I sometimes write here about inspirational things I encounter from the previous week. This past Saturday I was a judge in the Miss Dowagiac (MI) Scholarship pageant. We interviewed each contestant at 9 am that morning in the Town Hall. Upon leaving I came across a shrine to a massive man with a bigger heart.
I almost jumped back when I saw his size from the pictures in the glass case right there in the City Hall lobby. His name was Chris Taylor and at one time he was a 6 foot 5, 500 pound wrestler! Keep in mind, the picture above is of him wrestling a fellow heavyweight. THAT gives you a perspective of how massive he was!
Taylor was born in the southwestern Michigan town of Dowagiac June 13th, 1950. Sports Illustrated once reported that at 14 he was 6’2″, 280. Then he began to grow. Within 18 months he was 6’5″, 360. The University of Michigan medical center never could explain his growth after two different tests. They did find his heart to be twice as large as normal. His mom was of average size, his dad was 6’2″, 225.
He did not start wrestling until his 11th grade year and went on to win that Michigan state championship that year. Can you imagine starting a sport and becoming the best in your state in it within one year?
Look at the picture below! Those are his high school teammates that also made State. The expression on the young man on his side is priceless!
His measurements were 22″ neck, 52″ waist, 60″ chest-and he wore a 58-long jacket and 14EEE shoes. He could run the 100 in 14 seconds and could lift 200 pounds overhead with one hand. His powerful legs could press 750 pounds.
His ring size was 17. Quarters could easily fit inside them. He surprised people saying that most of the time he ate no more during a day than a 200 pound man, but every so often he would devour 3 large pizza’s at a sitting.
Depending on the time of day, before or after practice, before dinner or after a few beers, his weight fluctuated between 410 and 450 pounds.
On airplanes, they would have to move him around to get the balance right. He was able to wedge himself into a coach seat.
He wrestled for two years at Muskegon Junior College, going undefeated (51-0). His career almost came to a sudden end when he broke the neck of an opponent while wrestling at Muskegon. He was so despondent that he was going to retire from the sport.
“The only thing that kept me going was the parents of the paralyzed wrestler,” he said later to the media. “They told me it wasn’t my fault.
“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be at Iowa State. I’d be one of the local boys around home working in the factory.”
It was there at Muskegon that he met Lynne, who would later become his wife. People would always ask how big his wife was and he would answer 5’10 and 160. She was okay with that. I don’t know of many other wives that would allow hubby to regularly reveal their weight!
Iowa State, who had a national championship program, signed him for his last two years of college. He was the national champion in heavyweight wrestling both years (1972, 1973). Thousands came to his matches. Over 10,000 came to see him vs Oklahoma State, which was a national amateur wrestling crowd record. He was 87-0-1 at Iowa State. Seventy of Taylor’s wins ended in pins. His victims lasted an average of only two minutes and 14 seconds before they were pinned.
Even though Iowa State usually had clinched the team victory long before the heavyweight match would start at the end, the fans refused to leave until they had seen Taylor in action. Several teams had major problems getting wrestlers to summon the courage to face him. Wisconsin Coach Duane Kleven had his wrestlers draw straws to see who would take on Taylor. And at Navy it was a squad joke that anyone who volunteered to fight Chris should be given a medal.
His gentle nature hurt him on the mat. It was hard to get him to show a mean streak. He realized his power, and after breaking the neck of the young man back in junior college, was always conscious of what could happen. To keep from hurting his foe, he would break his own fall by landing on his palms so they would not be crushed by his full force. They said no one ever escaped his grip once he had them pinned. A 206 pound heavyweight from the University of Wisconsin was once engulfed, and said the only thing he could move were his fingers.
To weigh him at Iowa State, they would take him to the meat laboratory on campus where he would hang from an overhead rod usually held for a side of beef. It would always be well north of 400 pounds.
His letter jacket had a number 1 on it. Taylor used to joke that was his IQ.
People said he was the strongest person they ever met. They had built a bridge at a wrestling camp he was at onetime. A crane had been used to set the beams. One of the beams had to be moved. Taylor said, ‘I’ll move it.’ He put his shoulder and back into it, lifted it and set it over where it belonged.
