Randy Savage: One last time, the cream will rise to the top

I am a late bloomer to the world of professional wrestling fandom. My first taste came on my birthday—August 26th—when I happened upon UPN (remember it?) and the first episode of Smackdown. I assumed at the time that it was a one time only special. It would not be until two months later that I sat down to actually watch an episode of WWE TV, and that was a late night airing of Jacked (a one hour replay of the weeks angles and highlights from the week’s matches).

I had a few different pockets of friends in school but one of them kept going on about Steve Austin and The Rock, so finally I tuned in and from then on I’ve been hooked. My first taste of a live program came on the Raw following No Mercy 1999. I watched Raw and Smackdown and caught Survivor Series (learning the “rules” of the product as well as catching up on the various backstories along the way) in time to see the infamous Austin getting run over by a car.

I stayed with the product for years and as the InVasion angle began I was intrigued. My friends who were longer-time fans than myself were dismayed at the lack of real WCW talent being used, but since I never watched a full episode of Nitro in my life it didn’t matter to me. Names were mentioned, some of whom I’d heard of because they had been casually cited as historical footnotes on WWF commentary (Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair), but others I knew of because my friends lamented their absence (Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Sting).

While they grew disheartened at the “wasted InVasion” and fell away from the product with the loss of Rock and Austin, I kept watching. My first favorite superstar was Kurt Angle, second to him was Chris Jericho. I came to wrestling right around the time Edge and Christian hit their stride. All of those superstars were still going strong, and guys like Brock Lesnar and Eddie Guerrero were making Smackdown must see wrestling TV.

It wasn’t until 2006 that I started to get burned out on the product. I had a full time job, had gotten married and was getting ready to start a family. I’d flip over to RAW just to see what was going on, but I’d lost connection with the various storylines. I used the internet to follow PPV results but largely grew out of it. Then, on a whim, I bought a DVD box-set of WrestleMania 1-20. Though I was only familiar with a few of the shows (I watched Mania 16-20 live, but none others), I thought it would be neat to check out the older matches and characters that my old friends used to rave about.

It was then that I discovered Macho Man.

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Mind you, I only had a handful of matches at my disposal. He worked Manias 2-8 and 10 but even that small sampling pulled me in and made me a fan. There was nothing like him. He had the natural charisma of the Rock to compliment a fiery intensity that has no equal. Brilliant in the ring and on the mic, with a swagger that oozed confidence and a larger than life stature.

Macho Man brought me back into Wrestling. I spent the next few years watching everything I could, reading everything I could, and following everything I could to learn everything I could about the pseudo sport. Along the way, I watched anything Macho Man did that I could set my eyes to.

I’ve yet to find a more magnetic personality in all of Pro Wrestling. Not Flair, not Hogan, not Rock or Austin or Punk. No one could command the attention of the viewer like Randy Savage.

Everyone who loves the business was hit hard by his death. Others wept because they grew up with him. I did not. But though I was a late bloomer his work still moved me and made me care, despite how silly the bravado of it all really is. I was especially hurt because for so long I had held out hope that he and Vince McMahon would reconcile their differences and allow the Macho Man to return to the place where he first hit the big time, even if it was only for one last time. Hogan returned. Hart returned. Even very recently Bruno Sammartino and Ultimate Warrior returned, but Savage never did. He stayed away, whether out of personal pride or a lack of opportunity by Vince, we’ll never know (probably a bit of both).

What caused the split is the subject of conjecture and scandalous rumor, none of which will ever be confirmed or denied or even mentioned by any official channels. What is known is that he and Vince had a falling out which caused him to leave the company with hurt feelings on both sides. Others had split with Vince over the years, even big names like Bruno Sammartino and Hulk Hogan on whose backs the WWF empire was built, but they were welcomed back because their split was largely professional. In the case of Hogan, it was about dollar signs and federal inquiries. In the case of Bruno, it was about the changing of the business from “pseudo sport” to “pseudo entertainment.” With Savage—while business was at the core of the disagreement—the reason for the split was more personal than anything. Vince, by his own words, had come to see Savage as a valuable partner and friend, someone who was the unofficial and unmistakable face of the brand. His leaving for WCW was not just a cutthroat business move but a shot to the heart.

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Others who knew him will write about his now-Hall of Fame career with more personal connection but to consider it briefly is to find that he was an individual who refused to be held down. As he would state in one of the very best promos of all time (for reasons to be later explained) “the cream rises to the top” and he was that cream. He was not destined for greatness, he didn’t expect to be handed his dreams on a silver platter, but he intended to work and achieve greatness. And achieve it he did.

He could have played baseball for as long as he wanted, based on his short career in the minor leagues. Even when injuring his right throwing shoulder, he worked and trained and learned to throw just as well with his left arm. His own personal techniques for improving his swing were so well thought-out, it would later be adopted by baseball coaches on other teams. He could have played baseball for as long as he wanted, but he also could have been greater. The cream rises and Randy would leave baseball for wrestling.

He took the nickname “Macho Man” on the advice of his mother, who had read a Reader’s Digest article saying it (“macho”) was going to be the next hot term. This was before the song “macho man” took it to mainstream success. For ten years he and his brother danced around various promotions and had relative success, and if he so desired he could have stayed a minor league wrestler making enough money to get by. But the cream always rises and Randy joined the WWF in June of 1985.

