Intoxicating Masculinity

In the mid-1980s through early-1990s, no mortal exhibited electric masculinity like Randall Mario Poffo, the wrestling superstar better known by his stage name: “Macho Man” Randy Savage.

Savage was a showman’s showman. A championship performer known for sounding like a “choking grizzly bear,” in the words of his biographer Jon Finkel, while cutting fight promos with an erratically poetic cadence. A man whose costumes delivered a flying elbow drop to the Overton Window of ostentatiousness: bejeweled cowboy hats, wraparound sunglasses, shimmering jackets that Finkel describes as a “merger of football pads, a Liberace piano and a shower curtain from Boogie Nights,” not to mention the tassels, bandanas, capes, and tight leather pants with zany patterns. Yes, that was what an apex man looked like to millions of Millennials, Gen X-ers, and Boomers.

Forget toxic masculinity. Randy Savage had an intoxicating masculinity that was a true pleasure for his legion of fans but became a burden upon himself. Finkel’s new book, Macho Man: The Untamed, Unbelievable Life of Randy Savage, explores a human grappling with the psychological savageries spawned by his commitment to his famed character’s bit. It’s a riveting adventure of a man who undergoes a method-acting metamorphosis and “disappeared into Randy Savage, who disappeared into the Macho Man, almost to never be seen again.”

Randy Poffo wasn’t always diesel, but he was born to be buff. His father Angelo was an Adonis recognized by Ripley’s for doing a record-shattering 6,033 sit-ups over a four-hour span! The type of guy who showed up to his kids’ baseball games in a “Speedo and flip-flops and no shirt” while sporting slicked-back hair. More important to the narrative: Mr. Poffo was a professional wrestler and a heel—the bad guy whom fans were meant to hate. This caused friction for young Randy, who loved wrestling but got into fights at school with kids who taunted him about his dad. Mr. Poffo didn’t party much, was fiscally conservative, and sought out investment advice while traveling for fights. He settled his family in a town outside Chicago called Downers Grove.

Young Randy lived a healthy and athletic suburban life. The Poffos were “way ahead of their time,” as in decades before Tom Brady’s TB12 fitness gospel, when it came to stretching, calisthenics, and using rubber band resistance to build agile strength. And they had a legit batting cage in their backyard where Young Randy would religiously work on his swing.

Poffo’s dream was to play professional baseball. In high school, he became an elite prospect by flexing a surreal .525 batting average and bashing a 500-ft. home run. But he was “sick as a dog” with a 102-degree fever when a gaggle of professional scouts came to observe. This subpar performance prevented him from getting drafted. Rather than quit, he drove with his father and landed a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals. He made it to minors, but never the major league. A team executive recalls: “He seemed like such a quiet guy at the time. I had no idea he would end up like [Macho Man].”

With the baseball dream dead, Randy pivoted to professional wrestling, which he later admitted “was in my blood.” His ballplayer physique wasn’t cutting it, so he strove to become “’70s big.” He dabbled with (legal) steroids and inhaled protein. Randy’s disapproving father called him “shit for brains” over his new meathead regimen. But he differentiated himself from Dad and staked out his ring identity. He dropped his last name, Poffo, from his wrestling persona. Finkel describes this as the first phase of his formal “Macho Man” mutation.

The author impresses that there are two “signature pieces of Macho Man lore: the voice and the name.” A promoter noted that he wrestled like a “savage.” So, he adopted the compelling fictional surname. The next obstacle to overcome was his unmemorable promotional shtick. Randy’s brother sagely suggested: “You’re going to use the name Savage, what wrestler gives the greatest savage interview you’ve ever seen?” It was an easy answer: Pampero Firpo, known for hollering an emphatic “ooooahh-hhh yeahhhh!” catchphrase. Savage relentlessly practiced his imitation and ultimately cribs the tagline.

