On July 13, 1988, on a sweltering 93-degree day in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Hulk Hogan returned from a three-month hiatus to accept Randy “Macho Man” Savage’s call for a tag team partner at WWE’s first SummerSlam.
Hogan also dropped a hint as to why the Mega Powers — he and Savage, best of pals — were doomed from the start.
“When we step in the ring, man, and the lovely Elizabeth is in our corner,” Hogan barked, “She’s my lady, too, brother!”
Fans ate it up. But on the television broadcast for that “WWF Superstars of Wrestling” episode, Jesse “The Body” Ventura called B.S.
“That’s gonna be a problem, [Vince] McMahon.”
WWE, then known as the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), took the world title off Hogan in February. Hogan left to film “No Holds Barred” right after WrestleMania IV. With the exception of one match, he stayed away from the company through July. Replacing Hogan as champion was one thing; removing him from the live event tour was a risk WWE had never taken until 1988.
In Hogan’s absence, Savage main-evented across the country as WWE champion. Not only did WWE’s business stay afloat with “Macho Man” on the marquee, it didn’t miss a beat.
Randy Savage was as utterly unique, charismatic and dependable as a professional wrestler could possibly be. For one long, hot summer, he took his initial turn as WWE world champion and the company’s undisputed top superstar.
The Summer of Savage was born of a unique circumstance for WWE, but the way Savage capitalized on his moment was the result of years of preparation.
The making of the Madness
Randy Poffo’s first love was baseball. He was a good ball player but never made it to the majors. He spent time in the St. Louis Cardinals system. He suited up for the Tampa Tarpons, a farm team of the Cincinnati Reds, in 1974. When that ended, he tried to latch on with the Chicago White Sox to no avail.
Poffo was so competitive, so focused on success, that seeing his baseball dream slip away was a crushing disappointment. He destroyed all of his bats.
At age 23, he needed a new direction. Poffo refocused his attention on pro wrestling, which he started doing on the side while still pursuing his baseball career. With full support from father Angelo and brother Lanny — themselves pro wrestlers — Randy established himself as a rising star whose intensity and athletic gifts made up for his relative lack of size at 6-foot-1.
Gradually, Randy Poffo evolved into Randy “Macho Man” Savage, a breakout star in the Poffo family’s International Championship Wrestling promotion. Working with his family guaranteed Savage an opportunity, but it was his competitive drive and willingness to learn from the industry greats he encountered along the way that truly allowed Savage to excel.
LANNY POFFO (Randy’s brother, ex-WWE wrestler The Genius): “We grew up in the wrestling business. We were in Hawaii when ‘Handsome’ Johnny Barend foreshadowed a heel turn on ‘Gentleman’ Jim Hady. We remembered stuff like that. He even did the ‘Ohhhh, yeahhhhh!’ copied from Pampero Firpo. He did it differently because Firpo was an Armenian from Argentina, so he had his own unique accent. But still, we were influenced by that.”
Already a gifted athlete, Savage started developing his unique interview style in ICW. He’d toss fistfuls of confetti and use props like garbage cans and brooms to illustrate his point. His legendary, raspy, whisper-to-a-bark vocal style emerged around this time, along with frequently used Macho-isms like “freak out, freak out!” and addressing the TV camera with the oddly specific term “videoscope.”
Savage looked and acted acutely dangerous. His disheveled hair sprawled out from beneath a variety of different hats. His scruffy beard and dark sunglasses barely hid the strain of every muscle in Savage’s face and neck that constricted while he spoke. In the ring, he struck fast and moved gracefully, lending a sense of control to his otherwise riotous demeanor. He made sure the audience paid full attention to Randy Savage — at all times.
Savage limited his chaotic behavior to the wrestling arena, but there were times it spilled over into the real world. In 1978, The Tennessean reported that Savage got into a wild brawl with a newlywed at a Nashville-area Waffle House. There were conflicting reports about who started the fight, which ended with Savage getting maced, billy-clubbed and bitten by a police dog for being uncooperative.
“I realize I was a little hyper,” Savage conceded to The Tennessean, admitting the police dog “got in a pretty good shot.”
Just like with baseball, Savage’s competitive spirit demanded that he become the best. In wrestling, that meant putting a bullseye on whomever occupied that space. In ICW’s geographic area, that was Memphis star Jerry “The King” Lawler, who did not work for ICW.
Savage issued absurd challenges to Lawler. In newspapers, ICW would advertise “special challenge matches” between Savage and Lawler, bouts in which Savage would put up thousands of dollars and Lawler needed only bring a silly object like a donut or a chicken; if Lawler were to beat Savage, he would have been able to claim the money. Lawler was never officially booked, and thus, never showed.
ICW eventually folded, and Savage appeared in Memphis to finally get his proper feud with Lawler. Calling out Lawler from afar paid off in the end. It was Savage’s work in Memphis that finally caught the eye of WWE officials in 1985.
A few months after WrestleMania I — while WWE champion Hulk Hogan rubbed shoulders on NBC and MTV with mega-celebrities like Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper — the “Macho Man” arrived, hungry as ever for that top spot and already experienced in talking, working and performing his way into a main event role.
STEVE LOMBARDI (Ex-WWE wrestler The Brooklyn Brawler): ”When I met Randy, he was very intense. He was very charismatic when he went in the ring. He came in with those robes. I think he caught the WWE’s eye immediately. He had a great connection with the audience.”
In some of his earliest WWE TV appearances in the summer of 1985, Savage grabbed the house mic and called out Hogan after matches. He soon wore a “Hulk Who?” T-shirt during interviews. By September 1985, he had worked his first WWE title match against his future Mega Powers partner.
Who’s in the danger zone?
The success of Macho Man’s run as WWE champion in the summer of 1988 was due, in part, to how vicious he was as a heel in his first two-plus years with WWE. Had he not started off as such an amazing villain, his transformation into a white hat wouldn’t have been as meaningful.
