There was a madness to it all, the way he carried himself through a crowd, cut a promo before the camera, dropped an elbow from the sky. I swear the man could fly—that’s what we, as children watching in awe, liked to believe—but I could never prove the boast as it only took seconds for the oversized, larger-than-life human to navigate that holy space residing somewhere between a top turnbuckle and the canvas below. The “Macho Man” Randy Savage did this with magnetic grace. Like sea water touching lava: instant lightning. Electricity. Fans couldn’t look away.
Randy Savage now looks to me, watching me write. He stands—confined—as a cartoon figure, in a six-inch tall cardboard box. A prisoner of objectification. An idea caged: his legacy, his lunacy, his fictionalization. It’s now mine. It’s mine to gaze back at, when I feel so obliged, to regain that feel-good spike of remembrance captured in bright colors and soft edges. That’s the beauty of collectables: we can entomb something beyond us, but yet something that defines us, and possess it as our own.
What’s interesting about this action figure is that it elucidates two of the stranger aspects of my life. First, as a child, I had a reluctance to open my toys. This wasn’t done out of any intelligent foresight of preserving a future rarity or achieving monetary gain; I simply thought the playthings looked better in their packaging. It was art to me, perfect only if left in the original form. To play with toys, therefore, as they were intended, was a matter of destruction. So I started defending them, hoarding them, hanging them from my walls as a form of display. My own personal museum. And I accumulated hundreds and hundreds and hundreds.
They sit in waterproof tubs now, decades later, residing somewhere beneath my parents’ house, perfect as the first day I held them. I don’t collect anymore, haven’t for years, but still cringe when I see my nephews open their own toys. If asked to help, say on Christmas, I refuse and pass the request to a different adult. It’s too painful to feel that cardboard ripping.
I stopped collecting when a long-standing girlfriend left me and I spun into an alcohol-driven minimalist existence begging for self-discovery. But, a few months ago, when I saw the Macho Man staring at me across a shopping mall—a single bobble-head amidst a sea of pop culture figures—I knew I had to have him. You see, Randy Savage represents a lot of what wrestling is to me, as he does for many people. He’s one of the few names non-wrestling fans would recognize, even now, long after his fame in the ring has faded.
But he also represents something else to me. Heartache maybe? I don’t know. But when I look at the toy all I can think about is the short time I spent with the Macho Man. It wasn’t what you’d expect. Or maybe it is. Either option is part of the problem.
As an up-and-coming wrestler breaking into the business, few people told me to study tapes of the Macho Man, yet the name commands tremendous respect from participants of the sport. This isn’t uncommon; many well-known names in the industry aren’t always the best athletes or technical wrestlers. That’s because the sport is equal parts athletics, theatrics, and entertainment. Macho Man was an entertainer. And he was top notch.
He was a nutcase though, plain and simple, and that’s what fans loved about him. He lived the character—his own creation—day and night, twenty-four hours a day. You can only image what that does to a human psyche: fantasy slowly usurping sanity. The proof was in his promos, in that recognizable growl, as he rambled about plane wrecks, outer space, and directions leading to nowhere, yelling things like, “Thinkin’, thinkin’, thinkin’, DIG IT!” But he did it with such ease and believability that people bought into it. He suspended a viewer’s disbelief despite the absurdity of the profession, the absurdity of his own existence. The best wrestlers are the ones who can do this well.
Macho got into the business at an interesting time; a time of change and growth. It was the era of “big man” wrestling, and it was the era of national syndication. Vince McMahan, a young entrepreneur, was unifying independent wrestling organizations to make one integrated federation, which, at the time, became the World Wrestling Federation. Rising stars, now on a grand stage, became the most lavish of characters: Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Andre the Giant, Dynamite Kid, Junkyard Dog, the Macho Man.
Randy Savage went on to become one of the most acclaimed wrestlers in history, winning twenty championships over a thirty-two year career. He also starred in various feature films and television shows, became a spokesperson for Slim Jim, and spewed color commentary from the announcer’s booth. He became a true icon.
But, as I said, I was never a student of Macho Man’s technicality, even though there is a match of his that stands out as one of the greatest in the sport: Wrestle Mania III, Randy Savage versus Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat. This match is legendary because the structure of the storytelling was paramount: simple, elegant, believable. Talking with Steamboat nearly twenty years later, he told me how the Macho Man had planned the entire match a full month in advance, meeting with Ricky in hotel rooms and writing everything down in a spiral notebook. They had every nuance memorized.
