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A Savage by any other name

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Part One of Three

For years as a young fan in Memphis in the 1970s, my only television exposure to the “wild and wooly” (as Lance Russell might say) world of professional wrestling was Jerry Jarrett’s “Championship Wrestling” program, which aired Saturday mornings at 11 a.m. on channel 5, WMC-TV, the local NBC affiliate. That all changed around 1980, when another wrestling promotionled by outrageous ICW World heavyweight champion Randy “Macho Man” Savagestarted appearing at 10 a.m. on channel 24, WPTY, the market’s first UHF outlet and independent station.

Family circus: The Poffos were not exactly the Waltons.

Family circus: The Poffos were not exactly the Waltons.

International Championship Wrestling, an “outlaw” promotion operated by Angelo Poffo, ran some of the same towns as the Memphis territory in Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee, making them enemies of promoter Jarrett and his crew. Much like Vince McMahon Jr. upon taking over the World Wrestling Federation following his father’s death in 1984, Poffo and the ICW crossed traditional territorial boundaries, with the idea of providing direct competition in an area already red-hot for wrestling.

The similarities between McMahon and Poffoand their respective promotionsend right there.

ICW was a low-budget production—even for studio wrestling of the time—with a crew of NWA outcasts like Ronnie Garvin, Bob Orton Jr., “Hustler” Rip Rogers (one of the weirdest guys in the business, which covers a hell of a lot of ground), “Leaping” Lanny Poffo, Pez Whatley and Bob Roop, all solid workers. (Not to mention the legendary Izzy Slapowitz.) They even brought in the original Sheik (Ed Farhat) for appearances after he’d pretty much killed the Detroit territory. To give you an idea of the money the ICW boys were making back then, Angelo worked cards under a hood as The Miser, and many would say he lived his gimmick like no other.

The show’s opening featured violent scenes of wrestling mayhem cut to the theme from “The Midnight Express,” which might have inspired a certain young photographer in Louisville. The ICW at one point also featured the best-looking announcer that era (granted, that’s not saying too much when your competition is Lance Russell and Gordon Solie): the late Liz Hulette, who would achieve fame in the WWF as Miss Elizabeth. Hulette got her start as the TV camera operator who would tape the boys’ promos at her father’s small station in Somerset, Kentucky. In the early days, the story goes that Liz was an attractive-yet-overweight mark who developed a crush on ICW star Savage, who in reality (and I use that term loosely in association with this family) was Randy Poffo, the son of promoter Angelo. Liz dropped some weight, caught the eye of Savage, and the two began dating.

Savage had grown up a hell of an athlete, a two-time All-State catcher at Downers Grove North High School near Chicago. According to The Minor League Register, Randy was the only player signed out of a 200-player open tryout by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971. Eventually, he suffered a severe muscle tear and ligament separation in his throwing arm and was released by the Cardinals. Instead of retiring because of the injury, Randy taught himself to throw left-handed. The now left-handed Poffo returned in 1974 with the Cincinnati Reds’ Florida State League affiliate, the Sarasota Reds. Despite the fact that he finished third in the league in RBI (66) and tied for fifth in home runs, he was released by the Reds. He signed with the Chicago White Sox for 1975, but was released at the end of spring training. He gave up on baseball to pursue wrestling full time after working under a hood as the Spider during the off-season. (Ironically enough, Savage would appear in Sam Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” film as the opponent of the hooded Peter Parker.)

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. In my eyes, he was a true psychopath, especially when he would “freak out.” Not only was his presence amazing, but he could also already work his ass off, with fantastic, wild, physical matches the norm. 

But the ICW stars’ most scathing shoot comments were reserved for promoter Jarrett and his boys. Instead of building up their talent and airing promos related to upcoming cards, the ICW’s Roop, Garvin, Orton Jr. and especially Savage usually used their interview time to blast Memphis stars Jerry Lawler, Tojo Yamamoto, Bill Dundee and The Dream Machine repeatedly, challenging them to fights. Savage exposed Tojo as Harold Wantanabe during one promo, while Orton revealed the identity of the Dream Machine as Troy Graham. Roop, a legit bad ass, threatened to “stretch” Lawler, while Savage continually goaded “Jerry ‘the Queen’ Lawler.” To me, they came off like a bunch of bad-ass renegades. ICW even placed newspaper ads challenging Lawler and Dundee to show up on ICW cards to face Roop, offering thousands of dollars if they could last five or 10 minutes with the former amateur star. Wisely, the King and the Superstar followed the advice of Jarrett and ignored these threats, despite the fact they would only have to risk a turkey and a chicken vs. $5,000 of the Miser’s money.

 

What sort of man reads Playboy? He is an entertaining, young guy happily living the good life. He is his own man. An individualist. And he can afford to express himself in the women he dates and the way he dresses. Oh, yeeahhh!

What sort of man reads Playboy? He is an entertaining, young guy happily living the good life. He is his own man. An individualist. And he can afford to express himself in the women he dates and the way he dresses. Oh, yeeahhh!

