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Wrestling Needs Monsters, and Lars Sullivan Has Answered the Call

Pro wrestling’s next big thing is a throwback to its many “angels,” French and otherwise, from its first golden age

WWE/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Massive Lars Sullivan, all 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds of him, has been in the WWE talent pipeline for nearly half a decade. Until anxiety issues temporarily derailed his debut, sidelining him until this week’s post–WrestleMania Raw, he was one of many “next big things” percolating in NXT—very special emphasis on “big” and “thing” in his case. Wrestling has always needed its archetypal monsters, its freakish Samoan savages and battle-scarred Sudanese butchers, and when promoters like Vince McMahon can’t find them, they have to manufacture them. Sullivan, who seems likely to become an inescapable part of future WWE main events, made his first Raw appearance as a merciless destroyer of recently retired Kurt Angle—a big part of the company’s past.

Consider Sullivan’s slow-burn development and its various rumored setbacks in comparison with the life story of one of pro wrestling’s original brutes, a man whose enormous face could break any mold, provided it could even fit in there. Maurice Tillet, a Russian emigre and French citizen, was transformed in the popular imagination into a monster after developing acromegaly in his early 20s—the same condition, which results from the pituitary gland producing too much growth hormone, that afflicted Andre the Giant. Tillet, a hairy, barrel-chested 5-foot-9 bruiser with huge hands and an even larger head—he is said to be the inspiration for Shrek—served in the French navy until worsening acromegaly forced his discharge, then struggled to make ends meet appearing in carnival sideshows. While working the sideshow circuit in his early thirties, he was discovered by a Polish wrestler and entered the sport, whereupon he received a tremendous push in the early 1940s as “the French Angel” while employed by influential Boston promoter Paul Bowser. Tillet’s health problems limited the duration of the matches he could have as well as what he could do while he was in the ring, and considerably shortened his career, but the die was cast and the race for genuine plug-uglies was on: In a business that exploited and objectified their colorful performers, every promoter wanted their own “freak.”

Sportswriter Joe Jares, who traveled the pro wrestling circuit with his father Frank, commented on this phenomenon in his light-hearted 1974 book, Whatever Happened to Gorgeous George? “When Tillet worked in England as a circus strong man, he was billed as ‘that ferocious monstrosity, not a human being, but 20 stone of brutality,’” Jares wrote. Jares’s father remembers Tillet as a man in ill health, someone whose bulbous nose was as big as a man’s hand. After the French Angel took the mat scene by storm, “the nation was crawling with ‘angels,’ who were usually huge, powerful men with gargoyle faces,” among them the Golden Angel, the Czech Angel, the Polish Angel, the Lady Angel (a bald-headed woman discovered by promoter Jack Pfefer in the 1950s), the Swedish Angel, and the Super Swedish Angel (Tor Johnson, who was played by similarly hairy and grotesque grappler George “The Animal” Steele in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic).

This is the lineage from which Lars Sullivan emerges. Pro wrestling’s monster-making business hasn’t exactly closed up shop, but today’s crop of big bruisers appears clean-cut and cookie-cutter when viewed next to the wild and wooly characters from previous generations. Braun Strowman is huge and bearded, but apart from a stint in the Wyatt Family, he’s been billed mainly as a superhumanly strong man, a gimmick that tracks neatly with his prior career as a strongman. Brock Lesnar is sometimes called “the Beast,” but said beastliness is tied up with his legitimate successes in amateur wrestling and mixed-martial arts. Others, such as Samoa Joe and Drew McIntyre, are presented as big and dangerous grapplers, variations on the sport’s time-tested, speak-softly-and-break-bones “assassin” archetype. Kane, alas, is too old for full-time monster work, a 50-something part-time politician best used for spot performances. The other big boys honing their games in preparation for main-event status, like the freakishly agile Keith Lee and two ex-amateur wrestling stars of the Heavy Machinery tag team, might move like gazelles but all three are blessed—or cursed, depending on your perspective—with sweet, goofy faces. Sullivan, however, is something special … not quite sui generis and far from self-made, but monstrous all the same.

