Jan. 30th, 1988
NWA-WCCW Office, Texas
“What can I do for you?” Fritz asked.
“You tell me,” a low voice garbled back.
Fritz sat behind his desk, staring at the wrestler in front of him.
“You’re not happy with the build-up to the feud so far, or just not happy with the feud period?” the patriarch of the Von Erich family asked.
“The feud in general,” came the answer.
“Well, what would you like to do instead?” Fritz said.
A long pause ensued; so long that Fritz wondered if the man had forgotten the question.
“I want to be champion,” the man said deliberately.
Fritz’s eyes sharpened and he pursed his lips.
“I understand,” he said, nodding.
Then: “What do you want a belt for? You’re wealthy, famous, respected. What—
The wrestler leaned forward in his chair.
“I am getting older,” he said solemnly. “I know this. I want to go out as champion. You are right,” he said, smiling. “I am rich, and famous and respected by those whose respect matters to me. But I want to retire a champion…even if I only hold the belt for a little while. Inside, I feel like…I need it.”
Fritz stared at the man for a moment and though what was being asked wasn’t impossible, it wasn’t what the NWA wanted.
Everyone had already agreed on the long-term champion and a change in plans now, when the ball was really rolling, seemed detrimental.
Out of respect, Fritz had to at least give it some thought, but wanted to know if the man had really planned it out.
“What do you propose happens?” Fritz queried.
“Well, I was thinking my feud could take a detour, maybe I suffer a count-out due to some under-handed tactics and Sting comes to my rescue. Then he beats Sting and I vow to get the championship back and once I do, I vacate the title. Then the two of them battle it out as number one contenders,” the wrestler said.
Fritz was impressed; the idea wasn’t half-bad, but deep down, he just didn’t see the point.
The houses were packed, the PPV’s were set. The audience wasn’t already into what was happening.
“I would need to make some calls and see if we could make this happen,” Fritz responded, as though he was still considering it.
The man nodded and rose from his seat to exit, adding,
When Andre the Giant left Fritz’s office, it was the last time they would ever see each other.
June 3rd, 1988
Buenos Aires, Argentina
85% of tickets for tomorrow night’s show, just 75 miles up the road, were already sold. And the night after – in a venue seating 1,200 spectators – was completely sold out.
It was a far-cry from a Madison Square Garden show, but still, business seemed to be picking up. With professional wrestling being hip & cool & “in” right now, every promoter (and wrestler) was benefiting, even if just incrementally, even the ones one the fringes of society, where Vince McMahon had landed and remained for quite a while.
At the small amphitheatre within Parque Rivadavia Park it was standing-room only for this WWF Event. Yep, all 400 tickets had sold out.
A hundred feet from the ring, kids were riding an old-fashioned carousel and while the noise was distracting to the wrestlers, the paying customers didn’t seem to mind.
As strange as it sounds, it took quite a bit of wrangling to get this quaint venue booked; local musicians or theatre groups usually gave free shows here on Sundays and locals were used to that.
And since it’s a public park, there wasn’t any real way to keep out the people who didn’t buy a ticket, which made Vince wonder why anyone bothered with purchasing one in the 1st place.
Regardless, he was thankful, grateful even.
And his roster was giving these people a hundred percent. And that roster had been growing lately.
Vince was hiring anyone who had ability, passion and who would work for next to nothing.
And while some of his A-list talent was on the D-list of other promotions, they were working hard and seemed loyal.
The truth is that some of them didn’t have anywhere else to go, had burned too many bridges or weren’t in the best of health, but none of that mattered to Vince.
He was still in business, still promoting, still alive. More importantly, Vince was still telling stories.
And the past 6 months had been improving in a “2 steps forward, 1 step back” sort of way. Even if it was a small one, his organization was still drawing a crowd.
Things were going well enough that Vince even had hired a small film crew.
Before each night’s card, promos were being cut and a week or two before the WWF rolled into town, interviews, vignettes and clips from matches would play on local television, hyping the upcoming event.
It wasn’t much, but it was a presence.
