Steve Rickard and the late John Mancer often told me many "Andre" stories. The following is about when Steve Rickard asked John Mancer to look after the Giant for an afternoon in Palmerston North.
Steve Rickard's first meeting with Andre came in Canada when Steve was wrestling out of Montreal. The promoter's teamed them up in a tag contest, and they soon became good friends. Steve was relieved to find he was a team mate of Andre's, and not an opponent. Through their friendship Steve was able to bring Andre to New Zealand for a short campaign.
John Mancer was part of that campaign, being ring announcer for the bout in Palmerston North. Kiwis on the whole are knowledgeable about the fight game, and they are hard to deceive. They couldn't believe a man of Andre's proportions was any good as a wrestler. However the word soon got out, and packed houses were the result. 'The introduction of Andre was unforgettable. Steve Rickard phoned Palmerston North to say he was bringing Andre through from Wellington and wanted him looked after for the afternoon.
When Steve arrived he beeped his horn and John Mancer went out to meet the giant visitor. There was Steve's station wagon but it seemed, no Andre. However, Steve went round to the back, the tailboard was lowered, and there was Andre stretched out on a double mattress. As the big fellow unfolded from the wagon locals stopped and goggled. On being introduced John Mancer’s shirt cuff disappeared in the handshake.
It soon became obvious why Andre preferred to travel lying down. In John's PAX Vauxhall Andre's knees came up under his chin, while his frame extended so far that the hapless driver leaned to one side like a yachtie dealing with a gale force wind. The Vauxhall bore a permanent lean to from that experience, Andre having broken the springs just by sitting on them.
With the Giant there was a language problem. He spoke French, German, Italian, and Japanese, but his English was not fluent. Still, he could usually make himself understood. Everywhere he went that day in Palmerston North people stood and gaped. One old chap fell over a pram, and Andre was asked to leave two department stores because all trade stopped.
Being a rather hot day Andre agreed to a beer. As the glasses were on display he was asked to nominate his size. He picked out a twenty ouncer. John Mancer opted for the same size, but struggled with one, while Andre polished off five. I can verify this as I had the privilege of having some beers with Andre and Steve Rickard one night after the matches. I recall Andre going up to the counter at The EI Matador restaurant and coming back with an armful of cans. And they were the large size 460mls.steel cans of Leopard beer. Andre plonked them down on the table and proceeded to finish a can off in about three gulps. I was definitely on my first can, while Andre had polished off five.
Andre then indicated he was hungry so it was off the Chinese Restaurant. He may not have matched the legendary King Kong at eating, but he certainly presented fantastic business for the restaurant that day. He started off with a plateful of scallops, tossing them back like a handful of peanuts. Two bowls of soup were followed by his first order of pork chow mein. Chinese food fills most people quickly, but Andre ordered seconds of chow mein, and then ripped into a large rump steak with French fries, onions, eggs and tomatoes. Peaches and ice cream came next, the lot washed down with two bottles of Coca Cola and two cups of coffee.
Back on the street everyone gawked at Andre, so he was steered into another hotel, one that attracted a pretty tough clientele. Some freezing workers challenged the newcomers to a game of pool. Andre indicated he simply wanted to watch. At one stage of the game John Mancer potted a ball, leaving the white cue ball up the table. Unable to reach it he looked around for the jigger. Andre indicated that Mancer should resume his stance. He then picked him up by the shirt collar and pants, holding him suspended over the table while he sank another ball. The opponent began to protest, claiming a foul, but after taking a close look at Andre, changed his mind.
On to the bout at the local stadium and just prior to the fighting Andre delivered to ring announcer Mancer a massive wad of notes in a brown paper bag, demanding he look after them.
A nervous Mancer asked Andre if he felt he could be trusted. "You run away, I catch you," came the ominous reply. (I also remember Andre in Auckland with a bag of notes, and he asked me what time the bank would be open the next day, as he had to get the money transferred to France.) Once Andre hit the United States and made New York, his future was never in doubt. He was soon booked by Vince McMahon senior, who was head of the World Wide Wrestling Federation. (W.W.W.F as it was known in those days.) He had some huge matches teaming with super star Hulk Hogan, and later when they fell out they fought each other in singles matches. The following is from a New York programme of 1980 headed;
BATTLE OF THE SUPER HEAVYWEIGHTS ANDRE THE GIANT Vs. HULK HOGAN.
Tonight they have put special reinforcements under the ring to withstand the action when Andre The Giant and Hulk Hogan clash head to head. This indeed is a battle of two of the most awesome competitors in the entire world of professional wrestling. It is billed as a battle of the super heavyweights. Hogan, the very muscular blonde from California weighs in at over 300 pounds and stands 6feet 9 inches tall. His opponent, who has been dubbed “The eighth wonder of the world,” stands 7 feet 4 ins, and weighs in at almost 500 pounds.
Hogan's manager Freddie Blassie pointed out that the Hulk had never suffered a loss in New York City, but can he overcome the big Frenchman. McMahon Senior wasn't fooling around when he said he could make Andre number one. As a matter of fact, during his time, the Giant became not only a household name when it came to wrestling, but also in the entire sports world. At the time, Andre was as popular in the sports world as Muhammad Ali.
Speaking of Ali, Andre took part in a boxer vs. wrestlers event in 1976, which was held in Shea Stadium in New York. The two legends didn't face each other that night in the ring. Ali went up against Japanese legend Antonio Inoki, and the giant faced boxer Chuck Wepner. The Ali Inoki bout wasn't too memorable, but the Andre Wepner match lived up to its billing, as the Giant took hold of his opponent in the third round after Wepner had just landed the best punch of the contest and hurled him over the top rope, quickly ending the bout and any question as to who was the better man that night.
Over his career, Andre proved that he wasn't a sideshow freak. His skills in the ring were as good as, if not better than, most of his opponent's. Although he towered over his opponents, Andre was also a student of the mat game, and was always willing to learn new moves to add to his repertoire.
Sadly Andre passed away in France at the young age of 46, in 1993. He was in France to attend his Father's funeral. The wrestling world may never see another Andre Rene Roussimoff who simply liked to be known as “The Giant.”