Every sport has it’s stars, top performers who excel and are known and loved by the passionate fans who follow every game or match. Once in a great a while an athlete comes along who eclipses the very arena he performs in and comes to symbolize the spirit of competition not only for fans of the game, but for the world in general. Babe Ruth did it for baseball, Muhammad Ali for boxing. These men came to represent something greater than the sports they played, something larger. Instantly recognizable to people the world over, they became ambassadors to the world at large, their influence was not confined to the ballpark or boxing ring. Decades after their retirement, their shadows still fall heavily on the sports that they made great. They are recalled with awe by fans fortunate enough to have seen them, while newer generations are left to wonder about their dominance and impact. In the world of professional wrestling, no man’s shadow looms larger than Andrè the Giant.
Andrè Renè Rousimoff was born in Grenoble, France on May 19th, 1946. At an early age he displayed symptoms of acromegaly, a syndrome that results when the pituitary gland produces excess growth hormone. The symptoms of acromegaly include a bugling forehead, and enlarged jaw, as well as swelling of the vocal cords which can lead to an unnaturally deep speaking voice. This syndrome is rare in children and is referred to as pituitary gigantism, because the excessive growth hormone produces abnormal bone growth and affected children often grow to be extremely tall if the condition is untreated.
By the time Andrè was twelve years old, he had grown to a height of of 6’3” and weighed over 240lbs. He found that he was too large to travel to school via the school bus, and had to be driven to school by a family friend. Although Andrè was a good student, and enjoyed school, he believed he was destined to live his life as a manual laborer on a farm, so he did not complete his education. For a time, Andrè worked on farm, as a woodworker and in a factory before moving to Paris in 1964.
Once Andrè arrived in Paris, he found work as a mover and learned how to wrestle by training at night. Soon he was wrestling in Europe, New Zealand, and Africa, before making his Japanese debut in 1970. Andrè was an immediate success in Japan, winning the Intercontinental Wrestling Enterprise’s tag team championship. While he was in Japan, Andrè was first diagnosed with acromegaly. He declined to pursue treatment for the condition, despite knowing that it would likely lead to his premature death.
Moving to Montreal, Canada Andrè worked for the American Wrestling Association. He was a success in Canada, selling out the Montreal Forum on multiple occasions. In 1973, Andrè signed with the World Wrestling Federation, and at the suggestion of Vince McMahon, Sr., he began appearing as “Andrè the Giant” Andrè the Giant made his first appearance for the World Wrestling Federation on March 26, 1973 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He defeated Buddy Wolfe to begin a 14-year undefeated streak that would not end until Wreslemaina III in 1987.
In 1976, Andrè fought professional boxer Chuck Wepner in an unscripted match on the undercard of a Muhammad Ali fight. The match ended with Andrè throwing Wepner over the top rope and out of the ring entirely. This was the inspiration for the Rocky Balboa/Thunderlipsmatch that opens the 1982 Sylvester Stallone film, “Rocky III”. In the film, the character of Thunderlips is portrayed by Hulk Hogan, in a role that would catapult him into the international spotlight, and make him into one of wrestling’s biggest babyface stars.
In 1987, Andrè abandoned his babyface persona and became a heel in order to balance the wrestling world in light of Hulk Hogan’s massive appeal as a babyface. The two began a feud that would last the better part of a year, finally culminating in a match at Wrestlemania III.
Andrè the Giant was billed as 7’4” and 520lbs and due to the stress of the extra weight on his bones, found himself in almost constant pain. Always a heavy drinker, Andrè would often times drink several dozen bottles of beer over the course of a day, with little or no discernible effect. Arnold Skaaland, was hired by Vince McMahon Sr. to “handle” Andrè, keep him out of any real trouble, and make sure he got the arena in time to wrestle. Skaaland recalls watching Andrè drink a dozen quarts of beer in preparation for a match.
Andrè’s match at Wrestlemania III was arguable the highlight of his career. Taking place on March 29, 1987 at the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, Wreslemaina III was the Word Wrestling Federation’s largest event to date. With over 90 thousand spectators in attendance and several million more watching via pay-per-view or closed circuit broadcasts, the stage was set for an epic battle between Hulk Hogan and Andrè the Giant. The main event was hyped for months in advance and while Hogan received a tremendous ovation upon entering the ring, Andrè was roundly booed. Although Andrè had agreed in advance to lose the “body slam match” to Hogan, things almost went awry around the two-minute mark. Hogan was attempting to body-slam Andrè, when he slipped causing Andrè to fall on him and nearly pin him accidentally. Hogan recovered and eventually scoop-clammed the 520lb giant to win the match and retain his title as champion.
Also in 1987, Andrè took a part in the Rob Reiner film “the Princess Bride” as the lovable giant “Fezzik”. Audiences all over the world marveled at the sheer size, and kind temperament of the gentle giant, and his fame increased still further. Andrè took part in several notable feuds in the late 1980′s involving “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, Big John Studd, and Jake “the Snake” Roberts, although none of these story lines was as compelling as the feud with Hogan. Andrè continued to wrestle into the early 1990′s, making his final ring appearance for WWF at Summer Slam 1992.
Andrè the Giant died in his sleep from complications related to congestive heart failure in 1993. He had traveled to Paris in order to attend his father’s funeral, and died in his hotel room. He was 46 years old.