In the first part of our look at the life and career of Randy "'Macho Man' Randy Savage" Poffo, we take a look at his pre-WWF years.
While Randy Savage was one of the biggest stars in the history of the wrestling business, it didn't always look like things were going to go in that direction. Sure, his dad was a wrestler and Randy was a great athlete, but he made a go at baseball first, and even did pretty well. When he went into wrestling, it wasn't long before his family was blackballed by the major promoters for going against the National Wrestling Alliance. If you saw him in one of the small promotions he worked in, you were taken aback by the wild force of nature that he was, and if you paid attention to the wrestling magazines, you probably wondered why he was never mentioned. It took an incredible chain of events to get him where he ended up, as foil to Hulk Hogan and others in the biggest promotions in the world.
Angelo Poffo was a wrestler based in the midwest who was well known for his incredible conditioning. In 1945 while in the US Navy, he shattered their record for consecutive sit-ups by doing 6,033 in four hours and 10 minutes. In Chicago, he got some national exposure because their television show aired all over the US on the long defunct DuMont network, Back then, he formed a formidable tag team with his manager, Bronko Lubich. Among the small library of footage that survives from this era, there is a memorable interview with Angelo where, for whatever reason, the announcer couldn't remember Lubich's name and in spite of multiple corrections, repeatedly made reference to a different wrestler as his manager. Lubich was eventually replaced as Poffo's manager and sometimes partner by a young local wrestler who soon realized he was better at being a manager and getting other wrestlers over: Gary Hart. In his posthumously published autobiography, Hart wrote about his dealings with Angelo's sons:
Most of the time Angelo and I would travel together, and sometimes Angelo would bring his sons, Randy and Lanny, to the towns with us. Since we were heels who would inevitably get heat, Randy and Lanny put a bunch of rocks in the back seat of their father's Cadillac...for a rainy day. One time Angelo and I got unbelievable heat when we were in Madison, Wisconsin, and as we left the arena that night with the boys the fans started throwing rocks at us. Randy and Lanny sprang into action and started throwing the rocks they had collected right back at the crowd.
Randy's passion as a youth was baseball, and he got very good at it. He turned pro at age 18 in 1971 as a minor league player for the GCL (Gulf Coast League) Cardinals, who were affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals. In November of 1973, just after the end of the season, he started wrestling under a mask as The Spider, with the mask used to make sure he didn't mess up his baseball prospects. His debut match was against Paul Christy. He was traded around a bit and ended up playing for the Tampa Tarpons (affiliated with the Cincinatti Reds) in 1974. His father would proudly show him off to fellow wrestlers and brag about his son's burgeoning baseball career, but while he talented, that career wasn't really going anywhere. Randy became a full-time wrestler at the end of the season. With his baseball career over, he dropped the masked Spider gimmick and started using his real name.
The three Poffos (Lanny had also started wrestling in 1973) tended to stick together wherever they went, often working in the southeastern US. Randy and Lanny won the Gulf Coast Tag Team Titles in Mobile, Alabama in January of 1976 from the original British Bulldogs, Edward Heath and Jonathan Foley. They brothers never lost the belts in the ring, as they were stripped of them when they were fired from the promotion a month later after "an altercation" with booker/matchmaker Rip Tyler. Word started to spread that they were unreliable and the whole family was eventually blackballed from the major territories.
The Poffos took work where they could get it. In the Tennessee-based Territory promoted by Nick Gulas and the Welch family and booked by Jerry Jarrett, there had been a major schism in 1977. Gulas insisted on pushing his son George to the top. Jarrett refused to book him in the "Memphis" half of the territory, which contained the biggest money cities. This worked out well enough for a while, but eventually Nick tried to force Jarrett into using George. Jarrett saw the writing on the wall, lined united much of the top talent and the announcers, and formed his own Memphis-based promotion along with the Welches. Nobody in the NWA seemed to begrudge Jarrett, as Gulas was generally disliked for giving the worse payoffs in the business.
Gulas was still an NWA member but lost access to top talent, so he didn't have any issues with the Alliance when he brought in the Poffos that year. Randy had changed his name to Randy Savage, and he started to develop his reputation as an incredible performer at this point, as he got into a feud with fellow young superworker Bobby Eaton that featured numerous 60 and 90 minute draws. The Poffos spent much of 1978 working for Gulas, except for the Summer, where they headed to the Maritime provinces of Canada to work for Emil Dupree's Atlantic Grand Prix Wrestling. AGPW wasn't an "outlaw" promotion, just obscure. Thanks to Randy's name change he and Lanny could now feud wherever they went, which they did here while main eventing for much of the season (wrestling in the Maritimes wasn't year-round) and having classic matches. Later that year, the Poffos formed their own promotion based out of Lexington, Kentucky: International Championship Wrestling. This made them even less appealing to the establishment and put them directly in Jarrett's sights, as Lexington was a major city for him.
