REMEMBERING THE MACHO MAN — Kenny Rice

Photo courtesy of Hulk Hogan

 

REMEMBERING THE MACHO MAN

–Kenny Rice

I knew Randall Mario Poffo. He had a keen intellect, a sharp business and marketing acumen.  He was funny and friendly, never the kind to intimidate away from his job, even with a 6’2″ hulking 240 pound physique. He was down right charming when he sat down to shoot the breeze, talking baseball or politics, a deeper thinking man than he might have appeared to others.

You may have known him as well by another name, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, the wild-eyed, biceps flexing showman with the shaggy blondish mane complimenting a freakish full beard made to look even more menacing with his bandana and sunglasses. With an unmistakable gravely growl commanding attention, he was both down right frightening and down right enjoyable at the same time. A natural born entertainer who helped make the then World Wrestling Federation the iconic presence it is today as the WWE. Next to Hulk Hogan there was no one who had the flamboyance comparable to the Macho Man.

I came close to literally bumping into Randy on our initial meeting in 1980. I was fresh out of college and had my first commercial television job at WTVQ-TV in Lexington, KY. I had come in earlier than usual to cover a breaking story and was walking down the narrow green carpeted hall way from the newsroom toward the sports office when he popped out of seemingly nowhere in full regalia of neon yellow wrestling shorts and an equally shiny red and yellow cape, glistening from and smelling of sun tan oil, emerging from the dressing room a total transformation into Macho time.

“Hi, how ya doin’? I’m Randy,” he said extending a strong right hand and relieving my mind within a second. He asked who I was, what I did at the station because “he hadn’t seen me here before.” When I told him I was the new sports guy, he immediately started telling me of his minor league baseball career with the Cardinals, White Sox and Reds organization, a catcher moved to outfielder.

After a genuinely engaging four or five minute introductory conversation, he had to go to work. Back down the hall way through the small welcoming foyer just outside the news room and into a large studio where we did the local newscasts and our production department made commercials.

I met Randy on a Thursday, the date I can’t remember, only still vivid bits of our conversation and that day of the week. Every third Thursday of the month Randy rented our studio. A ring was brought in along with three dozen wooden folding chairs for an audience that began lining up on a first come first served basis with at least three dozen more turned away from the backstage entrance every time.

He rented the studio for two hours to tape a wrestling show, still about two and a half years out from joining up with Jerry Lawler’s Continental Wrestling Association which led of course to much bigger offerings. This was not only a showcase for a fledgling pro wrestler and his brother “Leaping” Lanny Poffo, it was a masterful display of creating one’s own opportunities. Randy would tape three shows, have dubs or duplications made and send them out to anywhere from five to eight TV stations in West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee and Indiana to introduce himself and his wrestling group to new viewers and promote his upcoming appearances in their towns and cities.

Then Randy would load up a couples of vans with his troop and their equipment and leave Lexington for three non-stop weeks on the road, selling the product– himself. Over the next couple of years I made a point of showing up about three hours earlier than I needed to on Thursday to watch Randy in action.

I enjoyed it though I have never been or understand the appeal of pro wrestling for so many. Their athleticism and acting abilities at the top level of the show are to certainly be appreciated; amazing endurance for the demanding schedule; impressive skills of drama to make the masses like or hate them and it can switch depending on the script. I don’t say it is fake, I prefer it is a compelling play when executed correctly.

But I do get fascinated by a great performer and that drew me in with Randy. That and his knack for the unpredictable such as the time his father Angelo did sit ups for the entire half hour show. They brought in an additional camera set up just for him and put his video in the corner of the screen to prove he was doing hundreds, well over a thousand something sit ups continuously while Randy and Lanny were screaming, crunching and of course entertaining.

Just after the opening of “Escape from New York,” I walked into the studio one morning to find Ox Baker calmly sitting in a chair, a special guest wrestler Randy had worked a deal with to add some more sizzle to his show. The tall, bald Baker with the giant handle bar moustache, was the villain who fought Kurt Russell gladiator style in the ring in a pivotal scene in the movie. And before he became ferocious in the ring that day, he was incredibly pleasant to talk to about shooting the movie and that particular scene.

It was a constant parade of charters in the Macho Man show for almost two years. It was during this time as well I would see Randy and Elizabeth Hulette, who later became his wife and became known in the WWF community as “Miss Elizabeth.” This was the time when the movie “Urban Cowboy” had changed the music culture and country line dancing bars were popping up everywhere. The Austin City Saloon was the place  to hang out and we occasionally saw each other there, listening to our mutual friend Greg Austin and his band.

