Wrestlemania 25 in Houston is less than a week away and promises to be a spectacle of epic proportions. As they say: Everything is big in Texas.

In the history of wrestling, though, nothing was bigger than Andre the Giant. On “the grandest stage of them all,” Andre the Giant made big memories that will last a lifetime.

I corresponded by e-mail with WWE Hall of Fame commentator Jim Ross this past week, and he graciously shared his memories of Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania: “As a fan, my most significant memory of Andre at Wrestlemania was when he turned villain and battled Hulk Hogan at WM3. Andre had always been such a lovable, ‘nice Giant’ that his change of philosophy was shocking and memorable. I was never around Andre during his stints at Wrestlemania and it is too bad that the best of Andre was in the years prior to ‘Mania, but he still brought something special to the big dance. The mere fact that Andre the Giant was going to be a vital part of any event made that event even bigger.”

The first Wrestlemania was on March 31, 1985, but it was exactly five months prior, at the age of 13, I would see Andre the Giant wrestle live for the first time at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium on October 31, 1984. I camped out all night for front row seats, anticipating the main event in which Andre the Giant and Angelo “King Kong” Mosca would battle the team of the Iron Sheik and “The Ugandan Giant” Kamala. To see Andre on television was a rare moment, but the opportunity to see him live in person was something I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

My seat was close to the elevated ramp that led from where the wrestlers walked through the curtain to the ring. At intermission, while the security guard was on the other side of the ring chatting with fans, I saw the opportunity to duck behind the ramp and head backstage with the hopes of catching a glimpse and perhaps meeting one of the wrestlers. Crawling on hands and knees through the red curtain, I managed to get backstage and as I began to stand up, I could see into a locker room through a partially open door.

Like the Wizard of Oz pulling back the curtain, I couldn’t believe my eyes as there before me was Andre the Giant, wearing blue tights and blue boots, sitting down with his savage rival that evening, Kamala, playing a friendly game of cards. As Kamala looked over his shoulder noticing my presence, Andre raised his eyes from his cards and with his 16-inch hand, pointed a giant finger in my direction as if to say: You shouldn’t be back here.

In a moment, I felt the hand of the security guard take me by the arm back to my seat, and with a smile on my face, knew I had experienced a rare and candid moment with a true giant, “the eighth wonder of the world.”

It would be five months later, I would return to the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium for the closed-circuit event, Wrestlemania live from Madison Square Garden. Seeing Andre the Giant win his $15,000 body slam match against the “unslammable” Big John Studd is a memory that still rings loud and clear. From that moment, I was enraptured by the sights and sounds of that afternoon, and have been captivated by Wrestlemania ever since.

Former WWF photographer, Tom Buchanan remembers that match well, working ringside for the first time at Madison Square Garden: “The Andre/Studd match was my favourite,” Buchanan told me from Londonberry, VT. “When Andre opened up the bag and started throwing money away I was all smiles and grabbed a few handfuls that fell inside the barricades,” he said, referring to the bag — stuffed with $15,000 — Andre snatched from the hands of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan after the match was over. “I looked at my fists and just saw $5 and $10 bills. And since I was being paid well for the night, I passed the cash out to the appreciative crowd.” Buchanan laughed: “I guess I was caught up in the excitement.”

“Only later did I learn I had given away at least one $50 and one $100 bill,” said Buchanan, “Years later, I learned the cash was just a prop, and Andre wasn’t to give it away at all. Vince McMahon was apparently going nuts backstage as his very real money was being shared with the crowd by the mischievous Andre the Giant.”

Though that was only Buchanan’s second wrestling event working as a freelance photographer (he was first sent to Maple Leaf Gardens for an event to get a feel for covering wrestling action), he went on to shoot the following two Wrestlemanias, before joining WWF staff. “I knew nothing about wrestling at first, and was even reluctant to even take that first freelance job,” said Buchanan. “But Wrestlemania at MSG was the big time, and a crazy night by all standards.”

