In 1981, before Hulkamania ran wild and something was needed besides bland babyface champion Bob Backlund to draw, two main event monsters were booked to boost the gates.
Killer Khan and Andre the Giant sustained a year-long feud fueled by the kayfabe breaking of Andre’s ankle by Khan with a blow-off in an innovative gimmick stretcher match nearly 30 years ago in Philadelphia on November 14, 1981 (the two then replayed the rivalry in Japan in 1982).
In a lot of ways, the ankle injury would foreshadow the drastic decline of Andre before and after Wrestlemania III and his most watched feud with Hulk Hogan a few short years later. The broken ankle, after all, was real. Only, it wasn’t broken by an attack from Khan in the ring. Andre broke his ankle getting out of bed. Andre’s acromegaly, the disease that lead to his continued growth and giant size, was taking its toll, and bones could be stretched to the point of brittleness.
After this angle, his only major rivalry pre-Hogan was with Big John Studd, which didn’t culminate in a match but a Body Slam Challenge at Wrestlemania I. Andre’s limited movement due to mounting back injuries and general weakness from his giantism were often hidden in gimmick matches like this or tag matches where Andre’s mate carried the bulk of matches or battle royals, as with the one Andre won at Wrestlemania II. Vince was able to pull draws for the first two Wrestlemanias using Andre without Andre having to wrestle full matches. Andre was then basically rested for one last singles push between Wrestlemania III through Wrestlemania IV with Hogan (this interim was also the period when he filmed for The Princess Bride).
Ironically, by the time Andre saw his greatest fame from that final singles push with Hogan and his role in Princess Bride (1986-87) he would begin rapidly to fade from the ring and any tangible storylines due to his health.
Killer Khan, real name Masashi Ozawa, would have his last WWF run with Hulk Hogan too, jobbing in a series of house shows in 1987 before going back to Dallas and WCCW to be managed by Skandar Akbar and tag sporadically with the Freebirds against the von Erichs. As much as Andre was the main attraction, Khan arguably got more high profile matches more consistently over the years, as he not only was booked into the rivalry with Andre but also worked matches against then World Champion Bob Backlund and then Intercontinental Champion Pedro Morales in the early 80s. He made enough of a name for himself to be cast later in one of the 3 Ninjas movies, same as Hulk Hogan, though they were in separate films with Khan in 3 Ninjas Kick Back and Hogan appearing in 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain.
When the two iconic giants and the main event draws collided in 1981 it was taken to next-level violence due to a mundane exercise. Andre the Giant broke his ankle getting out of bed, but the potential disaster became smart booking by the WWF as it was reported the ankle was broken by Khan when he landed on it in the ring against.
In storyline then, Killer Khan was the first to immobilize and sideline the great Andre the Giant. This built tension without Andre in the ring or even on camera, always a brilliant move with wrestling when it can be pulled off. It creates a new drama with no resources.
Sadly, the cost was all on Andre, who did have to recover from the real ankle injury. By the time he returned for the blow-off, the story was so big a special match was created for the bout. The score would be settled in a Mongolian Stretcher Match. I have no idea why this was called “Mongolian,” other than it built on the already racist 80s stereotype created by Karl Gotch of a giant from Mongolia whose name played on perhaps the most ruthless mass murderer and conquerer in history, Genghis Khan. “Mongolian” and “Khan” were assumed associations with violence in such bigoted times.
The match stipulated that the winner would be declared when the opponent was knocked loopy long enough to be carried all the way to the locker room on the giant ringside stretcher by medical personnel. It provided some nice tension builds with Khan a couple of times going on the stretcher after taking a beating from Andre only to rise off of it and return to the ring Daniel Bryan-style before it could be carried all the way out.
In the end, Andre did a fairly impressive double under-hook (side) suplex and seated senton (or Earthquake Splash if you prefer) to knock Khan out long enough to be carried back. And let’s face it, it was was the only way to go because Andre would have been nearly impossible to carry.
The Khan match is one of the last you’ll find where Andre moves around the ring and gets really rough and tumble, delivering some of the stiff shots he could be notorious for. After this, even against Hogan, there would be a lot of bear hugs and stepping on backs and leaning on the ropes while someone ran into his giant boot to hide Andre’s increasing lack of mobility (not to mention the tag run with Haku to give him a championship run in his limelight where Haku worked 98% of the match times).
Khan and Andre’s rivalry was enough to earn both the Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s and Wrestling Observer’s Rivalry of the Year awards for 1981, a year with some fantastic NWA Mid-Atlantic championship rivalries happening between Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair and Roddy Piper.
While the Hulk Hogan feud is undoubtedly the most covered and chronicled rivalry and matches of the storied Andre the Giant, the Killer Khan rivalry was really the last chance to see Andre as the Andre of old, brutalizing his opponent rather than weakly chopping him and meekly allowing the opponent to work around his immobility sparked by the ankle injury.
When Andre could really no longer go, requiring the use of crutches to support his massive frame due to his back and leg injuries, his turn on Haku and Heenan was his chance to go out as a face (and make an occasional TV return to scare and hassle Heenan and Heenan’s wrestlers).
Khan was thrown into the Freebird-von Erich rivalry when he made his way to the Dallas Territory after his WWF run, likewise limiting the amount of punishment his large frame would have to sustain the abuses of the ring through tag matches (he was nearly a foot shorter than Andre at 6’5” but by all standards then still a big man in the ring and often referred to as the “Mongolian Giant”). He too soon turned face by turning on Freebird Terry Gordy and retired due to the immense toll of the ring on his body.
Andre’s health declined rapidly and he passed in 1993. Khan still lives in Japan where he owns a restaurant and is able to earn income and revere from his iconic status in the ring in a way Andre sadly didn’t live long enough to do.