The Short Life and Myth of Andre the Giant

The Short Life and Myth of André the Giant

«From the French Alps, weighing 211 kilos, the eighth wonder of the world: André the giant». That was the announcement that accompanied André Roussimoff’s entry into the sports halls of this world for decades in various languages, until a few months after his untimely death on January 28, thirty years ago.

Roussimoff was the man who started wrestling as a form of global entertainment; André the Giant was the figure who gave the key impetus to the creation of an industry now valued at over $4 billion. But both the human and the character were, and in some ways still are, much more.

Roussimoff’s life was initially that of an ordinary boy, born in the 1940s and raised on a farm near Grenoble at the foot of the French Alps. However, around the age of fifteen, he began to grow enormously due to an excessive production of growth hormones known as acromegaly, the same condition that Italian boxer Primo Carnera had suffered from in the past.

The effects were lasting: Even after a diagnosis, there was no turning back, but only blocked its development. In Roussimoff, the pathology was ignored for a long time, diagnosed with great delay and without subsequent interventions.

Long before he was eighteen he was over 2 meters tall and weighed 140 kilos. Given the size, he tried playing rugby, a very popular sport in the south of France and in Grenoble in particular. It was there that he began working out in the gym for the first time, sculpting a physique that was already largely oversized compared to his peers. In the same circles, he came into contact with the so-called athletic theater – today’s wrestling – and seized the opportunity to live a different life than the one he had led up to then, which probably would have continued in Grenoble the same path.

In the mid-sixties he moved to Paris and began to make a name for himself, also because he kept growing. He was given the stage name Géant Ferré to commemorate the folkloric character of Grand Ferré, a Picard lumberjack of superhuman strength, though he didn’t need costumes or characters too built to attract attention. Well over 6 feet tall and 450 pounds, Roussimoff drew attention everywhere and lived in a world not made for his size. On the one hand, this condition made him very famous in the following years, on the other hand, it tormented him for a long time and brought with it great personal deprivation.

The Short Life and Myth of Andre the Giant

For the entertainment world, on the other hand, he was the perfect character: nobody had ever seen anything like him and he was too big and too strong to lose a match, also because his presence alone guaranteed a full house everywhere.

Entrepreneurs soon took notice of him and so he began to travel the world, starting from Japan, one of the countries he most avidly visited and where, under the stage name “Monster Roussimoff”, he became one of the first truly famous Westerners. In 1971, he then spent some time in French-speaking Canada: There, too, he attracted enormous attention and was soon noticed by US entrepreneurs.

At that time, wrestling was already famous and following in the United States, but there was no real industry behind it yet. Instead, there were about thirty different federations dividing up the national territory, each managed by local promoters and having their own reference marks. When Roussimoff, a foreigner with no particular territorial ties, appeared, the various associations began to compete for him.

In the United States, Roussimoff left the identity of Géant Ferré and became André the Giant for good. Such was the demand that he began to travel more than three hundred days a year from one part of the Americas to another, alternating frequent trips to Japan, Australia, New Zealand and occasionally Europe.

But if it was already oversized for everyday use, its size was not at all compatible with travel, especially by plane. He needed at least two seats, and often there weren’t enough anyway. He couldn’t use any facilities, including the toilets, because he couldn’t fit inside. On longer trips, whenever possible, he had to retire and use a bucket while covered by his entourage.

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Though Roussimoff’s career prospered amid mounting difficulties, it nonetheless continued to flourish. In the United States, his popularity reached unprecedented levels, so much so that he was the driving force behind many other famous wrestlers of the time, with whom he engaged in the most notorious rivalries, from Jerry “The King” Lawler to “Macho Man” . “Randy Savage.

The final turning point came when, beginning in 1973, he began to work assiduously with Vincent J. McMahon’s World Wide Wrestling Federation, then operating between Washington, New York and Boston. McMahon was the promoter who best defined the character of André the Giant, who had to be a “good guy”—as Roussimoff actually was in day-to-day life—unbeatable and could only be used on certain events to not to exhaust the interest that surrounded him.

McMahon’s death in 1983 was succeeded by his son Vince, who used the arrival of cable television to expand the WWWF in the United States until it became the current WWE, a de facto monopoly of professional wrestling. The shows were recorded in special halls, and then broadcast across the country. In this way, the US audience, accustomed to local wrestling, discovered a federation with much higher standards and with the best characters, starting with André the Giant.

