Sunday, May 22, 2016

Remembering The Macho Man

A couple days ago, it was the 5th anniversary of the death of the wrestler known as Randy Savage. I say wrestler, but in a good way, Randy was so much more. He was larger than life, he was a performer, he was an artist, he was a method actor, he was a committed athlete, a gifted speaker, an intense personality, and a genuine guy. Was he always the good guy? Much like his wrestling persona, he wasn’t always, but that is unimportant.

Regardless, Randy became someone to be admired. And that’s difficult, especially in the era that he was most popular in, a time when heroes were very all-American and Hulk Hogan-like, and all the heels were so dynamic. Flair was flamboyant and a chickenshit, and yes he got cheered but we loved to hate him, and we loved to see him get his ass kicked. Most of the rest of the heels were more worthy of our boos, because they thought themselves so superior to all of us: Rude physically, Iron Sheik mentally, Jake The Snake psychologically, Mr. Perfect in every way. Savage, for all intents and purposes, was supposed to be a heel. He was egotistical and flamboyant. He was jealous and territorial, fighting off people, denying an inferiority complex while exhibiting all the behavior of one with a superiority complex. He sometimes cheated to win (although so did Hogan, and no one demanded you do anything other than cheer for him) he sometimes interfered in matches he had no business interfering in, and he for the most part seemed certifiably unstable and insane.

But the problem was he was a heel in every aspect except his ring-work. He didn’t work like a heel. He didn’t necessarily work like a face either. He was just an excellent worker. He was smooth, proficient, psychologically sound, and it made sense, because he was more work-rate size than the upper card faces and nowhere near imposing enough to be a monster heel in that time. But Flair was the flamboyant-out-of-the-ring/dirty-player-in-the-ring heel. Savage would talk and boast and yell and scream that he was better than everybody and he would beat anybody, and the problem was that when he got in the ring, he did just that. He was Intercontinental Champion and was a fighting champion. He took Steamboat to the limit at Wrestlemania 3 before losing by being outsmarted and overworked. He was World Champion, and lost only to Hogan because his jealous rage got in his way. Perhaps that was the problem. It was a template that would be followed by Shawn Michaels years later as he flowed from heel to face to heel to face again. There were even shades of it in CM Punk during his most elevated prominence. Savage would just not get out of his own way. He was never content with his accomplishments. He couldn’t be convinced or reasoned with verbally, and even physically he was never willing to accept when he’d been put down. And it was this fiery, irascible, dangerous personality that should have made him hated. But he was so goddamn charming and convincing on the mic, and so compelling in the ring, that it presented a conundrum to people like me. I loved Savage, but I also hated him. I was always a little scared for Miss Elizabeth’s safety. I never thought Savage would purposely hurt her, but I always worried that him flying too far off the handle would lead to her being caught in Randy’s own crossfire.

The friendship and subsequent meltdown of said friendship with Hogan was all Savage. It put Hogan on the defensive, which you rarely got to see, and there could have been big things for Savage with the face of the company in his corner. But there is at least some truth to the idea that if he’d maintained it, Savage would always be second fiddle to Hogan. And like I said, he wasn’t content with playing second fiddle. He was deserving of the top spot. There was no one else like Savage. And some fans as we’ve gotten older will be quick to mention that Hogan was a more capable worker than he was allowed to be in WWF. And while I acknowledge that, it doesn’t change anything. He worked a style that got him over, and whether it was him or the company mandating that all his in-ring performances look the same, they were bland. Watching Savage was exciting. He worked a different style against Hogan than he did against Flair than he did against Perfect or Steamboat. Hogan’s story in the ring was always the same. And maybe the old adage is true, that Hogan was the name that got people into the arenas, and it was workers like Savage that kept them coming back for more. But in a fair world, it’s someone like Savage who is the top star, because he was a star.

So there was always this conflicted mix of emotions watching Savage. He was my favorite wrestler, hands down. I wanted him to succeed but I also wanted him to be safe, and be reasonable, and not shoot himself in the foot constantly. The fact that he did made him this surprisingly tragic figure of the wrestling world. I say surprisingly, because it’s a rather complex characterization for a titan. He was already good at what he did, he was already fire on the mic, he didn’t need his psychological hang-ups to keep him relevant.

Or maybe he did. Years later, he’s cited as one of the greatest characters and performers to come out of that era, or any era. And maybe that’s precisely because he was so complex. I, and so many others, wanted Randy to be the winner of all things, but knew that he was at his best when he wasn’t.

It’s a difficult role to play, especially in an arena so unique as wrestling, where winning and losing and titles and all are scripted, but the connection the performers make to the audience is very real. Randy was never hard to love. He was magical, he was always on, he dazzled in the ring, he was funny, frightening, fascinating.

And I miss him. There’s so many designations in wrestling fandom, like in other fandoms. There’s people who legitimately loved Hulk Hogan. There’s people who loved Hogan for his work in Japan and not in WWF, because they’re alternative like that. There are people who loved Savage or Warrior, simply because they weren’t Hogan, and they aren’t going to be told who to cheer for. There are also people who love Savage retroactively, because they realize later, as they got older, and as they got smarter, that he was the better worker, that he was an acumen meant to be admired. But there are also those, and you could hear them whenever Pomp And Circumstance boomed through any arena across the country or even the world, that loved him because it was Randy Savage. Those lines get blurry here and there, but I was in that camp from the time I turned on a wrestling program. The first match I ever saw on video was Savage and Warrior’s Retirement Match at Wrestlemania VII. And I loved them both. But Savage was the one you could connect to, you could see his eyes, you saw his face, and you saw his ability. After that, I was hooked. And I’ve been a fan ever since. Wrestling’s seen some dark days, and it’s been through some shitty days. But it can be beautiful. Savage was one of those to watch if you wanted to see wrestling at its best. When I was a kid, I didn’t understand all that was happening. I didn’t get what Savage was mad about all the time. I barely understood that he was a character. All I knew was that even through that uncertainty, I couldn’t stop watching him. I looked forward to him on commentary. He was the only reason I watched WCW. He was the only reason I even bothered to watch TNA. He’s the reason I’m a wrestling fan. I go back and just marvel with newfound appreciation matches I was enthralled with as a kid. The way he came to the ring, simultaneously a warrior ready to fight, and a king surveying his kingdom. The way he argued with the ref, and what unbelievable things he must’ve been yelling at them and how was it they never corpsed in his face. The way he ran the ropes. The glide from one move to the next. The effortless body slam and the almost machine-like way he’d then make his way to the apron and the top rope. The way he flew with that top rope elbow, and the way that he made it look absolutely devastating. 

There was and never will be another one like him. And that gets said a lot, and it gets placed on a lot of wrestlers, but that’s just the nature of the business. The good ones (and yes, a lot of the bad ones) are so uniquely gifted. But Savage was the complete package. And he could have had any promotion in the world revolve around him. Heel or face. It didn’t matter. They cheered because it was Randy. I miss the Macho Man. I miss Savage. I miss Randy. Randy was a hero.

From The Gorilla Position, Rest In Peace, sir.

Epilogue - My favorite promo: