ELLERBE — Hundreds of wrestling fans flocked to the Rankin Museum of American Heritage on Saturday to celebrate the legacy of the late Andre the Giant.
The French-born wrestler made Richmond County his home away from the ring in 1980 and lived there — when he wasn’t traveling the world — until his death in his home country in 1993 while he was there to attend his father’s funeral.
The event was orchestrated by the Rankin Museum and Lelands Auctions in conjunction with Titan Championship Wrestling Entertainment as a fundraiser for the museum.
Bret Webb, chairman of the museum’s board, said the event has been years in the making.
The museum opened a full exhibit to honor the Giant, who lived just a few miles north of Ellerbe off of N.C. 73, in 2015 with memorabilia donated mostly by Jackie McAuley.
McAuley and her late ex-husband Frenchy Bernard — a former wrestler and referee himself — managed Andre’s ranch. The name of the ranch even bore their initials: AFJ.
Several current and former wrestlers came down for a meet-and-greet including Mark Henry, “The Million Dollar” Man Ted Dibase, and the Giant’s former Colossal Connection tag-team partner Haku.
Others included: Cowboy Bob Orton; the Warlord and the Barbarian, who wrestled as the tag team Powers of Pain; Fred Ottman, who wrestled under the gimmicks Tugboat, Typhoon and Shockmaster; Chuck Coates, who wore a T-shirt reading “I got body slammed by Andre the Giant;” and Sean Studd, son of Andre’s greatest in-ring rival Big John Studd.
At one point in the afternoon, the Powers of Pain cut a birthday promo, with one take being comically interrupted by Haku who shot a promo for Burger Bros, one of the local food vendors at the event.
Also in the autograph room was Andre’s daughter, Robin Christensen-Roussimoff.
“It’s wonderful that people still love him so much,” Christensen-Roussimoff said, adding that it seemed a fitting time to have the tribute, marking 30 years since his passing.
“I didn’t realize they had so much of his stuff,” she said regarding the museum’s exhibit. “It’s nice to know that it’s protected and will always be around for as long as they’re open. That makes me very happy.
Christensen-Roussimoff said this was her first time coming to Ellerbe.
“I wish I could have when I was younger, but it just wasn’t in the cards, unfortunately. He passed away before I got the chance.”
Most of the exhibit items were moved from their usual location to the main hall of the museum, where Chris Owens was set up to display his collection of Andre the Giant photographs.
The museum also received a few more items from Carl Brantley, who wrestled as Vladimir Koloff: a steer skull; and the original AFJ Ranch sign.
It was Brantley who helped Andre get started raising longhorn cattle after Frenchy and Jackie contacted him in the mid-’80s and bought eight cows.
“From then on, we had a friendship with Andre where we didn’t treat him any differently,” he said. “Never asked for an autograph, never asked for a photograph — nothing.”
Brantley said his relationship with Frency and Andre, along with the late Ivan Koloff, helped him get into the wrestling business in 1991.
Although Brantley never got to share the ring with Andre, they did wrestle on the same card for several shows in Japan and locally in Lumberton, Rockingham and North Wilkesboro.
“We were more than professional friends. It was more to me — it was a personal relationship,” Brantley said. “I’m here to honor my friendship with Frenchy and Jackie and Andre…out of respect for my friend, for the Boss.”
Brantley described the Giant as “a jewel of a man.”
“He did a lot for a lot of people … and he didn’t have to.”