Savage smashed Tito Santana in the face with a foreign object to win the intercontinental title. He brought in a sweetheart of a manager, Miss Elizabeth, seemingly just to publicly intimidate her and use her as a human shield from attacks. He cruelly utilized Elizabeth as a pawn to manipulate the emotions of a smitten George “The Animal” Steele.
Then in October 1986, Savage crushed Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat’s throat against a guardrail — and again with a ring bell attack off the top rope — setting up the feud that resulted in one of wrestling’s all-time greatest matches.
RICKY “THE DRAGON” STEAMBOAT (WWE Hall of Famer): ”The idea of grabbing the announcer’s bell and coming off the top, I think on Vince’s part there was a little hesitation on it. But I put my trust in Randy to make the angle big.”
The live crowd in Binghamton, New York, was concerned for Steamboat because he sold the attack so convincingly, and also because Savage legitimately appeared to be out of control. Medical staff and WWE agents removed a flailing, gagging Steamboat from the arena on a stretcher.
STEAMBOAT: ”I remember when Randy and I were talking about it. He said to me, ‘Are you OK with it?’ I said, ‘Yeah. I believe in you.’ The only thing that we didn’t account for — and both of us had discussion about this after the fact, back in the locker room — when he grabbed the bell, there was a piece of plywood bolted to it. We were just thinking the ring bell, right? But yeah, I lied still. He came off the top with it, and man, it was like butter. It was so smooth, and God, it looked so good on TV. And then I do remember after that the amount of hate mail that he was getting.”
While the match that filled the Pontiac Silverdome for WrestleMania III was Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant, the intercontinental title grudge match between Savage and Steamboat has gone down in wrestling lore as the textbook example of an undercard match stealing the show.
It’s also the most famous example of a regularly told story about Savage: To ensure he put on a great show, he liked to plan matches out — move for move — no matter the length.
LANNY POFFO: ”His theory on the business was, if you don’t give the fans everything you’ve got, you’re no better than a pickpocket or a shoplifter because the fans pay the money and they deserve the best show you can give them.”
STEAMBOAT: ”He started off by saying that it should be redemption-based for Ricky Steamboat, that I should get after his throat. I thought that, to make a comeback after an injury such as this — with a storyline that’s been told for two-and-a-half, three months — and win the championship would hurt you more than just going after your throat. So to make it a championship match, we started putting these false finishes in to make it back and forth. The average number of falls back then was seven or eight in the course of a match. But we ended up having 21 false finishes, literally, in a match that went less than 17 minutes.”
POFFO: ”His match with Ricky Steamboat, it kind of ruined his life because he was never able to equal or surpass that match in his opinion. Now, that is a subjective thing, but he never got over that match — that he couldn’t top it.”
By the time Savage lost the intercontinental title to Steamboat in 1987, Savage, while still a heel, was steadily gaining a larger fan base. His interviews were enthralling and quotable. People would mimic his voice. Fans came to appreciate his charisma and the more humorous aspects of his gimmick. Macho Man still wasn’t a completely nice guy, but he was now, at the very least, multi-layered.
His promos were mesmerizing. Savage would string together a series of poses — like the twirling fingers, pointing to the sky, gripping his sunglasses, stretching out his arms, and wagging a lizard tongue — moving from one position to the next in perpetual Macho-motion, always shuffling in place while standing on his toes. He remained fond of using props — coffee creamers, hotel bath mats, coffee mugs, waste baskets and such.
BRUCE PRICHARD (Ex-WWE character Brother Love, ex-WWE creative team member): ”Those were the days of, ‘Who’s my opponent? Where am I gonna be?’ Cut me a promo. And you could either sell tickets or you couldn’t. Randy could sell tickets.”
“MEAN” GENE OKERLUND (WWE Hall of Fame interviewer): ”The one thing with Randy, nothing was ever chatted about before we would do these interviews. I would leave the door open so they could go either to the right or to the left or right down the middle on the opening question. Then all I would do is make it a point to listen. Randy was professional enough that you could do a little interplay with him, and he was quick.”
LOMBARDI: ”His interviews, when he spoke, it was not just on TV. He spoke like that in real life. ‘Ohhhhh, yeahhhhh! Let me tell you something, brother …'”
OKERLUND: ”Back then, everything was right out of the hip pocket. It was really genuine, I’d say. Certainly somebody that wasn’t as adept at doing interviews back then would stand out like a sore thumb. I take a look at the champs through the years, and I couldn’t make heads or tails out of anything that the Ultimate Warrior said. Randy made sense — and made money.”
POFFO: ”He kind of blurred that line between heel and babyface. It didn’t really matter, and he always got the most out of his opponent anyway, no matter who his opponent was.”
OKERLUND: ”At one time, I think Vince even said that he was the No. 1 heel in the company and also the No. 1 babyface, simultaneously.”
STEAMBOAT: ”To me, Randy was always a better heel than a babyface, and I never asked him but I’m sure he’d probably say the same thing. It just felt more comfortable and looked more natural.”
PRICHARD: ”Randy had been there long enough that I think the audience appreciated his style. They appreciated the effort that he put into everything, and [the fans] had already turned him [babyface]. It was just a matter of changing his opponents.”
Randy and Liz
The only remaining narrative blocking Savage from turning full babyface was his mistreatment of Elizabeth. In reality, Elizabeth Hulette was Randy’s wife from 1984-92. When he signed with WWE, he convinced the company to hire her to be his on-screen manager. The arrangement made a star out of Elizabeth and set Savage apart from the rest of WWE’s heels.
Savage and Liz were unique in that a villain was being managed by a sympathetic figure, a polite woman without a hint of a mean streak or aggressive side. Macho Man was 100 percent heel, at least in the beginning, but Elizabeth was a fan favorite from Day 1. She served as a counterbalance to Savage’s worst impulses, and at the same time, another reason to dislike him.
