I was dining one evening with Ted DiBiase Sr. when I noticed that our waitress had a rather puzzled look on her face.
She approached DiBiase, the self-proclaimed “Million Dollar Man,” and said rather sheepishly, “I know you from somewhere.”
DiBiase just smiled, and before he could put down the tip, the waitress blurted out, “Now I remember! You’re the famous wrestler Macho Man Randy Savage!”
It then became obvious that although she wasn’t really a pro wrestling fan, the Macho Man was the one name she knew, although DiBiase had a pretty strong character of his own at the time.
And, like a typical wrestler, he worked the waitress.
“Oooh, yeah! Dig it!” he said, perfectly laying down the Macho Man’s signature catchphrase and signing Savage’s name on a paper napkin for the excited waitress.
That’s how well known Randy Savage was.
The Macho Man was a true original, a member of a rare breed in not only the wrestling business, but in the broader entertainment industry.
Savage, who died Friday at the age of 58, transcended pro wrestling. He was a household name whose wrestling exploits, Slim Jim commercials and over-the-top character became a part of pop culture. In recent years he starred in wrestling videogames, appeared in movies including “Spider Man” and produced a rap CD.
The son of former wrestling star Angelo Poffo, he came along at a time when territories were still in vogue, learning his craft the old-fashioned way and paying his dues every step of the journey. But by the mid-’80s, when the business exploded with the mainstream popularity of the World Wrestling Federation, Savage and his “Macho Man” gimmick was leading the charge along with frequent partner and opponent Hulk Hogan.
The two represented a new era of wrestling, and Savage’s colorful and eccentric personality resonated with an audience that not only included traditional wrestling fans, but also a following that now boasted pop culture celebrities who related to over-the-top characters like the Macho Man.
Savage had a swag and style that was ahead of its time.
“To me, he was one of the greatest ever,” said Dutch Mantel, who broke into the business with Savage during the ‘70s. “He was a good friend ... I loved Randy. There’ll never be another Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage.”
Mantel met Savage in Atlanta while working for Gunkel Promotions. At the time Savage was working as “The Spider.” The two met again in Nashville during the late ‘70s.
“We basically taught each other how to work,” says Mantel.
Savage had an unmistakable presence that combined speed, power and charisma.
“If you walked by a TV in a department store and wrestling was on and he was doing an interview, I don’t care who you were, you were going to stop,” says Mantel. “If you didn’t know better, you would have thought that this guy was messed up on drugs, and that he was nuts. And, in a lot of ways, he was nuts. But Randy was perfecting the Macho Man character.”
That character, says Mantel, was a natural evolution of Randy Poffo aka Randy Savage.
“When you talked to Macho, you wouldn’t be talking to Randy, and you would know that because Randy was hidden behind all those layers of Macho. And sometimes you’d have to ask yourself if there ever was a Randy there. Even his voice changed.”
Savage, known for his raspy voice, sunglasses, bandanas and colorful outfits, would make the catch phrase “Oooh, yeah” part of pro wrestling vernacular.
“He did it so much that his voice changed naturally,” says Mantel. “He trained his voice to do the Macho Man interviews. I used to say that Randy only had to do half an interview. He repeated everything twice. But he was very good.”
There was, however, another side to Savage. He was overly protective and notoriously frugal despite making millions in the business.
He constantly lived in paranoia, particularly regarding former wife Liz Hulette, who appeared with Savage as the lovely Miss Elizabeth.
For storyline purposes, he portrayed a jealous lover who assaulted anyone who came near Liz, his manager (and wife).
The role, though, was eerily similar to real life.
Billed as “The First Lady of Wrestling,” the brown-haired beauty took part in one of televised wrestling’s magical moments when she exchanged vows with Savage in a highly publicized ceremony at the 1991 Summer Slam pay-per-view. In reality, the two already had been married for several years, and by this time their real-life union was falling apart. The two subsequently ended their eight-year marriage in 1992.
“Randy thought everyone conspired against him,” said Mantel. “He thought people were lurking behind every bush, every tree, just read to pounce on him. But he took it to another level. I think he may have suffered from a little hyperactivity.”
Sixteen-time world heavyweight champion Ric Flair, who helped break Savage into the business, witnessed Savage’s trials and tribulations firsthand.
“I was there when all of that stuff between Randy and Liz was going down. Randy spent many years being upset about Liz.”
“I guess I’m not very surprised by the heart attack,” added Flair. “We all deal with stress in different ways.”
“He was jealous of Liz even when they first got together,” says Mantel. “I remember them before they got married. I don’t know that it was so much a matter of jealousy ... I think he was just very protective. Later on it might have morphed into jealousy, but he was overly protective of Liz at all times. And I consider that more of a virtue than anything else. I think it was his execution more than his intent that got misconstrued.”
