It's been a week since Randy 'Macho Man' Savage died. It took me a little while to gather some thoughts about him. These are them.
I’ve been a fan of professional wrestling since the late 1980s. Unlike most kids at that time who were able to choose between the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and World Wrestling Federation (WWF), I never preferred the WWF. My granddad was a big fan of boxing and my dad liked it pretty well so it feels natural to me that when I began exploring wrestling with some real passion, I gravitated to the more realistic of the Big Two. That was clearly the NWA.
For me, one of the important differences between the wrestling organizations was the World champion. In the WWF that was usually Hulk Hogan and in the NWA it was usually Ric Flair. While most kids were awed by the larger than life Hogan, I was awed by the pretty normal looking Flair. Hogan was billed at being 6’ 8” and 300+ lbs. To me that seemed absurd as did his in ring antics. He’d get beaten up by some monstrous looking guy then shake his head a lot and become invulnerable. Uh, yeah. He’d run through a couple moves, pin the guy and the parade started. (There was not really a parade but that’s what it felt like.)
On the other hand, Flair was incredibly vulnerable! In order to stay the champion, he sometimes needed to cheat, sometimes he needed help from someone else and sometimes he needed to get lucky. That seemed perfectly realistic since Flair was listed as 6’ 2” and around 240 lbs. Even though he was a big guy, Flair was never physically overwhelming and was often overmatched by bigger, stronger, faster guys. He used his brain as much as his body and that appealed to me greatly. Hogan’s successes seemed overly scripted and painfully predictable while Flair’s seemed uncertain and complicated. That Flair was just as successful as Hogan awed me.
Then in the late 80s, Randy Savage moved from being an up and comer to being one of the biggest stars in the wrestling universe. He was one of the smaller guys in the WWF but wrestled with the same kind of attitude, intensity and spirit as Hogan did. His ascendance was marked by a change in his wrestling style to fit into the Hogan mold and that’s ultimately why I never became a fan of his. The paint by numbers approach sold lots of tickets but left me cold. I thought I was kind of missing out on Savage but I wasn’t sure why.
The difference between his Wrestlemania matches in 1987 and 1989 is amazing. In 1987, wrestling against Ricky Steamboat, Savage utilized an amazing array of holds, flips, dives, counters and counters to counters. In 1989, wrestling against Hogan, Savage used lots of punches, power moves and presentation elements. The first is a revolutionary technical, artistic exhibition while the second is a triumph of style over substance. It is, of course, to Savage’s credit that he excelled at both styles. It’s interesting for me to recognize that I was never a fan of Savage’s particularly though I always recognized his ability. What I've realized in the past couple years is that he always seemed to have excellent matches with all the guys I really was a great fan of.
Savage had tremendous wrestling based feuds with guys like Tito Santana, Steamboat, Ted DiBiase, Flair and even Jake “The Snake” Roberts. In all these feuds, Savage made his opponents look great and kept up with them, move for move. I suppose the bottom line is that Randy Savage could always do everything he needed to in a wrestling ring. That strikes me as a pretty good definition of greatness.