Frank Valois is a Quebecois just turned 60, and, though he goes a bit slowly now, he has a width and heaviness of bone that give evidence of the power he had in his prime. He was with Andre the night of that first match, and for most of those barnstorming early years. Back home now in Montreal and retired after four decades in the ring, Valois promotes wrestling over much of Quebec. He remembers the boy-man Andre.
"What a thing to see he was! Like a young mastiff. He loved to frisk, to joke. And to drink, and feel the drink. He was so happy in the game. For him the hard travel was a joy. Eating all he wanted and drinking with us in bars and restaurants and seeing new people and places, it was a dream for a poor boy from the country."
So imparadised was Andre by his circumstances that he threw himself into the finer points of his new craft, anxious not to jeopardize his life-style. "He was trying so hard always," Valois recalls, "and anything the other guys could do Andre thought he should do also. In that first year or so he was around seven feet tall and he weighed 325 to 350 pounds, but he looked skinny because of his frame. I'm telling you, he broke up some rings and ring ropes learning to do the dropkicks and to use the ropes right."
Asked about Andre's physical abilities, Valois hesitates a moment, then says, "Listen, I tell you this not because Andre is almost a son to me, but because it is true. Many men were afraid to go in the ring with him, especially after he reached his twenties, because he was so large and strong. For all his height and weight, he could run and jump and do moves that made seasoned wrestlers fearful. Not so much fearful that he would hurt them with malice but that he might hurt them with exuberance. He was incroyable. Even his playing was like that. He discovered one day in Paris that he could move a small car by himself, and for quite a while after that he amused himself by moving his friends' cars while they were having a meal or a drink, placing them in a small space between a lamppost and a building, or turning them around to face the other way. His strength was so natural to him that he had no interest in lifting weights. He was interested in having a joke on his friends, not in showing how strong he was. I have lived among strong men all my life. I come from Quebec, the cradle of strongmen, home of Louis Cyr and the six Baillargeon brothers, but I have never seen a man with the raw strength of Andre."
Perhaps this could all be dismissed in light of the often hyperbolic nature of one friend's memory of another, except for the validation of people like Ken Patera, four-time U.S. national weightlifting champion and still the U.S. record holder in the superheavyweight clean and jerk and total. Patera was the first American to clean and jerk 500 pounds, and many knowledgeable observers consider him to have been stronger than the Soviet Union's legendary Vasily Alexeyev during the early 1970s, when they vied for the world and Olympic championships. Standing 6'1" and often weighing well over 300 pounds, Patera entered professional wrestling following the Munich Olympics. He has wrestled Andre often and has seen him work on many cards. Patera is a rugged man from a rugged family, and he understands strength as few men do.
"Let's put it this way," he responded recently to a question about the Brobdingnagian Frenchman. "I honestly believe that if Andre took a couple of years away from the game to train like the top lifters do, and if he developed a close personal relationship with his friendly neighborhood pharmacist, the world powerlifting records in both the squat and the deadlift would fall. No question. Think about it. He already weighs almost 500 pounds, with no lifting and no help from steroids. Hell, he'd weigh 600 or 700 pounds and not be any fatter than he is now, and let me tell you, that's not very damn fat. He's a wonder of nature. I've seen him pick up a 250-pound guy like you'd pick up your overcoat. I guess you know what he did to Wepner."
Wepner. Ah, yes. That would be one Charles (Chuck) Wepner, cardmate of Muhammad Ali in that ill-advised boxers vs. wrestlers promotion back in 1976: Wepner had the dubious distinction of facing Andre in Shea Stadium in the bout preceding the much ballyhooed, ultimately farcical, Ali vs. Antonio Inoki match broadcast by satellite from Tokyo. Although the clash between Ali and Inoki turned out to be more ludicrous than enlightening, the Andre-Wepner prelim had at least one genuinely exciting moment. Wepner had circled Andre during the first two rounds, tapping him experimentally, as a mountaineer might assay the peak he or she had chosen to climb. Andre had permitted himself to be circled, no doubt postponing for the sake of the crowd the inevitable outcome. (The word inevitable is used advisedly, because over the years boxers have fared poorly whenever they have disregarded the obvious technical advantages of wrestling and engaged in a mixed bout. Most of the boxer-wrestler matchups, in fact, have ended by a pin within a minute, according to ring historians.)
At any rate, in the third round, perhaps emboldened by the lack of response to his tapping, to his tapping, to his gloves so gently rapping, Wepner really clocked the Giant as they broke from the ropes. Whereupon Andre, in a more than usually fell swoop, angrily snatched his smaller opponent into the air and pitched him forthwith over the topmost rope, ending the bout. Quoth the Giant, "Nevermore."
Asked recently about this mismatch, Andre smiled and replied, using the word "boss" as so many men in the game do, "Look, boss, the boxer-wrestler business is almost a joke. After all, a man may hit me a couple of times, but if I cut the ring off and close in, what can he do after I put my hands on him? The boxer has no chance, since he can't even wrestle in a clinch because of his gloves." However, lest Andre's words or his haughty dispatch of Wepner imply a disdain for the sweet science, it should be noted that the sports figure to whom Andre gives pride of place is Ali, a man who, with the Giant, hungers a bit after the glittery things in life. How odd it is, then, that of these two eminently successful men, both of whom have made more money in the last 15 years than most people could earn in many lifetimes, the one who by all rights should be richer than a thousand kings has less to show for his athletic and dramatic endeavors. It has been estimated that Andre earns about $500,000 a year while Ali has made as much as $6 million for a single fight.
The difference springs from two related factors—management and entourage—and their effect on the old bottom line. Ali's problems in both areas, of course, are so well known as to require few words here, but Andre's circumstances bear examination. He came to North America first in 1971, to Montreal, and continued to appear as Jean Ferré, working almost entirely in Quebec, though things didn't go all that well there. The crowds were good at first, but then they dwindled, and even though he enjoyed the ambience of Quebec, Andre realized that a change was in order. And so, through his friend Valois, a meeting was arranged in New York with Vince J. McMahon, professional wrestling's premier promoter.