The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of WrestlingInc or its staff
The mainstream media coverage of professional wrestling may have hit a pinnacle for this decade over the last weekend; and unlike previous occasions when major news outlets covered pro wrestling, this week it wasn't because somebody died, or some kind of scandal. Instead, a newsworthy WrestleMania with Ronda Rousey making her WWE debut brought attention to wrestling's biggest weekend of the year. In addition, a well-received HBO documentary on the life of Andre the Giant got a lot of mainstream attention.
I thought the documentary was very interesting. Bill Simmons and Ringer Films did a great job with the footage they used, including a lot of stuff from earlier in Andre's life where he is so lean and looks almost like a different person. Andre is a great subject for a documentary, and even if you don't care at all about professional wrestling, the documentary will still interest you because it is such a fantastic human interest story.
The documentary does focus too much on Hulk Hogan and the rise of the WWF asa global company; and it also makes some outrageous claims, like that the WWF used Andre's ankle injury in 1981 as an opportunity to go national, which is really inaccurate because Andre only missed two months and Vincent K. McMahon didn't even buy the WWF until 1982 and started going national until 1983.
Hogan also claimed that he didn't know the finish of the WrestleMania III match against Andre until Andre called the finish in the ring; which is just a completely ridiculous story and was overdramatized in the documentary to create a climactic scene in a movie that didn't need one. However, historically inaccuracies behind, the film is fascinating and some of the interviews, particularly with former referee Tim White, who was one of Andre's closest friends, are riveting.
I've figured it was time to talk about the life and times of not just Andre, but all giants in the history of professional wrestling. Wrestling emerged as a spectator sport out of the shadows of traveling carnivals and sideshows; so it is natural that one of the classic sideshow attractions, The Giant, would also make some appearances, especially since wrestling has always prioritized men with size and strength.
How do you define a giant? I think a good rule is to differentiate between giants and big men. There are plenty of big men in wrestling history, but not a ton of giants. I would classify as a giant as someone whose size alone made them an attraction, as opposed to their size being just a part of their attraction. Hulk Hogan, Killer Kowalski and The Undertaker are all big men; but they would still have been attractions if they were 6'2" or shorter. A true giant in pro wrestling is someone whose number one selling point was their immense size.
Another thing to note is digging through the history books and figuring out the heights of all these guys. In the Andre documentary, a bunch of people who knew Andre couldn't agree on his real height, and since wrestling is a business based on exaggeration, every height listed here should be taken with a (giant) grain of salt. As a rule of thumb, any height that is listed as part of the promotion of pro wrestling should be assumed to be at least several inches shorter in real life. The further you go back in history, the more questionable the claims become, so it is very difficult to determine the real heights of all of these guys. With that being said; let's begin our journey with the oldest and the tallest giant in wrestling history.
The tallest wrestler I can find reasonable documentation performed in a wrestling match is Edouard Beaupre, otherwise known as the Willow Bunch Giant. Beaupre was born in Saskatchewan in 1881 and only had one match that I can verify, a match against legendary Quebec strongman Louis Cyr in 1901. Before the match, Beaupre was measured at 7'8" and weighed 365lbs. Cyr, who is regarded as being one of the strongest men who have ever lived, stood 5'8" but also weighed 365lbs.
Cyr reportedly easily won the match; and Beaupre may have never wrestled again. As is an unfortunate common theme among a lot of the men I researched for this project, Beaupre died young, only 24 years old, of tuberculosis. After he died, doctors discovered a pituitary gland disorder that undoubtedly contributed to his great height. When he died in 1904, his death certificate read that he was 8'3" and while it was possible he grew after his match with Cyr, it is impossible to verify that was his real height.
The tallest wrestler that got regular work that I can identify is Max Palmer, who wrestled for about five years in the 1950s around Salt Lake City. Born in Mississippi, Palmer went by the name Paul Bunyan and was billed as being 8'2" and weighing 500lbs. At his death, Palmer was allegedly measured for his coffin at 8'2", but that is hard to verify. The Tallest Man, on online database of extremely tall people that will destroy your afternoon if you go on it, has Palmer listed at 7'7" which seems accurate. After his wrestling career ended, Palmer than became a traveling evangelist, going by the title "Goliath for Christ" which is a hell of a hook.
A contemporary of Palmer is Kurt Zehe; a german wrestler who wrestled briefly under the nickname Gargantua. Zehe was billed at being 8'4" but most accounts have him at "only" 7'2" which is an impressive exaggeration when you think about it. A height difference of 14 inches; image billing a 5'10" wrestler as being 7 feet tall? Anyway, Zehe had a famous freak-show match in 1952 against former boxer Jack Doyle that was reportedly such a bomb that it made all of wrestling in England look bad. Zehe to my knowledge is the tallest billed wrestler in history.
