In memory of Antonio the Great
This past week one of wrestling’s legendary friendly giants, French Canadian strongman Antonio The Great, passed away. He was in his late seventies.
Despite being penniless at the end of his life he was still loved by those who knew him for being a friendly giant.
My recent involvement with Mordecai Richler’s Jacob Two Two Meets The The Hooded Fang brought to mind my earliest childhood memories of wrestling. The first time I was rounded up and loaded into the car with my brothers and taken to a wrestling match I was four and a half years old. I was instantly hooked.
At the ripe old age of four my very favorite wrestlers were, of course, the ones who wore masks, but I was terrified of but one man. Antonio The Great. His publicity photos were enough to make me shake with fear. He was a huge mountain of a man with a long, scruffy beard and only three teeth. He looked like a four hundred pound cave man wearing jeans and a rope belt.
Any time my mom wanted to put me to bed early I can remember she’d say, “I hope I don’t have to call Antonio The Great”. I’d be under the covers pretty quick! But sometimes I’d even have nightmares about him staring at me with red eyes from the closet - and I was positive he was really in there! I vaguely remember one Stampede week posing for a photo with all my brothers and sisters and Rocky Marciano. A few feet away, somewhere not far from the Big 4 Building, Stu had Antonio the Great in one of his tests of strength pulling six busses!
I’d never seen him wrestle, just pull a bunch of busses, but that gave me goose bumps. The hair on the back of my neck stood up when he lumbered past me - dragging his chains with him.! I wasn’t sure what smelled worse, the stinky cows and horses or him. He reminded me of a woolly mammoth.
Back in those days my dad drove an old black airport transport limo that had four rows of seats and four doors on each side. After the matches Rocky Marciano climbed into the front seat with my dad so I was somehow demoted to sit in the last row in back. Stu started to pull away, or so I thought, but he pulled to a stop. The back door swung open and into the back seat right next to me climbed Antonio the Great! I held my breath in terror and shimmied to the other end of the seat. The monster casually grunted something in French and when I didn’t understand he leaned over and offered me some sunflower seeds in a bag.
My brothers were making a big fuss over Rocky Marciano while I was thinking, who the heck did he ever beat?
By the time we pulled up at the hotel to drop them off I finally got the courage to look him in the eye. As he stepped out of the car I bravely called out to him, “Good night, Antonio.”
He grinned and tossed me the rest of the bag of sunflower seeds. I couldn’t figure out why the little guy with the big nose wasn’t afraid of Antonio The Great, the scariest wrestler of ‘em all.