Ooohhh yeah! Why Randy 'Macho Man' Savage is wrestling's enduring antihero

Macho Man's greatest moments (1:11)

Take a look back at some of the best moments from "Macho Man" Randy Savage's wrestling career. (1:11)

I CALLED LANNY POFFO the other day. Lanny is a former professional wrestler, and his bones play a sonata now anytime he stands up. He's 65 and divorced, and he still peppers his everyday conversation with the sweaty aphorisms of his life's work. "I'd rather have your envy than your pity!" he crows at one point as we chat about Netflix shows. Later, he explains how he spent most of his career cast as a loser in the ring. "You see, I was what we call a jabroni," he says in the way you might mention you once worked in sales.

Lanny tells a story. It is 1977. He and his big brother are just getting started in top-tier wrestling but haven't really broken through. One night, his brother says to him, "Lanny, I'm really struggling with my interviews." The interview is the part of the gig where a wrestler has to hype the match and make everyone watching feel something: love, hate, disgust, patriotism, xenophobia, whatever. It just has to be something. The worst wrestler is the boring one.

Wrestling is the ultimate copycat business, so Lanny suggests that his brother think of a wrestler named Pampero Firpo, whom the boys used to see on TV when they were teenagers living in Hawaii for a year with their dad. Firpo had a sort of croaky, gruff, ethnically ambiguous voice, and he used to end commercials by shouting, "You are watching ... the No. 1 station in Hawaii!" The ads ran all day.

Lanny tells his brother to imagine Firpo's voice -- the way it dragged like a bag of rocks -- and make it his own. A few seconds pass, and suddenly Lanny's brother pipes up.

"You ... are watching," he says, his volume starting at a whisper and rising roughly, like the words are straining to get out of his throat, "the No. 1 station in HAWAII, OH YEEEAAHH! OOOOHHHH YEAH!!!"

It is gold. They both love it right away. And Lanny laughs now, maybe a bit wistfully, as he recalls the transformation. In that moment, Lanny's brother, Randy Poffo, becomes Randy "Macho Man" Savage right in front of him.

Fame, money, travels around the world, a career that leaves Macho Man among the top wrestlers in history -- so much would grow from that night. But something was lost too.

"You know something?" Lanny says to me now, "and this is the absolute truth: After that, I never heard my brother's regular voice again."

IT'S FUNNY: THE SPORTS FIGURES who leave imprints on us when we're kids generally do so because of geography (they're on the home team) or an inspirational commonality (they do something we wish we could do better).

But there are always a few interlopers. Athletes who mean something to us who don't really fit with the rest, save for some stroke of serendipity -- that weird intersection of time and circumstance -- that somehow makes them important. Sid Bream because the Braves were always on TBS, maybe, or Craig Hodges because, man, could he shoot those 3s. Sometimes, someone random just strikes you in a way that sticks.

Macho Man is one of those for me. For most of my life, I haven't cared at all about wrestling -- like, literally known nothing about it. But for three years, starting when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I loved it.

My brothers and I watched it and talked about it. We used allowance money to buy wrestling magazines at the corner store. When one of us climbed onto the top rope (the arm of the couch) and dropped the big elbow or double ax-handle, another of us would shout, "Bombs away!" the way Gorilla Monsoon did on TV. We got up early to watch on weekends. We taped, with actual VHS tapes, "Saturday Night's Main Event."

Once, my mother, bless her, took us to a live show at the Westchester County Center. I got a high-five from Virgil and couldn't have been happier that a real wrestler's manager -- not even a real wrestler -- had sweated all over my hand. The characters were alive inside my head.

Savage was at the heart of it. He wasn't Hulk Hogan, but he was Hogan-adjacent in the late 1980s; they were friends, sort of, and Savage, who had spent most of his career as a heel, wasn't playing a bad guy anymore. For a little while, at least -- a stretch that coincided with my own fascination -- he was the opposite, a total baby face. An idol, not a devil. When he stood on the top turnbuckle and the crowd roared and he stretched his arms up high in the air, it felt like anything was possible.

"Working with Randy meant working with an absolute professional," says Ted DiBiase, a former wrestler forever known as the despicable Million Dollar Man. DiBiase laughs his inimitable laugh and says, "Randy was different than most guys. He never, ever stopped working. He would do anything -- anything -- to get over with the fans."

DiBiase isn't kidding. Flamboyant capes, bandannas, wrap-around sunglasses, devastating physical punishment, spit-flying rants, whatever it took. And Savage was also just flat-out good. One recent night, with no actual sports on TV because of the coronavirus pandemic, I fell down an internet rabbit hole of Macho Man matches from years ago and couldn't get out.

