal out of respect for his history with Vince Sr. and acknowledgment of Vince Jr.'s vision, but he wasn't entirely happy about it. André loved being on the road, loved being hailed as the conquering hero in each successive town, loved overindulging with his cohorts at the bars around the country. The WWF would make him a bigger star, but would one stage be big enough for an icon the size of the Giant?
The question would be put to the test in short order. In his first WWF storyline, André took on "Big" John Studd in a series of bodyslam challenge matches. Studd — a goliath in his own right at 6-foot-10 (or, in real-world terms, 6-foot-6) and 360 pounds — managed first by Blassie and later by the Bobby "the Brain" Heenan, offered anyone in the WWF $10,000 if they could slam Studd, but when André took them up on the offer, Studd's arrogance quickly turned to cowardice. The feud, which started in early 1983 and continued improbably until WresteMania I in 1985, ended in one of the early WWF's seminal moments, when André slammed Studd, took claim of the bag containing the prize money (now a whopping $15,000) and proceeded to toss handfuls of cash into the crowd.
If one were to posit that André was the first sports star to "make it rain," one would probably be correct. If one were to use the meteorological reference to draw another parallel to the Greek gods, one would probably be stretching the metaphor too far. Nonetheless, 1984 had seen André actually play the role of another ancient god: Dagoth, the horned fiend in Conan the Destroyer. As in The Six Million Dollar Man, André was heavily costumed, but his immensity was irreplaceable. Before CGI, there was only André.
In WrestleMania II, André competed in a 20-man battle royal that included, among others, William "the Refrigerator" Perry. (Perry got into a scuffle with "Big" John Studd in the match.) But soon André's heath was in a state of serious decline, and he was written off WWF television under the guise of a suspension nefariously engineered by Bobby Heenan. During his off-time, André returned again to Hollywood, where he appeared (finally without makeup) as Fezzik, the wicked but lovable ogre in The Princess Bride.
André was notoriously proud of the movie and insisted on watching it over and over again with his fellow wrestlers in the years that followed. André also found fame with a younger generation around this time in the Saturday morning cartoon Hulk Hogan's Rock ‘n' Wrestling as an oafish, sportcoat-wearing animated sidekick, and as a comic prop in the live-action bumper segments.
André's fame was, almost inconceivably, growing. And the WWF's star continued to rise as well. As WrestleMania III approached, Vince was determined to have the biggest story in wrestling history at the center of the card. He approached André about playing the bad guy — which he had done frequently in Japan, but never in America — in a main event program against his on-screen best friend, Hulk Hogan. André was intrigued, but he was in too much pain after years of the torment of acromegaly, the hard hits in the wrestling ring, the steady torture of undersized beds and cars, and his famously self-destructive lifestyle.
The legend of André the Giant's drinking almost overshadows his wrestling triumphs. There are numerous stories of his drinking feats: 119 beers in one sitting, 156 beers in one sitting, a case of wine on a four-hour bus ride, a $40,000 bar tab while filming The Princess Bride, 7,000 calories of alcohol intake a day. (A cursory Google search will show you that the internet is more interested in incidences of André's drinking prowess than in details about his career.)
When André told Vince that he was in no condition to wrestle, Vince offered to pay for whatever surgery he needed and to help him rehab in the McMahon family home. André accepted. Legend has it that, just before his back surgery, the anesthesiologist had never had to put a giant under before, and they were forced to use his alcoholic consumption as a guide for his dosage. ("It usually takes two liters of vodka just to make me feel warm inside," he purportedly quipped at the time.) The formula they created for André is (supposedly) still used today.
In 1987, André returned to WWF television on a Piper's Pit segment in which Hogan and André both received trophies for their accomplishments — Hogan for his three years as champion and André for his career-long undefeated streak. André felt that Hogan had upstaged him — he had, actually — and the seeds were sown for André to turn on his erstwhile friend.
André brought on Heenan as his new manager — the ultimate signal of his turn to the dark side — and the following weeks were spent with increasingly dramatic interactions between the two men, mostly in interviews and staredowns on Piper's Pit. The most memorable of these encounters had André tearing off Hogan's shirt and ripping the gold crucifix from around his neck. Clearly, André was neither subject to the "demandments" of Hulkamania nor the mores of common Christianity. After all, what does one god have to offer another?
When Hogan and André finally climbed into the same ring at WrestlemMania III, the crowd had been teased into a certifiable lather. Jesse "The Body" Ventura said from the commentary table that it was "the biggest match in the history of professional wrestling," and there was no room to argue with him. This was Hercules versus Zeus, with immortality on the line. When Hogan bodyslammed André, it wasn't (in truth) the first time that André had been slammed. And when Hogan pinned André for the victory, it wasn't (in truth) the first time that André had been defeated. But that's how it was billed, and that's what the crowd believed, and they exploded into an ecstatic, frenzied, jingoistic frenzy.