POFFO: ”They had somebody give her flowers, and him throwing a tantrum and ordering her back. There were some famous interviews with Mean Gene where he tries to talk to her and he gets mad about that, and, ‘OK, leave now.’ She was always the long-suffering Elizabeth and very popular, while he was unpopular because he was such a jerk.”
OKERLUND: ”Elizabeth had a lot of magic to her. She wasn’t a diva, but she was. She was very attractive, and her low-profile entrance and everything, it was just a perfect marriage, no pun intended. But it worked so well. Even seasoned guys like Roddy Piper, he said, ‘It’s brilliant.'”
POFFO: ”He experimented with, ‘If I do this and she does that, what would happen?’ He was always trying to push that envelope psychologically.”
JAKE “THE SNAKE” ROBERTS (WWE Hall of Famer): ”Her character was so meek and so quiet. Randy, he was like the opposite, and she’s what made that work. Without her, I don’t think Randy would have been near as popular. He was a great piece of talent, but he needed her. He really did.”
STEAMBOAT: ”She did a great job. Almost like the girl next door that you’d be proud to introduce your mom to, so to speak. And then, of course, you’ve got Macho Man with the gravel voice and the over-the-top interviews. She played the role just perfect.”
Macho Man had become one of WWE’s most popular characters and proven himself capable of drawing fans in so-called “B-towns” — areas with smaller populations or less-passionate fans — as a headliner.
It was time to pull the trigger on a babyface turn.
In the fall of 1987, WWE scripted a scene in which Bret Hart, Jim Neidhart and the Honky Tonk Man attacked the couple. Honky Tonk Man smashed a guitar over Savage’s head and shoved Elizabeth down to the canvas. Liz regrouped and ran back to the locker room. She emerged moments later pulling Hogan down the aisle by his wrist so he could rescue Savage from the attack.
The visual of Elizabeth in a sequined dress using both hands to pull the 300-pound Hogan toward the ring to rescue Savage was significant. In storyline, it was the first time she had ever asserted herself in an active conflict. The silent-but-supportive bystander had just become a playable character.
Hogan saved Savage, who showed appreciation for Hogan’s help. The first of several mighty Mega Powers handshakes took place. Most significantly, Macho Man changed the way he treated Elizabeth. His newfound kindness toward her — on top of all the excellent matches, colorful outfits and must-see interviews — made them the hottest act in WWE.
PRICHARD: ”That’s probably one of the major reasons that Randy was cheered early on, was because of Elizabeth. She was difficult to hate. There was never really any effort put into making her a heel, which is what made that package so attractive.”
POFFO: ”She was always playing herself, which is this sweet, innocent, darling person, and he was the mean, vindictive bully. But then when he changed, he changed toward her and then people went crazy. All was forgiven.”
In early 1988, WWE was faced with a tough decision. A movie starring Hogan was in the works, but in order to film it, they needed to take Hogan off the road for a few months. For the first time since 1984, WWE was in the market for a new world champion, if only for a little while.
Less than a year after Hogan vs. Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III, WWE took the title off Hogan on a live primetime NBC special. In storyline, the cause of Hogan’s loss was a paid-off imposter referee counting to three while Andre had Hogan pinned, despite Hogan lifting his shoulder to break the count.
Andre immediately gave the world title belt to the “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, an excellent wrestler who had jumped to WWE from Mid-South Wrestling to play the role of a wealthy, cackling bad guy with a bodyguard named Virgil. In storyline, DiBiase — bitter over being rejected by Hogan in a bid to buy the world title — paid an imposter referee to steal the win for Andre and then paid Andre to hand over the title.
Days later, WWE figurehead president Jack Tunney rejected DiBiase’s claim to the championship and announced that the title would be held up. A new champion would be crowned in a tournament concluding at WrestleMania IV.
While DiBiase was the hottest heel act in the company at the time, there was no denying Savage and Elizabeth were the act most likely to sell tickets as WWE’s main attraction.
PRICHARD: ”There was just a lot of debate as to who that next guy was gonna be. There were folks that thought that Ted DiBiase would have been good to be a heel champion and have somebody chase him. But in Vince’s head, I think Vince saw Randy as that next face of the company that he wanted to make his champion. He had confidence in Randy, felt that Randy had the charisma to pull it off. Add to that the package of Randy and Elizabeth. It was a good-looking package.”
“MILLION DOLLAR MAN” TED DiBIASE (WWE Hall of Famer): ”There was talk prior to WrestleMania IV that I would somehow win the tournament — buy somebody off, whatever. But then they reconsidered that, and I know they were thinking about Randy as well. They wanted to make the best of all the talent they had. So they came to me and said, ‘What if it doesn’t work out? What if the Million Dollar Man doesn’t win at WrestleMania IV?’ Because usually, you put the big heel over, and then the heel has his run, and then the heel loses the title. So I would either lose the title back to Hogan, or I would lose the title to whoever the next champion’s gonna be.”
ROBERTS: ”Hogan was out. I believe he was doing a movie or something. They needed that stud out in front, man, and he fit the package. Randy was never boring.”
“HACKSAW” JIM DUGGAN (WWE Hall of Famer): ”Hogan’s Hogan, but Macho filled his shoes as best as anybody could. I don’ think anybody else could have stepped up as well as Macho did.”
LOMBARDI: ”It’s very different because Hogan was twice his size. But Randy carried the persona in a different way. Randy carried the persona with his outfits, his voice, his interviews. Everything that he did stood up to the statue of Hulk Hogan.”
ROBERTS: ”I think everybody basically knew that Randy was gonna wind up with it. It was just the writing on the wall.”
