June 25, 1984: We're in Memphis, and the hugely popular Rock 'n' Roll Express are brawling with the dastardly Poffo clan — Randy (ne Poffo) Savage, Lanny Poffo, and their ever-present father, old-school great Angelo Poffo. The melee spills outside the ring and immediately turns frenzied. Event security swarm the wrestlers with postures that suggest they're not quite as in on the staging of this match as you might expect. There are cameramen and announcers adding to the mangle of bodies, and audience members stand only inches away, visibly nervous. The three villains get the better of Rocker Ricky Morton, whose legacy is that of opponents getting the better of him. Morton is thrown on top of the nearby announcers table, whereupon Savage picks him up and piledrives him through the table and onto the floor.
The crowd on hand is aghast. People throw up their arms in exasperation and dismay. A woman positioned immediately beside the table recoils and covers her mouth with both hands. But then, in the lower right of the screen, 10 or 15 feet from ground zero, three men begin high-fiving each other. The most unassailable of babyface stars is driven head-first through a table by a maniacal loon who has been antagonizing the Memphis fans for months, and these men are cheering. This isn't the way we are supposed to react.
Even as a young wrestling fan, I understood Savage's appeal. I never much caught onto the Rock 'n' Roll Express fad, and there was something strangely magnetic about Savage, the wild-eyed brawler who had been stealing airtime (and stealing the show) from Jerry Lawler and his average-Joe cohort over the preceding months. But actually cheering for him seemed out of the question. It just wasn't done. This is not to say that wrestling fans of that era were rubes, but rather that they played their traditional role in the wrestling construct with little deviation: You cheered for the heroes and booed at the villains and whooped at the pretty ladies. Randy Savage turned this convention on its head and, you might say, dropped it through a table. He was engaging even at his most reprehensible, which had everything to do with the unexpected note of pathos in his character, an oddly relatable paranoid streak: We the viewers were suspicious, too. Just like Savage, we looked slit-eyed at all the activity in and around the ring, wondering what the angle was.
Savage and the Poffos had been hopscotching around the country since Angelo had closed down his own territory in the Midwest to get his sons — Randy in particular — more national exposure. When they settled in Memphis, the clan was immediately a major player; Savage called out Lawler, the area's biggest star, in his first on-screen appearance. (In his mod leather jacket and fedora, he was dressed more as a '70s movie badguy than a pro wrestling badass.) After their feud with the Rock 'n' Roll Express cooled off, Savage found himself in Lawler's good graces, and the pair went up against the monstrous duo of King Kong Bundy and "Ravishing" Rick Rude. The Savage that emerged during this period was a minor revelation, as he maintained the derangement of his heel persona while embracing a sort of glam eccentricity: the first real indication of the superstar we would come to know.
As such things go, Savage soon re-embraced the darkside and reignited his rivalry with Lawler. The feud became violent and heated, but Lawler's supremacy in the region was never really in doubt, and after Savage lost a rugged steel cage match between the two that was conducted under "Loser Leaves Town" rules, Savage was sent packing.
He soon reemerged on WWF television, presented as the top free agent in wrestling. All of the top managers of the day courted Savage — "The Macho Man," as he was now commonly known — to offer their services. Savage eventually gathered the cadre of baddy mentors into the ring and sincerely — and hilariously — thanked them one by one for "for their consideration" and for the knowledge they had imparted during the selection process ("Mr. Fu-ji, the devious ways that you put in my mind will come to use"), before rebuffing them all in favor of Miss Elizabeth, Savage's real-life partner and a newcomer to the WWF universe.
The couple's act was an inversion of the usual wrestler-manager relationship. Rather than leading the charge to the ring and cunningly helping him in his matches, Elizabeth was a fully passive bystander, occasionally clapping and sincerely wincing in reaction to pain inflicted upon Savage. And rather than letting Elizabeth do his talking for him in interviews, Savage issued mindbending soliloquies with Elizabeth more often than not offscreen, until he deemed her presence necessary and he dragged her into view, bullying her into confirming his greatness.