There are dueling narratives about the “Macho Man” sobriquet genesis. One version: His mother suggested it after reading about the Village People anthem in Reader’s Digest. Another version: It was given to him after a baseball game scuffle. Regardless, once he adopted the persona, he worked overtime to make sure the media got his branding correct. He printed his own t-shirts to become a “walking billboard.” Gen-Z social media junkies should be envious of his prescience: “Wherever he went, he stayed in character and, as influencers would say now, on brand.” A “Mexican standoff” at a Waffle House where he brawled with policemen and a K-9 cop is described by Finkel as his “final evolution” into becoming a full-time “Macho Man.”

His media appearances got “louder, cockier and crazier,” with him yelling things like “Freak out! Freak out! I’m 100 percent mentally insane!” A wrestling executive reflects: “You had to live your gimmick, and Randy played crazy really well. He lived it 24/7.” Hall-of-fame wrestler “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan remembers: “What you saw on TV was the way he was in real life … we’d go into McDonald’s and in that voice he’d say, ‘I’ll have French friiiess and a burger. Oh yeah.'”

Savage eventually graduated from local promotions to the big show: the World Wrestling Federation. The character was an instant hit, but Randy was privately hamstrung by a Napoleonic complex: He was big, but not as tall or heavy as other superstars. So, he enlisted a famed fashion designer to stitch him flamboyant costumes to enforce an “optical illusion that the Macho Man took up more space than he really did.” Even when he became the champion, he resented the fact that he was still perceived as second fiddle to Hulk Hogan.

As the “Macho Man” climbed toward superstar status, the lines between reality and the script blurred, and he became plagued by paranoia. He was convinced Hulk Hogan was constantly “lusting after his wife,” who herself was part of the show. Other fictional bits involving his wife triggered real-life rage. He decided to let a King Cobra chomp his arm to shock viewers but couldn’t shake the intuition that his nemesis Jake “The Snake” Roberts might have been lying about having the snake de-venomized.

Wrestling ruined his marriage. Finkel writes, “When Hulk Hogan spent time with his wife Linda after a match, he took off his red bandana and his yellow Hulkster shirt and transformed back into her husband Terry Bollea. When the Macho Man spent time with Elizabeth after a match, he took off his shades and his cape and … was still the Macho Man.” Savage and Elizabeth ended up getting divorced—as their characters “still had to pretend to be in-love honeymooners in the WWF universe.”

In the 1990s, the WWF went through a “youth movement.” Savage was no longer essential. He became a ringside commentator and inadvertently was “transcended to a higher plane of superstardom: icon.” His character became a global brand ambassador and fortuitously connected with a beef jerky company, for which he cut unforgettable ads encouraging consumers to “snap into a Slim Jim!” He eventually left WWF for a rival promotion through the twilight of his career. “Macho Man” became darker while trying to “adapt and stay relevant.” But his stale promos felt like “an old man shouting nonsense.” As Robert Frost penned: Nothing gold can stay.

In his mid-30s, Savage once broke character and confessed to a local reporter: “I’ve lived inside this tormented body and mind all my life. … I’ve been so intense.” Throughout his retirement in the 2000s, Savage’s brother insisted Randy was “experiencing some kind of cosmic and spiritual awakening.” He was no longer living as “Macho Man.” He found love again, avoided the limelight, and enjoyed civic activities with kids. After eating a Perkins omelet, he suffered a heart attack while driving and crashed into a tree. A tragic ending.

The “Macho Man,” the maniacally self-described “cream of the crop,” was a unique figure in American pop cultural history. His biographer nails it: “From the voice to the vibe, he invented a character that transfixed audiences and mesmerized fans.” Will there ever be someone electrically and eccentrically masculine like him again? Probably not. But was mankind lucky to bear witness to his greatness? Ohhhhhh yeahhhhh!

Macho Man: The Untamed, Unbelievable Life of Randy Savage
by Jon Finkel
ECW Press, 328 pp., $22.95 (paperback)

Rob Lockwood is a media strategist who resides in the Washington, D.C., area.

Original News Source – Washington Free Beacon

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