Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Larger Than Life

I would like to focus on one of my personal favorite wrestlers, Andre the Giant. I saw him wrestle twice on TV in the 1970s, and followed his career; I took an instant liking to him for some unknown reason. Maybe it was due to the fact that he was billed as being seven feet, four inches tall, and weighing over 385 pounds. It was not until the end of his career that he weighed in over 500 pounds, and this was due to poor health and being out of condition. He was born with a rare disease, acromegaly, which was the cause of his giantism. Ironically, his disease brought him international fame and fortune, and was responsible for his early demise. According to Tributes II, he knew his days were numbered early in his life. As he could no longer grow in height, his hands, feet and head became somewhat distorted, and he began to age very fast.

Interestingly, Andre started wrestling in Europe a full six years before anyone from North America found him. He then performed in Canada and became a star, setting indoor wrestling attendance records. His angle was that he was the nicest guy in the world until you make him mad, then there was no stopping him against anyone (p. 70).

Andre worked under Vince McMahon Sr. here in the U.S., and McMahon did not allow Andre to work for any other promoter, except for his Japan tours. McMahon also kept Andre away from the top heels, “so as not to damage the territory for the long term” (p. 72).  In the later years, fans demanded he be set against the top heels of the time.

How big of a draw was Andre? In 1974, he was listed as the highest paid wrestler in The Guiness Book of World Records with a salary of $400,000, and close to $500,000 when wrestling in the Northeastern. His second match with Hulk Hogan drew a TV audience of 33 million. He appeared on TV shows and commercials. Other wrestlers loved him as Andre would never hurt them, even with his enormous hands.

He became an iconic figure in wrestling, and along with this there were iconic tales of his drinking and eating habits, such as drinking 119 beers at a time in a hotel lobby, then passing out. Since no one could move him, the hotel staff put a piano cover over him while he slept it off. There are also stories of him going into a restaurant and ordering everything on the menu. Andre knew how to live larger than life, and that his time would be cut short.

So why did I and hundreds of thousands of other fans love to watch him? Our reading suggest that we initially watched him as a novelty, but we then understood that he was the real deal. How could a man that big do a dropkick? I think it goes deeper than that, going back to some of the origins of U.S. wrestling itself, to that of the circus, and, P.T. Barnum, and where people went to see giants, went to see one-of-a-kind people doing what they do best, and they went to see wrestling. This
 side show became the main attraction in a very big way.


Sam Ford said...

Certainly, I think the "sideshow attraction" focus of Andre played a role...but, as Dave Meltzer highlights in this piece...Andre was seen as more "legitimate" than that and as someone who could come back to a territory and still draw beyond just the spectacle of seeing him once. I think back to a comment that Gorilla Monsoon made about wrestling in the 60s and 70s as the rise of the "super heavyweight." You enjoy seeing someone jump and dive around the ring...even better for it to be a larger-than-life body. Andre was, of course, the ultimate embodiment of that trend...

Timothy S. Rich said...

Andre seemed to blend realism and theatrics in a way many superheavyweights of his time or later could not in no larger part because Andre was in his younger days rather athletic. Thus he wasn't just a special attraction in the carnival sense, but appeared as if he could legitimately beat someone.