Savage had been an incredible talker from his earliest days in the business — first as a warbling, Mankind-style ecstatic and later as a frenzied, bloodthirsty psycho — but his move to the WWF truly allowed his style to flourish. For the audience, the consummation during this period of the Savage interview style was revelatory. Chaotic in flavor and punctuated liberally with his signature "Oooh, yeah", his interviews sometimes involved more digression than substance, as he held forth in metaphor-heavy diatribes on matters of violence, current events, and tough-guy hierarchy — much to the dismayed bewilderment of ever-present straightman "Mean" Gene Okerlund — with only a passing regard for the specific rivalry at hand. It was the wrestling promo as scripted by David Foster Wallace — main text in a high-volume snarl, footnotes in a lupine, maniacal whisper. His oratorical style was a mesmerizing experiment in free associative thought.
Savage's first noteworthy feud was with with Intercontinental champion Tito Santana, and he finally wrested the belt from Santana in February 1986 with the aid of an illegal loaded punch. He soon thereafter became embroiled in an oddball love triangle with burly dimwit George "The Animal" Steele, who had developed a crush on Elizabeth (who seemed too kindhearted to reject him outright). Though the storyline was farcical, Savage's exorbitant jealousy was at least in some part a reference to reality; Savage's real-life paranoia and protectiveness, especially in regards to Elizabeth, was well-documented. Hulk Hogan has said that Savage would make Elizabeth keep her gaze fixed on the ground backstage at wrestling events so she wouldn't make eye contact with any of the other guys, and it's widely reported that he locked their home from the outside when he left, sometimes leaving her inside for days at a time.
Odd as this may be, it's important to note that there was minimal distinction between Randy Savage the wrestling personality and Randy Poffo the real guy. To the extent that other wrestlers knew him personally, Savage was said to be the same person outside the ring as inside, sometimes to a fault. (Dutch Mantel said that he trained his voice to be the Macho Man voice — there was no put-on there either.) But in terms of his on-screen persona, his personal eccentricity was rendered as maniacal psychopathy, and it found a suitable venue in the WWF ring, which was even more an "arena for angry minds" (in Richard Hofstadter's phrase) than the political realm. The "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy" of the average Savage interview functionally defined the paranoid style in American pro wrestling. He was McCarthy on steroids.
The Macho Man's emotional imbalance was paralleled in his punishing in-ring style. While not exactly a physical beast, Savage was convincingly destructive in the ring, the most famous example of which probably comes from his 1987 conflict with Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat. Savage notoriously attacked Steamboat, shoving his neck down onto the ringside railing and then jumping off the top rope with the ringbell and driving it onto Steamboat's throat, purportedly crushing his larynx. After a period of recuperation — where Steamboat had to re-learn how to speak to the guffaws of the WWF home viewer — the two men met at WrestleMania III in a match that defined both careers. Any discussion of the legacy of the Macho Man wuld be incomplete without this match. The show was headlined by the epic clash between Hulk Hogan and André the Giant, but the 15-minute brawl for the Intercontinental title stole the show.
Between his in-ring performance and his manic, oddly beguiling personality, it was probably inevitable that Savage would be tapped for what's known in the parlance as a face turn — a bad guy going good. He got into a dispute with then-IC champ The Honky Tonk Man (for the uninitiated, imagine a wrestling Elvis crossed with, um, a wrestling Elvis), and when Honky's stablemates The Hart Foundation aided him in beating Savage down after a match, Elizabeth procured help in the form of Hulk Hogan. The two men did away with their foes and momentously shook hands. The Macho Man's transformation into good guy was complete.