Randy was the first person I knew who was a rock star everywhere he went in town– pictures, autographs and handshakes galore. We had two other mutual friends who had played minor league baseball with him, Doug Flynn, a Gold Glove second baseman with the Mets and a member of two Reds World Series champions and Keith Madison the University of Kentucky baseball coach.

They showed me picture of a younger Randy Poffo on the diamond, crew cut, fifty or so pounds lighter, an All-American boy. No one would have recognized that guy and the Slim Jim hawking Macho Man years apart.

And Randy enjoyed telling the prank he and Flynn had played on Madison who hadn’t seen his old teammate in over a decade and was unaware who the Macho Man really was. One night Flynn set up a dinner telling Madison a guy who was on their team in Florida in the 1970’s was in town. Randy arrived in a leather clad outfit, shades and bandana. He gave Madison a tight hug, chatted about the days of traveling hours on a bus to play a game, while never mentioning his name. After about two hours of stories and laughs, Randy and Doug couldn’t contain it any longer to a still puzzled Keith. When told the Macho Man was Poffo, as Randy told it, the look on his face was unbelievable, a priceless gotcha moment.

I imagine Randy was that way with many old friends over the years at varying stages of life. He was an even better performer, and he was terrific in Lexington, when I saw him on a WWF Saturday Night show on NBC in the late ’80’s. Not the shock of a total makeover our friend Madison had experienced years earlier, but an even more compelling, confident performer. The countless hours of doing shows, producing those early shows in Kentucky, honing his craft had turned the dynamic Macho Man then into this force of nature that became known to the world.

We never know, or rarely do, the very last time we will ever speak to a friend no matter how many years pass. I, like our very first meeting can’t recall the exact date or in this case the exact year, but it was at Logan Airport in Boston about a dozen years ago when I last talked to my old friend Randy.

My father and I had gone to a Red Sox game and were flying home that morning, sitting around the terminal awaiting to board the plane. I heard him before a saw him. “Kenny, Kenny” the booming, throaty growl perked my ears up like a horse led to the racetrack, it was as so distinctive.  I wheeled around to see not Randall Mario Poffo, but the full fledged Macho Man, in a feathery white coat with matching leather pants and a jewel studded cowboy hat, his eyes hidden behind silver shades with diamond chips.

He gave me a hug so mighty I felt it in my spine for a week. He gave my dad one as well when I introduced them . He asked about several of the people I had worked with during the local news days. A sincere how they were doing? Do I keep in touch? He had seen me on NBC and related a nice story about Dick Ebersol, the legendary leader of the network then who was instrumental in bringing the WWF to fill in for “Saturday Night Life” from time to time. He asked about my close friend Bob Hensley who had worked with me in Lexington and now does for National Public Radio.

He was sincere about his old friends, the old days. He had long surpassed us in the limelight but he was still the kind hearted, real deal person that I had met decades before by chance in a tiny hall way. Randy Poffo who in a blink of an eye could become the Macho Man. It was flattering a superstar remembered regular folk.

We lost touch, Keith, Doug, Greg, all of us, with Randy after his split with Elizabeth and her tragic death. A dozen times a year someone would ask me about him, reminisce about watching him on Lexington TV and that they were happy for how big he became, he just had that charisma. We were all proud of Randy, as I told him that day at the Boston airport.

It’s easy to like someone when they become famous but with the Macho Man it was even easier because he was that rare man who handled it all so well, at least to those of us on the outside of what had become a closed almost impenetrable circle near the end. He never forgot you along his rise to the top. He hoped the same for you.

Memories are all any of us can leave really, those times of a small chat, a hardy laugh, a funny weren’t we lucky to be there moment. Randy shared all that with me in a brief period of time.

The memories flooded in texts and voice mail last week when news of his death spread. The first anchor I worked with Robin Phillips now in Texas, Tim Eppenstein, the talented ring announcer for the early Macho show, Mort Schmitt our chief photographer back then and at least twenty more letting me know while I was in Baltimore to cover the Preakness there was some sadness yet some touching place in our hearts, a reunion of spirits from friends that had scattered. Even friends who never met him but heard my stories in our HDNet family, Ron Kruck and Bo Vongsakoun graciously shared condolences.

I won’t pretend we were the closest of pals, but we had a bond of sports and maybe an appreciation for how we both–though nothing close to him–had progressed in our careers since that 1980 encounter. I wish we could have talked once more about baseball, a Vince McMahon story, how in the world he put together his own TV syndicate way back when he was relatively unknown. But what I can always say if asked did I know the Macho Man, the answer is proudly “OOH YEAH!”

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