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#15 Andre the Giant
The case for ranking Andre the Giant this high: Tremendous draw for a long period of time, a crucial aspect of this list…One of the most culturally relevant wrestlers of all-time…Extremely popular on three different continents…Passable worker in his younger years…Helped a lot of promoters and a lot of wrestlers make a lot of money…Had a huge role in giving the World Wrestling Federation the edge in Vince McMahon's war against the territories.
The case against ranking Andre the Giant this high: Sub-standard worker, wouldn't be nearly as effective as today…Appeal had a limited shelf-life, making it hard to build a company around him...Peak of his popularity coincided with the twilight of his career, meaning almost all of his well-known matches were bad.
Ranking Andre the Giant was one of the most challenging aspects of this list; most of the other lists such as Larry Matysik's list and The Wrestling Observer's list rank him in the top ten—and there is a real argument for him to be significantly higher than 15. However, I think Andre's shelf-life as an attraction restricted his career enough to knock him down a couple pegs. Andre the Giant might be a bigger draw for your company than say, The Undertaker for the first year or two in the company, but The Undertaker was a big draw for 25+ years for WWE. Wouldn't you rather have The Undertaker if you were starting a wrestling company? That, combined with his limited working ability has him right here at 15; which is still a very respectable spot.
Andre was born in France right after World War II and from a young age showed signs of Gigantism, officially known as Acromegaly, which is a condition that involves the over-production of growth hormones in the body, leading to the patient experiencing abnormal growth in their body, including their hands, heads and feet. Andre stuck out in school and eventually dropped out in eighth grade, settling for several odd jobs.
At age 17 he moved to Paris and was taught professional wrestling and due to his great size was immediately recognized as a potential draw. Andre made his debut in 1963 as Geant Ferre, named after Grand Ferre, a French folk hero. While wrestling in France Andre met Frank Valois, a wrestler and promoter in the lucrative Montreal territory. Valois saw potential in Andre and began to manage his career, taking the young Andre all over the world. Andre made his debut in Japan in 1970 for the International Wrestling Enterprise and became wildly popular in the Far East.
Andre would begin wrestling in Montreal and was a smash box-office attraction; wrestling against the likes of Killer Kowalski and Don Leo Jonathan and frequently sold out the famed Montreal Forum. However in what would become a theme of Andre's career, his appeal began to wane as time went on and eventually the gates involving Andre in Montreal became smaller and smaller. At the same time Andre also wrestled for the American Wrestling Association, mainly in tag team matches with Mad Dog Vachon.
At the time Andre the Giant was a vastly different performer than what most people remember. While he was always tall, he was relatively svelte for someone his size and his weight would bloom later in his career. Young Andre was also surprisingly agile for a man his size and amazed crowds with his ability to throw perfect dropkicks. Most of the film of Andre, particularly the ones that are highlighted by WWE, took place later in his career when a lot of his athleticism had been zapped due to his failing health; but that isn't indicative of his entire career.
Seeking to find a new hook for Andre, Valois conversed with Vincent J. McMahon of the World Wide Wrestling Federation about ways to improve Andre. McMahon suggested that Andre be booked as an unbeatable, unmovable figure and to cut out the drop kicks and stick to a purely vertical, dominating style. McMahon also came up with the idea of loaning Andre out to other promotions for short periods of time, with Andre getting a percentage of the gate at each show. The decisions by McMahon drastically altered Andre's career. Not only did his in-ring persona change but he also began to travel the world, being brought into different territories by promoters eager for a big gate. This way Andre would never get stale before he moved onto another territory and was viewed as a special attraction all over the globe. During a period where wrestling was defined by different territories and different stars in enclaves all over the country; Andre was perhaps the only true international star.
Andre debuted in the WWWF in 1973, wrestling Buddy Wolfe at Madison Square Garden. In later years it would become common booking practice to take a big man and push him as an unstoppable heel monster; but when Andre was becoming a household name it was frequent for a super-heavyweight to be pushed as a big babyface. In the mold of Haystacks Calhoun and Happy Humphrey, Andre would become arguably the biggest babyface in wrestling for more than a decade.
The fact that Andre would only appear in territories for a brief amount of time meant that he never received many championships or was involved in many long-term feuds. Andre was viewed as a tremendous attraction that could be counted on a big gate whenever he came into a territory; but he was never seen as a long-term solution to generating revenue until later in his career. Nobody was perhaps more bankable than Andre when it came to drawing for one show; but his overall career success was limited by the fact that he could never be counted on to be a consistent draw for a long period of time in one company until later in his career.
Throughout the 70s Andre would travel the globe, his most frequent stops being the WWWF and New Japan Pro Wrestling, while also making appearances for the NWA and the AWA. Andre's most popular match was the Battle Royal, the gimmick being that Andre never lost a Battle Royal because it was impossible to get him over the top-rope, a gimmick similar to the one used by Haystacks Calhoun a decade earlier. Some of his more notable programs were a boxing vs wresting "shoot fight" against Chuck Wepner, a heavyweight who became famous for going the distance in a fight against Muhammad Ali. In 1980 he wrestled Hulk Hogan for the first time at a WWF event at Shea Stadium in New York. Hogan was a heel at the time and the two would continue to feud in NJPW throughout the early-1980s. In Japan Andre would win some individual accolades, the MSG League in 1982 and the International Wrestling Grand Prix in 1985. He also probably had the best match of his career in 1980 in a tremendous brawl with Stan Hansen.
When Vince McMahon Jr. bought the WWF from his father and began to wage his war against the different territories, he signed Andre the Giant to his first exclusive deal. No longer was Andre free to wander the world, instead he would play a crucial role in the WWF and McMahon's battles across the United States and Canada. Since Andre was the biggest weapon promoters had used against their rivals for years, it made perfect sense for McMahon to employ him while he challenged the wrestling establishment. As a caveat to Andre, McMahon still allowed him to work lucrative matches in Japan.
Andre's first feud as a full-time wrestler in the WWF was against Big John Studd and the two clashed over the idea of who the real giant in professional wrestling really was. Along with Studd and his manager, Bobby Heenan, Andre became a pivotal figure in the WWF, the second biggest babyface behind Hogan and being a critical draw on WWE's tours that did not include Hogan. Andre defeated Studd in a Bodyslam Challenge at WrestleMania and would continue to feud with Studd, Ken Patera and King Kong Bundy into 1986. At WrestleMania 2 Andre would win a Battle Royal.
Wrestling has a penchant for stretching the ideas of reality because of their commitment to self-promotion. Perhaps no wrestler has had as much mythologized about their career as Andre. It was common practice for Andre to be promoted as being undefeated for 15 years by 1987, when in reality he had lost many matches, including a pinfall loss to El Canek in Mexico and a submission loss to Antonio Inoki. Andre's size was also a controversial topic throughout his career. His height was endlessly rumored about and there is a debate about whether or not it was consistent throughout his career. He was listed by the WWF as being 7'4" and weighing 520 lbs. By the end of his career Andre was certainly around the 500lb mark. Vince McMahon Sr. was very protective of Andre and never wanted him to stand next to basketball players because they may expose his height since everyone knows how tall they are. Photos from Andre on the set of Conan the Barbarian with basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain suggest that Andre was probably really around 6'10" or 6'11".
In one of the most brilliant wrestling angles in history, Andre turned heel for the first time in his career, turning on his long-time friend Hogan. The angle began when Hogan received an award for being the WWF World Heavyweight Champion for three years and Andre received an award for being "the only undefeated man in wrestling history." Andre felt overshadowed by Hogan on an episode of Piper's Pit and walked out of the episode. On the next episode of Piper's Pit, Andre was escorted by the hated manager Heenan, all but confirming his heel turn. Following an interview in which Heenan accused Hogan of only being Andre's friend because he was afraid to fight him, Andre assaulted Hogan, ripping off Hogan's shirt and a crucifix he was wearing around his neck. Andre challenged Hogan to a match for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania III, which Hogan accepted.
In a vacuum, this would prove to be probably the biggest match created in WWE history. At this point Hogan was an unstoppable force in the WWF, a champion who had slayed all-comers for three years and dismissed a who's-who of top name heels such as Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff, Bundy and others. Andre, whether true or untrue, had been announced for years as an unbeaten wrestler and most fans believed that. Throw in the fact that both men had been friends for years and only recently became enemies and that Hogan was perhaps the most popular wrestler in history at the time and you can understand why WrestleMania III would develop into the monumental event it became.
While Andre had never been more famous thanks to WWF's national television exposure, by this point in his career his body was beginning to wear down. His disease had slowly whittled away most of his athleticism and he battled injuries and a bad back for the remainder of his career.
Hiding behind the giant façade was a gentle spirit who pretty much only receives positive acclaim from those who knew him. Andre was famous for consistently picking up checks in restaurants when he was with other people and for loving to play cards backstage at events. Everyone has an Andre drinking story, by most accounts he was regarded as the greatest drinker to have ever lived, someone capable of drinking over one hundred cans of beer and still be perfectly sober.
A less talked about aspect of his life but one that defined his character was the story of his daughter. In the early-1980s a woman contacted Andre stating that he had fathered her child. Andre was incredulous and a paternity test was scheduled. When Andre arrived to take the test, he saw the child for the first time and immediately recognized his features, called off the paternity test and admitted that she was clearly his child. Although Robin Christensen Roussimof was raised by her mother, Andre did have a relationship with the girl, supported her financially and quietly saved money throughout the rest of his career to give to her when he passed away.