Savage's transition to the side of right was seamless. The chief signifier in his conversion was that he started treating Elizabeth more politely. It should be said that pro wrestling is not a world opposed to misogyny; degradation and abuse of female characters, both mental and physical, is common enough. But wrestling is also a world that leans heavily on more timeless tropes, and Big Bully Degrading His Girlfriend was chief among these: We booed him chiefly because we were supposed to. We knew our cues. But even if Savage's actions were detestable, wrestling fans were drawn to the character at the core of the Macho Man, just as some women are drawn into unhealthy relationships with bad boys. Part of it was that we could sympathize with Savage's, well, savagery, with its thoroughly human mix of paranoia and chauvinism that distended cartoonishly enough to let us maintain some ironic distance. And certainly, we were looking for a hint of the man he would become as a good guy.
His association with Hogan established — the pair would some to be known as the Mega Powers — Savage began a yearlong period as Hogan's running buddy, and so began a decade of living securely in Hogan's shadow. Even at WrestleMania IV, when Savage won a 14-man tournament for the vacant WWF Championship — a moment which could have signaled a new era for a federation that had long relied too heavily on Hogan's singular charisma and for a fanbase that had seen every iteration of the Hogan in-ring comeback — Savage secured the final win only with Hogan's (illegal) assistance, and the two men celebrated together after the match. (Hogan and André had fought to a double-disqualification in the tournament quarterfinals, eliminating them both from contention.) It seemed as much a victory for the broader cause of Hulkamania as for Savage.
Savage the Good Guy was always seemingly presented as a sort of Hogan Junior — he was slightly smaller, significantly less epic, somewhat less bald — and the constant physical juxtaposition to Hogan didn't help change this perception. The majority of Savage's title reign saw him feuding with mid-tier pseudoluminaries — Bad News Brown, anyone? — while the real main event treatment went to Savage's tag-team undertakings alongside Hogan. They battled against DiBiase and André and later the porcine duo of Akeem (formerly the One Man Gang) and the Big Bossman.
In a match against the latter pair, the soap operatic underpinnings of the Savage-Elizabeth relationship returned to the fore. When Savage was thrown outside the ring and onto Elizabeth, Hogan carried an injured Elizabeth to the back, abandoning Savage to the punishment of the Twin Towers. Upon the Hulkster's return, Savage was apoplectic, and he assaulted Hogan backstage after the match, igniting a feud that built towards a WrestleMania V collision wherein Hogan reclaimed the belt from Savage.
I'll note that the motivations at play in this storyline always seemed a few degrees off; Hogan's actions were presented as valiant and Savage's reactions to them unreasonable, but in part because Hogan was little more than statuary, personality-wise, and because Savage came across as so deeply human (if unbalanced), their dispute never came off as cut-and-dried as one would assume that the WWF writers intended. As with Savage's earlier abusive tendencies, there were well-defined tropes at play here, and so we treated the Macho Man as the villain, but in retrospect it's hard to endorse Hogan's as the side for good here. Hofstadter could have been looking at Hogan through Savage's eyes when he wrote that "the enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman." Little wonder Savage was so paranoid.
As a face and a heel, Savage saw wrestling the way so many of us viewers did. He saw that every wrestler had an ulterior motive, that everyone was out for himself — that conspiracy theory was the only reasonable lens through which to perceive WWF reality. He was a canny viewer, sussing out all the angles. His paranoia was ours. (Conspiracy theory has played a fairly significant role in Savage's post-wrestling life, interestingly. There's a widespread internet rumor that Savage deflowered a teenage Stephanie McMahon in the early '90s, and that accounts for his estrangement from the WWE since his departure. It's a compelling story, but it's been met with astonishment from less internet-savvy figures like Hogan and tired shrugs from more plugged-in figures like Jim Ross; it seems just as likely that Savage's reclusiveness kept him remote enough from McMahon and the WWE to preclude a full-fledged reconciliation. And the WWE did work with Savage on a DVD collection and on a recent video game.)
