This will probably come as a shock to you (since it still does to me), but I have a soft spot in my heart for professional wrestling and have since I was a kid. So it was with great shock and sadness that I learned the news that one of wrestling's towering champions, Randy "Macho Man" Savage (born Randy Poffo), died last week in Seminole, Florida at the age of 58.
For most people, the appeal of pro wrestling is a mystery or is written off as something for kids, rural folks not smart enough to realize wrestling is fake, and guys dealing with the fact that they enjoy watching oiled up musclemen in tights grabbing each other. Yet as a 10-year-old growing up in an educated, liberal family in a California suburb in the mid/late '80s, there was something about wrestling that captured my imagination. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I was sometimes picked on and wasn't big enough to be the fighting type. So I could exorcise my feelings of aggression and powerlessness by watching wrestling, where all disputes were ultimately settled through creative, highly entertaining faux violence played out by men as confident, mighty and musclebound as I wish I was.
Hulk Hogan, with his enormous "24-inch python" arms and exhortations for kids to train, say their prayers and take their vitamins, was wrestling's biggest superstar. But the Macho Man wasn't far behind, holding the World Wresting Federation (WWF) championship belt twice during his WWF career and teaming with Hogan to form the Mega Powers tag team. While tag teams were often made up of wrestlers without the charisma, size or ability to be effective solo wrestlers, the Mega Powers, made up of two of the biggest stars in wrestling, were a true sensation.
And yes, I always knew that wrestling was fake -- or at least don't recall ever thinking it was real. For years, the fact that the outcomes of wrestling matches are predetermined has been held up as proof that its fans are stupid and that wrestling should not be taken seriously. But to me, the fact that wrestling isn't "real" is one of its great charms, adding the vital layers that make wrestling the unique and captivating form of entertainment it is.
For me, pro wrestling is like stuntman theater, and as it has evolved over the years, a stuntman soap opera faux reality show. While virtually all of the performers in pro wrestling are world-class athletes who risk life and limb through increasingly dangerous and complex stunts, the wrestlers who reach and stay on top are invariably the ones who are the best, most charismatic actors who create the most compelling characters.
While many wrestlers are simply caricatures and stereotypes of various professions, nationalities and cultures, some like the Macho Man blaze their own path. Entering the ring to "Pomp and Circumstance", Macho Man, with his sparkling robes, tassles hanging from his arms, goggle sunglasses and penchant for bright fluorescent colors, hardly looked the part of what one would consider a macho man. But with his raspy voice, unique delivery, crazed orchestra-conductor hand gestures, and a vibrating energy that seemed barely contained by his tanned skin and bulging muscles, it's obvious that he was not trying to be a or some macho man, but the "Macho Man" Randy Savage -- a true original with the type of over-the-top persona that can only be found in the world of pro wrestling. Check out this clip of Macho Man on the Arsenio Hall show in 1989 to see what I mean.
It's no surprise that when Sam Raimi needed someone to embody the insane energy and larger-than-life bravado of a pro wrestler to take on Tobey Maguire's scared, nascent Spider-Man, Raimi chose the Macho Man.
While I rarely watch wrestling these days, I'll always linger on a match when I stumble across one. Maybe it's nostalgia for my childhood, maybe to check in to see the new cast of characters and which of the veterans are still around, maybe to see what kinds of new moves and storylines are being used in this strange hybrid known as sports entertainment that has doggedly withstood the test of time. But it's largely to marvel at the insanely talented actor/athletes who wrestle, enduring physical punishment, injuries and life on the road year-round (pro wrestling has no off season) to thrill and excite millions around the world. And Randy "Macho Man" Savage is and will always be one of the absolute best.
If there was a heaven, this is what Macho Man would be doing right now.