This is uncommon for wrestling. Sure the matches are choreographed and planned out to some extent, but the participants usually discuss details the day of the match, or a week in advance at most. I’ve never seen someone take notes. Ricky said it was endearing but annoying—bewildering even—but it does allude to the Macho Man’s more eccentric side: compulsive, obsessive, determined to be the best. Others have said he was paranoid, jealous, and trusted no one.
I met the Macho Man maybe a year into my own career, and, of course, was just as excited as any of the boys in the locker room for the opportunity. He was coming to make an appearance at two of our miniscule Missouri shows.
This is often the fate of washed-up talent—really the story arch of most wrestlers. You come up in the indies, potentially make it big, travel the globe performing in front of tremendous crowds that love and adore you, then you fade out, having compromised your health for the industry, and are now a middle-aged wreck with a limited skillset that is applicable nowhere else but the ring. You then start making appearances on the indie scene yet again, the place you started, but now you are a bitter, have no money, your skin flabs, your back aches, and, worst of all, you have nothing left to prove. You most likely nurse a pain pill addiction, maybe an alcohol dependency. These are the scars of a life of sacrifice. But fans still show up and adore you, but here’s the difference: on March 29, 1987 the Macho Man wrestled in front of over ninety-three thousand people; on February 5, 2005, sharing the locker room with the likes of me, he entertained less than fifty.
But you grin and bear, you smile, and you secretly still love it, though it breaks your heart each time you pull back that callous from the scar tissue of your achievements; it doesn’t feel good to lose what you love. It never has.
This might have been Macho Man, I don’t know. I don’t know this because he was too neurotic to draw such conclusions from.
Meeting Randy Savage I realized that there was little distinction between him and his character, that he was the crazy he portrayed, or, at least, was just profoundly broken. I met him three years after he starred in Spider-man as Bonesaw, the biggest (in terms of physicality) he told me he’d ever been in his life. But now, looking at him, he resembled Santa Claus on meth: a completely gray head of scraggly, unkempt hair; a beard of the same hue and of a wire-brush disposition. This wasn’t the ink black mane he displayed on television, the slicked-back look of a man well groomed. Instead, his skin was leather. Eyes sunken. And skinny. Probably one-hundred pounds lighter than his Bonesaw days. Simply put: dude was a tweaker.
His girlfriend, whom he had known since high school (though they hadn’t been together that long), was there with him, and what I detected from her was abject love. She was caring to a missing man, mentally, that she wanted back. The two of them kept suggesting that I meet her daughter, that I should date her. I was flattered. Still am.
But the Macho’s eyes were savage, like a cornered wildling, and he kept making obscure comments about Hulk Hogan, wondering where he was, whispering odd threats. When Randy went to the ring, addressing the crowd, all he kept saying was, “Where’s Hogan, brother? Bring him out.” We had to pull him off stage. Later that night, after the show ended, Macho Man got on an airplane and flew home. The problem was this: he was supposed to do another show with us the next day. But he needed his fix. Tweaking hard. The last words I heard him speak were, “I gotta go, brother, I’m sorry. Don’t worry, I’ll take the heat.”
I still remember where I was when he died six years later, when cardiac arrest caused him to wreck his car. He was in Seminole, Florida (a town in which I used to live), and I was in a cave somewhere along the Oregon coast observing—even worse, smelling—how sea lions live. I can remember where I was at when a lot of wrestlers have died: Guerrero, in my parents’ family room on the computer; Benoit, walking across the Sea World parking lot in San Diego. I guess this is what happens when your heroes die, when their legacies set like concrete in the folds of your brain matter. Or, maybe, it was just the nature of their passing: raw, violent, pathetic. That’s hard to forget.
The Macho Man fell victim to his own creation, like Dr. Frankenstein, and couldn’t contain the monster that escaped. Randy Poffo became Randy Savage who became the Macho Man and all the while we watched, applauding a madness within the ring, turning our heads to the madness without.
People loved him because he played a crazy character—the “Macho Madness” as it was called. People mourn him because he was crazy, whatever that word may mean.
I never opened my toys. I didn’t like exposing how things were made, to feel the groove of the seams, to find an inevitable flaw. What’s more, I was afraid to blemish the paint, to chip the plastic, to wreck the craftsmanship. I still don’t like holding things to the light, having used them in utility, to find the glimmer of wear. It’s just too painful knowing once you take something—a toy, a dream, an icon—out of its perfect packaging that you’ll never get it back in, not quite right at least.