Scaffolding and steel-eyed death rises from the ground. There's a wrestling ring on top of a wrestling ring, like some kind of gladiatorial Inception head trip. Anywhere they could stick a video screen, they did. Inside Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday night, the superstars of professional wrestling will hurl themselves from this ridiculous—and ridiculously large—structure. Yes, they are literally building a roller coaster inside WrestleMania 33.
The whole point is that you can't look away: WWE is actively trying to coerce you into gawking at unrestrained spectacle, to make the unreal somehow real.
Paul Wight, the in-real-life name of the hulking monstrosity better known as the Big Show, doesn't need to try. At 7 feet and more than 300 pounds, anything he does is enough to keep you captivated—no pyrotechnics, death-defying or roller coaster necessary. The man himself is a walking WrestleMania, all jaw-dropping enormity and persistent hype.
At first glance, he's more monster than man, powerful enough to separate mandible from your skull in a single punch. Days before the event, Show is participating in a charity basketball game for the Special Olympics inside a modest high school gym in nearby Kissimmee. Of all the assembled wrestlers on hand—AJ Styles, Mark Henry, Dana Brooke—he gets the loudest reaction from the rabid, enthusiastic kids in the stands. He's not playing in the game, content to just coach from the sidelines. He hasn't picked up a basketball since he was 22, right before he became a wrestler. "It kinda felt like an egg in my hand," he tells B/R Mag.
In a classroom adjacent to the court, everything from the tiny plastic chairs to the height of the tables is child-size. This must be what it’s like wherever the Big Show goes. Nothing ever quite fits when you're a giant. His hands are like well-done steaks, and his voice reverberates all the way to the core of you. If there was a fire and the door to the classroom was locked, he could rip the damn thing off and carry us all to safety.
But strength also breeds insecurity. And more so than all the stars he's faced in his soon-to-be former career—Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Ric Flair, Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H—he's the only one who's lived every big fight as the special attraction, the sideshow even inside of the main event.
Underneath the giant frame, the Big Show is still Paul Wight, a kid from South Carolina who didn't always know what to do with his gifts, who wasn't really comfortable in his own skin until he was 22. To paraphrase the man himself, it took years for him to go from the freakishly big guy who should do something to the freakishly big guy who did do something.
The first time Floyd Mayweather faced the Big Show inside the ring, they were both wearing jeans—those baggy ones that used to be all the rage and are apparently "back." It was 2008's No Way Out pay-per-view spectacular in Vegas, and the most famous boxer in the world seemed out of his element putting over the staged theatrics that are WWE's stock-in-trade.
The middleweight champion, all 150-odd pounds of him, stormed out from the front row of the crowd and confronted his on-again, off-again nemesis, the Big Show, who was listed at 441 pounds—and who proceeded to take a couple of punches from down on one knee before the boxer slipped away with his entourage into the arena's erupting mass of humanity.
It was classic WWE—a celebrity dipping his toe into the soap-operatic theatrics of professional wrestling—and there was Show, silent and seething, blood dripping down his goateed chin in the primetime run-up to his main event with Mayweather a month later at WrestleMania XXIV in Orlando, letting the boxing legend get away.
"I never stood face-to-face with anyone that big and tall before," Mayweather tells B/R Mag. "He couldn't have been a nicer guy."
WWE's special-attraction matches are big business—Shaq vs. Show is the all-talk, on-again, off-again hype generator for this year's WrestleMania 33—but they also require a delicate professionalism and weeks of hard-core training to pull off. Because a celebrity doesn't really know what's going to happen when they step into the ring, their wrestler opponent, all staged animosity, is pretty much teaching them how to stage a fight in real time, in front of 70,000 fans and millions more on live TV. Being on the other end of a pro wrestling fantasy, it turns out, requires being a very nice guy indeed.
"If you're a good worker, you can work with a broomstick," Big Show explains to B/R Mag in an extended interview on the eve of what will likely be his final WrestleMania as a full-time performer. "With some intensive instruction and an extensive plan, our guys are able to pretty much make anybody look good."
