The career of Andre the Giant can be divided into four distinct phases:
- His early days as a world traveller based in his native France.
- Becoming one of the biggest traveling attractions on the North American scene after Montreal promoters realized it's hard to come up with scenarios for a giant in a typical full type North American territorial promotion.
- The '80s, when, even though his body was falling apart, he became an even bigger star in some ways thanks to the WWF's national expansion.
- His last few years, spent clinging to the business in which he spent his entire adult life.
You all know the basics of his story. He suffered from Acromegaly, an over-secretion of growth hormone usually caused by the presence of a tumor on the pituitary gland. Nowadays, the tumor is usually removed when it's found, but brain surgery was not nearly as advanced when Andre was diagnosed around 1970.
There's surprisingly little known about Andre's early career. Wrestling in Europe was, even as late as the '80s, largely disconnected from the rest of the business. Few booking offices outside of the continent paid any attention to the incredibly talented wrestlers coming out of England, Germany and in this case, France.
One of the promotions that did keep up with the European scene was International Wrestling Enterprises (IWE), the number two promotion in Japan. The rival JWA had access to the mainstream American wrestlers, so IWE president Isao Yoshihara went to Europe to scout foreign talent.
While he likely didn't "discover" Andre, as the legend passed down in Japan claims, Andre's tours for IWE as Monster Roussimoff were a major career move that helped him get noticed in the west.
When it came time for Andre to head to North America, he only spoke French. So, his first stop was naturally Montreal, where he was named Jean Ferre after a Paul Bunyan-esque mythological character. A city with a rich wrestling history, Montreal was in the middle of a boom period: Even when an opposition promotion opened in the city, both did huge business.
It was in Montreal that the persona Andre used most of his career was developed. Outside of the ring, he was a gentle giant who smiled everywhere he went. If he was angered, he was a bull in a China shop.
While Andre was initially a big draw alongside local heroes like Edouard Carpentier, business faltered when fans started to see him as unbeatable. Frank Valois, who was Andre's manager and caretaker at the time, knew there needed to be a major change and, in 1973, he set up a meeting with WWWF promoter Vince McMahon Sr.
McMahon became the booking agent of the man he dubbed Andre the Giant in addition to tweaking his image. Before, Andre would hit moves like standing dropkicks to showcase his athleticism, which his disease had not taken from him yet. McMahon encouraged a more methodical, plodding style which likely kept Andre's body from breaking down even sooner than it did.
For the next decade, Andre traveled from promotion to promotion all over North America in addition to regularly doing tours for Antonio Inoki's New Japan Pro Wrestling. He was always going from place to place to avoid what happened in Montreal.
There were a few ways that Andre would end up in a given territory:
- Sometimes he'd be brought in as a special attraction, often to bolster a big card like the Stampede Week show in Calgary or the Superdome Spectactular shows in New Orleans.
- He'd be brought in as the tag team partner of the top, local babyface, who needed a secret weapon to dispatch the heels who had been hassling him.
- Finally, if a promotion was running a battle royal, which was the biggest drawing gimmick match back then, Andre was often brought in as the designated super heavyweight in the match.
While the public numbers are likely exaggerated (The Guinness Book of World Records claimed Andre made $400,000 in 1974, his first full year based in the USA), he was indeed a huge draw. For sheer star power, Andre was neck and neck with whoever the NWA World Heavyweight champion was at the moment as the biggest name in wrestling.
As a performer, Andre was at his best in Japan, where he was cast as a heel. He was as brilliant a villain in Japan as he was beloved in America, with impeccable timing and a knack for superb facial expressions and body language. For straight-up match quality, this is where he excelled, and what was arguably the greatest in-ring match of his career was a classic New Japan brawl against Stan Hansen.
It was in 1981, not long after the Hansen bout that Andre broke his ankle getting out of bed. He was never the same in or out of the ring, but the biggest run of his career was still ahead of him.
The Vince McMahon we all know bought out his father's business (renamed the WWF in 1979). In 1983, he began expanding the company: First he took over California, where both major offices had closed. Soon this expanded to withholding dates on Andre (only New Japan still got to use him) and running opposition.
There were not a lot of continuing storylines on WWF television in 1984, as new wrestlers debuted constantly and more energy was devoted to business than creativity. Hell, Hulk Hogan was the champion and anchor of the expansion, and he didn't really have any kind of feuds all year.
One of the few rivalries that kept going was Andre vs.. Big John Studd, which lasted well over two years.
It actually started in 1983, before the expansion, and didn't really go anywhere interesting until the build to the first WrestleMania in early 1985. The idea was simple: Studd claimed to be the true giant of wrestling and Andre didn't like this.
One week, the big angle to set up WrestleMania came in the form of a tag team match on TV. Managed by Bobby Heenan, Studd and Ken Patera challenged Andre and the partner of his choice, who turned out to be long-time prelim wrestler S.D. Jones. Jones was no match for Heenan's team who took him out and used the advantage to cut off most of Andre's trademark big hair.
Studd vs. Andre was one of the focal points of that era of WrestleMania, which was around the time when the "Andre has never been slammed" (it happened in a number of territories) talk began.
