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The Macho Man in Memphis: Jerry Lawler recalls working against–and with–Randy Savage

May 27th, 2011 2 comments

One Tuesday afternoon in 1979, Jerry Lawler was on the road, traveling to Kentucky for that night’s matches at Louisville Gardens, a regular weekly stop on the loop of the Memphis wrestling territory. Knowing the King was away from his castle, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, the star of International Championship Wrestling (ICW), an outlaw group running opposition to Jerry Jarrett’s promotion, seized the moment.

For months, Savage had been issuing shoot challenges to Lawler on ICW TV, which aired locally in Memphis on independent UHF channel 24 an hour before the 11 a.m. Jarrett wrestling show on channel 5 WMC-TV, the local NBC affiliate. Savage and another ICW grappler, Bob Roop, who had an impressive amateur wrestling background and was known to stretch a guy or two, had even paid for newspaper ads offering $1,000 for Memphis stars Lawler and Bill Dundee to show up to fight them on ICW cards at the Memphis Cooke Convention Center and on shows at local armories and high-school gyms throughout Tennessee and Kentucky. Some ads took jabs at Lawler’s physique, with Savage offering to put up big bucks if the King would agree to sacrifice a prized doughnut to the Macho Man should he lose.

Winner takes the dough: Lawler ignored Savage's challenges for years.

On this particular Tuesday, Savage stood in front of Lawler’s house as a camerman recorded the Macho Man pounding on his door and making threats to come out and fight like a man. When Lawler “failed to answer the door,” Macho Man said it was proof that the King was a Queen, a coward, a chicken. Lawler watched in disbelief as the Jarrett crew gathered around a TV prior to the start of their own show with the Macho Man mouthing off on his lawn as the footage aired on ICW.

“I said something like, ‘Hey, that’s my house!’ I thought the guy was nuts, to be honest,” Lawler says. “After this maniac literally showed up at my doorstep, I wanted to blast him on the air, but Jerry Jarrett and I realized that doing so would give them the credibility they so desperately craved. So, I kept my mouth shut, figuring that eventually he and his little group would just go away.”

Despite threats from Savage vowing to track him down, Lawler never encountered the ICW champion on the road; however, Dundee wasn’t so lucky. The two exchanged words inside a diner when Dundee left for his car to grab a gun–many on the Jarrett crew had taken to carrying a piece in anticipation of this very situation. Savage allegedly wrestled the gun away from Dundee and reportedly pistol-whipped him, breaking his jaw in the process. After missing in action for months, Dundee later claimed on Memphis TV that he was jumped outside a gym, though some recall him blaming the injury on a horse that bucked him off. Either way, the number-two star in Jarrett’s company was embarrassingly knocked off his high horse by the Macho Man.

The intuition of Lawler and Jarrett proved correct: Poffo’s promotion eventually went under in 1983. Savage’s shoot promos had given him a dangerous reputation within the business and not many promoters were willing to  risk hiring him. Savage, who by this time was becoming one of the best workers and most colorful personalities in the business, was essentially blacklisted. Jarrett, however, saw dollar signs in a Lawler vs. Savage feud. After all, the Macho Man had been promoting the match for years.


When Lawler confirmed with Jarrett that he was willing to place business ahead of personal animosity, the Memphis promoter called Savage, who got emotional over the phone when told that the men he’d been running down for years on TV wanted to work with him.

“It had gotten so personal between us that we knew it would draw,” Lawler says. “That was always our philosophy–’personal issues draw money.’ There were still plenty of bad feelings, as we felt they were running opposition and trying to cut into our business, while these ICW guys were just trying to survive and eat. The hatred between two us had so much credibility in the fans’ eyes that we didn’t even really advertise the first match all that much. Randy and I went to Lexington and nearly sold out the building, which was unheard of at Rupp Arena. We did it like a shoot, where we had an ICW referee and one of our own referees, I think Paul Morton, to keep it fair. After everything that had gone done, I guess you could say I was a little concerned if we could work together, but we never had any problems. I heard from so many guys later who worked with him that he was always so paranoid about his matches and wanted to work out everything in advance. Randy was never that way with me. He was intense yet laid-back, very easy to work with–I think we had some good matches.”

The first Lawler vs. Savage match in Memphis in December 1983 drew over 8,000 fans to the Coliseum, including 12-year-old Scott Bowden.

As a young fan, I was quickly fascinated with Savage, who delivered some of the most unique, craziest promos I’d ever seen. With a shrieking, throaty delivery that almost sounded like he was speaking with a mouthful of barbed wire, Savage’s uncontrollable rage was evident in his quivering voice. His celebratory promos featured scantily clad women, snakes and confetti—a true wrestling champion in every sense of the word. Savage kept that edgy persona with Jarrett, even going so far as to badmouth Lawler’s deceased father on live Memphis TV.