Regardless, Hogan was the good guy and now he was back atop the mountain. Savage was left to redefine himself in a jumble of upper-midcard villains. After dispatching the lukewarm Hacksaw Jim Duggan, who was holding the WWF's "kingship," a tertiary honorific that usually demanded that the "king" at any given time wear a crown and robe, often to comical effect, Savage embraced the regality in his singularly lunatic manner, redubbing himself the "Macho King" and integrating a crown and scepter into his increasingly eclectic wardrobe — neon colors, faux-leather, oversized sunglasses, and shirts heavy on the tassels. (It was, to be honest, a borderline iconic look.) Elizabeth disappeared and was replaced with the Sensational Sherri — sort of the anti-Elizabeth, an oversexualized, mascara-smeared freakshow.
Speaking of painted-up oddballs, it wasn't long before Savage crossed paths with the up-and-comer who would take his place as the failed heir apparent to Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior. When Warrior and then-champion Sgt. Slaughter were scheduled to meet up at Royal Rumble 1991, Slaughter promised Savage that he would be his first competition after the Rumble, should he retain the title. When Savage tried and failed to exact the same guarantee from the Warrior, the Warrior equivocated and Savage went apoplectic, attacking him before the Rumble match. (Again, his reaction here may have been unwarranted, but his motivation seemed oddly justifiable for a man being portrayed as the heel.)
Warrior and Savage finally faced off at WrestleMania VII, where both men put their careers on the line. Savage lost, putting him into "retirement" (that word in the world of wrestling is exactly as binding as it is in present-day boxing), but he won a greater victory that night: After his loss, Sherri came into the ring and berated him, but, serendipitously, Elizabeth reappeared and dispatched her insufferable rival. The crowd loved it: Through no action of his own, Savage had been reverted to a fan favorite. All it took was the abiding love of his old squeeze.
His period of retirement saw Savage working as a color commentator. He eventually proposed to Elizabeth on air, and they scheduled their nuptials for Summer Slam 1991. (It was billed, rather brilliantly, as the "Match Made in Heaven.") It's unclear what the planned payoff for the wedding angle was, but reality intervened and scuttled those plans. When Vince McMahon fired the Ultimate Warrior prior to Summer Slam, Savage was called back into active duty to fill his slot as the No. 2 babyface. He entered into a feud with Jake "The Snake" Roberts and his buddy the Undertaker when the two crashed Macho and Liz's wedding reception with a giftwrapped cobra as their wedding present. (It's often forgotten that Roberts's beef with Savage stemmed from the fact that he was not allowed to attend the Macho Man's bachelor party. Seriously.) After Roberts loosed a real (but, in reality, de-venomized) cobra on Savage in an in-ring confrontation, the WWF reinstated Savage so that he could formally deal with Roberts. He did.
Savage soon found himself tied up with Ric Flair, who had migrated from the NWA/WCW to try his hand at WWF stardom. In a notorious angle that presaged the contemporary era of the celebrity sex tape and that scandalized tweens the country over, Flair claimed to have "known" Liz before Savage had met her, and he had the photos to prove it. Macho, crazed with jealousy even as a good guy, battled Flair nominally to defend Elizabeth's honor, but more realistically to defend his own lunatic ego. The payoff to the feud, in which it emerged that Flair had swiped pictures of Savage and Liz together and photoshopped himself into them, was about as weird an ending as one could imagine. Even as a youth, I couldn't help but ask how Savage hadn't recognized Liz from the photos in his own album. But looking for logic was a mug's game. The Macho Man's jealousy belonged more to the realm of paranoia than that of observable reality. We cheered when he overcame the libelous Flair threat — and re-won the heavyweight title — but there were plain symptoms that the Macho Man was going off the deep end.