People moan about winter weather. Taylor would wear short sleeves unless it was 15 or below. He only put on an overcoat in Russia when on a wrestling tour because it got to 40 below.
He was beloved in Iowa. Taylor would walk into a social place in Ames and they would want to buy him a beer. You wouldn’t buy this guy a mug of beer. You bought him a pitcher because the pitcher fit right perfectly in his hand, so it looked like a mug. He could drink that like a regular mug of beer, but he wasn’t a big drinker.
While at Iowa State, he competed in the 1972 Munich Olympics when eleven Israelis were killed by the Palestinian group Black September. Athletes were beginning to wear ID badges. Taylor never wore one. Everyone knew who he was. He heard the shots in the morning and knew some of the men who were killed.
He earned a bronze medal in freestyle, losing to eventual gold medalist Alexender Medved of the Soviet Union. Medved was an eight-time world champion. He beat Taylor in the semi final 3-2, on a controversial stalling call.The referee later said he felt Chris had an unfair size advantage, so he wanted to even things for Medved. It was faulty reasoning, and the referee was not allowed to work any other matches, but the damage had been done.
Medved went on to win the gold medal and Taylor had to settle for the third-place bronze. “That was a tremendous disappointment for Chris,” his wife Lynne Taylor Lawrence would tell the Des Moines Register. “He thought the referee was very biased.”
Leading up to the Olympics, Taylor had no one to practice against except rolled-up mats because they feared injury.
His hometown of Dowagiac helped pay for his parents and sisters to go to the Olympics. They had never been on a plane when they flew from nearby South Bend to Detroit to Germany for the Olympics, where they stayed with a farm family whose home connected to their barn.
He entered the world of professional wrestling after college, where he would take on the likes of Ric Flair and Andre the Giant and get up to 500 pounds. He never made the main stage of pro wrasslin’ because he irritated promoters by admitting it was all fake.
To give you an idea of how big Andre the Giant was, he makes even Taylor look small in the picture above! That’s comedian Jerry Lewis they are ‘messing’ with…
Married to Lynne, they had a daughter, Jenny, who was born in 1975 in Dowagiac. The hospital had no robes big enough for him so at first he was not going to be able to go into the delivery room. They took his wrestling robe, which would later go in the Iowa State wrestling hall of fame, sanitized it and had it ready for him.
It is the same robe from the one on the cover of the inspirational book written about his life story (above)
Taylor had to leave pro wrasslin’ at age 27 because of health reasons. All sorts of things started to add up and take their toll, including hepatitis, phlebitis and kidney failure.
Lynne found him when he passed away at 8:30 p.m. on June 30, 1979, from blood clots. Jenny was 3. His body had given out.
He was just 29.
It was his wife who recalled the line from the poem “True Measure” when she spoke of Taylor’s death. Chuck Burling, his childhood friend, said much the same thing but in a slightly different way. “Even in 29 years,” he once told the South Bend Tribune, “he lived more of a life than most of us would if we lived to be 89.” Taylor lies in Riverside Cemetery in Dowagiac beneath a headstone that sums up his life perhaps better than his Gentle Giant billing. It reads, “A friend to all.” Olympic rings are engraved at the top.
He would later be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. His daughter became a state champion softball pitcher.
When I was in Dowagiac Saturday to judge their 76th annual scholarship pageant, I talked with several people who knew Taylor. They all talked about how kind and giving he was and how he had such a good heart.
Burling, a Dowagiac dentist and city councilman, was Taylor’s best friend growing up. “He was the kind of man that if you asked for help, he’d be there ahead of time. And he’d have the job half done by the time you got there, he said.”
He had the ability to poke fun at himself and lighten a tense situation. Dan Gable was a teammate at Iowa State and recalled one time during an intense practice when everything was about to break loose. Taylor eased the tension by grabbing a mop handle and singing “Proud Mary,” a song made famous by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Chris Taylor truly was larger than life.
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