A sad day for the world of professional wrestling. Randy Savage has died.
The 58-year-old superstar was driving with his second wife when, according to his brother, Lanny Poffo, he suddenly suffered a massive heart attack. As a result, the 2009 Jeep Wrangler he was operating “crossed a raised concrete median and drove through oncoming traffic before hitting a tree” on the Florida Highway. He later died in hospital while Barbara Poffo survived with less severe injuries. They had only been married a year. TMZ reports an autopsy is to be performed tomorrow which will ultimately determine the real cause of his death.
Although he hadn’t been active in the ring for half a decade, Savage’s legacy as a dynamic, influential performer has remained strong. Two years ago, the WWE put together a fine collection of his matches and promos on the 3-disc Macho Madness DVD set. (Another box set featuring even rarer stuff would be nice.) And just recently, Savage’s image was used in the latest WWE video game, WWE All Stars (the concept involves pitting legends from the 80s and 90s against today’s top wrestlers) and he signed a deal with Mattel to have his first action figure in years as part of their WWE Defining Moments series.
When I became a wrestling fan in the summer of 1985, Savage debuted in the World Wrestling Federation. On the Macho Madness DVD, you can see his first Madison Square Garden encounter. There’s no Pomp & Circumstance entrance music, no Elizabeth (his first wife who became his loyal manager during this period) and his ring attire was not yet super sparkly.
But he did have the psychology, an element so important to telling stories effectively in the ring. Savage was the master of stalling, a tactic he perfected while working for Jerry Lawler in Memphis. In this MSG match with the late Quick Draw Rick McGraw, he delays a lot much to the great annoyance of the New York crowd who were more than eager to boo him and throw crap at him.
When the match does get going, Savage performs unusual moves like a vertical suplex outside the ring, a rarely seen bump in that era, and, of course, his patented flying double ax handle off the top turnbuckle which no one was executing. The match ends like a lot of Macho Man matches ended with a flying elbow off the top rope followed by a 3-count for the pin. (Shawn Michaels would adopt the move as his own in the 1990s.)
Within just a few months of arriving and after being put over in squash match after squash match, Savage entered his first program with Hulk Hogan, then on his first WWF title run. It was a remarkable show of confidence on the part of the company to put this recent arrival (Savage had wrestled outside the WWF under various gimmicks for 12 years up to that point) into a major storyline. Hogan made Savage a credible challenger while The Macho Man committed to selling The Hulkster’s limited repertoire. They had many engaging battles.
Then came George Steele. During an episode of Tuesday Night Titans, Vince McMahon Jr.’s version of The Tonight Show, Elizabeth, his surprise choice for a manager (before her arrival, The Macho Man was billed as the number one free agent in wrestling), was given flowers mixed with turnbuckle stuffing, The Animal’s way of delivering a personal message of love to her. Savage was outraged and ripped up the roses Steele had sent.
The two would battle it out well into 1986. But a new wrinkle was added to the storyline after a Boston Garden house show on February 8. Tito Santana was on his second and final Intercontinental Championship run and Savage was deemed number one challenger.
The finish of the match was one Savage had used during an early encounter with Ricky Steamboat at The Wrestling Classic the previous summer and would be recycled on numerous other occasions. After refusing to submit to Santana’s figure four leglock, Savage gets to the ropes and ultimately makes his way to the apron. He reaches into his yellow star trunks to pull out a foreign object.
As Santana comes closer he tries to hit him with it but the champion ducks. While being back suplexed into the ring (the set-up is a little clunky), Savage finally connects, gets the 3-count and when the ref’s attention is elsewhere he quickly throws it away where it’s retrieved by a ringside photographer.
When Savage resumed his entertaining, silly program with The Animal, his newly won Intercontinental Title was put on the line. The champion survived every encounter including bouts on Saturday Night’s Main Event and Wrestlemania 2.
Savage also challenged Hulk Hogan again for the World championship but despite occasional victories by count-out and disqualification, The Macho Man always came up short. (The Intercontinental title was never on the line.)
Meanwhile, Savage retained his title not always by ethical means in a series of rematches with Santana and fought off another challenger, former 2-time World Champion Bruno Sammartino.
By the end of the year, Savage would lock horns again with Ricky The Dragon Steamboat who was more than ready for a title run of his own. During their famous TV match for the Intercontinental belt, Savage attacks Steamboat’s throat by leaping off the top rope with the timekeeper’s bell. After draping Steamboat over the steel barricade he would climb up and perform one of his patented double ax handles. Steamboat sold it all so beautifully and Savage continued to add to his already impressive rep as a nasty heel, an in-ring rulebreaker and a control freak who rarely treated Elizabeth with respect.