At different points in his life Andre was considered a freak, a potential star, a meal-ticket, the biggest babyface in the world and then the biggest heel, but more important than that was that he was human. When Andre was first diagnosed with Gigantism, during a trip to Japan in the early-1970s, he was essentially given a death sentence and told that he wouldn't live past 40. Later in his career in more somber moments, Andre would reflect on the paradox that was his life and wondered how God could bless a man with such great size and strength, yet have that same gift eventually take away his health and kill him. Andre also frequently felt ostracized by the general public, always being stared at whenever he would make public appearances, even doing something as simple as going to the airport could be an uncomfortable experience. When Andre first got a credit card in the 1980s his friends discovered that he was spending tons of money on home shopping networks; because for the first time in Andre's life he could shop for things without being constantly harassed.
At WrestleMania III Andre would lose to Hogan in front of over 70,000 people (93,000 if WWE is telling the story) when Hogan bodyslammed Andre and gave him his patented leg drop. WWE myth makers credited as being the first time that Andre had been slammed, which was comically untrue. In his earlier years Andre had allowed pretty much anybody to slam him if they were strong enough, including Harley Race, El Canek, Killer Kowalski and Antonio Inoki. Hell, even Hogan slammed him years earlier at Shea Stadium. Regardless, the match and the event was a major moment in wrestling history and was the high-water mark for the WWF during the 1980s.
Following his loss to Hogan, a lot of the magic that made Andre a huge draw began to wane. Along with his failing health, Andre became a more limited performer for the WWF. He would continue to feud with Hogan into the next year, securing the management of Ted DiBiase, who after failing to buy the championship from Hogan decided to employ Hogan's greatest nemesis to win the title for him. In February of 1988 on an episode of Saturday Night's Main Event that almost came to fruition, with Andre briefly defeating Hogan for the title thanks to DiBiase hiring a crooked referee to screw Hogan out of the championship. Andre then attempted to give the championship to DiBiase, but the title change was nullified and an impromptu tournament was held for the championship at WrestleMania IV, with Hogan and Andre eliminating each other via double disqualification.
Their feud would continue until the inaugural SummerSlam event, which saw Andre and DiBiase defeated by Hogan and Randy Savage in the main event. Andre would spend the rest of 1988 and 1989 feuding with popular wrestlers Jake Roberts, Hacksaw Jim Duggan and The Ultimate Warrior. The Ultimate Warrior would become the first wrestler in history to regularly get the better of Andre, often squashing him at house shows as a part of McMahon's big plan to get Warrior over as the next big thing. Andre would then form a brief tag team with Haku called The Colossal Connection and the pair would win the WWF World Tag Team Championships from Demolition in December of 1989 and would hold the titles until WrestleMania VI when they would drop the championships and ended up fighting in the ring, bringing an end to their alliance.
After breaking up with Haku Andre retired from full-time wrestling as his health made it more difficult for him to work consistently in the ring. He returned to the WWF at WrestleMania VII and took part in some forgettable feuds, most notably with the Natural Disasters and his final appearance came at a house show in Paris in October of 1991.
Now needing crutches to support himself on his way down to the ring, Andre would spend the rest of his career mainly wrestling for All-Japan Pro Wrestling while also working for the Universal Wrestling Association in Mexico. He retired from wrestling in December of 1992, his final match taking place for AJPW when he teamed with long-time friend Giant Baba and Rusher Kimura to defeat Haruka Eigen, Masanobu Fuchi and Motoshi Okuma.
In January of 1993 Andre returned to France for his father's funeral and tragically passed away due to heart failure. He was 46 years old. Later that year the WWF created their own Hall of Fame and made Andre the inaugural inductee.
In an industry where the term "legendary" is thrown around quite a bit; Andre remains one of the few true legends in the business. Perhaps only Hogan had more mainstream cadence with the public than Andre; even today young people who have never watched an episode of wrestling in their lives probably know who Andre the Giant is. If this was a list of the biggest icons in wrestling history, Andre would have to be at least considered for the top spot. With that being said, Andre also peaked at the right time for his specific skill-set. It's hard to imagine he would enjoy the same amount of success today. The Big Show is about the same size as Andre, and is a better wrestler and talker than Andre ever was, yet he hasn't come close to matching the success of Andre the Giant—and that is because The Big Show is not an attraction like Andre was. The Big Show has appeared every week on our TV's for two decades now; we've seen him do everything imaginable. Andre didn't have that issue, he would come into territories for a couple months, sell out buildings, and then move on, remaining an attraction for the next time around. Andre was truly a one-of-a-kind presence in wrestling and his unique career will likely never be duplicated.
Next week #14 will be revealed, a star from the 1990s and 2000s whose charisma and athleticism have him listed as one the most naturally gifted wrestlers in history.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu
19. Dusty Rhodes
18. Dory Funk Jr.
16. Harley Race
15. Andre the Giant