How Montreal became Andre the Giant’s ‘home away from home’

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In this June 26, 1976 photo, professional wrestler Andre the Giant tosses heavyweight contender Chuck Wepner out of the ring for a third round victory in a boxer vs. wrestler match, at Shea Stadium in New York. (AP Photo)

Canada has produced some of the greatest professional wrestlers to ever step foot in the squared circle.

Bret Hart, Chris Jericho, Edge, Roddy Piper and Killer Kowalski are just a few of the all-time greats that the great white north has produced. But what about Andre the Giant? Andre may have been born in France but many in this country, particularity in Quebec, consider the wrestling legend to be an honourary Canadian.

“People in Quebec really adapted to Andre like if he was one of their own,” says Pat Laprade, co-author of the new book The Eighth Wonder of the World: The True Story of Andre the Giant.

Andre first arrived in Canada in the early 1970s, coming over to wrestle for Grand Prix Wrestling in Montreal and the surrounding area. It was in Montreal where he achieved North American stardom. In May 1972, Andre squared off against Don Leo Jonathan in what was dubbed, “The Match of the Century” (a play on the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier in March of ’72). The match spurred two rematches, drawing as many as 20,000 fans for a bout.

“That series of matches, that’s where Andre became known throughout Canada and throughout North America,” says Laprade, who also worked as a field producer for HBO’s critically acclaimed Andre the Giant documentary. “That’s the feud that made Andre a household name everywhere in North America. That’s where Vince McMahon Sr. first heard of Andre, and then all the promoters wanted that feud.”

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Indeed, Andre was travelling all over the continent and beyond following his work in Montreal in the early part of the 1970s. His status as a major attraction took him into the United States and into the waiting arms of the aforementioned McMahon Sr., who used Andre as a top draw in the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), the precursor to the WWF, and now WWE.

However, Andre never strayed too far away from Canada, and Montreal in particular. Meanwhile, Andre’s relationship with McMahon Sr. benefitted the Montreal territory, especially so in 1980 when Andre came back for a one-on-one battle with Hulk Hogan. That’s right, the same Hulk Hogan who Andre would face in front of over 90,000 people at WrestleMania 3 in 1987.

Andre and Hulk had locked up prior to their meeting in Montreal, but that didn’t stop this match from making an indelible mark on the Montreal territory. Andre, along with two business partners, were just a few months removed from starting a new wrestling promotion, International Wrestling, in Montreal when Hogan came to town.

“(That match) drew the biggest crowd for (International Wrestling) at the time,” says Laprade. “It did kickstart the promotion and then they had a TV deal not long after that. Andre was really important to help, and not only that, there was economic factor that Andre helped.”

The Giant’s impact in Canada certainly wasn’t limited to Montreal, as cities like Toronto and Calgary were also the recipients of Andre’s star power. In Toronto, Andre wrestled in front of over 18,000 people at Maple Leaf Gardens while challenging the undefeated Sheik. In Calgary, Andre would perform at the annual Calgary Stampede, wrestling for the legendary Stu Hart. In his book, Laprade recalls a story of Andre wrestling in Calgary, but not before consuming four bottles of red wine before heading to the ring.

“Every promoter needed to take care of Andre. That was a general rule. If you book Andre, you take care of him,” Laprade told Sportsnet. “If four bottles of wine was what was needed to take care of Andre, well then that’s what you do.”

Andre the Giant was a star attraction across North America, Japan and beyond throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, but he would always make his way back to Montreal, his adopted hometown.

“Montreal was his home away from home,” says Laprade. “It was really special for him, and he was really special for Montreal.”

“The Eighth Wonder of the World: The True Story of Andre the Giant” is available at all major retailers, along with the ECW Press website where purchasers will receive a free e-book in addition to hard copy.

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