Carrying the load of being WWE champion meant selling tickets and being a great performer. You also had to win over the press in media appearances. WWE needed to sell T-shirts, action figures, posters, video games — and in Savage’s case, bright-orange bandannas — with his name and likeness on them. Savage not only checked all of those boxes himself, but Elizabeth — far more than any other WWE manager at the time — could check them again.
Savage was penciled in to win the title in the tournament final over DiBiase at WrestleMania IV in March 1988 — with an assist from Hogan and a show-ending celebration for the Mega Powers and Elizabeth.
Wrestling four times that evening en route to starting his first world title run, Savage prepared for WrestleMania IV with characteristic attention to detail. Everything from his lavish outfits to the move-by-move breakdown of his match with DiBiase got his full attention.
DIBIASE: “When we got together to actually talk over this match — and this is like, this is at WrestleMania IV. I told him, I said, ‘Randy, I understand your need for laying it all out. I get it. But here’s all I’d like you to do. Give me this liberty, because I’m not used to doing that. I’ll do this, but as we’re [wrestling], if I feel something and I say let’s do this, know that we’ll do that. But then we’ll get right back to what we’re scripting here.’ It was kind of funny. He kind of looked at me, and he looked over at Elizabeth. Elizabeth said, ‘Randy, you can do that.’ He looked at me and said, ‘OK, brother. I can do that.'”
POFFO: ”It took him so long to get to the WWF. He was 32 years old when he finally got there. He didn’t want to waste a moment of it. He was trying to get as far as he could, as good as he could, for his standards. He was in no mood to take a step back and look at anything. Nothing was good enough. It always could be better.”
DUGGAN: ”Not only that day, but all the time, Randy was always wound very tight. The guy was very intense no matter what he did. Even in the back playing cards, you know, I’d joke. I’d say, when he’d go to a fast food restaurant, he’d be like, ‘I’ll have a milkshake, fries and a hamburger!‘ Macho was very intense in whatever he did. He may have been even more wound up than usual at WrestleMania IV.”
With a big elbow off the top rope, Savage defeated DiBiase in the tournament final. For the next several months, the videoscope would focus heavily on the Macho Man.
The Summer of Savage
From his baseball days, Savage knew the disappointment of falling short of his dream. Perhaps that’s why he was such a focused man by the time his wrestling potential became apparent.
POFFO: ”While he was on the road, he would get like one hour of sun bed a day, work out every single day, never miss a workout. Always get his protein in his meals and never deviate from his routine. Make sure that the people that paid to see him didn’t get the same costume as they did before. He planned everything out. He over-packed [his bags] to make sure that happened. He was all business, all the time. Whether or not he was gonna have the belt or just be a challenger for the belt, it didn’t matter. He put a lot of sweat equity and a lot of thought into every little thing.”
As of March 1988, that work ethic had paid off with a reign as WWE champion. For the first leg of his new journey, he’d be completely out from beneath the shadow of the Hulkster. From April through mid-July, Hogan was off the road.
Where Randy went, so did Elizabeth. There were certain people they’d spend time with on the road or backstage, but for the most part, they were private.
POFFO: ”They were usually on the same plane as everybody else, but they always rented a car by themselves. Then they would take me along. And they had people that they liked. For example, Nikolai Volkoff didn’t smoke or drink. Sometimes when he needed a ride, they would take him. But he’s a real gentleman. The Iron Sheik would not get that privilege because he was always looking for the gimmicks.”
OKERLUND: ”[Randy] was a very private person on the road. Randy was, I guess the word I would use, kind of unpredictable. That was by design because I don’t think he wanted anybody to know exactly what he was doing, what he was thinking, or anything else for that matter.”
DUGGAN: “I got along OK with Randy. We actually played chess together. He was one of the few guys that played chess in the dressing room. Randy and I would kill a lot of time playing chess together. A few of us did. Not many. Most guys played cards, but Randy and I would sometimes break out the chess board.”
DIBIASE: ”Elizabeth was very sweet. I didn’t really get to know her very well. Randy was very protective, too. I guess that’s from growing up in the business. He looked at everybody as a wrestler, and wrestlers were notorious for being womanizers. So, ‘This is my wife, stay away.’ Sometimes it was to the point where I almost felt sorry for Elizabeth because it was almost like a bird in a cage. He would come to where we were wrestling and go in the dressing room and shut the door, and you know, ‘don’t bother us,’ and, ‘don’t come around.’ If we need to get together and talk, we’ll get together and talk about the match.”
DUGGAN: ”They were pretty much all business. They would hang together. It’s not like Macho would go out with a group of guys. Mach and Liz would usually, I think they would just go back to the hotel room and be their own little deal. As a businessman it was great, because not only did you have your wife on the road to help you do stuff on the road, but also, she was making a payday.”
PRICHARD: ”He hung out with the people he wanted to hang out with. He did travel a lot alone with Liz or his brother. He traveled a lot with me — or, I traveled a lot with him, put it that way. We would often times go out and have a good time. So he may not have hung out with everybody that says that stuff, but no, Randy liked to go out and have a good time as much as anybody.”
LOMBARDI: ”I sat down with him at dinner a couple of times. He bought my dinner and he told me he likes my style. He likes everything I do. He gave me a couple of unique little financial background [tips]. He said, ‘Do this, do that, save your money.’ Randy was always good to me.”
ROBERTS: “I didn’t hang around Randy. Randy kind of did his own thing, man. He had a separate locker room with Elizabeth, so he didn’t come around and rub elbows. He just went ahead and did his business, man.”
Given Savage’s dependability and his past success headlining B-shows as intercontinental champion, there wasn’t much concern that Macho Madness in 1988 could do strong business in the temporary absence of Hulkamania.
OKERLUND: “I just don’t think it was a risk [headlining with Savage]. Randy Savage might have been a high-risk guy anyway, but in this case I don’t think so. I think the Ultimate Warrior, two years later, that was a big risk.”
