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This week in rasslin’ history: Andre the Giant invades Memphis wrestling, squashes Jimmy Hart’s First Family

March 22nd, 2012 1 comment

Giant lineup

A year later, such a phone call would have been impossible. But after a disastrous crowd of 3,834 at the Mid-South Coliseum for his card on Sunday, March 13, 1983, Memphis territory owner/promoter Jerry Jarrett phoned in a  favor to Vince McMahon Sr: a booking date on André the Giant for next Monday night to spark the house.

Realizing that André was more effective as a money-making special attraction when used sparingly in his World Wrestling Federation, McMahon Sr. sought to protect the Giant’s image and livelihood by handling his worldwide bookings to ensure André made the most money possible when he wasn’t working for the WWF.

Despite feeling double-crossed by Jarrett and Jerry Lawler over the infamous “Night a Midget Beat André the Giant” Apter mag story in the ’70s, McMahon agreed to send the big man to Memphis as the King’s partner alongside the masked Stagger Lee (Koko Ware–not JYD) vs. Jimmy Hart’s trio of Bobby Eaton and the Bruise Brothers. Nearly the same main event, with Bill Dundee as Lawler and Stagger’s partner vs. the First Family members, drew the dismal house the previous week. (As a result, Dundee was abruptly switched back heel by next week.) Would André make a difference?

When the match was announced Saturday morning, March 19, Hart turned white as a ghost and burst into hysterics: Literally the biggest attraction in wrestling was coming to a do a number on the nefarious manager and his Family cronies. And when Lawler vowed that André wouldn’t stop until he had flattened Hart like a pancake, the skinny wimp nearly fainted on the air like he’d seen a ghost…or maybe Bigfoot.

The result: 6,162 fans (a jump of 2,328 paying customers) showed up to see Eaton, Porkchop Cash and Mad Dog get bounced around the Coliseum like a Wham-O Super Ball®. It was to be the Giant’s last appearance in Memphis until Vince McMahon Jr. invaded the city in late 1984 with a main event of the Giant vs. “Big” John Studd at the Cooke Convention Center. (Those early McMahon Jr. cards in Memphis bombed big time, drawing about 1,000 fans with big-name main events and very poor undercards.)

Still, while the house was up on March 21, Jarrett and Lawler were likely disappointed in the attendance. As they often did, the two switched booking duties, with Lawler taking over and promptly shaking up the undercard by having The Sheepherders, Jesse Barr and Adrian Street all drop a losers-leaves-town bout the following week on March 28. (Poor young manager Jimmy Cornette lost half of his Dynasty stable in one night.)

Still, while André made only a ripple as opposed to his usual big splash, his appearance was treated with much fanfare, with the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper featuring photos from the main event at the Coliseum–a rarity reserved for the likes of Andy Kaufman.

 

Special thanks to Mark James at memphiswrestlinghistory.com for the newspaper scans.

There are no small roles–especially for Giant actors

April 21st, 2011 4 comments

For the record, even Steve Austin could not body slam Andre the Giant, brother.

As a kid, I loved it when my worlds collided–like Darth Vader, Kojak, Spider-Man and Frankenstein wrestling in Memphis, “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant recording a rock song, the group Kiss getting their own Marvel Comic Book, and The Fonz showing up on the season finale of “Laverne & Shirley.”

In today’s terms, think of The Onion meets Kentucky Fried Rasslin’–like last week’s fictional story on Donald Trump and Jerry Lawler buying the Mid-South Coliseum, a joke that fooled a lot of people. Channel 13 in Memphis actually called the King for a quote on “the story.” I apologize for any confusion; however, I did graduate from the Bill Apter School of Wrestling Journalism.


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So, anyway, I was thrilled when wrestler Andre the Giant appeared as “The Sasquatch Beast” (Bionic Bigfoot) in a two-part episode of “The Six-Million Dollar Man,” my favorite TV show in 1976.  (As a chubby kid, I longed to be better, stronger, faster.) It was the ultimate dream match to a little boy, in the same vein as Andre vs. Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III. And really, the fight-scene clip posted from YouTube below has wayyyy better action–look at Andre move! Then again, Hogan and Andre didn’t have the benefit of those awesomely cool bionic sound effects and dramatic slow-motion shots. If you have to question how much of a bad ass the Six-Million Dollar Man is, look at how he rips apart the Giant with a mere armdrag.

It would be the greatest size challenge Steve Austin would face…until Stone Cold wrestled the Big Show on WWE Monday Night RAW in 1999. The best part of casting Andre is that not only did he have the perfect size for the role, but little makeup was required as well.

Usually, when you think of Andre in Hollywood, you think of “Princess Bride,” especially if you’re Terry Funk, who claims to have watched it dozens of times at the big man’s request when the two were traveling together.

I hadn’t thought about Andre’s prime-time network TV debut with Lee Majors in years, until I stumbled across this gem of an ad below over at Plaid Stallions. (Hmmm…I’ll bet the Giant didn’t see a dime of royalties.)

Still, Andre must’ve done something right, as he also appeared as pro wrestler “Killer Typhoon,” on Majors’ “The Fall Guy” in 1982. (I love how the episode sort of protects the business when they say “the championship matches” aren’t fixed. )

Knowing how Memphis loved pop-culture gimmicks, I’d bet that Bionic Bigfoot vs. Lawler might have been a bigger draw than Andre the Giant in the late ’70s.

That appears dangerously close to a low blow. Then again, when you're up against Bionic Bigfoot, it's no DQ.

On this day in wrestling history: André the Giant is born

May 19th, 2010 1 comment

Short temper: Andre warns Lawler not to send pics of their Louisville bout to Bill Apter. (Sucker.)

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.)

Bruised egos: The Giant manhandles the Bruise Brothers at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1983. (scan courtesy of www.memphiswrestlinghistory.com)

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.

Tall tale: The King conquers the Giant.

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.”

Posse up: OBEY Andre or get squashed.

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.