The match could only be won by slamming your opponent. Andre put up his career while Studd put up $15,000.
I think you can figure out who came out victorious and how.
The feud continued in various forms, including tag matches with King Kong Bundy as Studd's partner on-and-off for a year or so. The battle royal at WrestleMania 2 featuring NFL players was built around Andre, Studd and William "The Refrigerator" Perry as the "giants" of the match.
It was during this period that Andre's physical condition went from bad to worse, with his back taking the brunt of the damage. He needed surgery and had to wear a back brace for the rest of his life.
At first, there was an attempt at an on-screen workaround: He was suspended for not showing up to a match, returned under a mask as "Giant Machine" wearing new gear that hid the brace and his partners (Big Machine and Super Machine) could work most of the match for him, or even take his place.
The Machines flopped huge, so Andre took time off to film "The Princess Bride." When he came back, it was for his last big run, even though he rarely wrestled.
He returned for an awards ceremony: Andre got a trophy for being "undefeated," while Hulk Hogan got a bigger trophy for his title reign hitting the three year mark. Andre remarked "three years is a long time" and left.
The next time he appeared, he had enlisted former rival Heenan as his manager to show Hogan how serious he was about what he was about to say: He wanted a title shot. Famously, he tore the crucifix off Hogan's neck as the exclamation point of the statement.
This, of course, led to WrestleMania 3 at the Pontiac Silverdome outside Detroit. The biggest American football stadium of the time, it sold out (93,173 people was the announced attendance, the actual number is the source of much argument).
The closed-circuit television broadcasts at arenas around the country sold 450,000 tickets total and the pay-per-view television broadcast was sold to 400,000 homes—even with PPV still very new in 1987.
It's one of the most famous matches of all time.
Sure, it was not athletically impressive, but it didn't need to be. Andre's experience as a heel in Japan taught him well. While his ring psychology was all he had left, he got the most out of it.
Anyone would be hard pressed to find applause as loud as the Pontiac crowd's were at the finish. When Hogan finally slammed and pinned Andre, seemingly the first man to accomplish the feat, they went wild.
With the shape Andre was in, the rematches came about a year later. The first, and the more memorable one, is the most watched match in American wrestling history. Drawing over 30 million viewers live on NBC, the match was the height if Vince McMahon's creative powers:
- Andre suplexed Hogan and covered up.
- Referee Dave Hebner counted three even though Hogan got his shoulder up.
- Andre announced he was surrendering his newly won WWF Championship to "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase, who paid him off.
- Suddenly, Dave Hebner ran out. The man in the ring was not Dave Hebner, but an imposter paid by DiBiase to get plastic surgery to look like him—it was actually his twin brother Earl, fresh off secretly leaving Jim Crockett Promotions.
This all led to the title being vacated so it could go to the winner of a tournament at WrestleMania 4, where Hogan and Andre would get byes and face off in round 2, where they fought to a double disqualification. Randy Savage won the tournament, and Andre ended up as his house show opponent for a while, having surprisingly good matches in the process.
After all variations of a Hogan and Savage vs. DiBiase and Andre feud were exhausted, Andre was on his way down. His WrestleMania 5 feud was with Jake Roberts, based on Andre being scared of snakes. At house shows around the country, he would lose in under a minute to Ultimate Warrior to build him up as a new star. The mystique was gone.
The writing was on the wall, so his farewell run was lined up: Andre and fellow "Heenan Family" member Haku were teamed up as the Colossal Connection so they could beat Demolition to get Andre a token tag title run.
Haku would literally work the whole match much of the time because Andre's body was so shot. At WrestleMania 6, Demolition regained the titles, Andre turned on Heenan and we got a nice iconic image of Andre riding off into the sunset on the motorized entrance cart they used on the show.
Andre didn't want to ride off into the sunset, though.
Wrestling was all he knew. Wrestling was where his friends were. If the WWF wouldn't use him, he'd explore other options, even if it meant using Herb Abrams' UWF start-up promotion as a negotiation tool.
Andre re-appeared on WWF TV in skits where the heel managers would offer him their services and he would embarrass them. Wherever this was going, it didn't get there: He suffered leg injuries to the point he had to appear on TV using braces and crutches to walk. He never wrestled another WWF match.
There was a solution to his problem: He could wrestle in preliminary matches in All Japan Pro Wrestling in 1991, which often featured older wrestlers for nostalgia. He got to form a dream team with Giant Baba, but even that ran its course.
Andre's last run was in the UWA in Mexico in 1992. While in Japan, he could get by on the coolness of him teaming with Baba.
His final run in Mexico, however, was depressing. He had literally nothing left in the ring, his weight had ballooned, and it hurt to watch him.
In January 1993, Andre's father passed away, so he returned to France for the funeral. While staying in the country, he died in his sleep. He was 46.
As hard as it was to accommodate Andre in life, it may have been more difficult in death: His wishes were to be cremated within two days, but finding a facility to accommodate the body proved difficult. His remains weighed twice that of the average person, and had to be stored in a custom-made urn.
Andre's death was a major international news story. WWE put together a wonderful video about his career. Soon, ugly memories of a dying man holding on too long were gone, replaced by the happy smiling giant dancing to "The Fish Song."