LOMBARDI: ”When he was world champion, he carried that title and he carried it well. He not only talked the talk, he walked the walk. Randy Savage was a special talent.”
ROBERTS: ”I think everybody was confident in Randy. There were a lot of pieces that were working quite well right then. There was a lot of great talent on all the shows. So you know, maybe some people doubted it, but at the time, things were going so well. I think if things had fell off, there would have been a panic button hit pretty quick, though.”
PRICHARD: ”I thought he did a hell of a job. He was a workhorse. There was nothing he wouldn’t do. He was willing to get out there and promote, and he was happy to be ‘the guy.’ He wanted everybody to load him up. He wanted to do all those appearances. I thought Randy was excellent at it.”
Savage had worked a demanding wrestling schedule for years. According to WrestlingData.com, Savage wrestled 267 matches in 1986 and 256 in 1987, an average of about five matches per week — every week — for two years. Hogan, who was WWE’s top draw and world champion for the entirety of both of those years, averaged closer to three matches per week in the same time frame (163 in 1986, 175 in 1987).
Not only did Savage pick up a lot of the media appearances and public relations duties as champion that Hogan used to handle, his in-ring schedule didn’t reduce to nearly the level of Hogan’s 1986-87 workload. In 1988, Savage still wrestled 210 matches.
“My schedule has actually tripled,” Savage told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in May 1988. “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.”
The summer of 1988 became a whirlwind of activity, even by the busy standards of Savage and Elizabeth. Local media interviews to promote the next city’s WWE event. An autograph signing at a Subaru dealership in Tucson, Arizona, on June 3. Photo shoots. Endorsement responsibilities with Mountain Dew and other WWE partners.
At WWE’s most famous venue, New York’s Madison Square Garden, attendance averaged 17,100 for shows from April-August 1988 headlined by Savage as champion. By comparison, MSG attendance from April-August 1987 was 15,523 for shows headlined by Hogan.
WWE’s partnership with NBC for the “Saturday Night’s Main Event” TV specials resulted in the chance for Savage, Elizabeth and other WWE stars to guest host NBC’s “Friday Night Videos” regularly. The common thread was Dick Ebersol, co-producer of “Main Event,” whose production company created “Videos,” as a weekly major-network alternative to MTV.
Savage and Elizabeth hosted the show two days before WrestleMania IV with Okerlund and Roberts, introducing music videos by INXS and Whitney Houston. They hosted again on Nov. 25, this time with Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, DiBiase and Virgil, hyping up the latest singles from Poison and Anita Baker.
OKERLUND: ”It was right about the time that MTV was making a big splash in television. So Dick, being the astute man that he was in the television business — and he certainly bore that out later in his life when he became chairman of NBC Sports — Dick had a good run with that show. His own production company, by the way. And it was very loosely written. We would know what we were coming out of and what we were going into.”
As much additional work as it created for him, Savage embraced these TV gigs and being a guest on talk shows such as “Regis & Kathie Lee.” He made sure he dressed well for those appearances.
OKERLUND: ”Randy always looked the part of a champion. He didn’t look like, you know, a bum coming off the street. He always had very extraordinary attire. When you wear yellow boots and a yellow hat, and green spandex in between. And he did have a way of entertaining people like Regis, and certainly myself because he had a little more latitude there on ‘Friday Night Videos.’ But Randy fit right in on those shows. He did very well. Probably even as well as Hogan in many instances.”
Savage saved his money, a habit he inherited from his parents. Despite the cost involved in maintaining the increasingly elaborate and colorful costumes he became famous for wearing, Savage made sure his eye-catching look never broke the bank.
OKERLUND: ”Randy was very close with a buck. How can I say it? I won’t say ‘tight.’ But he did play it close to the vest.”
POFFO: ”He kept ordering bigger and better costumes to make the last one look lousy. If he knew he was gonna be on ‘Regis,’ he would get a special costume for that. People say, ‘If he was so thrifty, why did he spend all that money on costumes?’ Well, he worked hand-in-hand with his accountant. There was a certain percentage of his income that could be spent on costumes to be a tax deduction. He would always know how much that amount was. In other words, he didn’t just spend the money like Ric Flair, just throw it up in the air and hope that he retires well. He would actually know how much he was allowed to spend out of his annual salary and then he would make sure that he spent the maximum. Everything was done intelligently.”
OKERLUND: ”Back then, everything was custom made — the boots, the belts, everything. Randy paid attention to that, and I’m sure that he had a lot of input also into the design of his outfits.”
DIBIASE: ”Randy was notoriously cheap. Here’s a guy that’s made it to the top, he’s making great money. Let’s say, for example, we’d fly to Chicago. So we’d wrestle in Chicago on Friday night, we’d wrestle in Milwaukee on Saturday night, and we’d wrestle in Green Bay on Sunday night. But after Green Bay, everybody would drive back to Chicago. We’d sleep in Chicago Sunday night, and then Monday, we’re up on a plane out of there. Well, if Randy got back to Chicago and it was already like 2 o’clock in the morning, he would not get a hotel room. He and Elizabeth would sleep in the car. I kid you not. They’d sleep in the car because Randy was like, ‘I am not gonna pay full price for a hotel room if I’m only gonna be there three hours.’ That’s the kind of guy Randy was. It certainly paid off for him because he obviously wasn’t hurting for money when he died.”
WWE champion Savage main-evented across the country that summer. His primary opponent was DiBiase. It was a very different type of main event match than WWE fans had gotten used to with Hogan on top. Savage was smaller, faster and could wrestle a more athletic style than Hogan. Likewise, DiBiase was a brilliant technician in addition to being a skilled brawler. On top of that, both characters were over big with WWE fans. Working with DiBiase made it that much easier for Savage to hold up his end of the top-guy bargain and send the fans home satisfied.