After that first Wrestlemania was over, Buchanan fondly remembers joining the evening celebrations: “(There was) a killer after-party at a super swanky restaurant in Manhattan — perhaps the Rainbow Room — and I remember Andre being at the party. Linda McMahon had me take a photo of a small girl sleeping on his lap. That may have been Stephanie McMahon, or perhaps just a random small girl — but it was a cute shot.”

For Wrestlemania II on April 7, 1986, Buchanan would find himself working at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, one of three venues to hold the now annual event. Though Buchanan was busy at ringside photographing historical matches like the boxing match between Roddy Piper and Mr. T, he remembers the buzz surrounding the “WWF vs. NFL” 20-man battle royal, featuring Andre the Giant.

From the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium once again, I watched Wrestlemania II on closed-circuit, sitting on the edge of my seat as Andre the Giant eliminated the final two participants, the Hart Foundation — first Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, and then Bret “Hitman” Hart — to win the battle royal.

In the Bret Hart autobiography, Hitman, the WWE Hall of Famer writes: “On the big day, I was in the dressing room in Chicago as Andre explained to me how he wanted to go into the finish. He was wearing bright yellow trunks as he leaned over to tie the laces on his massive boots.

“I ran his idea through my mind before innocently suggesting to him that if Jim and I doubled up on him, we could go for our sandwich move and he could give me the big boot from there. Andre thought about it while his huge fingers worked the laces tight. The dressing room was suddenly quiet. I saw a frozen stare on Tom’s (The Dynamite Kid) face, and I wondered what I said wrong. Then Andre smiled and said, ‘Yeah, boss, I like that better.’ A few minutes later, Tom told me that it was unheard of for anyone to suggest the slightest change to Andre. But I knew better. Andre was a great worker and appreciated that my suggestion made the finish better.”

WWE Hall of Famer Tito Santana confirmed from his home in New Jersey, that if Andre liked you, it was evident: “He called everyone ‘Boss,’ — well, that is if he liked you. And if he didn’t like you, you also knew it. I first met him in 1976, and he took a liking to me right away. He was always a friendly, gentle giant to me.”

After Wrestlemania II, Andre continued his ongoing feud with Big John Studd and King Kong Bundy. After being suspended for a ‘no-show,’ he would return under a mask as the Giant Machine, part of a ‘Japanese’ team that included the Big Machine (Robert Windham) and Super Machine (Bill Eadie). On August 28, 1986, I would travel to Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium to see a massive WWF event hailed as, ‘Hulkamania,’ in front of an outdoor audience of 65,000.

The summer evening was frigid for late August, with temperatures close to freezing, but it made for an unforgettable night of wrestling during the glory days of the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE). With a backdrop of coloured lights, carnival sounds, and sweet wafting smells coming from the midway, it was a movie-like atmosphere — and like nothing I’d ever seen. Along with the main highly anticipated matches on the card, none captured my imagination like the rare live appearance of the Machines, as Super Machine, Big Machine, and Captain Lou Albano — accompanied by the Giant Machine battled the nefarious team of Studd, Bundy and Heenan. It was an exciting match, and though the Machines were not victorious, the deafening crowd roared as the Giant Machine entered the ring to pummel Studd, Bundy — and to everyone’s delight — Heenan, as they quickly retreated.

As the Machines raised their arms in victory, I’ll never forget seeing them walk back down that long narrow aisle through the fans, as I could only see Andre’s masked head above the crowd, from where I was standing on my seat just 12 rows back on the floor. Once again, I was thrilled to see the legendary Andre the Giant live, even if he was in disguise. What I didn’t know that evening, was the new all-time North American wrestling attendance record-breaking event I had just witnessed (to be later known as The Big Event) would become a precursor for things to come not only for the WWF, but for the world of pro wrestling.

Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan, round one, circa 1980. Photo by Mike Lano, WReaLano@aol.com

It was seven months later, on March 29, 1987 I returned to the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium to watch Wrestlemania III on closed-circuit. The anticipation was unreal, and I can still vividly see myself sitting in front of the television week after week watching the huge build-up to the main event of Wrestlemania — the undefeated Andre the Giant vs. Hulk Hogan for the WWF Heavyweight Championship. I remember spending hours staring at a Wrestlemania III program I purchased weeks before with Hogan and Andre on the cover standing face-to-face. Inside the program, I would study the ‘Tale of the Tape,’ comparing Andre and Hogan’s height and weight, along with the length and width of various extremities. I can still hear WWE Hall of Fame commentator, Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s voice just moments before the bell rang: “Andre the Giant, height: 7’5″, weight: 525 pounds, neck: 24″, chest: 71″, bicep: 21″, hand: 16″, wrist: 11″, forearm: 17″, thighs: 36″, calves: 22”.

From the moment those first shots of the Pontiac Silverdome — with a reported 93,173 in attendance — came across that giant screen in the sold-out Kitchener Auditorium, chills went through me as I knew I was a part of something truly historical. The famous wide-angle aerial shot of that massive crowd was taken by Tom Buchanan, an image that I still find truly awesome.

In Hulk Hogan’s autobiography, Hulkamania, the WWE Hall of Famer writes: “All along, I was asking Vince (McMahon) what Andre and I were going to do when the match started, but he kept putting me off saying, ‘I’m not sure yet.’ Vince wasn’t the kind to make a snap decision. He would always wait until he heard everybody’s opinion and then figure it out.And while the entire card leading up to the main event was packed with exciting and memorable moments, along with a spectacular Intercontinental Championship match between Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat (some will argue was the greatest Wrestlemania match of all-time), nothing would compare to the excitement of the main event, as fans around the world had no idea what would happen when, ‘the irresistible force meets the immovable object,’ as WWE Hall of Fame commentator Gorilla Monsoon would say.

“I didn’t expect Vince to make up his mind until the eleventh hour. Finally, at almost twelve o’clock the night before Wrestlemania, Vince came to me and said, ‘I want you to win the match.’ The only problem was, he hadn’t discussed it yet with Andre. As powerful as Vince was in those days, he wasn’t the strongest force in the wrestling universe. The strongest force was Andre. If he had said, ‘I won’t let Hogan win,’ I wouldn’t have won. That’s all there was to it.”

Jim Ross agreed in his email: “The mere fact that Andre accepted his assignment at Wrestlemania III was extraordinary considering the pain he was in with his back issues. My most vivid memory of these particular Wrestlemania moments was watching Andre ride to the ring in the small vehicle that he made look even tinier. That was essentially Andre’s ‘last ride’ to the stage that made him famous and to the stage that Andre the Giant helped propel the wrestling business.”Tito Santana remembered: “None of the wrestlers had known in advance who was going to win the match. I can recall a bunch of us glued to the monitor — Jimmy Hart, Randy Savage, Ricky Steamboat, Brutus Beefcake and other guys in the locker room. When Hulk body slammed Andre, it was a good slam amazingly, and I can still see all of us watching and shouting a collective, ‘Wow!’ Andre had a lot of physical problems at this point, and the fact that he was able to position himself in a way to be body slammed by Hulk was a true testament to his drive and ability.”

One year later on March 27, 1988, I would return for the fourth and last time to the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium to see Wrestlemania on closed-circuit. Though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, something had changed for me about my excitement and anticipation for Wrestlemania IV. Perhaps it was the 14-man tournament for the WWF Championship that didn’t capture my imagination, or perhaps Wrestlemania III was just too big an act to follow. From the moment the first images of the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, New Jersey appeared on the giant screen, I knew something about the atmosphere and buzz just wasn’t the same, and even on closed-circuit, you could feel it.

Fans outside The Trump Plaza at Wrestlemania IV. Photo by Jim Lambert.

WWF photographer Tom Buchanan could feel it from ringside, “(The Trump Plaza) was a terrible venue for Wrestlemania, with its carpeted floor. It wasn’t the right venue for Wrestlemania, and from what I remember Donald Trump brought it there because his kids liked wrestling.”