After months in the territory, Savage, despite being a heel, was starting to develop a following as he was so damn entertaining on the mic, and his matches were often the best on the card. By the summer of ’84, all my friends and I imitated his classic catchphrases: “Dig it!”, “Oh, yeeaaahhh…”, “Freak out!” and “Doing the thing!” A huge babyface run was just an elbowsmash away. It came when Lawler was being triple-teamed by heels Rick Rude, King Kong Bundy and Jimmy Hart. Savage rushed to ring and saved his former rival leading to some heated tag matches, with the foursome sparking houses around the area in 1984.

“Randy was sort of like ‘Handsome’ Jimmy [Valiant] in that sense,” Lawler says. “He was so off the wall and entertaining, even as a heel, that gradually the people started to like him. In those days, you listened to what the fans wanted and gave it to them. And just like that, Randy was hot again, teaming with me.”

Every woman's dream: The Macho Man and Handsome Jimmy, two of the most charismatic personalities ever in wrestling, joined forces briefly in Memphis.

With Vince McMahon and Jim Crockett continuing to cherry pick the nation’s top stars from the territories in 1985, it was only natural that the WWF would come calling for the Macho Man, just as Savage had turned heel again, reigniting a hot feud with Lawler over the Southern title. The feud drew even better in Memphis this time around, with Savage attempting to take Lawler’s eye out on TV and eventually put him out of action for a couple weeks until the King could make his triumphant return. No one was safe from the Macho Man’s wrath this time around, even well-known Japanese photographer Jimmy Suzuki.

With the King on the sidelines, Savage pinned former AWA World champion Nick Bockwinkel at the Mid-South Coliseum with the piledriver, Lawler’s finisher. For years, Lawler had struggled to beat Bockwinkel in World title matches, and Savage had made it look easy, prompting the Macho Man to declare himself “the Southern heavyweight champion of the world.”

After reaching a deal with Vince at Jarrett’s insistence that he go to New York and take the money,Savage insisted on doing jobs his final two weeks out of loyalty, rather than jump ship with the belt. A loser-leaves-town showdown with Lawler drew over 9,000 fans in June 1985 and is considered the King’s best match of that year. In his Saturday morning promo building up the match, Lawler claimed that he had too much invested in the city to actually leave, so instead, he’d simply retire if he lost. The stakes were high–and the match delivered. Turns out–things didn’t turn out so bad for Savage, even in losing.

“People think the wrestling war started with WWE and WCW in the late ’90s, but the mid-’80s were just as competitive, if not worse, ” Lawler says. “Just when somebody would get hot in our territory, Vince would grab them. I’ll say this for Randy–he did the traditional thing. He did jobs around the horn on the way out and dropped the belt back to me. When we started working with WWE in the early ’90s, he was happy to come back and we started all over again. I always enjoyed working with him. Intensity-wise, he was one of the best, and the people believed in him.”


Macho memories: WWE, CM Punk pay tribute to Randy Savage on May 23 RAW

May 24th, 2011 3 comments

Come up to meet ya, tell you I’m sorry
You don’t know how lovely you are
I had to find you, tell you I need ya
And tell you I set you apart
Tell me your secrets, and nurse me your questions
Oh let’s go back to the start

Nobody said it was easy
It’s such a shame for us to part
Nobody said it was easy.
No one ever said it would be so hard
I’m going back to the start

RAW emotion: Let's go back to the start--the first RAW announce team of Bobby "the Brain" Heenan, Vince McMahon and the late Randy "Macho Man" Savage.

Last night, WWE produced a touching tribute to one of its greatest superstars of all time, Randy “Macho Man” Savage. Regarded for years as the one of the biggest, most colorful personalities in the company, along with Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper, the Macho Man was responsible for much of the WWF’s success throughout the mid-’80s to early ’90s. He was more than that, though. Like Hogan, the top dog, Savage’s popularity transcended wrestling fans, capturing the imagination of the general public with his incredible promo skills and even more impressive in-ring ability. But while Hogan entertained the masses and sent them home happy with his ring psychology and showmanship, it was usually the pure athleticism of the Savage match that folks leaving the arena were talking about. (Case in point: the classic Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat match at WrestleMania III, which stole the show and is considered the greatest ever despite being on the undercard of the most publicized main event of all time: Hogan vs. Andre the Giant.)

The Macho Punk: CM honors his fallen idol with ring gear reminiscent of Savage.

By 1986, Savage was widely considered by his peers and “smart fans” alike as the one of the top five workers in the world. His babyface turn and WWF title win at WrestleMania IV cemented that reputation with the company’s mainstream audience and kids worldwide.

Although Savage took Ted Turner’s money like everyone else in the late ’90s and jumped ship to WCW, Vince McMahon seemed to hold a grudge against his former champion that went well beyond professional reasons. Some have speculated that Savage may have had an affair with a young Stephanie McMahon, but that’s never been substantiated. (Though she sure seems to have a thing for wrestlers…sports entertainers…whatever.) For more than a decade, McMahon vetoed Savage-related merchandise, even though WCW had long been dead and buried.