"That's what we do for a living. We make people look good."
It is a point of pride with professional wrestlers, that idea of being so safe, so believable and so efficient with your moves that you can make anyone look legit. And nobody is more steadfastly safe and comfortable, as mastodon-esque, snarling 7-foot beasts go, than this guy:
As large as he is, not crushing your opponent's skull is of utmost importance. Maiming a guy with your frying-pan hands is always in the back of your mind. Yes, there is apparently a separated mandible in a Marriott lobby to attest to the damage Big Show can do when he's not pulling his punches, but you'll have to keep waiting for that story.
So while WWE billed Mayweather-Big Show at WrestleMania here nine years ago as "the greatest fighter in the world versus the largest athlete in the world," and while WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon called Show "the most dominant athlete in the history of sports entertainment," the Goliath has for the last decade been a David all along, a cheerful giant who quietly became one of WWE's most effective spokesmen.
At WrestleMania in 2008, Mayweather—with the sunglasses, the MMA-style gloves, the sleeveless leather and the medallion that read "PHILTHY RICH"—was the clear underdog. Instead of his trademark scowl, Big Show wore a look of apprehension, which sold Mayweather's fierceness. Only under the bright lights of WrestleMania, and the energetic acting of this very human giant, could millions of people accept what they were about to witness.
After escaping from the grasp of Big Show's catcher's-mitt hands, Mayweather struck Show with a low blow and three steel chairs to the skull—each a potential concussion. But the Big Show is dedicated, and in pro wrestling, sometimes even the chair isn't enough. Mayweather grabbed the brass knuckles. A stiff jab to the face, Show steadying himself on the ropes and—8, 9, 10!—there it was: a victorious boxer's fist in the air, a ratings bonanza and an exclamation mark on Show's career.
Show was such a gracious host—so easy to work with—that, according to former WWE superstar Sean Waltman, Mayweather offered to lose the match, but Vince McMahon refused. If he could make a befuddled boxer look that good, though, Show figures he can at least do that much for Shaq in the same venue here Sunday.
"This is something that Shaq definitely wants to do," Show says of a faceoff that may or may not occur. He's trained and slimmed down thanks to some good-natured ribbing, but the match has been a struggle to put together. "I know Shaq is a busy dude with a lot on his plate."
Just to sweeten the deal, Show loads up on the praise. "He's a heck of an athlete," he says of O'Neal. "It's just finding the right program for him and adjusting that accordingly."
Show has been significantly less kind in other interviews leading up to this weekend. "Shaq got scared," he told Yahoo Sports earlier this month. "He saw the six-pack and realized if he faced me at WrestleMania, he was going to be Fat Shaq." Shaq fired back, telling TMZ: "Big Show is scared. He called me 'fat.' I am PHAT...Pretty Handsome And Tall."
They shared dueling selfies showing off their physique while also impugning their rival's physique. But to Show, monstrous, huffing hype is part of the nice-guy business. "Yeah, I talked trash in the last couple weeks and teased him about abs, flabby Shaq and stuff like that," he says. "That's just good-natured pestering."
As for a last-minute surprise appearance, well, handling high-stakes, violent surprise with kid gloves is what the Big Show does best: "All that needs to happen is Shaq needs to show up. We'll take care of it from there."
Paul Wight Jr. may have been biologically destined to be a basketball center, but he fell in love with wrestling because of his dad—his real, non-giant dad, Paul Senior.
The elder Paul, a mechanic in Aiken, South Carolina, would sit down with his son to watch the superstars of the old National Wrestling Alliance: Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes ("amazing promos") and Arn "The Enforcer" Anderson ("always my favorite"). They were outsized idols for an oversized kid who, like his fake dad—Andre the Giant—was diagnosed at a young age with abnormal hormone growth from his pituitary gland. Paul Junior was already 5 feet tall by the time he was five years old.
