On this day in wrestling history: André the Giant is born
Born in Grenoble, France, on May 19, 1946, André René Roussimoff reportedly showed no signs early in childhood of the enormous size that would make him a giant in the world of professional wrestling and a pop-cultural icon. However, by the time he was 12, André was 6′ 3″, and it was clear he suffered from acromegaly, a disorder caused by the pituitary gland’s excess production of growth hormone. In his late teens, André set out to make a living with his size, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.
After being trained by wrestler Ed Carpentier in the early ’60s, André adopted the ring name “Géant Ferré” and a Paul Bunyan-type lumberjack gimmick before heading to Japan as “Monster Rossimoff.” It wasn’t until Vince McMahon Sr. brought the young man to the United States and christened him André the Giant that he was on the path to superstardom.
Billed as 7′ 4″ (legit 7′ 2″), with weight ranging from 400 to “over 550 pounds,” André was booked by McMahon Sr. as a special attraction nationwide, in addition to his regular appearances in the promoter’s Northeast-based World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). McMahon Sr. wisely realized that the key to maximizing André’s tremendous gate potential was for his star to make occasional shots in each territory across the country, with the Giant making the rounds like the touring NWA World champions of the era. Although he was a great draw at Madison Square Garden in the ‘late 70s, he was most effective in making appearances as a territory troubleshooter to confront a local heel wrestler or an evil manager and his stable of thugs. For example, André had a heated feud in Georgia with manager Gary Hart in the mid-’70s, while still finding time to shut up big-mouthed cocky heel Jerry Lawler in Louisville, Kentucky, crush the Sheik at Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis and take on WWWF baddies like Nikolai Volkoff and Ken Patera. (Years later, at the height of Lawler’s babyface run in the 1983, he called on his old foe as a weapon in his war with Jimmy Hart’s First Family, teaming with the Giant and Stagger Lee (the masked Koko Ware) to thrash Bobby Eaton and the Bruise Brothers.)
For years, WWWF announcers claimed that André was the sport’s only undefeated wrestler. By 1977, Lawler had become friendly with Bill Apter, who helped produce several newsstand magazines like The Wrestler and Inside Wrestling. After Lawler sent him photos of his bout with the Giant, Apter reported that Lawler had beaten André at Louisville Gardens by countout with the headline “The Night a Midget Beat André the Giant!” In his bio, Lawler explained how McMahon Sr. angrily called him out (at the urging of Terry Funk, who was playing a rib on Lawler) in front of all the attendees at the NWA Convention in 1978, claiming that the story had damaged André’s reputation and drawing potential.
The Apter article itself is hilarious, with ridiculous quotes supposedly from Lawler that sound nothing like the wrestler I grew up watching: “In many ways, I was doing more than just wrestling André the Giant. I was fighting for every short person in the world who has ever been insulted by someone tall. I know how it feels to be discriminated against simply because of your height–it’s not a very pleasant thing. I’ve always thought short people were nicer, better people than those tall fellows. Short people in this world can rejoice in this victory.” Yeah, I’m sure Bill Dundee was especially moved. Apter goes on to write that “André was surprised by Lawler’s strength. He lunged at André, grabbed him by the waist, and lifted him in the air. With all his might, he threw André out of the ring.” You can’t make this stuff up–unless you’re Bill Apter.
To pacify McMahon Sr., Apter ran a follow-up article the very next month in the September 1977 issue of INSIDE WRESTLING, in which André “crushed” Lawler in a rematch in under 15 minutes. A few months later, another article appeared in WRESTLING SUPERSTARS: “Why André the Giant is Wrestling’s Only Undefeated Superstar.”
The incident temporarily caused a rift in Lawler and Apter’s friendship, but the two made amends. In fact, it was Apter who hooked Lawler up with comedian Andy Kaufman, whose overtures to wrestle in Madison Square Garden were turned down by, you guessed it, Vince McMahon Sr.
Lawler, of course, bellowed to Lance Russell and anyone would listen that he had in fact toppled the Giant. Lawler had taken over producing the arena programs following Jerry Jarrett’s split from Nick Gulas, and he used the weekly publication, dubbed Action Ringside, to further substantiate his claim that he had ended André’s undefeated streak.
In 1986, the Apter mags went along with the WWE’s storyline that Hulk Hogan was attempting to become the first man to ever defeat André, despite the fact that the Giant had been pinned by the likes of Ron Garvin, Antonio Inoki and El Canek over the years. Hogan continues to claim in radio interviews that he was the first person “to bodyslam that 700-pound smelly giant;” the video evidence proves otherwise.
Following a memorable turn as Bigfoot on TV’s ”The Six-Million Dollar Man” and guest-starring spots on shows like “B.J. and the Bear,” “The Fall Guy” and “The Greatest American Hero,” André in 1987 landed the role of Fezzick, which would endear him to fans of the movie “The Princess Bride.”
Inexplicably in the late ’90s, André’s iconic mug began popping up everywhere via stickers plastered in prominent public places in major cities like Los Angeles and New York, before spreading like “Wildfire” Tommy Rich nationwide, thanks to the OBEY brand stencil from artist Shepard Fairey, who had cut out the Giant’s likeness from a newspaper. Fairey went to create the memorable “Hope” poster for then presidential candidate Barack Obama.
André the Giant passed away shortly after coming home to Paris to attend his father’s funeral in 1993. He was 46.