Macho Man over DiBiase, in WrestleMania IV to win the world title, the night he really turns from villain to hero. The ups and downs with Hogan, their partnership and falling-out. The MegaPowers. The fights with Big Boss Man and Akeem.

Now it's WrestleMania V, when Hogan beats Savage in a classic. Now it's SummerSlam or Survivor Series. Now it's a throwback to WrestleMania III and the 1987 match with Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat that everyone (including Savage) agrees was one of the sport's greatest of all time.

In most matches, the wrestlers know the ending ahead of time but will freelance in the ring before they get to that point; Savage was the rare wrestler who wanted to plot out every move of his match in advance, and that epic with Steamboat had 150 sequences in it. "We would quiz each other for a few weeks leading up to it to make sure we'd remember," Steamboat tells me. "Three decades later, that's the one everyone still wants to ask about."

It goes on. There's a Royal Rumble. There's Jake "the Snake" Roberts' cobra sinking his teeth into Savage's arm. There are flying elbows and suplexes and leg whips and the lovely Miss Elizabeth, who made it seem as if anyone could get a dream girl if he just ate Slim Jims and talked like he had bronchitis.

Savage was everything: Tan, chiseled, glistening, he flew around the ring like a baby-oiled velociraptor, stalking and zooming and zipping and crashing. His movements were like his speech, miniature explosions of spasmodic energy intermingled with drawn-out, languid lolls that lasted just long enough for the hair on your neck to fall and rise again. People often say that wrestlers are like actors, but they're really more like magicians. Their job isn't to convince us that what we're seeing is real; it's to perform so well, so masterfully, that we simply stop caring.

I was transfixed on my sofa that night, lost in the memories. For centuries, scientists saw feelings of nostalgia as something harmful, indicative of a person who was depressed and melancholy. It is only in the past 10 or 15 years that studies have begun to show nostalgia's value as a release valve, an escape hatch that actually helps us confront the present, not avoid it. And isn't that exactly what we need now more than ever?

LANNY UNDERSTANDS WHY I'm calling, though. He knows what time of year it is. So he tells another story.

On May 19, 2011, Lanny goes to Randy's house to hang out and have a few beers. Randy asks Lanny to bring Miller Lite, then berates Lanny -- lovingly, as brothers do, but also in full Macho Man style -- when Lanny shows up with MGD. The brothers sit and talk and laugh.

As Lanny leaves, Randy walks with him out to the car and admires how Lanny seems to move without much of a limp or shuffle. "I've got to hand it to you -- you really SURVIVED THIS BUSINESS!" he growls at his brother.

Lanny stops. "So did you," he says, and Randy shakes his head. He grimaces.

"No, I didn't," he says. "I'm in pain all the time." The brothers say good night.

The next morning -- nine years ago today -- Randy has a heart attack while driving near his Florida home and crashes into a tree. He dies at a local hospital. He is 58. The autopsy reveals that he had an enlarged heart with severe blocking of his coronary arteries.

In sum, the story of Randy Poffo's life is very nearly one and the same with the story of the Macho Man's. That is what everyone says about Savage -- that unlike most other wrestlers, he never turned off. What Lanny said about Randy's voice vanishing for good? It wasn't hyperbole. Even years later, when Savage would talk to Lanny's young daughter, it was, "Hello, BIGGUN! How ya DOING?"

DiBiase talks about protecting the kayfabe, the unwritten rule that the wrestlers should stay in character and maintain the illusion outside the ring. With Savage, that was never a problem; there was no differentiation, he was just Macho Man all the time. "Even when he was speaking quietly, it was always with the gravel," Steamboat tells me. "It wasn't a character; it was just him."

Some of the specifics about that overlap are endearing, like how Savage's friendship with George Steinbrenner led him to read the "'Twas the night before Christmas" poem every year to Tampa-area children ("Not even a mouse, OH YEAH!"), or how he would tell kids who stopped him that he would sign an autograph but only if they promised to keep their grades up (snarling, "If you don't, little Timmy ... it's gonna be BIG TROUBLE FOR YOU!").

Other details are just funny, like how Savage would use the Yellow Pages to find a tanning salon in every city he worked so he could maintain his bronzing, or how he never lost his thriftiness, even as his personal wealth soared. Whenever the WWF did a show in Green Bay, Wisconsin, DiBiase says, everyone would drive to Chicago and stay at an airport hotel before flying out the next morning. "But Randy didn't want to pay for a room for just a few hours," DiBiase tells me, "so he and Elizabeth would sleep in their rental car and then just return it before their flight."