After a run as a reserve center for Wichita State (averaging a paltry 2.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 22 games in the 1991-92 season), Paul puttered around looking for a career. What else could a 7-footer do after college if not play basketball? A friend even tried to talk him into walking on to the Chicago Bears.
"I was a big kid and a big athlete, but let's be honest, I don't know diddly about football," he says now. "Not that I knew diddly about wrestling either, but my attitude was, 'I was such a fan, I knew wrestling wasn't real.' So I thought, 'Well, if this fails, I can be one of those guys that gets beat up and maybe tour the world and make a living until I figure out what I want to do.'"
During a chance encounter on a radio show that involved karaoke and a lot of luck, Wight met Danny Bonaduce, who introduced him to Hogan, a new father figure to protect the man who would become the Big Show.
Hulk told him, "You got a big dollar sign on your forehead, brother."
"Well, please show it to me," Paul replied, "because I is broke."
Hogan pushed him to join WCW in 1995, and executive vice president Eric Bischoff made fast plans to transform Paul Wight into The Giant, son of Andre, out to exact revenge on Hogan for Andre's loss at WrestleMania III.
At 23 and making real money to travel, Wight was honored even by the comparison to Andre the Giant, a global superstar who had died two years earlier after complications from the condition he shared with Wight. But the multiple personalities—the multiple realities—could be confounding.
"I loved your dad so much," he remembers one fan telling him of Andre, crying.
"My dad was a mechanic," Show responded. "Did he fix your car really good or something?"
As Andre could have attested, the life of a young giant is not always an easy one. "I don't know how I'd be if everybody was always staring at me," says Waltman (aka X-Pac), who rose to prominence alongside an "immature" Wight on the mid-'90s WCW circuit.
According to Waltman, Show became so frustrated during one car ride on the WCW tour that he smashed the vehicle's dashboard, cracking it in half. Then there was the night when they got kicked out of a hotel because Show was furious with a waiter after his steak got cooked the wrong way. Oh, and there's the dislocated jaw story: Waltman claims to have watched the surveillance camera footage of Show breaking the jaw of a man named Robert Sawyer just for trying to start a fight in the lobby of the New York Marriott in 1999.
"Show was scared. He'd never been in a fight," Waltman says. "Can you imagine if he knew how to throw a punch by that point? That guy would have been dead."
Despite his mercurial nature backstage, Wight thrived in pro wrestling. Hogan and The Giant would become stablemates in the New World Order faction and then enemies again before Wight left WCW in early 1999, all growling and snarling and chokeslamming largess, to become the Big Show in WWE.
His real dad had died in 1992, and McMahon asked what seemed at first to be a question in poor taste: "What if we did a storyline about it?"
During the first Gulf War in 1991, WrestleMania VII had been headlined by the American hero Hogan and the Iraqi sympathizer Sgt. Slaughter. But real life—real death—had never been part of the narrative before.
After several conversations with McMahon and WWE official Terry Taylor, Wight saw something in the story of his father's passing that, to this day, many fans still don't quite get. His bosses were seeking to add depth and starpower to an increasingly popular supporting foil character. Taylor would probe him for real-life points of empathy. Show kept coming back to his dad—his real dad—and so they settled on making the most of the most traumatic moment of his life. "I absolutely was on board," Show recalls.
Show didn't know until the broadcast, but McMahon had plans to honor his budding star's real father in the ring. After the standard Raw intro—screeching guitars and the apocalyptic images of a burning wrestling ring and the grimace of Stone Cold Steve Austin walking away from a fireball, after the Big Show's face dripping with blood and the Big Show's face being smashed by the Undertaker with an unidentified foreign object—ring announcer Lillian Garcia took the mic and the count began—1, 2, 3—for a 10-bell salute to Wight Sr. as confounded fans in attendance put down their homemade signs and plastic cups of beer.
"I actually got a little teary-eyed," the Big Show says now, "because it was a real emotion."