Hulk Hogan writes in the chapter The Trump Plaza Wrestlemanias: “I didn’t see or hear any real wrestling enthusiasts in the first seven or eight rows. The people there weren’t cheering and screaming at the top of their lungs and stomping and making the building shake. They were Donald Trump’s friends and the high rollers who frequented his casino — people who didn’t follow the wrestling story lines and didn’t know what was going on — so it was a much more sedate and unemotional atmosphere.

“Usually, all you would have to do is point at a guy to get a reaction. That night, I had to slap his face, stomp his feet, kick him in the ass, and then point at him to get the reaction I wanted. It just didn’t feel comfortable. So of course we went back the next year.”

As a huge fan of Andre the Giant, I was especially disappointed at how small his role was as he and Hogan fought to a double-disqualification five-minute match in the first round of the tournament. Buchanan remembers before the event, Andre wasn’t in the best of spirits. “At this point, I had got to know Andre by talking with him backstage over time, and during the years we were doing the TNT show. But I remember at Wrestlemania IV, it was the only time I saw Andre (really lose his patience).

“It was my job to escort Andre up the elevator (at Trump Plaza) to meet Trump’s kids. When we got there, I remember Trump’s kids looking up at Andre, and as the Giant leaned forward, with his that thick French accent of his, he only said one thing to the kids: ‘Your mother eats shit.’ His accent is so thick, they may not have understood what he said, and I doubt that Trump ever found out. But Andre could be mean sometimes.”

Santana wrote in his autobiography, Tales from the Ring: “(Andre the Giant) had little privacy in his life, which I’m sure bothered him. Due to his size, he was an easy target for mean-spirited people who wanted to make fun of him. Many did so loudly and plainly, so that he could hear their remarks. For years he just took the insults. But eventually he turned mean to anyone who bothered him.”

Wrestlemania V on April 1, 1989 was held for the second year in a row at Trump Plaza, and quite fittingly, I watched the closed-circuit event this time from Kitchener’s Center in the Square, a soft-seat theatre famous for its world-class acoustics. In the ninth match, Andre the Giant battled Jake “The Snake” Roberts with special guest referee Big John Studd. Watching Wrestlemania V for what would be my last closed-circuit television event, little did I know one year later, Wrestlemania would be coming to Toronto — and I would be there to see it.

Throughout 1989, Andre the Giant would battle the Ultimate Warrior for the Intercontinental Championship on Saturday Night’s Main Event, and at house shows across the country — with Andre often losing in record time. WWF photographer Buchanan remembers one match in Knoxville, Tennessee all too well: “I was working ringside, and the Ultimate Warrior defeated Andre — it was an incredibly short match, I think before Andre even realized the bell had rung. Andre rolled out of the ring and went nuts, smashing anything in sight. He wrapped his humongous hands around my neck and flailed me around like a rag doll.

“I remember the power of his hands as his fingers interlocked. We talked later in the locker room, and at the time, he didn’t even realize it was me he was thrashing around,” Buchanan laughed.

Bret Hart writes in the chapter Wages of Sin: “For most of the summer Andre had been main-eventing the house shows with Warrior, and he was disgusted at having to lose every night to an arrogant and unskilled nobody who hadn’t paid his dues; Andre insisted on jobbing out in less than fifteen seconds, taking a series of, you guessed it, clotheslines. Grim-faced, Andre would roll out of the ring and lumber back to the dressing room as sell out crowds chanted, ‘Bulls**t,’ with some fans even demanding refunds.It was during 1989, Buchanan noticed a change in Andre the Giant backstage: “Andre would arrive later to the events, often locking himself in the dressing room and keeping to himself. It was noticeable how isolated he was becoming. He had his friends though — Arnie Skaaland and Tim White — and he drank all the time with them.”