Between April 23 and SummerSlam ’88 on Aug. 29, Savage defended the WWE title against DiBiase 65 times. The matches were well received and attendance more than held up. WWE built up the Savage-DiBiase feud after WrestleMania with a TV match between Savage and Virgil on “Superstars of Wrestling,” which degenerated into a pull-apart brawl with DiBiase and Savage being separated by other wrestlers.
The Million Dollar Man was livid. Macho Man was easily provoked. From there, a feud was born.
POFFO: ”DiBiase and him had a great match. But in the back of Randy’s mind, it was always … see, Randy had a chip on his shoulder. He wanted to prove he was a great athlete, and he needed a great athlete to have that match with.”
DUGGAN: ”Any of these second-generation wrestlers are always a little more polished than the rest of us. Guys like DiBiase, Macho, Jake the Snake, Curt Hennig. Guys that grew up in the business just understood it a little better. To have DiBiase and Macho in there, that’s two of the best.”
ROBERTS: ”It was a great match, man. They worked well together. Ted was a great performer, and Randy worked well with him. To me, it was a better match than you would have seen with Hogan and DiBiase.”
PRICHARD: ”I loved the Million Dollar Man character. I think it’s one of the greatest heel characters ever created. Ted DiBiase was able to learn that role and become the Million Dollar Man, so you believed it. He believed it, and that’s what makes the difference in a great character. Putting DiBiase in that role, he was easy to hate. He was easy to believe. You wanted someone to kick his ass and give him his comeuppance. And you believed when Randy said he was gonna kick his ass, because he did.”
DIBIASE: ”In wrestling, that kind of character is like you show the people that you have talent and ability, that you can wrestle. But then you also show them that you want to take all the shortcuts and you’re a loudmouth, and when you’re confronted, you actually coward out. People never get tired of seeing that type of character get beat.”
Savage and DiBiase’s matches were met with positive reviews across the country. While Savage continued his preference for planning out matches, he was a little more willing to call it on the fly with DiBiase once they’d taken a few turns.
DIBIASE: ”At the house shows, he still liked to [plan out matches], but he wasn’t as insistent on it. That first time, I would say, yeah, we’d probably script it out. But once we’ve done it a couple of times, when we go to the next town, we’re gonna basically do the same match. That’s the other thing that I told Randy, and he was OK with it. The reason that I never scripted a match was because people in different places are not going to always respond the way you expect them to. Every crowd is not going to respond the same way to what you do. So if you do something in one town and you get a great reaction, but you go and do something in another town and it doesn’t work, then you have to have the ability to think on your feet and shift gears, and do something else. To me, the real art of pro wrestling is improv.”
STEAMBOAT: ”[Randy] was a perfectionist. I’ve heard stories that he might have been hard to work with or get along with. A lot of times it was because he saw things his way. I never had that problem with him at all. When we started putting that match together and he would make a suggestion and maybe I would throw something out there, he never, not once said, ‘Well, we’re gonna do it this way.’ He would throw a heel swerve into it, and I would come back with a babyface look, and more times than not, it would help balance out the match. He’d be all for it. He’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s great, good, let’s do that.'”
PRICHARD: “Randy was particular. I worked matches with Randy, and he wanted to have a pretty good idea of what the hell he was doing in there. But Randy could also go out in the ring and call a match in the ring. I think people take little bits of information and, ‘Well, that’s the way he was.'”
DIBIASE: ”To me, it was his way of being very professional. And we were OK. We worked it out. He was understanding of the way I felt as well. He wasn’t one of those guys where it’s my way or there’s the door.”
Three months in a row, Savage vs. DiBiase headlined at Madison Square Garden. The third match of the series was inside a steel cage. That match became infamous for an incident in which a fan climbed up the cage — possibly attempting to stop Virgil from interfering on DiBiase’s behalf — and nearly disrupted the finish of the bout.
DIBIASE: ”That day, we wrestled twice. We had a matinee in Baltimore, and in Baltimore, they put us on early, like just before intermission. That wasn’t a cage match, but it was a match. And then they shot us out to the airport, you know, for a private jet into LaGuardia, limousine into Madison Square Garden, and we’re lacing up the boots. That cage match is probably one of the better cage matches I’ve ever had, and because of the timing, Randy and I didn’t have time to sit down and map that match out like he always liked to do. That’s what I thought was kind of funny. I said, ‘Randy, we’re not gonna have time to map this thing out.’ Obviously, we got the finish and [knew] how it was gonna end.
“I had Virgil on the outside, and that was the deal, you know. Virgil kept coming up to the top of the cage. To win, you either crawl out through the gate or you go over the top. That’s what eventually drew the fan into the thing, was that. Virgil goes up the cage one more time, and the fan [followed him]. We’re all three up there. I said, ‘Virgil, get rid of that idiot! Get him out of here!’ But that’s my memory of that. The biggest memory, though, was that we had a phenomenal match, and it wasn’t mapped out. So it showed me that Randy didn’t have to have his matches mapped out to do it.”
As the summer wore on, WWE prepared to launch the first SummerSlam pay-per-view at the end of August. The main event would be Savage and a returning Hogan — together again as the Mega Powers — teaming up against DiBiase and Andre the Giant, dubbed the Mega Bucks.
Andre had been feuding with Duggan that summer, but his storyline association with DiBiase and Virgil, along with Andre’s manager Heenan, continued. As such, on the few occasions where Savage defended his title against someone other than DiBiase, it was usually against Andre.
The two famously did not see eye to eye.
DIBIASE: ”Yeah, and I don’t know why. Andre was just kind of a funny guy. For whatever reason, he wasn’t real fond of Randy. But business is business, and you gotta take care of business. So yeah, that was true. I never did understand. He didn’t talk about it and I didn’t ask him.”