It was roughly during this period that Savage began a memorable stint as the spokesman for Slim Jim beef jerky and solidified a place for himself in pop culture history. Despite that newfound notoriety, the remainder of his WWF tenure was unspectacular. He teamed up with the returning Ultimate Warrior and later split his time between announcing and feuding with the lesser lights of the WWF's baddy cavalry. He left the WWF in 1994 when it became clear they wanted him to transition into a permanent commentator's role, and Savage thought his wrestling career should continue. (Vince McMahon, notoriously silent about business matters, wished Macho a sincere farewell on the first broadcast without him.)
Savage surfaced soon thereafter in WCW, where Hogan had previously migrated. Their notoriously tumultuous relationship was at the core of his reappearance — in interviews, Savage had ominously promised of the Hulkster that he would "either shake his hand or slap his face." He was so unhinged — as evinced by his numerous turns over the preceding years, and by the pained efforts to make each turn more compelling than the last — that either option was viable. There was something poignant about this. His intentions were unreadable, and he now became opaque to the public that once so thoroughly understood him. In the end, it may have been impossible to import a star of Savage's wattage as a villain, as the crowd would be likely to cheer his arrival regardless, but it was nevertheless a letdown when he returned to save Hogan from a beatdown by the milquetoast demonic "Faces of Fear" stable. The crowd roared, but Savage was immediately sublimated once again to the Hogan mystique.
As Hogan wrestled as a special attraction, mostly away from the championship picture, Savage won the belt in a battle royal and then renewed his rivalry with Ric Flair, who was back in WCW, and won the heavyweight championship, as the two swapped the belt back and forth.
Then came the nWo, where Hogan turned to the darkside for the first time in his mainstream career — he joined in on a beating of Savage to signal his reversal, and in constructing a new malevolent self took on a good bit of the arch Savage persona. Savage dropped the title to Hogan and before long joined up with the nWo himself, and split off with several others to form the nWo Wolfpac, and, well, the less said here is probably better. (Head writer Vince Russo unintentionally took the notion of non-linear storytelling and free association to new heights of inanity.) Savage maintained a credible level of celebrity during this period, despite the zaniness of WCW booking, but soon he came to embody the midlife crisis that seemed to run through the bulk of WCW storytelling. He was suddenly overmuscled and his hair was slicked back and dyed a darker shade of black, and, echoing and one-upping his association with Elizabeth, he was accompanied at all times by a trio of blonde beauties: his real-life porn-star-esque girlfriend Gorgeous George, female wrestler Medusa, and another wrestler in a ball gown and sash who went by "Miss Madness." (She would eventually reach slightly greater fame as the WWE's Molly Holly.)
Soon, though, WCW was near collapse and Savage's career was more or less over. He made brief run in TNA wrestling, but afterward he retired into a seemingly complacent post-wrestling existence: He let his beard grow white. He put on weight. He avoided the life of autograph signings and high-school-gym appearances that befall so many others of his ilk. He married a longtime friend and settled into a fairly normal, if reclusive, lifestyle. Perhaps he was occasionally guilty of indulging in anti-Hogan conspiracy-mongering in interviews, but even that had stopped in recent years. For all outward appearances, Savage was the pro wrestling retirement success story. If we wrestling fans are inured to the notion of our childhood heroes dying prematurely, we were nonetheless optimistic that someone like Savage would be the exception.
Sadly he wouldn't be. In an interview just after Savage died, Ric Flair paints Savage as a flawless performer but a man unable to ever get comfortable. And here is the marvel of Randy Savage: he was driven to greatness by the same paranoia that kept him from fully enjoying the fame that he accrued. Or to put it another way: The paranoia that made him so affecting in the ring was exactly what kept him from being relatable beyond the ropes. Hofstadter's famous piece ends with the judgment, "We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well." Since he died on Friday, comments sections and message boards have become saturated with tributes and eulogies to a guy who played the heel for the bulk of his career. But he was more than a bad guy, or a good guy: Savage gave himself over to us more fully than any other performer of his generation, and we always appreciated him for it.
Farewell, Macho Man. You knew exactly what we were thinking.