Although small by the standards of this list; Shoei 'Giant' Baba was a true giant in pro wrestling. Baba was only about 6'8" or so, although in Japan that was huge as the population on average is shorter than in the west. Baba probably wouldn't have a been a big star if it wasn't for his size; he wasn't a particularly good wrestler and his immense size allowed him as a native star to stand up to foreign bully heels. Baba wrestled for nearly 40 years; founded All-Japan Pro Wrestling, and became an icon in Japan. Only a few wrestlers in history (Hogan, El Santo, Rikidozan, Antonio Inoki) have achieved such iconic status in wrestling. As far as accomplishments go; Baba is the most successful giant in wrestling history; although you could argue he wasn't a true giant.
With the exception of Baba, you've probably noticed none of the other giants on this list really accomplished much in wrestling. Despite their immense size, people that grow so large are generally not in great health; lack athleticism and coordination, and struggle to deal with the physical tolls of pro wrestling. Those that do often have other athletic options; such as basketball. Wilt Chamberlain probably would have been an awesome pro wrestler, but basketball was always going to be his game.
That brings us to Andre the Giant. Andre, who like most of the men on this list suffered from acromegaly that led to his enormous size, yet Andre physically was able to wrestle for decades and while his body broke down at the end, he held up for a really long period of time. I think when people think of Andre it seemed like it was a no-brainer that he would be a star; but if you examine the history of men his size and with his medical condition, it is actually amazing that he ended up being as successful as he really was. With the exception of Big Show, no man his size has ever had a similarly long career.
Andre's size is always a subject of debate. There was no way he was 7'4" which was the standard size he was billed at; realistically he was somewhere between 6'9 and 7 feet. He was billed as weighing 525lbs, and while he was lighter than that for most of his career, he probably was around that mark by the end.
There was a contemporary of Andre's who did have a successful career in wrestling; although he isn't very well known in the US. Martin Ruane; better known as Giant Haystacks, was a household name in England during the peak era of wrestling in the UK, and was a legitimate television star for his tag team and later lengthy feud with Shirley "Big Daddy" Crabtree. Ruane was billed at being 6'11" and 675lbs; and while he was probably around 6'7" he certainly was that heavy by the end of his career. Despite his size and limited mobility, he was a big star in England throughout the 70s and 80s and is one of the icons of British wrestling.
Ruane never achieved much success outside of the UK and rarely wrestled abroad. He worked briefly in All-Japan Pro Wrestling but never stuck there; and he was brought in as Loch Ness in WCW in 1996 as part of the Dungeon of Doom, and was a quick flop there as well. His biggest success outside of the UK was in Calgary, where he got over as a tag team partner of Dynamite Kid and later Bret Hart, in 1980.
The post-Andre era of giants was similar to the one before; a lot of very tall men having very short careers. Older fans may remember John Harris, who wrestled in several territories in 1980s, most notably in the American Wrestling Association as Silo Sam. Billed at standing 7'8", Harris was probably not that tall, but The Tallest Man has him at 7'3" which is still huge and makes him one of the tallest wrestlers of all time if that was his legitimate height. He also wrestled briefly in the Continental Wrestling Federation under his real name, and in World Class Championship Wrestling as Little John, where he served as a bodyguard of The Fantastics.
From the same era, Raja Lion, a Pakistanti giant began working in All-Japan Pro wrestling as an opponent for Giant Baba. Baba had many brilliant ideas while he was booking AJPW but bringing in Raja Lion was not one of them. Lion was one of the worst wrestlers ever; he made The Great Khali look like Shawn Michaels, and didn't do anything in wrestling after working briefly for AJPW. He was probably around 7'1" so he gets a mention here.
In the 1990s and 2000s there would be more legit 7 foot tall wrestlers than ever, although most of them would have fairly unremarkable careers. However, since individual wrestling companies were bigger and had greater exposure than ever before, we have a lot more video of these men. In the 1990s there were several men over 6'6" who achieved massive success; including The Undertaker, Kane and Kevin Nash; and while they were all bigger than most of their opponents, they were all under 7 feet tall.
Someone who was most assuredly over 7 feet tall though was Jorge Gonzalez. Gonzalez was a legit 7'6", making him the tallest wrestler of the modern era. The story is that he was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 1988, who at the time were owned by WCW owner Ted Turner. Despite his great height, Gonzalez wasn't much of an NBA prospect and after he failed to make the Hawks, Turner offered him a job as a wrestler. After a year of training, he made his WCW debut as El Gigante; and spent a few years in WCW, peaking with a feud against Ric Flair over the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, before heading to the WWF in 1993.
