Chicago Tribune – August 14, 1988
By Jeff Gordon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
I n the early 1970s, Randy Poffo was just another low minor-leaguer who found himself lost in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. ”He was a real nice guy,” former Cardinals player development director Lee Thomas recalled. ”He seemed like such a quiet guy at the time.”
Paul Fauks, the longtime farm system administrator, found him somewhat boring. ”He didn’t have much to say to anybody,” he said. ”He was just one of those kids trying to make it in baseball with very little chance.”
Poffo played with four Class A farm teams in three organizations before finally striking out into professional wrestling.
”We knew he was moving on to something else, we didn’t know what,”
Randy Poffo was reborn as Randy ”Macho Man” Savage. Like his father, Angelo Poffo, and his brother, ”Leaping” Lanny Poffo, he entered the world of drop kicks and sleeper holds.
He welded 45 pounds of solid muscle onto his 6-foot-1-inch frame and took the stage in 1975. Along the way he merged with Elizabeth, his gorgeous manager, and developed an eye-catching ring persona.
After toiling in the Canadian, Midwest and the Mid-South regions, Savage reached the lucrative World Wrestling Federation in 1985.
”The way I explain it sometimes is this: I wasn’t a bonus baby,” Savage said. ”I bounced around the minors in baseball and I bounced around in the minors of wrestling, too, before I got called up by the WWF. If I have one major attribute, it’s my drive.”
Now, as the successor to media monster Hulk Hogan, he is a millionaire in the making.
”It’s amazing, it really is, to look at him now,” Thomas said. ”I had no idea that he would end up like this now.”
The Sporting News keeps meticulous records on every player who passes through pro baseball. Associate editor Barry Siegel pulled Poffo’s file and wasn’t impressed with his place in baseball history.
”He was kind of a dot,” Siegel observed. ”He must have known there would be something else in his life, another calling.”
Siegel eyeballed a 1971 minor-league team picture that included a harmless-looking Poffo. ”He looked like a regular goof,” Siegel said.
Poffo, a 190-pound switch-hitter, was an All-State catcher at Downers Grove (Ill.) North High School. He signed with the Cardinals in 1971 and hit .286 at Sarasota in the Gulf Coast League.
The next season at Sarasota he hit .286. In 1973, he hit .250 at Orangeburg, a co-op team in the Western Carolina League managed by Jimmy Piersall. Then he returned to Sarasota and batted .344 before being released. Poffo signed with the Cincinnati Reds as a designated hitter, batted .232 in 131 games for Tampa in the Florida State League in 1974 and was released.
”I wish Elizabeth had been around when he was trying to play baseball,” Russ Nixon, Tampa’s manager that year, said. ”Maybe we could have gotten him out sooner.”
He signed with the White Sox in 1975, but didn’t survive spring training with their Appleton club in the Midwest League.
It was time to go home, pump iron and get on with it.
”Wrestling had always been my first love,” he said.
Thanks to intense body building, he became a new man.
”Later on, somebody pointed him out to me and said, ‘Do you know who that is? Randy Poffo!’ ” Nixon said. ”I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I didn’t recognize him at all.
”Piersall had him before I did, I guess that’s why he went into wrestling,” Nixon said. ”Most of the guys get into something legitimate. I know he’s making a lot of money.”
Bill Apter, the senior editor at Pro Wrestling Illustrated, has known Savage for 13 years.
”I saw him for the first time up in Canada,” Apter said. ”I knew right away he would be great. He has Elizabeth and all that now, but he’s a pretty good technical wrestler. He loves the business. Savage has been disciplined in the wrestling business since he was a kid.”
The Macho Man burst onto the WWF scene with Elizabeth and, by combining clever theatrics with a busy wrestling style, he moved into the unofficial No. 2 spot behind Hogan. He was a villain, largely because of his surly posturing and the ceaseless abuse he heaped on a cowering Elizabeth in public.
His competition was heavy. The WWF employs a hoard of mutant warriors, behemoths such as Andre the Giant, King Kong Bundy, The One Man Gang and Bam Bam Bigelow.
”My big thing is coordination and quickness,” Savage said. ”I’ll never be 300, 400, 500 pounds like some of those guys. Before, you’d go into body building and a 220-pound guy was Mr. Olympia. Now there is somebody like The Ultimate Warrior who is 290 pounds. . . . I didn’t know people like that were born.”
The WWF is also a zoo. Jake ”the Snake” Roberts has long and slimy Damian, a reptile that slithers on the face of vanquished foes. The British Bulldogs have Matilda, a squat, jut-jawed pooch who menaces rival tag teams.
In this frantic marketplace, Savage claimed the Intercontinental title from Tito Santana. About 14 months later, he lost it at Wrestlemania III to Ricky ”the Dragon” Steamboat.
Savage changed his on-stage rapport with Elizabeth, became a good guy and fell into a futile rivalry with the Honky Tonk Man, who had swiped Steamboat’s title. The HTM seems to be a chunky, marginal wrestler who survives because he is the WWF’s resident Elvis impersonator.
”And he doesn’t even do that very well,” Apter sniffed.
Savage was slumping until, with the Hulkster’s blessing, he won the world championship tournament in Wrestlemania IV last March.
In a controversial prime-time bout on NBC-TV in February, Hogan was dethroned by Andre the Giant. Replays indicated that the Giant didn’t really pin the Hulkster’s shoulders for the requisite three count.
As luck would have it, referee Dave Hebner had been detained and replaced by his evil twin, Earl, who counted out Hogan to the chagrin of 33 million viewers.
This was the weary Hulkster’s cue to take a vacation. During Wrestlemania IV, he and the Giant conveniently eliminated themselves during a rules-breaking frenzy. That allowed Savage to face DiBiase for the title. After Elizabeth summoned the Hulkster to run interference, Savage, with his trademark flying elbow smash, landed on DiBiase’s head like a 737.
After nearly 18 years in the business, Savage had found his pot of gold.
Savage could end up working 300 nights this year. As champion, he can command upwards of $10,000 a show.
Savage was recently in Minneapolis one Wednesday, and because of some exhaustive TV taping sessions, didn’t go to bed until 3:30 a.m. On Thursday, he was in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Friday he headed to Omaha. He did a phone interview from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport during a layover Friday afternoon.
”My schedule has actually tripled,” he said. ”Not as far as wrestling dates, but as far as being world champion. You’re in demand. The press conferences, special appearances, interviews, it’s all mixed together. It’s a 24-hour-a-day thing, but I can handle it. It’s something I’m excited about.” Still, it’s a grind.
”You have to be in shape mentally as well as physically,” he said.
”Durability means a lot. That’s the No. 1 thing on my mind when I go into a city. The Gold’s Gym and the arena, that’s all I usually see. I like to work two hours a day in the gym, then there is running, biking, swimming . . .”
And, of course, there’s Elizabeth.
”Yeah, having a beautiful manager helps, too,” Savage said, laughing.
”It makes it easier. We all travel alone. It’s not like a baseball team where you have a four-game or an eight-game home stand. We go from one city to the next, night after night. You see guys come in and after two weeks on the road, you see the changes in them.”
Like Hogan, Bundy, George ”The Animal” Steele and Jesse ”The Body”
Ventura, Savage figures to receive movie, commercials and sit-com offers. He is more concerned, however, about prospering as the WWF’s point man.
”I want to stay up as long as I can,” Savage said. ”Some people are overnight successes. I had to pay my dues. I dedicated my whole life to athletics. Now this means everything to me.”