In the mid-1980s, Hulk Hogan was the main man as the World Wrestling Federation soared into mainstream popularity. But after Hogan, the Worldwide Wrestling Federation's most valuable performer was probably Randy "Macho Man" Savage.
Wrestling is part athleticism, part salesmanship and part charisma, and Savage was the company's wrestler most adept at all three.
He learned his style from the legendary Gorgeous George: dressed in sparkling robes with dangling fringes, outrageous goggle sunglasses Elton John might envy and a bandana beneath a sequinned cowboy hat, Savage marched into arenas to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance, his manager, "the lovely Miss Elizabeth," dressed in an evening gown, holding the ring ropes apart. His interviews were unpredictable, dotted with bizarre non-sequiturs, delivered in a raspy baritone which seemed constantly running out of air, accompanied by gestures like a conductor leading his orchestra.
And he delivered in the ring. His unusual willingness to "sell" for opponents and his ability to be convincing as face (good guy) or heel (bad guy) made him particularly valuable. Wrestlemania is the WWF's annual showcase, and in 1987 at Wrestlemania III, Savage's loss to Ricky "the Dragon" Steamboat stole the show and remains legendary. But he was also able to carry wrestlers less talented than Steamboat, like Hogan or The Ultimate Warrior, to some of their best performances, letting them emerge winners.
Though he was a second-generation wrestler, Savage's boyhood dream was to play baseball. Born Randall Mario Poffo in 1952 in Columbus, Ohio, he was raised in Chicago, the hometown of his father Angelo, a successful professional wrestler.
When Angelo moved the family to Hawaii for a year, wrestling there and in Japan, Randy played baseball semi-professionally. He returned to Chicago to star in his last two years of high school, but when he was passed over in the amateur draft, his father drove him to St Louis, where the Cardinals were holding an open try-out. There were 300 players there, but Randy was the only one signed. He played four years in the low minor leagues before giving up, but by then he had already entered the family business in the off-season. His younger brother wrestled as Leaping Lanny Poffo (and later as "The Genius"), but Randy took the name Savage when one booker called Poffo unsuitable for someone who wrestled "like a savage".
Angelo Poffo started International Championship Wrestling to help push his sons; it was as a tag-team with his brother in the Memphis territory that Savage made his mark, and in 1985 he signed with the WWF then lost a "loser leaves town" match to Memphis's biggest star, Jerry "The King" Lawler. Within a year, Savage had won the WWF Intercontinental title from Tito Santana and introduced his wife, Elizabeth Hulette, as his manager.
Wrestlemania II saw the culmination of a feud with George "the Animal" Steele, who had a crush on Miss Elizabeth; Savage won when she distracted Steele as he was about to win the match. After losing to Steamboat, in a match the two wrestlers unusually choreographed from start to finish, rehearsing at Savage's house, Savage turned face and formed the Mega-Powers with Hogan. When Hulk lost the WWF title to Andre the Giant, Savage won it back by beating the Million Dollar Man at Wrestlemania IV. Savage turned heel again, feuding with Hogan over Elizabeth and losing the title to him at Wrestlemania V.
In the carny world of wrestling, reality shadows the scripts. After winning the King of the Ring tournament and rebranding himself the Macho King, Savage "reunited" with Elizabeth after losing to the Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania VII; the two met again at SummerSlam 1992, which drew more than 80,000 fans to Wembley Stadium. Meanwhile, although their actual marriage was under strain, Savage and Elizabeth "married" on WWF television, in a ceremony interrupted when Jake "The Snake" Roberts hid a cobra in the wedding cake. Feuding with Roberts, Savage allowed the de-fanged cobra to bite him, but the snake refused to release its grip on his arm.
They divorced within a year. Even so, Savage and Elizabeth remained together in the ring, leading to another classic Wrestlemania match where he defended her "honour" against "The Nature Boy", Ric Flair.
Although his popularity was boosted by his role as national pitchman for Slim Jims, a spiced meat snack, his role in WWF declined and in 1994 he jumped to WCW, reuniting with Hogan and Flair as the competition briefly eclipsed WWF. He won a 60-man battle royal to become WCW champion, then traded the belt in a year-long feud with Flair, bringing back Elizabeth as his manager, only to have her turn on him in the end.
He would win the title back and lose it to Hogan, by now billing himself as "Macho Madness", and accompanied by three women he called Team Madness. He left WCW in 2000, appearing in Sam Raimi's Spider Man (2002) as Bonesaw McGraw. He did a few other films and TV programmes, appearing in animated shows like King of the Hill. In 2003 he released a rap album, one of whose tracks slated Hogan. He returned to the ring in 2004 with Total Nonstop Action, but quit before the year ended.
Most wrestlers find retirement a gimmick that fuels comebacks, usually motivated by financial need, but Savage avoided a profligate lifestyle and managed his money well. A chance meeting with Barbara Lynn Payne, whom he had dated as a baseball player and called his first love, led to marriage in 2009. He died in Seminole, Florida, after an apparent heart attack caused him to drive into a tree. Payne survived with minor injuries.
Randall Mario Poffo (Randy Savage), wrestler: born Columbus, Ohio 15 November 1952; married firstly Elizabeth Hulette (marriage dissolved; died 2003), 2009 Barbara Lynn Payne (two stepdaughters); died Seminole, Florida 20 May 2011.
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