Tampa-area wrestlers share their Andre the Giant stories ahead of HBO documentary

Published February 15 2017
Updated February 15 2017

Two dozen years after his death, Andre the Giant remains one of the most memorable stars in the history of professional wrestling.

HBO, World Wrestling Entertainment and Bill Simmons will now add to this renown through a documentary on the oversized grappler that they announced this week will soon begin production.

If they need stories on the French man whose real name was Andre Rene Roussimoff, there are plenty to be found in the Tampa Bay area, which has long been a popular spot to live for professional wrestlers.

Tampa's Nicole Alonso, now 41, was 4 the first time she met the giant.

Her father, Michael Gossett, otherwise known as wrestler Mike Graham, oversaw the promotion Championship Wrestling from Florida and often hosted parties for the entertainers whenever they were working in Tampa.

Due to his size, Andre — billed at 7 feet 4 and more than 500 pounds — had to ride on the floor in the back of the full-sized van that took him to Gossett's home.

When he climbed out of the vehicle, his shoulders were even with top of it. A beer in his hand was hidden behind just two fingers.

And as he entered the home, Alonso ran screaming from what she thought was a real-life monster and hid under her bed until her mom coaxed her out.

"My mom said he was one of my dad's friends and was really a sweet man," Alonso said. "She was right."

A "gentle giant" is also how Indian Rocks resident and retired wrestler Lanny "The Genius" Poffo remembers Andre.

"He never physically took advantage of people, but he could have if he wanted to," said Poffo, 62, the recipient of one of the giant's head butts during a Battle Royal televised on NBC in 1987. It was a maneuver that could have severely injured Poffo had Andre not protected him properly.

"He was careful with everyone," Poffo said. "He didn't want to hurt people."

Of course, he laughed. To sell the effect of Andre's power, Poffo discretely sliced his own forehead open with a razor blade.

Among Poffo's favorite Andre tales occurred on Dec. 28, 1985.

They had a show in Buffalo and Andre forgot to bring a deck of cards to kill time in the locker room for the few hours before it started.

"Playing cards was his one of his favorite things to do in life," Poffo said.

So, Poffo asked a girl he knew to go buy a deck. When Poffo surprised Andre with the cards, a tear trickled down the cheek of the giant.

"He took his big hand, put it behind my neck and gave me a kiss on both cheeks," Poffo said. "From then on he called me 'boss man.' I was like the mouse that took the thorn out of his paw and we were friends for life."

The relationship between Poffo's brother Randy Poffo — ring name "Macho Man" Randy Savage — and Andre was not as good. The reason: Andre thought the "Macho Man" lathered his body in too much baby oil prior to every match.

"Andre hated baby oil," Poffo said. "But Randy wouldn't stop wearing it. He stubbornly said Andre's gimmick is being a giant and mine is baby oil. He never backed down from Andre and they never got along because of it."

Then there are Andre's legendary drinking exploits.

Brian Blair, 60 and a world-famous professional wrestler before turning to Hillsborough County politics, often travelled with the giant.

For a long car ride through Mississippi around 1980, Blair purchased for Andre "two of the biggest bottles of Crown Royal you could get" and a case of Budweiser plus a Styrofoam cooler to be used as a urinal so they wouldn't have to pull over for bathroom breaks.

In a fit of laughter in which he was rocking back and forth, shotgun-sitting Andre broke his seat. It crashed backward and knocked the nearly full cooler into the lap of back-seat passenger Virgil Riley Runnels, Jr., who in the wrestling world was known as Dusty Rhodes.

"Dusty was so mad," Blair said with a chuckle. "Andre just kept laughing."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.