In wrestling as in life, sometimes crap happens. And when it happens, it can derail a career in very unexpected way. It can be a bad injury, a guy’s poor attitude, or a combination of many things that keep someone from rising to the top. This is the strange journey of Bam Bam Bigelow in 1988, where crap most certainly happened.
Bam Bam was red hot in late 1987, debuting with an angle where every heel manager coveted him before he settled on Oliver Humperdink, which kept him as a babyface. Fans were in love with a 390 lb guy who could do cartwheels and was incredibly agile. Bigelow almost ran a gauntlet at the Survivor Series of the biggest opponents before falling in the end to Andre the Giant. It seemed like he could be someone to main event Wrestlemania someday: it happened, but not in a way anyone expected.
As was the booking style, Bigelow was put against the biggest guys early in the year, battling King Kong Bundy, Sika, and the One Man Gang. Most of his matches were against the Gang, who was coming off a brief program with Hulk Hogan at the end of 1987.
On January 23, Bigelow teamed with Hulk Hogan for the very first time in a match against Andre the Giant and Ted DiBiase, putting Bam Bam on the periphery of one of the great WWF angles ever that led to the title switch from Hogan at the Feb. 5 Main Event show. Bigelow missed some time at the end of January but continued teaming with Hogan in those matches later in the winter.
On Feb. 7 in San Diego, Bigelow challenged Ted DiBiase for the WWF title in a match that must be in abeyance since DiBiase is not recognized as a champion in canon. But the Million Dollar Man made title defenses at house shows prior to being stripped of the title on the Feb. 13 Superstars. Bigelow would lose these matches due to Virgil’s interference and would continue having matches with DiBiase, losing the majority by countout.
As spring dawned, Bigelow moved into a makeshift team with Don Muraco to take on the One Man Gang and Butch Reed. He also had a one on one match with Andre the Giant which was unaired at the Saturday Night’s Main Event taping that month, which he lost.
The numbers 3:16 launched Steve Austin to the stratosphere, but on 3/16 Bigelow’s career took a bad turn, blowing out his knee in a match with Dino Bravo. This was a serious injury that would require time off, but as was custom at the time Bigelow would come back too soon. He was pulled from all shows and replaced by Hacksaw Jim Duggan as Hulk’s tag partner. Only 11 days remained until the Wrestlemania 4 title tournament and one of the biggest stars had a bad wheel.
Bam Bam was to meet the One Man Gang in round 1. If you look at the bracket, one could envision a scenario where Bigelow makes it to the final before losing to DiBiase. But the company had already turned to Randy Savage, and Bigelow would need time off to heal. The match with the Gang would turn out as one of the worst matches in Mania history at one of the most lightly regarded Manias. Bigelow does a cartwheel and follows with one of the worst splashes in history as he was definitely limited by injury. Slick pulls down the rope and Bigelow gets counted out on the apron, with the 10 count happening as he had one foot in the ring in one of the oddest finished you will ever see.
A knee injury takes time to heal and needs more time if the person is close to 400 lbs (181.81 kg). If this happened today, modern surgical procedures would have helped and Bigelow would not be seen until at least late summer. But he pressed on, losing on Apr. 21 to the Honky Tonk Man via countout in a match that later aired on Prime Time Wrestling. Bam Bam’s unique offense for a big man was what made him popular but he couldn’t do that at this point. Bigelow was put back with the One Man Gang but he was clearly being downplayed, as was the Gang himself who would transform into Akeem later in 1988.
The end for Bigelow in the WWF came very abruptly as indicated in many shoot interviews and recollections of the time. Before he passed, Bigelow himself recalled the end for him. On June 25 at Madison Square Garden, Bigelow faced Andre the Giant in a match where Bam Bam got very little offense. Andre was not a fan of Bigelow and thought he was far too cocky for a guy with so little time in the business and roughed him up pretty good during and after this match. Jim Duggan made the save here, and as the story goes Bigelow allegedly went to the back and quit immediately. He was not seen in the WWF again for another four years.
Bigelow was off until August when he made a stop in the Continental territory to team with Jeff Jarrett in a one-off match before making his way to New Japan Pro Wrestling. Traditionally large American wrestlers fared well in Japanese promotions and Bigelow would face off against one of them in Big Van Vader in one of his first matches. Years later, they would form a team that would win the IWGP tag team titles. After working a couple of matches with Antonio Inoki, Bigelow would head back to the US but would be jumping to Jim Crockett Promotions.
Bigelow was once again paired with Oliver Humperdink in JCP and was positioned as a threat for the US title held by Barry Windham and the world title held by Ric Flair. Bigelow generally worked tag matches with a variety of partners against the two remaining Horsemen, with Dusty Rhodes as the main partner. After the Midnight Express lost the tag team titles to the heel Road Warriors, Rhodes and Bigelow would defeat the Midnights on house shows in an odd face versus face pairing. Bigelow was not paired with Flair after some pretty harsh promos by the Nature Boy on the weekly programming, instead going after the US title. This was not much of a demotion since Windham in 1988 was very highly regarded and thought of as a future world champion.
The build was on for the Bigelow-Windham match at Starrcade ’88 with the US title at stake. It was a very strange match as presented on the PPV, with Jim Ross on commentary putting over Windham hard as if he was the babyface. Windham was bumping like crazy for the big guy, bouncing like a pinball over the ropes with his 6 foot 6 inch frame. As Bam Bam had Windham pinned at around the 15 minute mark, he pulled him up at the two count either in a planned spot or Windham was supposed to get a foot on the ropes but was too far. Bam Bam hit knees on a splash from the top and eventually got sent to the ringpost on the outside for the countout loss. Like most Windham matches in 1988, it was very good but the story being told was bizarre since Windham was not about to turn babyface and Bigelow was not a heel.
Instead, Bam Bam disappeared from TV and headed back to Japan to form a team with Big Van Vader. Bam Bam did work a couple of live shows in 1989 but he would be doing his work in New Japan against the likes of Tatsumi Fujinami and Riki Choshu. While Bigelow would come back to the United States in mid-1989 to work a program with Jerry Lawler in the USWA, his career continued to have fits and starts in the mid-90s with the Lawrence Taylor match and his run-ins with the Kliq backstage. Only in his late 90s ECW run which included a world title and TV title reign would we see the Bigelow that people expected to see from 1988.