The elder Double J had little to be concerned about, as ICW was never true competition, drawing crowds in the hundreds at the Cook Convention Center in Memphis, while Jarrett continued to average nearly 5,000 fans a week in the friendly confines of the Mid-South Coliseum, despite the fact that top draw Lawler was on the sidelines mending a broken leg. For most of that year, Jarrett had been building to the return of the King the following, picking up the slack until then with top babyfaces “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant, Dundee and CWA “World” champ Billy Robinson (who was the antithesis of Savage as champion) and heels Tommy “Wildfire” Rich, Austin Idol, the Blonde Bombers and Dutch Mantel.

Still, the ICW crew was persistent in their bids for attention, actually showing up one night at Louisville Gardens before security removed them.  Many in Jarrett’s crew took to traveling to towns armed with guns, a strategy that backfired on Dundee. Reportedly, Savage confronted Dundee in a parking lot in 1982, and the Superstar pulled a handgun. Savage wrestled the weapon away from Dundee, and busted his jaw and eye with the weapon. Dundee was out for weeks and returned to TV claiming that some guys had jumped him outside a gym.

Savage and his rival Garvin (then nicknamed the “One Man Gang”…years before ICW wrestler Crusher Broomfield would use the same moniker as a headliner in the UWF and WWF) often cut televised shoot-like promos on each other, more than a decade before those type of interviews became almost the norm in ECW and WCW. For example, when Savage’s shoplifting arrest for attempting to walk out of a Kentucky supermarket with a steak stuffed down his jeans made the local newspaper, Garvin brought out the clipping on the show to humiliate the so-called heavyweight champion of the world.

 

Steaking his reputation: The World heavyweight champion should never have to pay for his groceries.

Steaking his reputation: The World heavyweight champion should never have to pay for his groceries.

Inside the ring, ICW TV was entertaining as hell, despite the overall minor-league feel to the show. The booking  was creative yet camp (yes, even by Memphis standards). The stipulations were borderline silly, e.g., matches where the loser would have to wear a mop on his head or a T-shirt that read “Sissy.”

With ICW on its last legs by December 1983, Angelo and Savage went to work for Jarrett, who set aside his personal animosity toward the Poffos so he could abide by his booking philosophy that personal issues draw money. After all, for years in the area, nothing had been more personal than Savage’s verbal assaults on Lawler. For some reason, though, Jarrett didn’t acknowledge Savage’s past as ICW champ, and they didn’t portray the Macho Man as an outsider, which would have been ahead of its time back then.

Instead, Jarrett, who was attempting to recreate some of the magic of the original Quest for the Title program from the 1970s, billed Savage as the No. 7 contender for Nick Bockwinkel’s AWA World title, the King’s next stepping stone toward the championship. (Lawler had beaten “No. 8 contender” Ken Patera the previous week.) Nevertheless, a lot of fans in Memphis, Lexington and Louisville knew exactly who Savage was after years of those ICW promos. The first match between the King and the Macho Man drew about 9,000 fans in Memphis (a lineup also bolstered by the first meeting between the Fabulous Ones and the Road Warriors), while Louisville and Lexington drew strong houses as well.

Savage’s first appearance in the WMC-TV studio was actually a recreation of a classic Terry Funk angle from years back. Savage and Angelo stormed the set and took over the show. Eventually, Lance Russell got hot, threatening to call the police if father and son didn’t leave the premises. The following week, Savage talked about Lawler’s dad “being dead in a grave somewhere. He’s not healthy, man!” Wicked stuff.

In spring 1984, Savage started eerily referring to Angelo as “Six-O-Three-Three.” I was clueless at first, until it was revealed that Macho Man Sr. was recognized by Ripley’s Believe It or Not for shattering the record for completing the most sit-ups: 6,033. The feat, which took more than four hours, an average of one sit-up every 2.5 seconds, was Poffo’s second attempt at the record. The first time, he completed more than 5,000 to apparently break the record; however, he was later told that he had used the wrong form. (Man, that had to be a bitch to…stomach.) In Memphis, Poffo eventually took to wearing a black jumpsuit with large white numerals commemorating the accomplishment.

Working with Jarrett and Lawler, the Macho Man gimmick began to evolve in the mid-’80s, making Savage one of the hottest heels in the area, feuding over the NWA Mid-America title with the likes of Dutch Mantel and Terry Taylor. Savage really clicked with Mantel, as the two had feuded years earlier in Nashville over the same title for promoter Nick Gulas. Savage went on to trade the International title with Austin Idol, with the promos between the two fantastic.

With his brother Lanny, Savage briefly feuded with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, which was kicked off when the Macho Man piledrove Ricky Morton through the announcer’s table on June 25, 1984. At the time, that was one of the most devastating moves I’d ever seen. I was in the audience that night, and I swear I thought Savage had killed Ricky. Several guys in the audience roared their approval and traded high-fives—the “Holy Shit!” chant equivalent of the day. The celebrate the accomplishment, the following Saturday morning, a weird video aired featuring Savage and Lanny posing to the tune of the Michael Jackson/Mick Jagger song “State of Shock,” with clips of  Sir Lanny wearing a suit of armor reading the Wall Street Journal and a shot of a rabid dog (Terry Funk’s Ol’ Shep, perhaps?) barking its head off. (Savage was probably sticking a foreign object up the poor pooch’s ass.) The video closed with a great shot of Savage drilling the little rock ‘n’ roller through the table.