“If you can misconstrue barricading somebody else in the house,” adds Mantel. “I don’t know that you can misconstrue that.”
There was also a very public split with Hogan.
Until a recent reconciliation, the two longtime partners and rivals hadn’t spoken for much of the last decade.
“I feel horrible about the 10 years of having no communication. This was a tough one,” Hogan tweeted. “He had so much life in his eyes and in his spirit. I just pray that he’s happy and in a better place, and we miss him. I’m completely devastated, after over 10 years of not talking with Randy, we’ve finally started to talk and communicate.”
His marriage last year to longtime friend Lynn Payne seemed to indicate a more peaceful and relaxed time of life for Savage. The two had first dated when Savage was playing baseball in Sarasota, Fla., and she was studying at the Ringling School of Art and Design.
“I was happy for Randy because it seems that he had finally found happiness again after all those years,” says Flair.
Most in the business will remember the good times.
“Wrestling Randy at the first Wrestlemania I was ever at was huge for me,” says Flair. “I have a lot of great memories of Randy. I loved being around him socially.”
“I loved Randy,” says Mantel. “Not only as a person, but he was tremendous in the ring. He was never lazy. If you couldn’t hang on to him, he’d beat the crap out of you. When he went to that ring, he damn sure went to it for one reason. He was Macho Man, and he was going to entertain those fans. I never saw him have a bad match.”
Savage’s exclusion from the WWE Hall of Fame, due to a severed relationship with WWE owner Vince McMahon, has been a controversial topic among fans for years.
“It’s a shame he never made the (WWE) Hall of Fame,” says Mantel. “He should have been in there 10 years ago as a first-ballot selection. But they’ll surely put him in now.”
“To me he was one of the best ever,” adds Mantel. “I don’t think there will ever be another Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage. That came naturally to him, and I don’t think today’s creative teams could ever create another character like him. They’d be afraid of that type character today. Randy invented his gimmick. He knew what he wanted to do and he went and did it.”
Savage also enjoyed a baseball career before turning to the wrestling game.
A two-time All-State catcher at Downers Grove North High School in Illinois, Savage played minor league baseball in the Florida State League in the early ‘70s for the St. Louis Cardinals organization at St. Petersburg where he was a teammate of future pro standout Keith Hernandez.
Savage was 18 years old when he was signed fresh out of high school by the Cards in 1971 and was sent to the Sarasota Cardinals of the Gulf Coast League. He hit .286 in the rookie league and was invited back the following year, when he proceeded to make the GCL All-Star team as an outfielder. But he was no defensive whiz, and though he hit .344 in 25 games in 1973 as one of the first minor-league designated hitters for another Cardinals GCL club, the Sarasota Red Birds, when he was given a promotion to Class A Orangeburg of the Western Carolinas League, he hit just .250 with little power.
But he did learn something valuable in Orangeburg under the tutelage of the legendary Jimmy Piersall. It was the brash, high-strung Piersall, Savage would later claim, who taught him “how to be aggressive and fight.”
He played the 1974 season with the Cincinnati Reds-affiliated Tampa team in the Florida State League, batting .232 with nine home runs, 19 doubles, six triples and 66 RBI. The Reds released Savage after one season. He was prepared to pay his own expenses to an Arizona tryout for the San Francisco Giants when the Chicago White Sox contacted him about earning a spot with one of their Class-A teams.
Savage converted to throwing left-handed because of arm injuries and moved to first base, but failed to make it with the White Sox.
Randy Poffo’s career an as athlete, however, would be far from finished.
“He kept everybody (on the team) loose,” said former Detroit Tigers star Larry Herndon, who played minor league ball with Savage. “He was always having fun.”
“I have memories of him as a great teammate and a great man,” Herndon told ESPN. “He was a pure-hearted individual. He really cared a lot about others ... He was a man who really loved life and loved people.”
Savage waxed philosophical in a 2004 interview.
“Being a wrestler is like walking on the treadmill of life. You get off it and it just keeps going.”
One thing’s for sure,” said Mantel. “Nobody’s ever going to forget him, because his personality was so huge that he’ll live forever.”
-- Underground Wrestling Organization will hold a show 7-9:30 p.m. May 28 at Palmetto Bar & Grill, 113 Santee Lane, Walterboro.
Top bouts include Perfection Selection vs L.A. RaZa; a seven-man May Day Rumble; Los Diablos vs. Gimmick Infringement; and Sterling Silverman defending the UWO heavyweight title against D. Lee and Asylum.