For WWWF’s national goals, Vince McMahon relied heavily on Terry Eugene Bollea, a tanned wrestler with long hair and a blonde mustache, all things considered young for the average wrestler of the time. Although of Italian descent, McMahon gave him the name Hulk Hogan, making him a clear reference to Irish-Americans (the second-largest ethnic group in the United States). This is how Hogan became the wrestler par excellence and the first wrestler who became a kind of living action figure and created an almost limitless merch around him.

To achieve this enormous popularity with Hogan, McMahon used André the Giant, a choice that still earns him great criticism of cynicism today.

Roussimoff had set the bar for a wrestler’s popularity before Hogan. In parallel with his career as a wrestler, for example, he was also in great demand in the cinema: all directors who needed a giant, monster or other creature of enormous size turned to him. He starred in Conan the Destroyer, in the series The Man with Six Million Dollars and had a pretty big role in Rob Reiner’s Princess Bride. Arnold Schwarzenegger once said that Roussimoff was so strong that he took him under his armpits for fun and sat him on the closets like a child.

At the same time, however, the pathology from which he suffered began to limit him more and more. In 1981 he broke his foot and to heal it he had a screw implanted in his ankle, which doctors said was the size of a normal person’s knee. It was on this occasion that acromegaly was diagnosed for the first time. Although she was in an advanced condition, she could still be arrested, but Roussimoff refused to believe the treatments would strip him of his special features.

Over the years, Roussimoff complained of increasingly debilitating neck, back and joint pain, which, however, exacerbated his alcohol problems. In fact, those who knew him dubbed him “the greatest drinker of all time.” Ric Flair, a famous wrestler who was active until a few years ago, said that one evening he saw him down 119 11 oz beers in just a few hours. He had an unusual resistance to alcohol for his size, but he drank so much – we’re talking “cases of wine a day” – that he, too, sometimes fell to the ground. When that happened, there was nothing anyone could do about it: it stayed where it was until the next day, and this often happened in hotel lobbies.

Always described as rather fatalistic, resigned and aware that he had little to live on, by the late 1980s Roussimoff could no longer enter the ring: he walked with a stick and spent his days sitting or lying down. However, the WWWF was going through a period of tremendous growth and so in 1987 McMahon suggested that he compete in WrestleMania III, the event that would have sanctioned the league’s ultimate success. Hogan was the most iconic character, but he still needed the final consecration that only meeting André the Giant, the great champion of the past, could give.

Aware of his serious health issues, McMahon later justified himself by suggesting returning to the scene, knowing it would give him another reason to continue living peacefully. To deal with Hogan, André the giant was then turned into a bad character, he who was always a good guy and was liked by everyone.

The meeting took place in front of over 90,000 spectators at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan under enormous difficulties. Roussimoff came into the ring escorted by machines and remained virtually immobile in place for most of the fight. Even for Hogan himself, who predictably defeated him to finally become a national celebrity, André the Giant should not have fought that day.

WrestleMania III was indeed the epilogue to Roussimoff’s wrestling career, which continued to be often non-fighting for several years to come. He retired to his North Carolina ranch he bought near a small town where he felt at home because, unlike anywhere else in the world, “nobody ever looked at him twice” or asked him anything. At 2 meters and 24 centimeters tall, he weighed 285 kilos: apart from the fact that the joints gave way under the excessive weight, even the organs found it increasingly difficult to carry him.

Between late 1992 and early 1993, tired and weakened, he returned to France to live with his ailing father, who died shortly thereafter. He was staying in Paris for a few days and was supposed to have lunch with his family on January 28, but he never got there. Early in the afternoon, staff at the hotel where he was staying broke down the door of his room and found him dead in bed, probably in his sleep, of cardiac arrest. He was 46 years old.

Even after his death, however, André the Giant continued to circulate in various forms and continues to do so among us. In the late 1980s, a young American street artist named Shepard Fairey began casually using a portrait of himself and then a stylized portion of his face on stickers, stencils, and posters in what he originally described as “an experiment in phenomenology”.

In the years that followed, the “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” campaign, which Fairey used to urge people to attack or draw like himself anywhere, saw the French wrestler’s face become one of the largest and most studied in history of street art, as well as a symbolic protest against the dominant culture.

Arrested fifteen times, Fairey achieved tremendous success over time: it was he who designed Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s famous poster for the 2008 presidential election. The stylized face of André the Giant, menacing and imperturbable, instead became the icon of OBEY, the brand born from this initiative.

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