I don’t think Sullivan’s persona, the persona we’ve seen in the promos hyping his arrival or obliterating Kurt Angle, fit well in the hyperathletic, “wrestler’s wrestler” world of NXT. Not that Sullivan wasn’t a capable or safe wrestler while working there, since he’s assuredly both, but what can you do when everyone else is so much smaller than you, and so much more dependent on high-flying athleticism and ring-cultivated stamina to get over? Last September, I attended a show in Pittsburgh at which Johnny Gargano battled Sullivan to a disqualification finish. That match was quite good, though overshadowed on a card that also featured Tommaso Ciampa’s wrestling Dominik Dijakovic (the former Donovan Dijak), but at no point did Sullivan’s menace seem especially menacing to the lithe (and extremely over) Gargano. More to the point, in the much more realistic world of NXT, it couldn’t be allowed to be real. Sullivan with his tree-trunk thighs, the thighs with which he performs one-leg pistol squats and all manner of other fitness feats, was still wedded to the back-and-forth, the give-and-take, of an NXT match. He couldn’t obliterate Gargano, destroying him the way a monster, at least for story line purposes, should be booked to destroy such opponents.

He got much closer to what could be peak Lars Sullivan when he wrestled a November main event against 300-pound Keith Lee. Lee is another big man who needs to be booked like a big deal, whose frog splashes and moonsaults warrant attention, but he’s not booked like a bad man. Here it was Lee’s big man versus Sullivan’s bad man, and Sullivan played the role to perfection. He traded blows but absorbed more damage; he sustained punishment but showed no fear. And he went over clean, because that’s what distinguishes a big man from a big thing, especially the next big thing.

The problem with the French Angel, and to a lesser extent with most of the other Angels, was that they were lummoxes either unable to wrestle or incapable of doing so. Dylan Miley, the young athlete discovered and pitched to the WWE by Bobby Lashley, was able to do a great deal from the start—the workouts he shares via social media aren’t gimmicked. What he wasn’t yet, and what he has had to work to become, is truly monstrous (though he has apparently never had much trouble writing monstrous things on message boards or retracting hastily written tweets). Back in 2014, his chest hair wasn’t as prominent, he didn’t have that pointy chin beard that gives him the characteristic elongated, oversize countenance of a vintage “wrestling angel,” and he hadn’t begun glowering and grimacing to such compelling effect.

Now Sullivan will get his shot—and it will likely be a straight line to the top of the WWE card. He is the most promising developmental monster groomed by the WWE since Bray Wyatt, another “big thing” whose high-level ability and creepy gimmick were eventually overshadowed by inconsistent booking and loads of losses, even when losses weren’t necessary. But Sullivan at this stage is perhaps even better than second-generation star Wyatt was, simultaneously fitter and more fitted for the role for which WWE appears to be grooming him.

The big question, of course, is how long WWE will let its self-made monster appear monstrous. An unbroken string of wins is a great way to start any monster’s career, but what will happen when this monster is tamed? Kane managed to retain some mystique in spite of various necessary defeats, but others receded into the midcard. For example, the late King Kong Bundy was mighty and monstrous when he was smashing “Special Delivery” Jones in seconds at the first WrestleMania, but after his loss to Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania 2, he jobbed his way down the ladder until he was wrestling Hillbilly Jim alongside people with dwarfism at WrestleMania 3. His menace, such as it was, vanished as soon as he fulfilled his purpose as an opponent for the company champion.

Sullivan could afford to take some NXT disqualification losses in stride, since he wasn’t in it to win title belts. He didn’t need a belt to validate what he was becoming, and he probably doesn’t need one now. But he does need to be kept strong, monstrously strong, lest five years of patient preparation go by the wayside, leaving this latter-day “wrestling angel” consigned to the vast middle of WWE’s enormous roster, lost in the wrestling equivalent of purgatory.

Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at www.oliverbateman.com.