A&E’s latest “WWE Biography” special on “Macho Man” Randy Savage provided an in-depth look at one of pro wrestling’s most colorful and charismatic characters.
Savage’s story is a complex one of an athlete driven to succeed in a profession that is no stranger to tragedy. And in true Shakespearean fashion, just as he seemingly defeats his demons and finds a new life outside of wrestling, he dies of a heart attack at the age of 58, suffered while driving his Jeep Wrangler, leaping a concrete median, veering into oncoming traffic and smashing into a tree head on.
If a death could be scripted like a wrestling angle, that’s probably how Randy Savage would have played it.
Longtime friend and colleague “Big Sexy” Kevin Nash perhaps summed it up best.
“There are so many of these guys who were so tormented, then you hear that they died — it’s like the life of a kamikaze pilot.”
While Savage’s life outside the ring was far from perfect, his drive for excellence inside the ring was never more evident than his Wrestlemania classic with Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat in 1987. The 14-minute match is considered one of the greatest in the event’s storied history.
While the main attraction for the mega-event was promoted as a colossal showdown between Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant, it was Savage and Steamboat who stole the show in front of a reported 93,000 fans at the Pontiac Silverdome.
Savage meticulously laid out the entire match with Steamboat from A-Z, mapping out 160 different steps in the bout on a yellow legal pad and going over every one of them with his opponent on multiple occasions. The match went off exactly as the two had planned.
“I have never, ever met a performer that was a stickler to critical moments and moves as they fit. Savage was a perfectionist,” recalled Steamboat.
“That was the greatest match I’ve ever seen in my life,” said former Minnesota governor and WWE Hall of Famer Jesse Ventura. “It was as perfect as you would ever get for a match.”
“There was nothing like the rush from the crowd after taking the fans on a ride of 20 false finishes. The sound was deafening,” said Steamboat.
There would be another side to Randy Savage’s life, though, one not as easy to lay out as a picture-perfect wrestling match.
“Randy had one-way heat with everybody. It was one-sided heat,” friend and rival Hogan once said. “Randy was a great person, great performer and one of my best friends of all time. But he had one-way heat with everybody.”
Ahead of his time
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 was a household name whose wrestling exploits, Slim Jim commercials and over-the-top character became a part of pop culture. In later years he had 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.
“He was different. He wasn’t like everyone else,” said longtime manager Jimmy Hart.
“To me, he was one of the greatest ever,” said Dutch Mantel, who broke into the business with Savage during the 1970s. “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,” said 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,” said 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.”
He developed that persona, but he brought it into real life.
“He started using that personality in real life,” said brother Lanny Poffo.
“I made more money working with Randy than anyone else because he was such a professional,” said Hogan. “And he was actually the same way out of the ring as he was in the ring, with the voice and the attitude. He lived Macho Man. He didn’t bring the character – that was him.
That character, says Mantel, was a natural evolution of Randy Poffo to 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 gravelly 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,” said 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.”
Life imitates art
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. Shy, quiet and elegant, the two had met when Hulette worked as an announcer for the Kentucky-based International Championship Wrestling promotion run by Savage’s father, a veteran wrestler who held the distinction of breaking the world sit-up record (more than 6,000 in just over four hours) while serving in the U.S. Navy in 1945.
For storyline purposes, Savage portrayed a jealous, obsessive lover who assaulted anyone who came near Liz, his manager (and wife).
The role, though, was eerily similar to real life.
“He loved her very much, and she loved him,” said manager Jimmy Hart. “But I told Randy once that there was never a chance for anybody to hit on Liz because you’ve got her locked up all the time. I’m serious.”
Hart also related a story about Savage, prior to leaving on a one-week road trip, leaving Liz 21 frozen TV dinners (three meals per day), ensuring that she would be home each day he was gone.
“She’d have to be Houdini to get away from him,” said Hart.
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 had been married for several years, and by this time their real-life union was falling apart. They 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 ready to pounce on him. But he took it to another level. I think he may have suffered from a little hyperactivity.”
“Honestly, Randy was the most jealous man I had ever met, and it created a real problem,” echoed the late George “The Animal” Steele. “Every night it was something different. Randy’s jealousy was driving him crazy. There were times when he would lock her in the dressing room. Randy was always screaming at somebody.”
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,” said 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,” added Mantel. “I don’t know that you can misconstrue that.”
Liz, who went on to work for rival WCW, ended up tragically dying from an accidental drug overdose in 2003.
There was also a very public split with Hogan.
Until a reconciliation prior to Savage’s death, the two longtime partners and rivals hadn’t spoken for much of the previous decade.
“I feel horrible about the 10 years of having no communication. This was a tough one,” Hogan said shortly after Savage’s passing. “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.”
“If I had never been able to meet with Randy one last time before he passed away, it would have probably been something that would have haunted me,” Hogan said on the A&E bio. “I don’t think I could have really rationalized it if I had never seen him again.”
His marriage 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.
They got married at Lido Beach in Sarasota on May 10, 2010, two decades after they first met on that same beach.
“I feel so fortunate that I had a second chance to marry my first love, here where it all began,” he said after the wedding.
Enjoying a private life in Florida, in a home surrounded by security fences and patrolled by guard dogs, the two hid from the spotlight. Living the life of a recluse was foreign to Savage, but for once he seemed to embrace it, letting his beard grow out white and looking older than his 58 years, but wiser, than the “Macho Man” character who sped through life with reckless abandon.
He had finally been able to walk away from wrestling.
“Randy, getting back with his high school sweetheart who had never been around the wrestling business ever … she wasn’t jaded. I think when he unplugged from this crazy business, he fell back into a really beautiful place that was probably before he ever wrestled,” said Hogan.