It all culminated in one of the greatest matches ever, a rematch for the belt at WrestleMania III. I remember seeing it live on closed circuit at Copps Coliseum on a Sunday afternoon. It was unlike any match booked in the WWF at the time. The intensity of the bumps, the constant near falls, and the possibility that Savage might actually survive as champion once again was all too much for an 11-year-old mark to take. It also appeared to take a heavy toll on referee Dave Hebner who looked sweaty and out of breath for the whole match.
With Steele in his corner, Steamboat had the secret weapon for victory. As Savage tries once again to nail his opponent with that timekeeper’s bell, The Animal pushes The Macho Man right off the top turnbuckle. Hebner comes to (he was “knocked out” just moments earlier like in the earlier TV match-up), Savage briefly sells a back injury as he attempts to slam The Dragon but Steamboat rolls him up in a small package and finally gets the win. Awesome.
I must’ve seen this match at least a dozen times over the decades including several times in recent months. It has held up remarkably well. On his own DVD, Steamboat noted that all the wrestlers backstage congratulated him and Savage for a job well done. Andre The Giant and Hulk Hogan, who wrestled in the much-hyped main event, did not receive the same warm reception.
After failing to regain the title (which he held for almost 14 months) in a series of house show cage matches, it was time for Savage to become a good guy. When Steamboat was refused some time off to become a dad by McMahon, he had to drop the belt sooner than planned. When The Natural Butch Reed was a no-show at a TV taping in Buffalo, Hulk Hogan suggested his buddy, The Honky Tonk Man, as his replacement.
It turned out to be a brilliant move. When Honky started declaring himself as the greatest Intercontinental champion of all time, former champion Savage took exception and challenged him for the title. No more booing, no more disrespecting Liz.
That led to a famous Saturday Night’s Main Event battle in October 1987. Shortly after the interference of Bret Hart (which causes the DQ) and a three-on-one beatdown, Elizabeth gets shoved to the mat by Honky who proceeds to level The Macho Man in the head with an acoustic guitar. (She initially saved him on Honky’s first attempt.) After running backstage, Elizabeth returns with the last person you’d expect to help out Savage.
After clearing the ring of Honky and The Hart Foundation, Hulk Hogan and The Macho Man have a stare down before Savage offers his hand. When Hulk shakes it, it’s the next phase of a program that will last off and on for the rest of the decade.
At WrestleMania IV, Savage had to wrestle four times to be declared World Champion. After disposing of Reed, Greg Valentine and the One Man Gang, The Macho Man battled Ted Dibiase in the final match of the championship tournament. At a key moment, Andre, the former champion, gets too involved in the proceedings. Savage instructs Elizabeth to get The Hulk.
In the earlier round two Andre-Hulk match-up that same night, Dibiase nailed Hogan with a steel chair as he was about to slam The Giant which ultimately led to a double DQ when the two big men used the chair on each other. In the match with Savage, Hulk returned the favour without being seen by the ref. The flying elbow did the rest.
Interestingly, the moment Savage was pushed as World Champion I knew immediately what the plan was for WrestleMania V. Hulk vs. Macho for the title with the former champ ready for his second run.
And indeed, that’s exactly what happened. But along the way, the whole MegaPowers storyline kept things very entertaining as we see Savage gradually become more and more jealous of Hulk’s actions with Liz, something that was reportedly based on real events and likely led to the end of The Macho Man’s first marriage in 1992 and put considerable strain on his friendship with Hogan. The live broadcast of the tag team match pitting The Powers against The Twin Towers did as good a job at selling a predictable WrestleMania main event as any I’ve ever seen.
Savage’s second heel run had some other great moments. Long after he beat Jim Duggan for the silly King gimmick, he started battling The Ultimate Warrior. At the 1991 Royal Rumble, while the new World Champion was defending against Sgt. Slaughter, The Macho King and his new valet, Sensational Sherri (who we lost in 2007) hilariously interfere a couple of times. My favourite involves Sherri suckering The Warrior in to chasing her down the entranceway to the ring where a waiting Savage proceeds to pummel him. The funniest moment of the attack? Macho Man nearly falls over himself as he attempts to level Warrior with a nearby TV light. Slaughter gets put over after Warrior gets beaned by Savage’s royal sceptre.
At WrestleMania VII, Savage and Warrior had a retirement match with the loser forced to hang up their trunks. It was an amazing battle with an even better post-match angle. Pissed that her man lost, Sherri starts kicking Savage which leads Elizabeth, who had been conveniently seated near the entranceway, to haul ass and throw her out of the ring.
