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August 5, 2016

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Large and in charge: WWE star wrestles triumph from adversity

MINUTES before my interview with World Wrestling Entertainment star Paul Randall Wight Jr, better known to many by his ring name Big Show, a member of his public relations team informed me that he needed a bit more time to gather himself.

Wight had just met Li Xiang, a Special Olympic ice skater who has Down’s Syndrome, and had been moved to tears during the meeting. Wight was in Shanghai to promote the upcoming WWE Live in early September.

Later during a one-hour interview with Shanghai Daily, Wight would talk about that moment: “I got pretty emotional. I’m really a big softie at heart.”

It seems hard to imagine this behemoth of a man weeping. Billed by the WWE as the “world’s largest athlete,” Wight cuts an imposing figure, standing 2.13 meters tall and weighing in at 204 kilograms. He’s faced and beaten down some of the toughest men in the business; and claimed every title the WWE has to offer along the way. But this 21-year veteran of the WWE also excels at shattering expectations.

Despite his intimidating appearance, Wight always prefers to play the role of a good guy in the bravado-fueled soap opera that is professional wrestling. In the lingo of his profession, he’s known as a “babyface.” Wight clearly loves this appellation — and the opportunities it brings to connect with fans.

“I get to hug the kids and high-five them on the way to the ring. I love kids,” he says. “Personally, it’s a little bit more fun to be a babyface because I get to interact with the fans in a more positive way.”

Throughout the interview, Wight often expressed his gratitude to wrestling and the WWE. As he explained, the sport has given him a sense of purpose and helped him navigate through some of life’s darkest moments.

“I went through a really bad period in my life as a young man in my 20s. I lost my father and my grandfather to cancer ... in the same year. For me, it was a very tough year emotionally. I quit school. I did odd jobs, sold cars, ran karaoke shows and answered phones,” he recalls.

It was in December 1994 though that Wight had the opportunity to meet Hulk Hogan, one of the biggest stars in the wrestling universe. Thanks in large part to his own hulking appearance, Wight was told he had a future in the business.

“It was funny at that time because I didn’t know if I’d be any good at wrestling. I didn’t know if I’d be any good at being a superstar. I just thought it was really cool and I’d make a little bit of money out of it,” says the 44-year-old, who would have been a high school basketball coach and a history teacher if he didn’t enter wrestling.

“I didn’t realize until after I really got into the business, met all the guys in the locker room, and went up and down the road, that I found something that was going to heal my soul and complete my life and make me understand why I was put on this planet and what I was meant to do.”

Small town to world stage

Wight’s pro debut is the stuff of wresting legend. He won the World Championship Wrestling (WCW) World Heavyweight Championship in his first-ever match, against Hogan in October 1995. It was an experience he describes as “terrifying.”

“I was scared to death,” he says.

Wight made the switch to the WWE in 1999 after four years with the WCW. Since then, he’s gone on to achievements that many only dream of.

By his own reckoning, some of Wight’s most memorable moments include wrestling in France at an arena built in 300 AD by the Romans, going face-to-face with a sumo-wrestler at Wrestlemania, the biggest event of the year in WWE, and putting his hand on the Great Pyramid of Giza.

“Not bad for a small-town kid from South Carolina,” he laughs.

Wight’s hometown of Aiken has a population of only 30,000. “My mom was a cop and my dad was a mechanic. It’s pretty far for me to go from a kid that only saw stuff in books. I’ve travelled the world and am now sitting here in Shanghai.”

Wight has repaid WWE with a passion and commitment that is nearly unparalleled in the business. To name one instance of his devotion, he told boxing great Floyd Mayweather to break his nose during a guest appearance in the WWE in 2008. As he explains, this was all part of putting on a show that fans wouldn’t forget.

“It was important for me. My responsibility was to get that angle off the ground. This was boxer versus wrestler, which is a big deal in America.

“Not to take away from the drama of it, but I didn’t care if he broke my nose or not. I wanted to suspend belief and get our fans emotionally invested. I knew that if he broke my nose, people were going to talk about it. A broken nose will heal, and I got my nose broken by one of the greatest fighters who had ever lived. My nose was fine in two weeks.

“I’m pretty blessed. I don’t have anything to definitely whine or complain about. I’m very thankful.”

But for Wight, the staggering physical dimensions that made him a celebrity came with potentially life-threatening risks.

Wight was born with a medical condition known as acromegaly, or giantism, which causes extreme growth. This condition is often associated with a tumor in the pituitary gland, a tiny gland in the brain stem that produces hormones which regulate basic bodily functions.

“I was 6’2 (1.89m) and 220 pounds (100kg) at 12 years old. I didn’t find out I had a tumor on my pituitary gland until I was 19.”

He once revealed in an interview that as a child, many parents were afraid to let him play with their kids because of his size.

“It was tough because the tumor made me a tremendous athlete, of tremendous size and strength. Then at the same time, I had something medically wrong with me and if I don’t get it fixed, I could die young.

“I was told I was going to probably pass away at 45. Being 19, this felt far away. I’m so glad now I did the surgery because 45 is a few months away,” he laughs.

At this point in the interview, the tone of our conversation shifted. Wight, who had been casually lounging in his armchair, suddenly sat up, his expression becoming somber.

“Sometimes, you’re given challenges in life, and they don’t break you, they actually make you. Even if you fail, the thing is, you’ve got to keep going because, the thing is, you don’t know what tomorrow brings. You don’t know what’s around the next corner. You don’t know and you can’t give up.

“You got to push forward. I think of all the things I’ve had in my life — between losing family and injuries — and it’s all worth every bit of it because I am the luckiest man on the planet who gets to do an amazing job, gets to give back to the community, provides for my family. And best part about it is that I have a damn good time doing it.

“It was a tough time for me. But I would go through all that again.”

Premier Shanghai show

Now that Wight’s done almost everything there is to do in the business, it looks like it might soon be time to call it quits.

“I’ve had a 21-year career. I’m looking forward to retirement actually. It’d be nice to actually see my family.

“I’ve earned my limited schedule and now it’s the twilight for me. I get to do media, talk to fans, and tour the world and go out with a nice casual wave goodbye; and I’m happy with that.”

But before his final farewell, he’ll face another WWE legend, John Cena, at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai on September 10. The match is one he’s looking forward to.

“This is like a Wrestlemania for Shanghai. If you’re a WWE fan, you definitely want to be there. If you’re not sure and want to learn more, you want to be part of this premier event.”

At next year’s Wrestlemania in Orlando, Wight will also come face to face with former NBA basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, another sporting heavyweight, for a match that might just shake the foundations of pro wrestling.

“We’ll have one heck of a match and we’ll see what’s up. We’ll give the fans a treat.”

For a man who encapsulates the term “larger than life” in every sense, life as a WWE star has been a spectacular ride for Wight, and he remains ever grateful.

“It’s amazing how far life can take you if you’re willing to dream and willing to take a risk on that dream. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. Anything worth having is worth working for. Nobody hands you anything. You’re given an opportunity and sometimes you got to have that faith in yourself to take that opportunity.

“That’s one of the things in life that makes it great.”


WWE Live 2016 China

Date: September 10, 7pm

Venue: Mercedes-Benz Area, 1200 Expo Ave, Pudong

Tickets: 180-2,080 yuan


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