Savage a wrestling legend in ring and out
Randy “Macho Man” Savage, a pro wrestling icon whose fame reached far past the wrestling ring as a television pitchman with the phrase, “Snap into a Slim Jim, oooh yeah,” died on Friday morning in Pinellas County, Fla., after reportedly suffering a heart attack while driving, leading to an auto accident.
Savage, born Randall Mario Poffo, was 58. While perhaps best known for his pro wrestling battles as Hulk Hogan’s major storyline rival in the late 1980s, Savage was also an actor and a one-time major league baseball prospect.
Lanny Poffo, his brother and also a former pro wrestler under the handle “Leaping” Lanny Poffo, told TMZ.com that Savage suffered a heart attack behind the wheel while driving a 2009 Jeep Wrangler.
The Seminole fire department responded to the scene to provide medical care, and he was transported to Largo Memorial Hospital, where he died at 9:25 a.m. The incident remains under investigation and an autopsy will be performed over the weekend.
Savage’s wife, Barbara Lynn Poffo, who he had known from his days as a minor league baseball player in Florida, long before he met his famous first wife, Elizabeth Hulette, was also in the car. She suffered minor injuries.
Savage was best known in wrestling for a storyline that serves as a fond childhood memory to this day for wrestling fans, both lapsed and current.
It was a one-year plot which started at WrestleMania IV in 1988, in Atlantic City, N.J., when Hogan, who was taking time off wrestling for a movie role in real life, helped Savage “win” the finals of a tournament for the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) championship, beating “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase.
During the postmatch celebration, Savage gave Hogan a glare as Hogan was celebrating too closely with “The Lovely Elizabeth,” Savage’s real-life wife. The WWF teased tension between the two, who remained tag-team partners, throughout 1988 and into the following year.
It climaxed on a live NBC prime time TV special on Feb. 3, 1989, as Savage exploded with jealousy on a live NBC special and blamed Hogan for accidentally “injuring” Elizabeth, leading to the end of the team and a full-on rivalry in which Elizabeth sided with Hogan. The match drew a 9.7 Nielsen rating.
[Related: Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage played pro baseball]
This led to an encounter at WrestleMania V, on April 2, 1989, also in Atlantic City, where Hogan defeated Savage and won the championship. At the time, it was the biggest pay-per-view wrestling event ever, doing more than 760,000 buys, a record that would stand until 2000, with the onset of the “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson era.
While Hulette and Savage had been married since 1984, a year before Savage joined the WWF, in 1991, the WWF promoted a storyline reconciliation between the two moments after Savage had lost a “retirement” match to “The Ultimate Warrior” at WrestleMania VII in Los Angeles. A storyline wedding between the two was held on PPV in Madison Square Garden a few months later.
But shortly after that mock wedding, the couple separated in real life and Elizabeth left the wrestling business for many years. They officially divorced in late 1992.
Hulette died on May 1, 2003, at the age of 42, while living in an Atlanta suburb with wrestling star Larry “Lex Luger” Pfohl, of an accidental overdose from a combination of drugs.
Savage’s other most famous match during wrestling’s 1980s golden era was on March 29, 1987, at WrestleMania III, before a then-pro wrestling record crowd of 78,000 at the Pontiac, Mich., Silverdome. While Hogan vs. Andre the Giant was the main event, Savage’s match with Ricky Steamboat over the Intercontinental title was generally considered the best WWF match of that era, a fast-paced, back-and-forth battle won by Steamboat.
[Related: Randy Savage’s career highlights]
From the late 1970s until the early ’90s, Savage was considered one of the great in-ring workers in the business. In his prime, he was a quick and fearless daredevil known for his intensity, which bordered on scary at times. His unique interviews were among the most recognizable in the industry, imitated by people in and out of wrestling to this day.
However, his national fame didn’t come until 1985 with WWF because his family ran a renegade wrestling promotion based out of Kentucky and were unofficially blacklisted from the mainstream of the industry for several years.
“I remember in 1980 when we were talking about new talent in St. Louis, and [promoter] Pat O’Connor told me, the best young talent in the business is Randy Savage, but we can’t use him,” remembered Larry Matysik, a longtime wrestling announcer and promoter out of St. Louis. Savage and his family sued the then-dominant National Wrestling Alliance at one point, claiming restraint of trade, but the case never went to trial as many of the key witnesses on the Poffo family side were hired away by NWA promoters.
In his early 40s, Savage was being phased out of in-ring competition by WWF promoter Vince McMahon Jr., and in 1994, he signed with rival World Championship Wrestling, following the lead of Hogan, who had signed there a few months earlier.
He was back in the ring as one of the major stars in that organization through 1999, including a period from the spring of 1996 through the spring of 1998 when it was the wrestling business’ leading promotion. By that point Savage had suffered a number of serious injuries from his years of high-flying, physical wrestling style. When his contract expired and the company, bleeding money by that time, didn’t offer him similar money for a new deal, he opted to leave the company.
Savage was intense and driven in everything he did. He played minor league baseball from 1971-74 in the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox farm systems. He wrestled during the offseason, often under a mask to hide his identity from his baseball employers, but sometimes under his real name, as part of a family unit with his father, Angelo, and brother Lanny.
An outfielder, after he blew out his right shoulder, making him unable to throw with any force, he taught himself to throw left-handed in an attempt to continue his career.
“I saw his tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971,” remembered Matysik. “Man, he could hit. He was a little squirt, I don’t think he was more than 165 pounds at the time.”
He batted .232 with nine home runs and 66 RBIs in his final season of pro ball, with Tampa of the Class-A Florida State League, before turning his attention full time to wrestling.
Savage also appeared as an actor in a number of television shows, often playing himself. His best known role, of course, was as the legendary Slim Jim pitchman, but he also played the role of wrestler Bonesaw McGraw in the 2002 “Spider-Man” movie.
World Wrestling Entertainment released an official statement on Friday afternoon.
“WWE is saddened to learn of the passing of one of the greatest superstars of his time, Randy Poffo, aka Randy “Macho Man” Savage. Poffo was under contract with WWE from 1985 to 1993 and held both the WWE and Intercontinental championships. Our sincerest condolences go out to his family and friends. We wish a speedy recovery to his wife Lynn. Poffo will be greatly missed by WWE and his fans.”
The end of Savage’s wrestling career was unique. He was scheduled to appear in the main event of a pay-per-view show put on by the group Total Nonstop Action on January 16, 2005, against Jeff Jarrett.
“I hadn’t seen him since the TNA show,” remembered Dusty Rhodes, one of wrestling’s biggest stars of the 1970s and 1980s, who had done a WrestleMania match with Savage almost 15 years earlier. “The last words he said to me, five minutes before the PPV, was, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t want people to see me looking like this.’ Jerry [Jarrett, a TNA company co-owner] called [event producer] Keith Mitchell in, and I said, ‘Change the main event. I said to him, ‘Randy, just go home. It’s okay with me.’ That’s the last words he said to me.” Rhodes, who lived a 20-minute drive from Savage, never saw him again, and compared Savage of the past five years to notorious recluse Howard Hughes.
“I could see it in his eyes … he just didn’t want to do it,” said Rhodes, whose real name is Virgil Runnels. “Obviously, he was financially set. Out of all of us from that era, [Ric] Flair, Hogan, Andre, myself, how many of us walked away. One.”
For more on the death of Randy Savage, go to The Wrestling Observer online.