It leads to a lovely bit of theatre. When The Macho Man realizes what actually happened he embraces his soon-to-be ex-wife and the crowd goes nuts. Bobby Heenan’s commentary during this entire moment is priceless. Just a few months later, despite the deterioration of their marriage in real-life, Savage proposes during a TV taping and the most ironic fake wedding in wrestling history takes place at SummerSlam. After what had to be a much-needed break, Savage ends up being reinstated to feud with Jake The Snake Roberts (who offered a snake as a wedding present and later attacked him with a devenomized cobra) and later, Ric Flair who he beats for his second and final WWF World title at WrestleMania VIII.
Another solid bout with The Warrior would take place at the famous 1992 SummerSlam in Wembley Stadium. Everybody talks about the Davey Boy Smith-Bret Hart Intercontinental epic, a near half-hour match-up that ended the show, but The Warrior-Savage match (which was supposed to see the challenger turn heel) has just as much good stuff in it. They later became a tag team known as The Ultimate Maniacs.
Sadly, as the decade wore on, Savage would rarely wrestle full-time much to his annoyance. McMahon wanted him colour commentating instead. And although he took the job (and certainly did some good work despite lacking the consistency of Bobby Heenan and Jesse Ventura), he still felt he could wrestle. In 1994, Savage made the jump to WCW and once again tangled with old frenemy Hulk Hogan who he later aligned with in the infamous New World Order gang. Four more World championships came his way. He left the company in 1999.
Five years later, Savage briefly worked for TNA, when it had that silly six-sided ring. He eventually retired in 2005.
Besides his solid wrestling chops, Savage was kind of a mad genius on the microphone. On the Macho Madness DVD, there are a number of entertaining promos, not all of which make perfect sense. My personal favourite: “The Macho Man is more addictive than sex.” (Oh yeah!) There was another great one (it might have been from WrestleMania VII) when he talks about someone doing “a somersault in the tummy tuck position”. I wish I could remember the whole thing but that one line made me absolutely roar back in 2004 when I rescreened it for the first time in well over a decade. I was reminded all over again how funny he could be.
Savage was that rare talent in wrestling. Technically skilled, daringly inventive, an immensely entertaining talker (even though he always sounded like his spandex was on too tight) and equally good as a heel and a hero. His larger than life personality led to other ventures outside wrestling like his famous Slim Jim ad campaign and my personal favourite, his awesome cameo as Bonesaw, Spider-Man’s first opponent in the overrated Spider-Man. (Interesting bit of trivia according to Wikipedia: In 1973, the year he started his career, Savage’s first gimmick was portraying a masked man named The Spider Friend. That was during his pale skin, pre-Steroid days.)
In later years, he seemed a bit too obsessed with his hatred of Hulk Hogan which led to, of all things, a rap album which I’ve never heard. According to this TMZ story, after nearly a decade of silence, they actually started talking again and became friendly, yet another reason to mourn his loss today.
I had the pleasure of seeing Savage wrestle in person numerous times at Copps Coliseum. He wrestled twice at the very first house show there on July 13, 1986. He lost the battle royal that ended the night which incidentally was won by the same guy he wrestled earlier in a non-title match, King Tonga. The Macho Man won that one by count-out.
In a match that was taped and included on one of those Best Of The WWF Coliseum Videos, he defended the Intercontinental title against “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, a December 1986 encounter I haven’t seen in more than 20 years. The only thing I recall is that they battle it out in the entranceway near the end.
The last time I saw him grapple was January 1989 when he defended the World Title against Bad News Brown. The following house show on March 5 was supposed to feature the two men in a steel cage but because Savage turned against Hogan, the match and the program were cancelled. My dad was so mad we never went to another WWF live event again.
Predeceased by his father, legendary heel Angelo Poffo (who died just two months ago), ex-wife Elizabeth (who died of a drug overdose in 2003) and survived by second wife, Barbara, and brother Lanny (AKA Leaping Lanny Poffo, The Genius), despite dying at a relatively young age, the flamboyant (and childless) Randy Poffo lived a full life.
And to think, what he really wanted to be was a baseball player. Funny how things work out when your first dream is a bust.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, May 20, 2011
CORRECTION: Savage actually did win his non-title match against King Tonga in his first Copps Coliseum appearance back in July 1986. I originally wrote that The Macho Man lost. The correction replaces the mistake in the original piece. I regret the error.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, May 21, 2011