Photo: WWE via AP

King Kong Bundy, the biggest man I ever saw undressed, is dead. He was 61. No official cause of death has yet been issued.

Bundy was listed at 457 pounds when I had a private audience with him before a match in 1999. He was long out of his prime by the time I spoke with him. He’d spent the ’80s at or near the top of the card at events in basketball arenas and football stadiums. But here he was, just me and him, in a small high school locker room, as he strapped on a big singlet and got ready to work in front of a few hundred people in the suburban hell of Woodbridge, Va.

But despite his long professional fall, he couldn’t have been nicer. “Call me Chris,” he told me. He called me “Brother.”

And he told me much of his life story. He said he’d been bartending and rather aimlessly going to community college in his native New Jersey under his real name, Chris Pallies, when he answered a phone call from a pro wrestling recruiter who, as the story goes, had dialed a wrong number. But by the end of their accidental conversation, Pallies’s life had direction.

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He tried out all sorts of new names in his early days in the ring, like Crippler Cannon, Man Mountain Cannon Jr., Chris Canyon, and Boom Boom Bundy.

He told me his first successes came as Big Daddy Bundy with World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), the Texas-based promotion that ruled the Southwest. Big Daddy was a good guy, or face. But he found that WCCW’s face field was already overcrowded by members of the Von Erich family—five brothers and father Fritz, the head of WCCW. A change was necessary.

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“Brother, I had to go bad,” Bundy told me.

His heel turn brought him to Vince McMahon’s WWF just as that federation was going from a regional promotion to an international phenomenon. Bad guys can be as popular as good guys in wrestling, of course, and Bundy was as popular as he was big. And, man, was there a lot of Bundy to go around. (As a friend of mine described Bundy’s corpulence: “He has love handles on his ears.”)

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He had featured roles in several early WrestleManias. He finished off S.D. “Special Delivery” Jones with his signature closer, the Avalanche, just seconds into the match at 1985’s inaugural Wrestlemania at Madison Square Garden. He headlined WrestleMania II with a cage match loss to Hulk Hogan. And for WrestleMania III, as pay-per-view color commentator Jesse Ventura screamed, “Smash him, Bundy! Smash him!” and to the gasps of a crowd of a claimed 93,000 fans at the Pontiac Silverdome and a global audience, Bundy splashed all of his quarter-ton self onto a 4-foot-4, 60-pound, 52-year-old midget wrestling (as it was then called) legend named Little Beaver.

Little Beaver never wrestled again. Really.

Bundy’s figurative bigness matched his literal humongosity. Bundy had not only his own licensed action figure, but also a whole sitcom family named as a tribute: The Bundys of Married With Children fame were so named because series creators Ron Leavitt and Michael G. Moye were huge fans. King Kong Bundy was even brought in to play himself on the show in 1987. (A couple other hints of that sitcom’s heavy wrestling bent: Al’s fellow salesman at Gary’s Shoes was “Luke Ventura,” as in Jesse the Body, and the Bundys’ next-door neighbors were named the Rhoades, as in Dusty.

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Bundy told me he took what was supposed to be only a one-year sabbatical at the end of the 1980s to regroup, but that his plans to get back in the ring stalled because of a divorce and other personal problems he didn’t want to talk about. When he was ready to return, pro wrestling was enjoying another heyday in the mid-1990s, with McMahon’s WWF and Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling owning the cable ratings. But Bundy wasn’t invited back to the big leagues. So he started bringing his Avalanche and hilarious five-count finishes to events put on by any promotion anywhere that would have him. Even one in Woodbridge, Va., as I learned in a wonderful way.

“It’s a job to me. And I need a job,” he told me. “That’s why I’m still in wrestling. Not ‘cause I love it.”

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On our night together, he was working for a tiny (and now long-defunct) indie group in the Washington, D.C. area called the Independent Professional Wrestling Alliance. He’d just come from an appearance at the Dundalk (Md.) Teamsters Hall for a card put on about once a month by Maryland Championship Wrestling. Not exactly Madison Square Garden or the Pontiac Dome.

But to the fans in the high school gym and the no-name rasslers sharing the card, and to me, there was no question we were in the presence of greatness. My alone time with Bundy was ended when reigning IPWA champion Tom Brandi, his soon-to-be opponent in the night’s feature match, came into the locker room to ask Bundy if he could have one of his old action figures. Bundy had brought along a box of the dolls in his likeness, which came in regular or blood-splattered versions, to sell for $10 apiece. Bundy seemed touched by Brandi’s request, and gave him a blood-splattered version for free.

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“You take care of that, now,” Bundy told the champ. “That’s a limited-edition doll. Limited to how many I can sell!”