By the fifth bell came a collision of the raw and real with the almost comically unreal: The late Big Boss Man, with more than a hint of sarcasm, read poetry from a sympathy card—"With the deepest regrets and tears that are soaked / I'm sorry to hear your dad finally croaked"—with the sadistic, audience-riling charm of the best wrestling villains. In an episode later that week, he would proceed to interrupt the funeral of Wight Sr., then attach the casket to the back of his police cruiser and drag it, along with the Big Show in pursuit, through a graveyard.
"A lot of that angle allowed me to deal with it with a lot of peace, a lot of grace," Show recalls of filming the Monday Night Raw episode, almost 18 years later. "I let a lot of stuff go that I had to dig up. I had to address it, deal with it, get it out."
A week later, he would win his first of two WWE Championships in a Triple Threat match against Triple H and The Rock. Paul Wight Jr. was now more man than monster, a mass of humanity as vulnerable on-screen as in real life, having stumbled into the calling his father sat him down with all those years earlier.
"It wasn't one of those kinds of things where I thought I'd get in and be a star," he says. "I never thought I'd be good enough. I really didn't. There's probably some fans out there who say I'm still not good enough, and that's OK. But I've made it 22 years, so kiss my big ass."
The first time Paul Wight Jr. did WrestleMania as a WWE performer, heaven knows how many punches ago, he was pitted against former champion and noted daredevil Mick Foley.
Foley would go on to be a mainstream celebrity in his own right—first as the star of a series of Chef Boyardee commercials, then as a New York Times bestselling author for his memoir, Have a Nice Day—but for now he was to be known as Mankind.
Like Big Show's Mayweather match, there were weapons and outside chicanery for added flavor: a chair shot. A decisive low blow, with Foley cracking Show's undercarriage to bring him to his knees. Big Show's retaliatory chair blasts would get him disqualified and hand Foley a victory—albeit a decidedly underwhelming one.
But if the brutality of each bout, however humdrum, is what makes it at all memorable, the pain remains excruciating over the years. "I've been in this business 22 years," Show says. "If there wasn't something wrong with my knees or hips, it really would be insane."
Scaffolding, steel, cheap furniture: It adds up, you know, and the mat ain't that soft. The accumulated wear and tear—to say nothing of carrying around such a large body every day—recently convinced him to stop eating fast food on the road and to start getting into shape. It also let him see, at 45 years old, the joy of retirement.
"My career is winding down. I didn't mind being 480, 500 pounds when I was full-time as the Big Show," he tells B/R Mag. "I liked being the monster that was bigger than everybody around me. As your career evolves, there are other monsters that are coming in—and my time is done."
Some of those monsters include last year's Andre the Giant Battle Royal winner, Baron Corbin, and newcomer Braun Strowman. That killer edge the new grapplers possess—the pent-up rage that broke a dashboard and a man's jaw—has largely faded away with time. The Big Show would rather laugh it off than get physical.
When he does find himself up against it with some blustery stranger who says he can take the giant, Show has a go-to rejoinder."Where are you gonna take me, sweetheart," he asks with a thick, hearty laugh. "Out to dinner? Gonna take me to the movies? What are you gonna do, pumpkin?"
He's changed, and his friends have noticed. "That's not him anymore," Waltman says of Show's wild, old days. "But he's still the guy that everyone stares at, everywhere he goes."
It was indeed, pretty difficult not to stare Thursday here in Orlando, as Show returned to the basketball court for the first time in 23 years. He takes a photo with anyone who asks, never lets the smile drop from his face. Instead of throwing haymakers with those steak hands, he offers up high-fives to the genuinely awestruck high schoolers swarming around him. Knowing where he's been, it's remarkable that he's the most relaxed of all the wrestlers. The team he's coaching is made up of more than a couple of larger kids, a collection of would-be giants and Big Shows in the making.
"You always have to embrace your size," he says with a wink.
You've got to assume, then, that he's not getting up in that roller coaster.
Dave Schilling is a Writer-at-Large for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. He also hosts the Roundball Rock podcast, a comedic look at the NBA. Prior to joining B/R, Dave wrote for Grantland, The Guardian and VICE. Follow him on Twitter: @dave_schilling.