In the meantime, they also joined another new outlaw promotion in eastern Tennessee based out of Knoxville: All-Star Wrestling. This startup wasn't a refuge for wrestlers who had been blackballed elsewhere like most others were. Many top wrestlers in the NWA promotion, Ron Fuller's Southeastern Championship Wrestling, left to form All-Star because they felt Fuller was cheating them on their payoffs. The war was so devastating that both promotions closed, killing the city as an outlet for a home promotion for years over five years, during which other promotions like Jim Barnett's Georgia Championship Wrestling and Jim Crockett Promotions out of the Carolinas tried adding it to their territory. The Knoxville war ending with both sides destroyed didn't scare the Poffos from declaring war against the Jarretts.
The Poffos tried their best to go after Jarrett's promotion (sometimes but not always called the CWA). They got TV and ran house shows in other Jarrett cities when they could, including Memphis and Louisville. Jarrett wasn't their only enemy, as they tried running any town within driving distance that they felt they could draw in, and that also put them within the boundaries of another establishment territory. It was Jarrett who they went after the hardest, though. They would constantly challenge Jarrett's top stars (including Jarrett himself, Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee, and Tojo Yamamoto) to fights for charity to guilt trip them when they didn't show up. You can see a scan of an ad for one such event here. Often, they'd use the television time reserved to promote their events as a vehicle just to taunt Jarrett et al. Not smart business, but the war had gotten extra heated, with ICW wrestlers often showing up outside Jarrett shows ready to fight, so many of the Jarrett/CWA wrestlers and even announcer Lance Russell carried guns. Once, Dundee pulled a gun on Savage, who got the better end of the fight and injured Dundee by nailing him with the weapon.
For all of the grandstanding, ICW didn't do especially well in many of their efforts outside of Lexington. The promotion could be a lot of fun to watch, albeit very quirky at times. For example, Lanny would do announcing as himself, even doing voiceovers on his own house show matches. While it was clear that the announcer and the wrestler were the same person, he had no problem making the situation...weird. It's honestly hard to describe without seeing one of the matches, but I'll try my best: A widely available match between Lanny and Ron Garvin sees him calling the action in a dry, detached manner as if he didn't have a personal stake in it, while saying stuff like "Garvin kicks me in the face and I feel the burn." Speaking of Garvin, the Poffos weren't afraid to do reality based angles independent of references to Jarrett's crew, as one of the most famous angles in ICW history was Ron Garvin exposing that bitter enemies Randy Savage and Lanny Poffo were actually brothers [YouTube video].
The promotion had charm and some good talent besides the family (which eventually included Randy's wife Elizabeth, a local fan who had a huge crush on him, ended up marrying him, and became a TV announcer), some of whom had been in the Knoxville breakaway group. With the Poffos (sometimes including Angelo as himself or under a mask as "The Miser"), Garvin, Bob Orton Jr., Bob Roop, Rip Rogers, and Pez Whatley, as some of their top stars, they had a solid roster, but it wasn't enough, especially when the NWA/establishment groups starting picking away at the non-Poffo talent.. In late 1983, the Poffos decided that the war was over, started to get back into the mainstream a little (Lanny worked for Bill Watts' Mid-South Wrestling based out of Louisana for a while on the undercard while Randy teamed with Magnum T.A. to win the annual Thanksgiving night tag team tournament in Atlanta Georgia), and figured that it was time to call Jerry Jarrett.
Jarrett, an incredibly creative booker and TV producer, had to know immediately that the best thing for business was to go along with the Poffos' idea: They come to work for him, finally having those dream matches, and make lots of money together. Jarrett would also help Poffo out by sending wrestlers to work on the increasingly infrequent ICW house shows and supplying footage for ICW's television show. On December 10th, 1983, Randy and Angelo showed up out of nowhere at the WMC TV studio in Memphis during the live wrestling show, wreaking havoc and challenging Jerry Lawler to a match [YouTube video]. The feud was off and running. Lawler and Savage had a number of classic matches. Lanny joined the promotion a little later as his partner and Angelo (constantly wearing a vest that said "6033 to commemerate his sit-up record) was a fun manager. The feud drew very well and unsurprisingly, it did best in Lexington, where they set box office records that stood for many years. Eventually, Randy and Lanny settled into being regulars without the promotion vs promotion element. Randy even turned babyface for a while and sometimes teamed with Lawler.
In 1985, Randy turned back to being a heel again, feuding with Lawler and Jerry Oski (AKA Jerry Allen), who was getting a push as underdog champion after beating Savage in one of the best matches of both men's careers (it doesn't say much for Oski, but think of the ground it covers for Savage. For a brief period, he teamed with David Shults, who had recently been fired by the WWF for attacking Mr. T at a house show in Los Angeles. Shults figured that it would get so much mainstream media coverage that Vince McMahon would be forced to put him in Paul Orndorff's spot in the main event tag match (Orndorff and Roddy Piper against Hulk Hogan and Mr. T) at the first Wrestlemania. Police officers stopped him before he could get close.
One week, Shults cut a wild promo where he criticized the WWF. McMahon found out and made sure that his lawyers got a copy of the show from WMC TV. When he watched the tape, he saw a Randy Savage squash match and was mesmerized. He hired Savage immediately, so Jarrett booked him in a loser leaves town match against Lawler. Lawler won an incredible brawl, again one of the best matches of both of their careers.
Randy was off to the WWF, with Lanny joining him to work on the undercard...
To be continued later...