“But Warrior was Vince’s new superstar. Knowing Vince, he probably found it onerous to keep paying Andre his contracted percentage of every card he appeared on, plus picking up the costs of a valet and the two first-class seats the Giant needed every time he flew. Andre’s deal was a promise written in stone from Vince’s dad, and Andre was just starting to realize that Junior might not feel compelled to honour it in perpetuity. In Anchorage, Andre told me with a sour look on his face, ‘Vince is nothing like his father. When his father gave me his word that was all I needed.’ Andre was like an old circus elephant, and I sensed that if Vince had his way, this circus was moving on without him”

Wrestlemania VI arrived in Toronto on April 1, 1990, with an announced attendance of 67,678. Sitting 30 rows back on the floor with my wife (then-girlfriend) Sylvia, it was a dream-come-true to be in the SkyDome for the biggest wrestling event of the year. Truly, there is something timeless and magical about being at Wrestlemania.

In the second match, Demolition (Ax and Smash) would defeat the team of Andre the Giant and Haku, managed by Heenan, for the World Tag Team Championship. It would be the third and last time I would ever see Andre wrestle live in person, and it would be his last match ever in North America. When the match was over, Andre would turn from heel to babyface when Bobby Heenan got in his face, blaming him for the loss. I remember raising my arms and cheering as Andre pummelled Heenan, then delivered a giant-sized head butt to Haku.

Andre the Giant and Bobby Heenan.

Andre received a standing ovation as he stood alone on the vehicle that took him back down that long aisle. I’ll never forget standing on my chair watching Andre for the last time leaving Wrestlemania, shaking his big right hand and pointing his finger at Heenan left shaken, begging for Andre’s forgiveness.

On the massive JumboTron screen at SkyDome, I’ll never forget that last close-up image of Andre pointing his finger at Heenan — that same finger I remember so vividly pointing directly at me backstage in the Kitchener Auditorium five years earlier. That, for me, was the quintessential ‘Wrestlemania moment,’ as it brought my life as a fan of Andre the Giant full-circle.

Andre the Giant would die less than three years later on January 27, 1993 in Paris. Bret Hart writes in the chapter Onwards and Upwards: “(Andre had) flown to France for his father’s funeral only to be found dead in his hotel room the morning after. I pictured him walking through the Pearly Gates with a big smile on his face, for once not having to duck, saying, ‘Hello, boss!’ There would never be another Andre the Giant.”

Tito Santana told me, “The last time I saw Andre he was walking with a cane and was in a lot of pain — though he wouldn’t say so. He’d just say, ‘Don’t worry about it boss.’ But I think he knew (he was dying). When I heard the news, I took it very, very hard.”

Jim Ross concluded in his email to me: “Personally knowing Andre’s physical condition and watching him make that journey from the locker room area to ringside was especially memorable. I’ve often wondered what the ‘8th wonder of the world’ must have been thinking on that short trip to the ring. With Andre living with his physical ailments that were essentially a death sentence, and then taking that one last major trip to the ring definitively displayed the true character of this extraordinary human being.”

After the first six Wrestlemanias, photographer Tom Buchanan would go on to shoot 11 more, his last being Wrestlemania 17 in Houston, Texas — the home of Wrestlemania 25. After leaving the company in August 2001, the following year, Buchanan traveled to Toronto and bought a ticket from a scalper for Wrestlemania 18 at Toronto’s SkyDome on March 17, 2002: “I quietly enjoyed Wrestlemania 18 from the stands,” said Buchanan. “That gave me a great run of 18 Wrestlemanias, but the first — with that memory of Andre throwing money into the crowd — will always stand out as a truly memorable evening.”

I was there too, at ringside just 11 rows from the ring with my wife Sylvia, five months pregnant with our first child. She had surprised me just weeks earlier with two tickets in celebration of our upcoming wedding anniversary.

As the opening film featuring clips from Wrestlemanias past kicked off the event, emotions ran high and tears filled my eyes when the image of Andre the Giant appeared on the massive JumboTron, waving to the audience as he rode that vehicle down the aisle at Wrestlemania III, all those years ago.

Though Wrestlemania 25 will have its share of big men and giants wreaking havoc through memorable matches I’m sure, I will never forget the real “boss,” the Eighth Wonder of the World, and the one true giant of professional wrestling, Andre.