Hogan stood victorious, but the specter of André still loomed. Heenan "sold" the Giant's services to "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase, a newly emergent top-level heel. Hogan and André met again almost a year later, on Feb' 5, 1988, in NBC's Main Event (a renamed version of Saturday Night's Main Event). Thirty-three million viewers tuned in to see André get his revenge. As it turned out, the Million Dollar Man's money had bought not just André's services, but the betrayal of referee Earl Hebner (who had "gotten plastic surgery" to pass for his brother Dave Hebner, the match's referee of record), and Hogan was pinned even though he'd clearly gotten his shoulder up after a count of two.
Every young wrestling fan learned about injustice on this day. For many of us, this was perhaps the most infuriating, gut-wrenching moment in television history. We could halfway understand André as the bad guy, a foreign giant with foreign motives, but we couldn't comprehend his need to cheat to win. After the match, André relinquished the belt to DiBiase, and we were apoplectic. He was not just a villain, not just a cheater, but now he was a sellout. He was no better than any other WWF bad guy.
The storylines that followed backed up that sentiment. His feud with Hogan over, André was relegated to the midcard, where he feuded with Jake "The Snake" Roberts (storyline: André was deathly afraid of snakes!), a returning "Big" John Studd (storyline: it's the same feud as before, only Studd is good and André's bad!!), and the Ultimate Warrior (storyline: Warrior can beat up André!!!). In most of these feuds, his still-failing physical state was hidden in multi-partner tag matches. André teamed with Haku to form the Colossal Connection, and the duo (managed by Heenan) won the tag-team titles. By this time, André's health was again deteriorating to the point where permanent retirement was beckoning. The Colossal Connection lost the belts to Demolition, and when a livid Heenan came into the ring to reprimand André for the loss, André attacked his manager (or tried to; after an obviously missed slap, commentator Gorilla Monsoon yelled, "André just paintbrushed him!"). André had seen the light, and he was finally once again in the good graces of the WWF audience.
André appeared only sporadically thereafter. His last television appearance, on 1992's WCW Clash of the Champions XX special, was depressing for a number of reasons: André's crutches, WCW's shoddy production values, the impertinence of the whole thing.
Less than six months later, André died. In terrible physical pain, he had traveled from his North Carolina ranch to France to attend his father's funeral; one night, in the Paris hotel room that he stayed in (presumably because it fit him better than his family home would), he died in his sleep. There was no autopsy, but the cause of death was ruled a heart attack due to various complications from acromegaly.
He had had a magnificent career, and his in-ring work was by that point almost certainly over. But there was a pervading sense in his obituaries that he had lived up only to the cusp of something, that pro wrestling was about to become bigger than ever, that André was a sort of Moses, unable to get to the promised land. It's certainly the case that he didn't live to see the full explosion of the modern era of wrestling, but that's just as well. He was an icon of a different era, the last in a long line of real men — William Wallace, Vlad the Impaler, Davy Crockett, etc. — who became gods in the retelling of their tales. In the modern era, with television and, later, the Internet, there is no folklore, no mythmaking outside of the sort of postmortem buffering that's been done to Ronald Reagan's legacy. André's death, heartbreaking as it was, elevated him into the pantheon, into the world of memory and legend, which is where he always belonged anyway.
In his 46 years, everything that André touched turned not into gold but hyperbole: He was the biggest athlete of all time; the WrestleMania III bout was the biggest wrestling match of all time; his 1981 Sports Illustrated profile was the biggest SI profile of all time. (I personally look forward to someday telling my kids about the 15,000-word essay I wrote about André for Deadspin, and the 2 million pageviews the piece got.) One would think that, at his size, the superlatives would be sort of redundant. But they were inevitable: André was greater than he was giant, a legend in every sense of the word.
Ric Flair tells the story that when he started out in wrestling, some of the old-timers told him that André the Giant — who was passing through the territory at the time — had multiple rows of teeth, like a shark. Whenever Ric got close enough, at the right angle, he snuck looks into André's mouth to see if the legend was true.
It wasn't, of course, but that's beside the point. André the Giant was as much a man of myth as a man of reality. He was a god who couldn't be contained by the outsized world of professional wrestling, but moreover he was a god in the classical-historical sense: that his existence was sustained by his legend, and his legend evinced his existence.
We bid you adieu, André. We always believed in you.
DWotW Bonus Clip: I always loved this commercial:
The Masked Man works in publishing.