Much of the Macho Man story, though, is about tragedy. Savage's relationship with Miss Elizabeth (whose real name was Elizabeth Hulett) was tortured, the intermingling between real and fictitious playing out in disturbing ways.

In an interview for a Vice documentary, Bruce Prichard, a WWF performer and executive, says the setup for the relationship between Savage and Elizabeth was designed to be that "they wanted you to love Elizabeth and hate Randy," and the plotlines were always written to highlight Savage's uncomfortable aggression toward her. During one bit, Savage ripped a picture of Elizabeth out of a magazine and threw the paper in her face, angry that there wasn't a picture of him; in another, he told her to "shut up and keep polishing" his championship belt when she spoke to him. During matches, he often jumped out of the ring and yelled at her if she moved away from the corner where he'd told her to stand. He would hold her chin in his hand, threateningly. Then, and now, it is hard not to wince as you watch it.

It wasn't only a gimmick; Savage really wouldn't let anyone talk to Elizabeth even behind the scenes, really did seem paranoid about someone else in the business making a move on her. "A lot of people wonder, 'Did Randy really control her in and out of the ring?' Absolutely," Jimmy Hart, a longtime wrestling manager, says in the documentary. "You can't smother somebody all the time like that."

Linda Bollea, who is Hulk Hogan's ex-wife and was close with Elizabeth, says she saw her friend's patience running out. "He was definitely in charge of that relationship, and she was just the tagalong," Bollea says. "That may have been where a lot of the issues started."

Savage and Elizabeth met in real life in 1982 and were married in 1984, but by the time WWE staged a "wedding" for their characters in 1991, their real-life relationship had collapsed. Their split in 1992 was sad, ugly and, to just about everyone who knew them, inevitable. Miss Elizabeth died of a drug and alcohol overdose in 2003.

Lanny doesn't put any shine on it. "What you remember from when you were 9?" Lanny says to me as we reminisce. "It wasn't what was really going on. His marriage was falling apart."

He hesitates. "It was just ... hard a lot for Randy," he says.

LANNY NEVER CAME CLOSE to his brother's level of fame in the ring, but there is no bitterness in his voice as we talk, only sadness. While Randy's world exploded with big matches and endorsements and even appearances in movies like "Spider-Man," Lanny muddled along the fringes. His best-known gimmick was when he played The Genius, a wrestler who read snarky poems before matches, but even the rushes he had with that were just putting some polish on what he calls a "bum of the month" gig.

His highlight came in 1989, when he showed up to a Saturday Night's Main Event card expecting to get beaten by Hogan, only to have Hogan tell him that it was his night to pull a surprise upset. Stunned, Lanny accepted what he knew was a gift -- "it was 100% because of how well my brother had been working with Hogan" -- and got to feel, even just for a short time, the warmth of the spotlight.

He loved it but knew it wouldn't last. Randy and Hogan had a falling-out. Lanny's days of regular work on the big stage were over by the early '90s. The WWF's golden era ended, and Randy kept going, pushing on with a rival promotion. Lanny worked part time at a car dealership. He wrestled occasionally in independent shows and took care of his parents in Florida. Angelo Poffo died in 2010 after a battle with dementia; his wife, Judy, died in 2017.

"I have survivor's guilt," Lanny says now. "My whole career sucked. I was a journeyman. I've never done anything in my life that was more impressive than the Macho Man. Except live longer."

In truth, part of me cringes when Lanny goes into all that happened to his brother: the real-life issues with Elizabeth; the real animosity with Hogan that included a god-awful rap CD featuring a Hulk diss track; the WCW days and the Macho King gimmick; the isolation in retirement and the way his skin was fried from all the tanning beds and his face was burned from all the Just for Men in his beard. All of it happened long after I went away from wrestling. All of it happened long after Savage was sparkling and vibrant and frozen in amber as my superman on the top rope, both of us leaping as someone shouted "Bombs away!" down below. Even so much later, it feels strange to think of him any other way.

But Lanny has to do that all the time. He doesn't watch much wrestling anymore, he says, and that helps. It also helps to know that his brother found a measure of peace before his death. Savage married Linda Payne about a year before he died and even settled things with Hogan after they ran into each other at a doctor's office.

Savage had regrets, Lanny says, but no misgivings. He knew the life he was choosing the moment the two brothers discovered that voice.

"The MACHO MAN, YEAH!" Lanny cries out, the impression so good it's as if Randy is suddenly there. Lanny sighs.

"I like talking about him," Lanny murmurs. "I like remembering stuff."

He goes silent then, for a long beat. "Me too, Lanny," I say finally, and there is a deep breath on the other end of the line.

Then Lanny starts another story about Savage and Steamboat, and we talk for a little while longer.