By this time, 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. All my friends and I imitated his classic catchphrases “Dig it!” and “Oh, yeeaaahhh…” and “Doing the thing!”

A huge babyface run was just an elbowsmash away.

 

Next Week: Macho Madness Runs Wild

 

ICW Newspaper Clipping

 

Turkeys, chickens, midgets and bears, oh my! Lawler and Dundee did not show up. But from what I understand the maimed, one-eyed fan from the audience still proudly displays the beautiful trophy he won for lasting two minutes with the Wrestling Bear.

Turkeys, chickens, midgets and bears, oh my! Lawler and Dundee did not show up. But from what I understand the maimed, one-eyed fan from the audience still proudly displays the beautiful trophy he won for lasting two minutes with the Wrestling Bear.

 

 

Classic ICW, Savage Clips

 

 

  1. July 10th, 2009 at 15:17 | #1

    To me, Savage in Memphis was really Savage at his best. He may have had better matches in WWF and later WCW (although that cage match with Garvin and the LLT match with Lawler are pretty damn good), but the character was at it”s peak in Memphis. He came across almost feral. Legitimately scary.

  2. July 11th, 2009 at 08:34 | #2

    Great article, Scott. When I was a kid back in the early to mid-80s, I would buy the Apter mags to find out what was happening in the Mid-Southern area and the other territories I didn”t have access to. I love this account of Macho man”s pre-WWF run. Looking forward to the next two installments.

    WrestlingTweets

  3. Old School Sammy
    July 12th, 2009 at 09:06 | #3

    Another fine piece Scott,

    By the way, do we have any fun stories why Rip Rogers was so weird?

  4. Old School Sammy
    July 14th, 2009 at 20:41 | #4

    Scott–kinda lame you call a guy “weird” and you don”t embellish it. If he”s a poop in the shoe kinda guy, what”s the problem with a few anecdotes?

    calling someone out as “weird” without back-up, no offense, is a good way to lose respect, which sucks, because I think you are doing a phenomenal job on this site with the history you bring out—kinda sad you can call a guy out as weird and not back it up, not everyone has knowledge of 20 plus year old history….weak

  5. admin
    July 15th, 2009 at 08:29 | #5

    Old School, maybe that”s because the column is about Randy Savage–not Rip Rogers. You”d have a point if I mentioned that Savage was weird and didn”t follow up. (Incidentally, since when is referring to one of the boys as weird “calling them out”? Hell, most of the wrestlers from the ”70s and ”80s were weird–some more than others. Today, you don”t need 20 years of wrestling knowledge to learn more about a performer from the ”80s–but since it seems you”re unable to conduct a google search on your own…Mick Foley for one describes the Hustler as a guy “who despite Rogers” considerable talents, never received a solid push because his backstage humor (too weird even by wrestlers” standards, such as unclogging toilets with his bare hands and running anus-first down hotel hallways) consistently put off the promoters.” I”d also heard from Tommy Rich that Rogers would do just about anything on a dare in the dressing room–and if you remotely offend Rich on anything, you must be a little off.

  6. MG
    July 16th, 2009 at 19:08 | #6

    I used to get ICW Wrestling in my area but not Memphis so I never saw the promos against the Memphis stars. (I live in central Illinois.)

    First show I saw had Savage crippling Leaping Lanny”s manager, Wee Willie. His intensity and ability made him stand out from everyone else.

  7. Steve
    July 17th, 2009 at 09:02 | #7

    MG,
    actually, Wee Willie was Ronnie Garvin”s manager. Garvin had Willie dress up like Savage”s manager, Steve Cooper, just to piss off the Macho Man. The attack on Wee Wille was just a small part of one of the greatest angles I”ve ever scene simply called “The Sting”. Bob Roop is on Facebook. Maybe someday he”ll share with us how this angle came to be.

  8. MG
    July 23rd, 2009 at 18:30 | #8

    Sorry, Steve.

    I just saw a replay of the footage of Savage attacking Wee Willie so I never saw the angle as it originally played out.

    Lanny called Willie his manager when he was interviewed during the replay so that”s why I thought he was. I think they did it in order to push a rematch between Savage and Lanny in our area.

  9. July 25th, 2009 at 08:05 | #9

    The ultimate website in Randy Savage visuals is located at

    http://www.freewebs.com/icwpoffouniverse/

    pictures of ads from his career, high school photos , wardrobe selections, career match listings , just more info than you can fathom.

    The booking picture shown here is from the Nashville Tennessee incident Dutch Mantel described on my site. Not at all related to the ICW era incident involving the steak.

    Good write up about Savage and his career path .

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