A Giant Among Men

Andre the Giant

Those words, scrawled in a childlike hand between the oaklike legs of Jean Ferré, are actually at the low end of his fighting weights. Ferré was discovered and re-named by Vincent J McMahon (father to the current WWE head), who dubbed him André the Giant, a title that would allow the world to understand and respect his scale.

He wrestled up to 340 times a year, swiftly becoming the biggest draw in the sport, prior to the Wrestlemania and all that it spawned, and eventually grew to more than 500 lbs. But it was never his weight or his height that was the issue, but the bewitching combination of the two. He suffered from acromegaly, a rare condition which causes the body to create too much growth hormone, but in his case it meant that rather than being lanky and disproportionate like most seven footers, he was instead a bear of a man, with wrists larger than most men’s ankles. In his teens he played rugby (imagine seeing the above packing down in a scrum!) in his native France, before a chance meeting flipped him to wrestling.

The rest is history: one of the breakout stars of the WWF at its peak, the holder of the WWF Championship and the first inductee into its Hall of Fame, along with an acting career, most notably as Fezzik in The Princess Bride and an untimely death in 1993. He became a genuine multi-media superstar in the ’80s, when his Herculean stature matched up to a decade which celebrated freakishness more ardently than any other.

In the 1976, though, professional show wrestling was still brushing off carnival dirt, and remained a passionately regionalised phenomenon, without much in the way of national stars to unify its fanbase. So any gimmick it could use to get on network TV was fair game. Which explains why when promoters put together a bill to settle, once-and-for-all, whether boxing or wrestling was the superior fighting discipline, the wrestlers practically bit the pugilist’s hands off to get in the ring.

It doesn’t even begin to explain why Muhammad Ali, at the height of his fame, and still a pretty reasonable sort of a a boxer, would face up to Japanese superstar Alberto Inoki, though given his legenedary ability to chew through money, there were probably a few million good reasons. That fight (which I’ll post below) was pretty bizarre, as Ali just danced around ‘canvas back’ Inoki until it ended in a tie. André the Giant’s though, was good old-fashioned wrestling pandemonium.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozRTSSaP6p4%5D

I love that he fought Chuck Wepner, the guy who inspired Rocky, who his own manager describes as “the kind of guy who would probably fighht a gorilla or a kangaroo, if the money was right.” And that the perilous sense of order was totally destroyed by Gorilla Monsoon’s intervention following Wepner’s ejection from the ring.

It’s just such a fantastically ridiculous concept, pairing a scripted, nominally no-holds-barred show sport with the strict, coded discipline of boxing. And the way the Giant does these fake headbutts, which Wepner doesn’t know how to respond to, and other wrestling moves that he sorta half plays along with. I guess the chief attarction of this whole thing is the sense of hucksterism. This seems like the last, triumphant gasp of snake oil salesman and the PT Barnum approach to showbusiness, when it still teetered on the brink of the total chaos. As great as Wrestlemania was, it succeeded precisely because it was as tightly scripted as this worldwide (Ali’s bout was in Tokyo) wrestling-vs-boxing event was shambolic.

The ongoing unsuccessful atempts to organise a league vs union match (with mixed rules or otherwise) suggest that modern sporting bodies have far too much control over their respective brands to ever allow such a spectacle to take place. Ultimately, that’s probably a good thing, and neither of these bouts are remotely worthwhile as sports. But the very fact they exist makes me oddly, inexplicably happy, with one superstar at the start of his run, another toward the end, meeting via satellite in this unlikely ringbound farce.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29qI1GyhDeg%5D

– Duncan

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4 Comments

Filed under Boxing, Wrestling

4 responses to “A Giant Among Men

  1. Nick

    Awesome post!

  2. Dan

    Great post Duncan, thought I might add that in the seventies and on into the mid-eighties wrestling matches were fought as 5-10 rounds with a minimum of falls to win the bout – so the contrast with boxing’s fight structure wouldn’t have seen so vast at the time.

    Also, heres some vintage Inoki pics:
    http://dsf-thevault.blogspot.com/2009/06/antonio-inoki.html

  3. Duncan

    Thanks guys… I guess it pays to remember that wrestling wasn’t always as ludicrous as it is now. I remember Kerry Buchanan waxing nostalgic about the Wrestlemania as a kind of golden age, or at least a more innocent time. Have to say that I thought Inoki’s approach was hella boring, even if it was technically sound.

  4. Brendano

    this is the best thing i’ve read in weeks

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