And through tape sales at live events and a thriving mail-order business that sold not just tapes, but any and every trinket, poster, keychain and marketable piece of merchandise thank cost under a dollar to make, people who wanted something different than what the WCCW or the AWA was providing could have it, albeit in small doses. T
On the whole, things weren’t looking quite as bleak anymore.
Vince was discovering that there was a growing minority that had already tired of the “same ol’, same ol’” of traditional American professional wrestling.
And those people were seeking out tapes of other markets, like Japan.
Yes, just getting up in the morning and hearing or seeing the success that should have been his (as far as Vince was concerned) being squandered by others was still a bitter, hard, huge, chalky pill to swallow, but at least Vince’s head was now above water, even if the rest of his body was flailing just under the sea.
But even with his limited success (if you call still having a 2nd mortgage on your home success), Vince knew he didn’t have enough money or prestige to attract the next Hulk Hogan.
And in all likelihood, he couldn’t train someone to be that next big thing either, because – statistically speaking – those people weren’t going to be discovered in a small village in Honduras, Romania or Desertville, Kuwait.
But as hard as his guys were working, someone needed to be the face of the company.
Someone recognizable. And for that, Vince had a new plan.
Once he had that person, Vince could put the second part of his plan in action, which mainly involved giving all of his wrestlers (even the old-school wrestlers who’d stuck by him in the thinnest of times) new gimmicks.
And not just gimmicks, but characters.
Loud, colorful, personalities.
Just being a good wrestler wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
Everyone, EVERYONE, would have a gimmick, because it wasn’t just going to be wrestling anymore.
Soon, if all went well, the WWF would be a zany, bright explosion of talent.
Every night would be an event. People would flock to it just because of how strange and surreal it was.
This opportunity – within a small timeframe – was there for the taking. Maybe.
The plan could work.
And if it did, it might just be enough to get some of Vince’s old mojo working again.
It might lure some other wrestlers back to him. It might make him a contender again, because you see, Vince still believed that he was a champion, a winner. He still believed he was Big-Time.
The real problem was convincing others.
But Vince’s plan only required one man to believe or…want to believe.
June 11th, 1988
Mexico City, Mexico
16,000 attendees at Arena Mexico were on their feet for the last match of the night.
The earlier matches had, naturally, showcased the Lucha Libre-style of professional wrestling with fast-pacing, high-flying maneuvers and most wrestlers decked out in flamboyant outfits and masks.
30 Minutes after the opening bell, it rang again after both Canek & his opponent, Andre the Giant, were both counted out, their grappling have spilled onto the arena floor.
Backstage, Andre immediately hit the showers, threw on some pants and joined a spirited card game that had been going on all evening with rotating players.
So many wrestlers had started, left to wrestle, then rejoined the game, that Andre didn’t notice the player sitting 2 chairs to his left until he heard a familiar voice say,
“Can I get another twenty in chips? I can’t even ante up with what I got left.”
The voice belonged to Vincent Kennedy McMahon.
Andre glanced warily at Vince, but smiled broadly.
“What are you doing here, Boss?” the Giant asked.
“Same as you, playing cards,” Vince answered.
“Not same as me,” Andre said. “I’m winning.”
Vince let out one of his trademark guffaws and though Andre was suspicious, he knew Vince had been nearly 5,000 miles away a week ago.
He wouldn’t have traveled all this way if it wasn’t something important.
After several hours and many drinks, Andre said, “I can’t wrestle a full schedule anymore,” a singe of sorrow seeping out through his words.
Vince nodded, sympathetic.
“I know. You won’t have to,” Vince assured him.
Neither of the men said anything for a long time.
Decks were played through, chips exchanged piles, soon, all but the cleaning crew was gone.
Andre let Vince’s plan run through his head.
Hogan’s popularity had exploded after Rocky III and suddenly, pro wresting was mainstream, it was cool.
That Hollywood “rub” had translated to an empire and Vince had let it slip through his hands.
They both knew Andre could never be a Hulk Hogan.
Andre didn’t possess the charisma, mobility or interview skills.
But Vince didn’t seem to care.
Andre had become quite popular with the movie The Princess Bride, released late last year. He was doing cereal commercials and appearing on the Tonight Show.