POFFO: ”It was all about the baby oil. That was why Andre didn’t like him. I even asked him, ‘Why don’t you just not wear baby oil to wrestle Andre, and then wear baby oil for everybody else?’ Randy looked at me, and he said, ‘There are no exceptions. My gimmick is baby oil, just like his gimmick is being a giant.’ So because of that, they didn’t get along.”
Mega Powers, Mega Bucks, mega business
The main event of SummerSlam was set up via a series of interviews conducted by Craig DeGeorge on “Superstars of Wrestling.” It began with Savage and DiBiase taunting one another. One week, Andre the Giant showed up to distract Savage and DiBiase attacked him from behind. The Mega Bucks worked over Savage while Virgil guarded Elizabeth. Outnumbered, Savage called in his pal the Hulkster to settle things with Andre and DiBiase at SummerSlam.
On the week where the Mega Bucks accepted the challenge, DeGeorge revealed the news that Ventura would be appointed the special referee for the match. With Ventura being a heel sympathizer, The Million Dollar Man’s attempts to buy Ventura’s favor became a secondary plot point leading up the big show.
The Mega Powers were the ultimate dream team. For all of their differences, Hogan and Savage were both colorful, eye-catching performers. Teaming them together with Elizabeth in the middle of it all almost didn’t seem fair to their opponents. Their promos were absurd, yet exciting. Each promo was punctuated by an exaggerated handshake to symbolize the might of these two singularly powerful men forming an alliance.
As happy as fans were the see the Mega Powers team up, most still remembered the old Savage — the jealous, often crazed “Macho Man” that regularly flew into a rage, particularly if he perceived anyone getting too close to Elizabeth.
Heading into SummerSlam ’88, the Mega Powers vs. Mega Bucks main event had multiple layers of intrigue, especially when you add in the unfinished business between Hogan and Andre. But the true draw was the give-and-take between WWE champion Savage and returning hero Hogan, and the juxtaposition of the fans enjoying the Mega Powers supergroup while simultaneously knowing this fairy tale would eventually end badly so long as Hogan kept referring to Elizabeth as “my lady, too.”
DUGGAN: “That was a great storyline because it was very true to life. Macho was possessive of Liz, and he didn’t like anybody else to be around her, and him and Hogan always had this kind of love-hate relationship going anyway. So I think putting them together and making them the Mega Powers, even though they were a great team, there was that little bit of undercurrent going on, too, that the fans could also see.”
DIBIASE: ”They had good energy together. It’s like any other business. There’s guys you like to work with and guys you don’t like to work with. But they had a solid working relationship as well as a pretty solid friendship.”
LOMBARDI: ”Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan were the top wrestlers in that era, and the Mega Powers was a great gimmick because it just meshed. The rivalry between Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan was a natural progression.”
OKERLUND: ”[Hogan] had a lot of the clichés. The ‘let me tell you somethin’ Mean Gene,’ and a lot of ‘brothers’ in there. But it was his personality. Randy Savage, I caught him mid-stream. He had quite a bit of experience behind a mic and camera before, so even though he told a story his own way, they did have a lot of similarities, he and Hogan. Strong, strong animation. Strong character.”
ROBERTS: ”Hogan was put in a certain position to do certain things, and he carried that out well. He knew exactly what Mr. McMahon wanted, and that’s what he had to do. But Randy was the spark, he was the fire, he was the loose cannon, he was everything. He was the thing that was always questionable.”
PRICHARD: ”I thought it was done to perfection because there were so many small nuances that were done through an entire year to build up to that angle. I just thought it was expertly done. It was a great moment of storytelling all the way through that. People kept waiting, and Randy made you wait, made you wait, made you wait. But both guys were right, if you looked at it through their eyes.”
The Mega Powers got their big win over the Mega Bucks at SummerSlam. Ventura, perhaps due to DiBiase’s financial influence, had to be coaxed into slapping the mat a third time to end the match in Hogan and Savage’s favor. The finish came when Elizabeth — hyped up as the Mega Powers’ secret weapon in pre-match interviews — distracted the heels by walking across the ring apron and removing her skirt. With the heels’ eyes averted, Hogan and Savage attacked for the win.
Pre-show teases from Hogan and Savage that Elizabeth might reveal a “teeny-weeny bikini” during the match did not exactly materialize. Whether that was due to Elizabeth or Savage — or both — rejecting the idea is unclear, but the scene was still provocative by Elizabeth’s usually modest standards.
POFFO: ”I would say [Randy] was not 100 percent into that, but he was just taking the pressure from the higher-ups. He went along with it.”
PRICHARD: ”I think there was push back about having Liz in the actual bikini, yeah.”
After the match, Hogan and Elizabeth shared a hug while Savage acknowledged the crowd’s cheers. Savage looked over his shoulder at them and saw the embrace. In the midst of the big babyface post-match celebration, the old Macho Man showed up ever so briefly.
In a fleeting moment, Savage glared angrily at Hogan and Elizabeth before going back to celebrating. This was one of many teases of dissension between the Mega Powers over the course of several months. Some were so subtle they’d be easy to miss, others were far more obvious.
POFFO: ”By glancing at Hogan, he was foreshadowing the heel turn. He believed in foreshadowing.”
OKERLUND: “Randy Savage was very animated. He was able to tell the story in more than one way. And that look, that glance, I remember it like it was yesterday. It was very telling. Very telling.”
The storyline turned into a game where Savage just happened to see only the things that fed his paranoia about Hogan and Elizabeth. It was gradual, but the story built to the point where fans knew the old, ruthless Savage was coming back. It was just a matter of when.
By the time the Mega Powers broke up on an infamous edition of NBC’s “The Main Event” in 1989, Savage and Hogan were on a collision course for WrestleMania V. Propelled by Savage’s successful 1988 WWE title run and one of the better-built storylines in WWE history, the feud culminated in a WrestleMania V title win for Hogan. The show earned a reported 767,000 pay-per-view buys, a 58 percent increase over WrestleMania IV and a figure that wouldn’t be surpassed for another 10 years.