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In the WWF, Savage—who was billed as the hottest free agent in wrestling—immediately made an impact with fans (though a heel, his giant personality made him must-see in a way usually reserved for the “good guys”). Less than a year after arriving, Savage won the intercontinental championship, and though he only had one reign with the title, it was enough for WWE to declare in 2010 that he was the belt’s greatest champion. They credited his incredible matches (not feuds, but wrestling matches) as the catalyst for his selection. Rightly so, as Savage’s brilliant ring work (while the main event players moved in slow motion by comparison) helped define the IC title as the “workhorse” championship, carried by best “performers” in the company.

He held the title for over a year before finally losing it in the show-stealing match against Ricky Steamboat at WrestleMania III. If he was not a man of ambition, Savage could have remained the top of the mid card and the best #2 man on the show, but the cream has to rise, and soon Savage was the surprise winner of the vacant WWF Championship at WrestleMania IV.

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Other men would hold the WWF title during Hogan’s run atop WWF in the 80’s and 90’s: Ultimate Warrior had a chance, Sgt. Slaughter ran with the ball, Ric Flair was a superb heel champ; Savage, however, was the first. Hogan won the title in January of 1984 and did not relinquish it until the Spring of 1988. For over four years the WWF Championship and the WWF itself were synonymous with Hulk Hogan. Now suddenly there was a new title holder, but despite the fickle nature of the WWF/E fanbase, Savage was embraced as champion. Of all the men to hold the title between WrestleMania IV and WrestleMania IX, Randy Savage was the only one to match or beat Hogan’s ability to draw on the house show circuit. Fans were more than happy to pay to see him as their champion.

Despite Savage’s success as champion Hogan still commanded the spotlight, and won the title back a year later at WrestleMania V. Savage—now a full-fledged heel—would work a midcard match at the next WrestleMania (while Hogan main-evented) and then would have a Retirement Match at WrestleMania VII (while Hogan main-evented), at the conclusion of which he reunited with his estranged wife and former valet Mrs. Elizabeth and moved to commentary as a beloved babyface. It would not be long before he was back in the ring, however. He had to be; in the ring is where the best of the best strut their stuff. Savage was the best and the cream has to rise.

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At WrestleMania VIII, after being runner up on the card the previous two years, Savage was finally given the chance to reclaim the WWF Championship (now held by Ric Flair). Though it was a match billed as part of a “double Main-Event”) Savage and Flair played second fiddle once more to Hulk Hogan (who closed out the show with his match). As he did with Steamboat at WMIII, and as he did with Warrior at WMVII, Randy Savage stole the show in his match with Flair. He walked away the champion and proved once again he was among the best wresters in the world.

His title reign was short lived unfortunately and by WrestleMania IX he was back at the commentary table. He’d dance back and forth between the booth and the ring until, a few months after his final WWF PPV appearance (SummerSlam 1994), he decided to leave for WCW. The sudden and unexpected departure was (as already noted) a major blow, both professionally and personally for Vince McMahon, but he has only himself to blame. Vince thought Savage was done as an in-ring performer while the Macho Man believed he had more in the tank. He thought he was still among the best, and he had to prove it. The cream has to rise, after all, so Savage split for Turner Town, never to do business with WWF/E again.

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A year after signing with WCW, Savage was champion. He would go on to hold the Big Gold Belt three more times, feuding with the likes Flair, Sting and Diamond Dallas Page (who credits Savage with establishing him as a credible top tier player). He never reached the same success he had with WWF, due to politics and the general discombobulation that was WCW management, but he proved Vince wrong and himself right: He still had it in him to be a superstar. As the company imploded around him, Savage found himself one of many talented workers that the WCW braintrust didn’t know what to do with. He spent the final year of the company sitting at home, collecting Ted Turner’s paychecks.

After WCW was bought out and the InVasion began, Savage’s name was mentioned by fans as a natural performer to appear in the big crossover feud. Other than a namedrop here and there, however, he never appeared. As the years went by and other WCW late-arrivers joined (Flair, Mysterio, Hogan, Nash and Hall, Steiner, Goldberg), Savage never did. The closest he came to a return to the public eye was a brief stint with TNA in 2004-2005 and a video promoting a new WWE Macho Man action figure from Mattel. That video was released in the summer of 2010 and in it Savage said these words:

“Macho Man guarantee: 2011 will be Macho Man’s year!”

Of course it would be, but not in the way he imagined.

Finally now, almost four years after the car accident that took his life, and after years of his barely ever being mentioned on WWE programming, he is getting honored with one last well earned distinction: WWE Hall of Famer.

It’s a title that should have been bestowed years ago. Over the years it has been begged for by fans, wondered by insiders, and asked about by legends (in a recent podcast Steve Austin asked Vince point blank what the hold up was). Everyone knew it was deserved, but for some reason it had never happened. Some fans might have thought that Savage would never get his due; that he would eventually fade from our memories while WWE continues to write and rewrite wrestling history. The fear among many was that his great body of work, unique voice and inimitable charisma would never receive the final spotlight and celebration it deserved. But that’s impossible. If there’s one thing the Macho Man proved it’s that his star could not be denied. It could not be held down. It could not be held back. Some way, some how, eventually:

The cream rises to the top.

Nobody does it better.

It is said that Savage did that entire promo on the fly–no rehearsing, no notes, no idea what to say until 3 seconds before standing in front of the camera. He grabbed a few coffee cream containers from a backstage table and walked over to Gene to cut one of the very best promos of all time.

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