When Andre the Giant came to Palmerston North

Last updated 13:00 14/08/2010

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Palmerston North had never seen anything like it.

"Everywhere he went that day people stood and gaped – one old chap fell over a pram," wrote local sportswriter John Mancer.

"He was asked to leave two department stores because all trade stopped."

Andre the Giant was taking a stroll downtown.

The French wrestler was the star attraction of a wrestling show at the YMCA stadium that night, February 22, 1972.

In the sometimes bizarre world of pro wrestling, Andre Roussimoff was unique.

He was 2.26 metres tall and weighed 229 kilograms.

His hand span was 40 centimetres – but he always shook hands softly.

His clothing had to be custom-made, down to the size 22 shoes.

"With a build like that," wrote Mancer, "one would expect that he would simply waddle about, but as can be seen by the [publicity] photo, he is built in proportion."

Wellington wrestler and promoter Steve Rickard said meeting Andre was "like the side of a house coming towards me".

Just 25 years old, Andre would soon be an international name, but that day he was little-known.

He didn't yet have the title familiar to legions of fans – Andre the Giant. He wrestled under several stage names: Jean Ferre, Monsieur Eiffel Tower, Monster Eiffel Tower, and the Eighth Wonder of the World.

In Palmerston North, he was billed simply as The Giant.

He was to feature in a tag team contest that night.

"One could well imagine the relief of local star Jock Ruddock when he found out he was to be the massive man's partner, not his opponent," Mancer said.

The opponents would be Bruno Bekkar and Brutal Bob Millar.

Auckland's Dave Cameron, a wrestling and boxing photographer and writer since 1949, remembers Andre.

The former Palmerstonian, an amateur wrestler, sportsman and boxing enthusiast, now writes online for The Fight Times.

He says: "I first came across this giant of a man doing the rounds of the English wrestling halls in 1969.

"He was a big man, but rather skinny, and he could move around the ring. I immediately wrote and told Steve Rickard `you need to get this big French guy out here, as he will be a sensation'.

"We in New Zealand were very lucky to see the giant before he hit New York and was snapped up by the WWF [World Wrestling Federation] later."

Cameron was the first to write about Andre in a Canadian magazine, Wrestling Monthly.

For the 1972 Palmerston North match, Andre travelled from Wellington in the back of Steve Rickard's station wagon, lying flat on a double mattress.

John Mancer got the job of looking after Andre – who didn't speak English too well – on the afternoon of the show. As told to Dave Cameron and chronicled in Mancer's 1979 book Steve Rickard's Life on the Mat, Andre's weight broke the springs in Mancer's PAX Vauxhall, leaving the car leaning to one side. Stopping at a bar, Andre polished off five 20-oz glasses of beer as Mancer struggled to finish one.

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Then it was off to a Chinese restaurant for lunch.

"Two bowls of soup were followed by two helpings of pork chow mein, a large rump steak with French fries, onions, eggs and tomatoes, then peaches and ice cream, the lot washed down with two bottles of Coca-Cola and two cups of coffee."

At the YMCA stadium Andre posed for a photo with the seven-year-old twin daughters of tag partner Jock Ruddock, and handed Mancer a brown paper bag for safekeeping. Mancer peeked inside: it was full of banknotes. He asked: "How do you know you can trust me?"

"If you run away, I catch you," Andre replied.

The wrestling night was a roaring success; the house was packed, and many had to be turned away.

John Mancer acted as both ring announcer and reporter, penning the article which appeared in the Manawatu Standard the next day.

In the last moments, Millar and Bekkar tried to attack the giant together, but "they paid dearly for this, as [Andre] whipped atomic drops on both of them and the bout was all over".

Andre injected plenty of humour into the proceedings, at one point lifting Bekkar high in the air, sitting him on top of a ringpost and patting his cheek "as one would a naughty boy".

Bekkar said later: "It was like running into a brick wall. When he picked me up over his head I felt like a baby."

Andre Roussimoff's huge size was caused by a condition called acromegaly, an excess of growth hormone. His Bulgarian grandfather had been 2.3m, and his parents and four siblings all stood at least six feet tall.

Post-New Zealand, he signed up to entrepreneur Vince McMahon Sr's WWF stable of wrestlers in America, and became famous, popular and rich as a wrestler and star of movies such as The Princess Bride.

He became father to Robin, his only child, in 1979.

But as he grew older his failing health caused him constant pain.

In 1993, aged 46, he died in his sleep in Paris, where he'd come to attend his father's funeral.

That year, he was the first person to be inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame.

It's now more than 38 years since February 22, 1972.

But some still remember the day that Andre the Giant, large as life, walked among them right here in Palmerston North.

Email: tinawhite2002@hotmail.com

- The Manawatu Standard

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