“I was happy for Randy because it seems that he had finally found happiness again after all those years,” said Flair.
The two had just celebrated their one-year anniversary when, on the morning of May 20, 2011, Savage was driving in his 2009 Jeep Wrangler on the highway with his wife when he said to her, “I think I’m going to pass out,” according to reports.
Savage then lost consciousness but Lynn was able to steer the vehicle to avoid other vehicles, hitting a tree, but the “the impact was so slight that the airbags didn’t activate,” reports said. Savage was pronounced dead at Largo Medical Center. It wasn’t the crash that killed him, rather “a heart attack from ventricular fibrillation.” Fortunately his wife suffered only minor injuries in the accident.
Invented his gimmick
Most in the business will remember the good times.
“Wrestling Randy at the first Wrestlemania I was ever at was huge for me,” said Flair. “I have a lot of great memories of Randy. I loved being around him socially.”
“I loved Randy,” said 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, had been a controversial topic among fans for years. It wasn’t until four years after his death that he was inducted posthumously.
His old friend and rival Hogan did the honors and related how Savage’s off-the-charts intensity made him a better performer and better man.
“Randy would always push you way beyond and take you to a place where you weren’t even ready to go. He was that intense. He created that much energy around you. He just made you better at everything you did.”
“He should have been in there as a first-ballot selection,” said Mantel. “To me he was one of the best ever. 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.”
In a lesser known fact, Savage had been a generous supporter of charitable causes. For several years every holiday season, he visited All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg to deliver gifts to patients and participated in the George Steinbrenner Children's Holiday Concert for underprivileged kids of Tampa. He also served as a celebrity judge in a fundraiser benefiting Art for Autism.
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.”
Savage, then known as Randy Poffo, also enjoyed a baseball career before turning to the wrestling game.
It was only after a failed attempt at a major league career that Savage forged his own unique personality in the wrestling business.
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 out of high school by the Cardinals in 1971 and was sent to Sarasota 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.
“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.”
Like everything else in his life, Savage approached baseball with a fierce intensity, but when he was released for the last time, he drove several hundred miles home, took his bats out of his bag, and pounded them against a tree until they were shattered.
While his baseball dreams may have been shattered, Savage’s drive to succeed would be unrelenting. And his career as an athlete would be far from finished.
Reach Mike Mooneyham at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham. His latest book — “Final Bell” — is now available at https://evepostbooks.com and on Amazon.com
Did you know …
Chad Fortune defeating Bill Goldberg in a singles match? Yes, it’s true. During their WCW runs before Goldberg caught the imagination of fans with his long winning streak, Fortune got the victory at a TBS Saturday Night show in a match that was not taped for broadcast.
A couple of years earlier, Fortune wrestled as “Travis,” one half of Tekno Team 2000 in the WWF with his former teammate from the University of Louisville – Erik Watts. After his break from WCW in the late 1990s, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Fortune became a fixture in a different sports entertainment venture – the Monster Truck driving circuit – for the better part of two decades.
– Kenneth Mihalik
Blast from the Past
Born Chris Pallies and trained for a ring career in his native New Jersey, the massive King Kong Bundy had a variety of aliases in the early 1980s. He worked as Chris Cannon, Chris Canyon, Big Daddy Bundy and Boom Bundy before settling in under his best known identity.
His first meaningful break came in Dallas for promoter Fritz Von Erich. He was initially allied with the fan favorite Von Erich family before manager Gary Hart took over as mentor, pairing him with the Great Kabuki. In 1983, Bundy moved on to the Mid-South region and occupied a key role as a rule-breaking force. After tussles with Art Crews and Tim Horner, he moved on to marquee battles against Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Junkyard Dog. Next came Memphis, and the requisite program versus Jerry Lawler as a member of a faction led by manager Jimmy Hart. A brief run followed in the AWA, where Bundy was cheered with Jerry Blackwell as his partner.
The major development in Bundy’s wrestling tenure occurred when the WWF viewed him as a major title challenger for Hulk Hogan. He had a dominating performance in the first Wrestlemania, defeating SD Jones in a matter of seconds. That finish was part of a year-long buildup for the main event at Wrestlemania II against Hogan though the two met in championship matches along the way. Bundy’s gimmick at the time was to insist on a five-count instead of the customary three-count when pinning opponents as a tactic to display atypical power. However, Hogan won the Wrestlemania II showdown in a cage match. Bundy, part of Bobby Heenan’s “family” of mat villains, then teamed with Big John Studd to wreak havoc against an assortment of new foes. But, at Wrestlemania III, Bundy’s fortunes changed again, and not for the better.
While Hogan tangled with Andre The Giant in front of the enormous crowd at the Silverdome in Michigan, Bundy was booked in a six-man special comic attraction tag contest where four of the participants were midget wrestlers. During the action, Bundy slammed legendary mini-performer Little Beaver, and dropped an elbow on him, earning a disqualification. After this incident, either intentionally or by coincidence, Bundy was phased down and won only infrequently. By 1988, he embarked on an unusually lengthy hiatus from the business to act in a variety of films and TV shows. It was a longer separation from the industry than one would have expected. Bundy did not make a full-fledged return to WWF action until 1994, as one of recurring associate Ted DiBiase’s stable of big baddies. After initial successes versus Doink The Clown and Mabel, Bundy ran afoul of a new generation of the promotion’s faces – Diesel, The Undertaker and Adam Bomb, and that meant losing many matchups. By late 1995, his run with the company was over.
The parting featured its share of rancor. Bundy maintained that promises were made to him but never fulfilled. Unfortunately, grudges were not resolved before Bundy’s death at age 63 in 2019. It was a sad climax for one of the biggest, literally and figuratively, stars during a popular heyday for the industry.
– Kenneth Mihalik