Vince wanted to capitalize on that.
He wanted Andre to be the focal point of the promotion as a beloved Gentle Giant who could vanquish any foe. Someone kids could look up to, no pun intended.
Vince would do all the promoting, all the hyping; Andre would just have to smile and say the occasional inspirational sound-bite.
And Andre’s appearances wouldn’t be reserved strictly for the wresting ring, so as to broaden his appeal and keep him from further damaging his massive frame, as much as possible, anyway.
Vince was also going to work a deal with The Princess Bride producers to travel the country with a print of the film. They’d rent a theater, show the movie and then the kids in the audience would get to meet a real-life Giant, Fezzik.
There’d be tie-in merchandise for the movie, as well as wrestling items for sale.
And that was just the beginning.
Vince said he was working on a deal to buy an actual circus so he could incorporate a variety of entertainment into every show.
There’d be jugglers, fire-breathers, wrestling, high-wire acts, exhibitions showcasing Andre’s incredible strength, clowns, elephants, midgets, the works.
Vince had even started up a record label so he could sign a band that would play at all the shows, so he could tout having live music at the events.
The shows would also be recorded to sell and Vince had a Primetime Network TV Special in mind.
And of course, the wrestlers would still be on the circuit, night after night.
But Andre would only appear every few weeks on a card.
It all appealed to Andre.
You’d think after years of being stared and pointed at due to his immense size that he wouldn’t want to be a literal circus freak, but Andre had made peace with his unique situation (and had used it to his advantage).
“People already know who I am,” Andre stated over another drink back at his hotel bar.
“But they don’t see you like I see you and I’m gonna change that.”
Vince continued, “You see, I think part of the problem is that you’ve been so accessible. People see you on TV almost every week and even though you’re a Giant, you’re one of a hundred wrestlers.”
Andre nodded in agreement.
“This traveling…extravaganza…I wanna put together will take you all over the world again, but never for too long. Just like how you visit down here and in Japan. Everyone everywhere will love you,” Vince finished.
“How long will it last?” Andre asked. “I don’t wanna” –
“I know,” Vince said, cutting Andre off so he didn’t have to say it.
“We’re all getting older,” Vince said and they both chuckled. “For as long as you want…and you’ll go out as champion.”
“Why me?” Andre asked, serious in his question.
“Who else?” Vince answered. “I mean, why would I try and go out and create the next big thing when the biggest thing is right in front of me?”
Andre smiled, despite himself.
“And?” Andre asked.
Vince studied Andre’s face, not wanting to say the wrong thing.
“Because I don’t know any other way to get a foothold, to get back in the door, into people’s consciousness, to be a success again. Look, I know this won’t put me back on top, but it’ll at least put me back in the game. It will take more time, but this will work,” Vince said.
Andre raised his eyebrows.
He knew Vince was only out for Vince, but hell, you can’t hold that against any promoter or you won’t find work as a wrestler.
But the more Vince talked, the better it all sounded.
But the scope of it seemed too daunting and deep down, Andre wasn’t convinced he could do it.
Andre started to rise from his bar stool.
Vince placed his hand on Andre’s shoulder and said quietly, “Because I need this.”
And suddenly, Andre understood…and believed.
June 12th, 1988
Mexico City, Mexico
Before flying back to Buenos Aires, Vince had every last dollar he owned wired to him because he hadn’t come to Mexico just to woo a Giant, though that had to be accomplished first.
Vince believed that the energetic, acrobatic style of Mexican wrestlers was a perfect fit for what he was now trying to do and couldn’t understand why no one else was truly tapping into this market back home.
The Lucha Libres would also make a great “B” team for house shows, particularly in urban and Latino towns.
Vince had finally convinced his wife Linda to sign the papers for a 3rd mortgage so he could fund his blend of circus, wrestling, movies and music.
When he applied for the loan, Andre accompanied him. Not for intimidation but awe.
It worked. Of course, it didn’t hurt that banks don’t want to be in the real state business.
Vince didn’t yet have any of the deals in place to see his plan come to fruition that he’d mentioned to Andre, but he had his Star Attraction, the 8th Wonder of the World.