The business of wrestling deals in kayfabe, which is the conventional form of storytelling of what’s going on in the ring. It’s presented to the audience as authentic to further add drama to the matches; that good-versus-bad or big-versus-small conflict, steeped in mythology, added to the allure of wrestling. But there was one guy who was a living, breathing embodiment of a myth that, as children, we were familiar with but never saw outside of our imaginations. “Larger than life” is often a messily abused cliché but in the case of this man, it was actually literal. He was Andre the Giant, the Eighth Wonder of the World, “a living manifestation of our childhood dreams.”
HBO Sports’ newest documentary Andre the Giant presents Andre – born Andre Roussimoff in the small farming French village of Moliens just forty miles east of Paris – as both god and mortal, and how those two interpretations intersected. The documentary plays heavily to Andre’s mythological stature to introduce the film; how his massive physical presence set him apart not just in the wrestling world, but the entire world. Positioning Andre as this almost folklore type figure works effectively when they switch tones to the tragedy of his being too large to live long. Because the public had never seen such a colossal-sized man, they had also never considered how painful and exposing such a life could be. Andre the Giant executes a harmonious duality in showcasing Andre, the public figure and Andre, the person; how his humbling mortality actually adds to his legendary standing.
His size was something that could hardly be comprehended: 7’1 and 471 pounds. He wore size twenty-two boots and wore a size twenty-four rings. His hands were more comparable with the size of people’s heads rather than their hands. If these measurements don’t seem impressive now in 2018, it’s because Andre introduced them to the public consciousness in the 80s where nothing like it had ever been seen. Big men were no strangers to wrestling in the 70s and 80s; there were plenty of dudes inching up towards seven foot and weighed in over 300 pounds, but none of them were a spectacle like Andre.
He toured around the world from France to Japan to Australia to the various wrestling territories in the U.S., before Vince McMahon transformed his father’s WWF northeastern territory into the national brand we know today as WWE. Outside of the United States, Andre was known as “Géant Ferré” and “Monster Roussimoff.” It wasn’t until he began touring around the U.S. where he was billed as simply Andre the Giant. He drew sell-out crowds in the territories he performed in, spending six weeks in each one before moving on to the next. It wasn’t expected that any opponents he faced would be booked to defeat him; as long as they were able to get a few shots in that was about as much of a victory as they could hope for. This was what made Andre truly unique: his sheer size wouldn’t allow for him to lose to just anyone. No one would believe that kayfabe at all. Soon word of mouth spread about this giant touring around the country, rounding up victories wherever he went. Fans in each territory would wait for the giant to come to town. There was no cable television in these areas, which added to the anticipation that Andre was an attraction that must be seen live to truly believe.
Andre’s mythic status exceeded beyond wrestling when it came to his drinking. It was not a stretch or hyperbole when Andre was considered “the greatest drinker that ever lived.” Here were his alcohol averages for one sitting:
- 7,000 calories worth of alcohol.
- A minimum of twenty-four beers.
- A minimum of four bottles of wine.
There were instances where he would get blackout drunk and collapse in hotel lobbies. Due to his size, no person or collection of persons were physically able to move him, so they would leave him until he came to the next morning. Ric Flair, a legendary drinker in his own right, claimed that between he and Andre they drank 106 beers in one night.
The deeper tragedy behind Andre’s drinking was that “he drank because he was in pain.” Andre’s physical condition was due to giantism, or acromegaly, which is unsustainable hormone growth in his body that enlarged his organs and distorted his looks. This became noticeable when he was fifteen years old and grew to seven feet and over three hundred pounds before he was eighteen. Andre knew his life was irregular and that it wouldn’t last terribly long. The life of a wrestler is often shortened due to the physical punishment they incur over time; and Andre’s acromegaly accelerated this process considerably. He sat uncomfortably in airplane seats, which proved continuously bothersome when traveling all around the world. Since he was too large for airplane lavatories, flight attendants would have to bring him a bucket to relieve himself in behind a closed curtain.
On top of that, Andre was a worldwide phenomenon who could not go anywhere without being noticed. A cap and a pair of sunglasses did nothing to hide such a large man from constant exposure. When he wasn’t traveling he retreated to a ranch he purchased in a secluded town of Ellerbe, North Carolina. He spent his time there cutting trees and chopping wood, reminiscent of his formative years back on his family’s farm in Moliens. When asked why he chose Ellerbe as his American home. “Nobody looks twice at me here,” he answered.
The documentary doesn’t delve deep into the subject of his daughter, who lived on the west coast away from Andre and didn’t spend much time with him while he worked. But the brevity of this mention alludes to the tragedy of Andre knowing he wasn’t longed to live. A wrestler having estranged children is an unfortunately common dynamic of their road-weary lifestyle but Andre, again, was singularly unique. When he retired from wrestling it wasn’t to reconnect with his family, as most wrestlers do: it was to die.
Andre the Giant chronicles his physical decline from his role in The Princes Bride, through his torch-passing moment with Hulk Hogan in the main event of Wrestlemania III, to his premature end. The retelling of the hours leading up to that fateful main event bout, courtesy of Hogan and McMahon, is worth watching the entire documentary alone. I won’t spoil those details here but it it’s an emotional build. Wrestling fan or not, it’s gripping to hear the play-by-play analysis of not only the pain he was suffering at the time, but his history-cementing role in helping launch pro wrestling into pop culture by losing to Hogan. Though it was a kayfabe loss, it was perhaps Andre’s greatest victory in wrestling.
Andre The Giant paints a sympathetic portrait of a man who brimmed with kindness toward those he felt respected him and whom he respected in return (Poor “Macho Man” Randy Savage was not one of them.) The legendary exploits many of us have come to know Andre for played on a much more human scale in the context of the pain he suffered daily; though it doesn’t diminish those exploits, it makes them more remarkable. To know that a towering, godly figure bled, felt pain, farted, ate, drank, and was down to earth with the rest of us works against the purity of kayfabe, but does more for storytelling.