ROBERTS: ”They went into it real slow and they carried it off for a year. They’d give it a poke when they needed to poke it, and smooth it over when they needed to smooth it over, man. That’s the one thing about the main event, brother. They’re gonna put all the time in the world in to make sure that thing comes off right.”
PRICHARD: ”We gave you Randy’s version of things, and then we gave you Hulk’s version of things. Neither one was right. Neither one was wrong. It was just how they each saw it.”
DIBIASE: ”They teased it, and they teased it, and they teased it. That’s something that I think they should do today. I don’t see that so much anymore.”
POFFO: ”The jealousy thing came when the Mega Powers exploded, and everybody knows that, you know. ‘Those eyes lust for Elizabeth.’ But you know, [Randy] had to drop the belt, and they’re back in Atlantic City [for WrestleMania V]. It was the end of that trail and the beginning of another one.”
In a 2000 interview, Savage reflected on his 1988 WWE title run.
“Just winning the belt is not enough,” he said. “It’s how you carry the belt, because you’re representing not only the organization but all the fans, including yourself. So winning the belt, that’s really cool. But taking the pressure — because there is a little bit of pressure involved — and wearing it well. It’s almost like finishing your term as President of the United States and then handing it over, you know. You just don’t hand over a torch that’s not lit.”
POFFO: ”Randy had a really bad elbow [at WrestleMania V]. He went out there and wrestled against Hulk Hogan in Atlantic City and never missed a beat, even though he was in excruciating pain. He was a pro from the word go. He cared about the fans.”
And the beat goes on …
The years that followed Savage’s first WWE title reign carried many twists and turns for Randy Savage (the character) and Randy Poffo (the man).
Macho Man split with Elizabeth in storyline — and later in real life — aligning with heel manager “Sensational” Sherri Martel in what became a surprisingly potent pairing. He did a storyline as “Macho King” Randy Savage, defending the WWE’s pseudo-championship of “king of wrestling” while being carried to the ring on his throne by enhancement talent. He feuded with the likes of Roberts, Flair, the Ultimate Warrior and “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes.
There was an in-ring retirement and reunion with Elizabeth at WrestleMania VII in 1991, leading to their in-ring wedding ceremony at that year’s SummerSlam. There was the un-retirement. The shocking snake bite he suffered at the hands of one of Jake Roberts’ cobras. The second title win over Flair. The Slim Jim endorsement he inherited from the Ultimate Warrior and took to new, incredible heights.
Savage’s outfits got more and more colorful — more neon, fringe, spandex and cowboy hats. Wilder sunglasses. All the while, he remained the Macho Man, a complete original whose rise to the top was no accident, and whose place in history would be secure even 30 years later as fans who never saw him in person wear his T-shirts, share Savage-inspired memes on social media and mimic his voice for fun.
POFFO: ”He believed that you had to develop your personality and then redevelop it and continually change. Otherwise, you’re gonna die of stagnation, and these are his exact words. You can actually squeeze something until you’re beating a dead horse, but you gotta be able to keep your finger on the pulse of the public and keep changing and adapting.”
DUGGAN: ”Macho, he was very good. He was a professional. He was meticulous in the ring.”
PRICHARD: ”You look at WrestleMania V with Hogan and Savage, one of the greatest buy rates and biggest gates that we ever had in the history of the business. So I think Randy Savage, in that run, definitely held his own.”
ROBERTS: ”I’ll tell you, he didn’t like snakes. I think the one thing most people don’t know is before that cobra bit him, he made me let the cobra bite me. He wasn’t gonna let that happen until it bit me first and made sure I didn’t die.”
POFFO: ”Whatever character he was in, whatever opponent he was stuck with, he always got the most out of that person. Even the Ultimate Warrior. Whatever he was doing, he had that person’s best match.”
DIBIASE: ”I admired Randy. I thought he was a stand-up guy. Everybody has their quirks, but I mean all in all, Randy was just a consummate professional.”
LOMBARDI: ”He is an icon in my eyes. I’ve always respected him, and I always will. I’ll look up to him privileged to the fact that I got to wrestle him.”
OKERLUND: ”He was a good friend. He and his dad would sit at home on Sunday morning, when he was available, and watch ‘All-American Wrestling,’ which I hosted for, gosh, I’m thinking probably close to 10 years. I would have little bits in there. It wasn’t just wrestling. We would do some phone calls and some other things that got a little ‘Saturday Night Live’-ish, if you will. Randy would always talk to me about it the next week when we were doing interviews. He’d say, ‘My old man got a big charge out of that, heh heh.’ So we had a good line of communication.”
As Savage wrapped up his first run as WWE champion, a familiar face had risen to the rank of NWA world champion in World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Less than two years after the Savage-Steamboat classic at WrestleMania III, Steamboat (who left WWE during Savage’s 1988 title reign) won the NWA title in early 1989.
For a brief time in early 1989, the WrestleMania III show-stealers were reigning world champions of the two biggest North American promotions simultaneously.
STEAMBOAT: ”The two of us having that match at WrestleMania III, and now here we are, working for separate companies and at the same time being world champions? What were the odds? The only thing I can say is it was just destined to be.”
These days, wrestlers from Savage’s era often spend time signing autographs and taking photos with fans, many of them too young to have experienced their careers first-hand. They wear the T-shirts. They know the catch phrases. And thanks to the wide availability of footage in 2018, they’ve seen the matches.
It’s a source of pride for guys like Roberts, Okerlund and Steamboat to see how well regarded their careers are in 2018.
But for Steamboat and others that knew Randy Savage, there’s something missing.
“I only wish that he was around now to be able to sit with me, and both of us soak in at these [meet and greet] appearances, on a match that took place so long ago but people still talk about,” Steamboat said. “I only wish that he was at my side.”
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