In recent years, though, McMahon seemed to have mellowed on the Macho Man. The first indication that the heat was dying down was when Savage, an integral part of so many “Saturday Night’s Main Event” episodes on NBC (which at one time were doing better numbers than the network’s “Saturday Night Live” in the same time slot), was featured on the cover of the DVD collection. McMahon later agreed to a Macho Man DVD, though it consisted of only several of his most memorable bouts and not the documentary treatment that he deserved.

The biggest strides in repairing the relationship with Savage appeared to occur over last summer, when word spread that Mattel would be releasing Macho Man action figures–the first in 12 years. The Macho Man himself put an exclamation on the announcement with a video that aired at San Diego’s Comic-Con.

McMahon clearly realized that it made good business sense to mend fences with Savage, especially with Hogan tied up with TNA. Not only did Savage appear on the cover art of the new “WWE All Stars” video game but he also cut one heck of a promo putting the game over.

Undoubtedly, Savage was way overdue to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, which would likely be set up with appearances on Monday Night RAW where he could perhaps put the issue to rest with McMahon once and for all in front of a worldwide audience. Savage’s mainstream appeal could have done wonders in bringing old-school fans back, as most people over 40 feel a disconnect with today’s WWE product. And for Savage, who lived and breathed his character 24/7, he most likely would have had a hell of a lot of fun. Perhaps most important, he would have been recognized by his peers and McMahon as one of the greatest all-around performers of all time. In a business that quickly forgets its heroes, a rebirth for the Macho Man would have been good for all concerned. But it was not to be.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the selection of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” for the Macho memorial video seemed to reflect regret on behalf of the company, perhaps even McMahon personally, for not burying the hatchet sooner and talking things out like men. Regardless, any longtime fan of Randy Savage had to be moved. Clearly, the moment was not lost on CM Punk, who paid tribute to Savage with rather macho ring gear in last night’s RAW main event. With a Punk/Cena program reportedly in the works before the build to the Champ’s title match with Alberto Del Rio at SummerSlam, I was hoping the Macho Punk would get the win with an elbow from the top rope. Still, it was cool to see Bret Hart apply the Sharpshooter on Punk, who at least sold the hold, unlike Michael Cole, who strolled out to ringside last night unscathed from his previous punishment endured locked in the Hitman’s finisher the night before. (It’s the little details that are missing nowadays.)

Without further ado…behold the madness of the Macho Man.

The ultimate tribute: Jim Hellwig remembers Randy Savage

May 23rd, 2011 No comments

Purple reign: The Macho King lost the battle, but won the girl at WrestleMania VII.

Generally regarded as one of the top-20 most memorable WrestleMania matches of all time, the Ultimate Warrior (Jim Hellwig) defeated the Macho King, Randy Savage, in the seventh annual WWE extravaganza in Los Angeles. Billed as a “Retirement Match,” at a time when stipulations like that still mattered to the fans, the showdown served as the catalyst to turn the Macho Man babyface and reunite Savage and Miss Elizabeth, who was watching near ringside, with the camera cutting to her emotional face at times during bout.

In a not-so-sublte moment of foreshadowing, instead of his crown, the Macho King wore a white hat mixed with splotches of purple to the ring.

The Macho Man’s wicked new valet, Sensational Queen Sherri (Martel), was the antithesis to Miss Elizabeth, and the heel royal couple from hell delivered some fantastic prematch promos leading up to the match. The bout itself was one of Warrior’s best, in that same limited category as Hellwig’s bouts with Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania VI and vs. Rick Rude at 1990′s SummerSlam. After shaking off five of the Macho Man’s patented elbow smashes from the top rope, the Warrior rallied for the win, seemingly ending the career of quite possibly the most macho champion in Former Federation history.

When Sherri unceremoniously denounced her king post-match, Elizabeth uncharacteristically made the save in aggressive fashion, and the couple reunited, with Savage opening the ropes for her exit from the ring…a turnabout show of chivalry after years of Liz serving his every whim. When Randy hoisted his beloved squeeze on his shoulders, similar to their post-title celebration at WrestleMania IV, Liz appeared to be legitimately crying–though that could be because she realized this meant another eventual run on the road with the notoriously jealous Macho Man. (It’s still hard to believe that Liz, Sherri and Randy are all no longer with us. Great…now I’m crying.)


WWE Wrestlemania 7 – Randy Savage vs… by Joe81425

Although already married in “real life,” (as always, I use that term with a grain of Mr. Fuji’s salt in reference to this business in any way), Savage, who transitioned to a babyface WWF announcer in “retirement, “courted Elizabeth on the air over the next few months, culminating with their “wedding” at SummerSlam 1991…and opening the dressing-room door for Randy’s in-ring return for feuds with Jake Roberts (who sent a rather thoughtless, slithering wedding gift) and Ric Flair (who claimed Liz was a fast-pass holder for Space Mountain in years past and therefore was “damaged goods).

In most likely the most coherent, candid interview ever by the Warrior, Hellwig graciously remembers his former colleague, who passed Friday at 58.