Gonzalez became the tallest wrestler to step foot in a WWF ring when he debuted at the Royal Rumble in 1993. Billed as being 8 feet tall, Gonzalez feuded with The Undertaker; gaining fame for choking out The Undertaker using chloroform at WrestleMania. Despite the fact that he was billed as being 8 feet tall, Gonzalez is best remembered for wearing a ridiculous body suit while he wrestled; complete with airbrushed muscles and tufts of body hair. The suit was so ridiculous that nobody could take him seriously as a threat, and Gonzalez's poor wrestling skills didn't help matters. He ended his feud with The Undertaker by losing at SummerSlam and was gone from the company in October. He spent some years wrestling in Japan before retiring to a ranch in his native Argentina.
Another giant from that era is Ron Reis. Unlike most of the people on this list, Reis was naturally over seven feet tall, as opposed to having a growth disorder, and was a legitimately good athlete, playing college basketball at Santa Clara University. Billed at 7'2", Reis unfortunately never amounted to much as a wrestler after signing with World Championship Wrestling; probably because he was given one of the worst gimmicks in the history of wrestling.
Reis debuted as The Yeti in October of 1995 and attacked Hulk Hogan. The Yeti somehow had a costume that was WORSE than Giant Gonzalez's; and his "attack" of Hogan looked more like Reis was trying to dry-hump an unenthusiastic Hogan. Needless to say, the gimmick flopped and subsequent rebranding attempts failed. Reis was used as a jobber for mid-card talent and left WCW in 1998.
In the late 1990s, the WWF rolled out a stable called The Odditties; a comedic group of freakish performers that all happened to be terrible workers. Paulo "Giant" Silva was a Brazilian wrestler who was billed at being 7'3" and had a very short wrestling career, although he later found success as a freak show attraction for PRIDE in Japan. Robert "Kurrgan" Maillet was slightly shorter than Silva but a slightly better wrestler, and did wrestle on the independents before coming to the WWF in 1997. Maillet would later find success an actor, appearing in hits such as 300 and Sherlock Holmes.
The 1990s did see the beginning of the only American wrestler who could really rival Andre the Giant's success in Paul Wight. A standout high school athlete, Wight was diagnosed with Acromegaly, although he later had surgery to correct the issue. Wight was listed at 7'1" when he was playing basketball at Wichita State, although he is probably slightly shorter than that. His weight has fluctuated throughout his career; but has probably remained between 400 and 500lbs over time.
Wight debuted in WCW in 1995 and was immediately given a monster push. Under the ring name The Giant (as part of a shortlived storyline where he was supposedly Andre's son) he defeated Hulk Hogan for the world title in his very first match. After a successful run in WCW, Wight jumped to the WWF in 1999 and debuted as The Big Show. Nearly 20 years later, Wight is still with the company and has enjoyed several world title reigns. Although he has never been part of the top echelon of stars, Wight has been a main event talent for a majority of his career. In addition, Wight was a pretty good worker for his size and an excellent talker with great comedic timing. Wight is easily the most talented giant in wrestling history.
In the new millennium; giants have not been very relevant. The exceptions have been The Big Show and The Great Khali. Khali stands over seven feet tall, is a major celebrity in his native India and had a decent run in the WWE; including a stint as World Heavyweight Champion. However, he is also synonymous with crappy wrestling and for a majority of his career was kind of a punchline in WWE. Matt Morgan, who was billed at being 7 feet tall, worked for a few years in WWE and showed promise but like Ron Reis, was given a terrible gimmick where he stuttered when attempting to talk. Morgan had more success outside WWE, wrestling for years in TNA and turning into a solid worker with some charisma.
In recent years; WWE has experimented with some wrestlers near 7 feet tall, including Eli Cottonwood and Jackson Andrews, but neither went on to relevant careers. The latest giant is Big Cass, who has flashed potential in WWE; although his college basketball profile has him listed at 6'8"; well below the 7 foot tall height he is billed at.
You could argue that the more athletic style wrestling has developed has rendered a lot of supertall wrestlers obsolete; and the attraction of seeing someone so tall isn't as relevant as it once was. I'd say that a majority of the wrestlers over seven feet tall have failed to have an impact on the business; with a few obvious exceptions. Perhaps soon another true giant will come along; like Big Show or Andre, and have an impact worthy of their massive size.
Must Watch Matches
Kota Ibushi vs Hangman Page: **** - ROH Supercard of Honor XII
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Cody vs Kenny Omega: **** - ROH Supercard of Honor XII