The Shelf Is Half Full

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Archive for the category “Superstar Spotlight”

Superstar Spotlight – “The Macho Man” Randy Savage

Professional wrestling is a larger than life world, and that means that in order to be successful as a professional wrestler, a performer has to bring something special to the table. Very few performers in history brought “something special” as much as the man I am spotlighting today. He was a great athlete with a keen eye for storytelling, and he also had a unique charisma that allowed him to pull off the most insane costumes any wrestler has put on. The gravelly tones of his voice are so iconic that even non-wrestling fans in the 1980’s would probably be able to recognize an imitation. He was born Randy Poffo, but the world would come to know him as…

Macho Man

Randy “Macho Man” Savage

Randy Poffo was the son of professional wrestler Angelo Poffo, but his first career choice was professional baseball. Though he made it as far as the developmental programs for the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox, an injury ended that career before he could make it to the big leagues. Which was a great thing for wrestling fans, because Savage wasted little time dedicating his life to the art of professional wrestling. He changed his in-ring name at the suggestion of Ole Anderson, who told him that he “wrestled like a savage.”

Ole’s assessment of Randy’s style was certainly accurate. Savage’s muscular body, messy hair and wild eyes already made him look like a caveman, but his aggression, intensity, and habit of climbing to the top rope to crash down his opponents with his fists were frightening to behold. And mesmerizing. To this day, I haven’t seen another wrestler that moves the way Randy did or works in a similar fashion. He was wholly unique.

Savage first gained notoriety in a promotion feud between his father’s International Championship Wrestling and Jerry Lawler’s Continental Wrestling Association. Lawler was the biggest star in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had earned the nickname “The King”. Their rivalry would re-energize Lawler’s territory and served as a platform for Savage to transition to the promotion that would make a worldwide star; Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation.

Elizabeth

The First Lady of Wrestling

Already colorful and known for putting on great matches, “The Macho Man” was introduced to the WWF audiences as the hottest free agent in the wrestling business. At the time, wrestling had several non-wrestling characters called “managers”, who functioned as ringside coaches but often worked as mouthpieces for less charismatic talents. Hero managers helped the audience cheer for their guys and heel managers often helped their wrestlers cheat behind the referee’s back. Every manager in the company wanted to sign Savage, but Randy had a different plan; he brought in his real life wife Elizabeth on screen as “Miss Elizabeth”, his new manager. Gorgeous and classy, she added a new layer to Savage’s character that would largely define his career in the WWF.

While fans loved Miss Elizabeth, they were less fond of Randy Savage; his arrogant interviews, vicious wrestling style and willingness to cheat made him one of the premier villains of the 1980’s. While Hulk Hogan’s All-American superhero persona was the top attraction, Randy Savage’s contests with other heroic characters in the promotion offered something different and almost as popular. Savage defeated Mexican-American fan favorite Tito Santana to become the WWF’s Intercontinental Champion, making him officially the #2 guy in the promotion, and he held the title for over a year before losing it in his legendary battle with Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat at WrestleMania III.

Most fans weren’t exactly cheering Randy Savage, but they had to recognize his athletic gifts and his charisma; they may have been paying to see him lose, but they were still paying to see him. This respect for his talents made it easy for the crowd to rally behind him when he started targeting The Honkytonk Man, a hugely unpopular Elvis impersonator wrestler who had somehow hornswoggled Ricky Steamboat out of the Intercontinental Championship. Wanting to get his title back, Savage challenged Honkytonk Man and drew the ire of Honkytonk’s manager, “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart, who used his other charges like Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and “The Hart Foundation”. Soon the fans were cheering for Savage, and an unlikely alliance with Hulk Hogan helped cement the Macho Man as a beloved character.

The Megapowers

A Race to the Top of the Mountain

With the fans on his side for the first time, Savage was riding a wave of momentum by the time WrestleMania IV was rolling around in the spring of 1988. After a controversial title change left the WWF’s World Heavyweight Championship vacant, a fourteen man tournament was arranged for the fourth WrestleMania, and Savage was naturally one of the entrants. When Hulk Hogan was eliminated in his match with hated rival Andre the Giant thanks to a double disqualification, Savage was suddenly the performer with the most fan support who had a chance of winning. It was a slim chance though; Savage had to make it through four matches in a single night in order to win, a monumental feat for anyone to accomplish.

Savage was able to get through his first round match against Butch Reed relatively unscathed, but Greg “The Hammer” Valentine proved much tougher’; while Savage was able to pin him to the mat with an inside cradle, it was obvious that he was tired going into the third match. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the massive One Man Gang was granted a bye into the semi-final round thanks to a time-limit draw in the Jake Roberts-Rick Rude first round contest. Well rested and over 400 pounds, Gang was the heavy favorite going in against Savage, but Randy had some luck on his side as Gang foolishly attacked Savage with his manager Slick’s cane in full view of the referee, getting him disqualified.

Savage had gotten to the finals by the narrowest of margins, but his opponent had the upper hand. Finalist Ted DiBiase was an excellent mat wrestler and brilliant strategist, but was also hated by fans because he was filthy rich and loved to brag about it. “The Million Dollar Man” was a bully and was also the reason the tournament was being held in the first place, having paid Andre the Giant to give him the WWF Championship he won from Hulk Hogan after paying off the referee to screw Hogan out of the title. And while his matches with “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Don Muraco were no cakewalks, DiBiase had dodged a bullet when Andre and Hogan’s match got them both eliminated and gave him a bye into the final round.

Wrestlemania 4

Championship Glory

It was a perfect climax to a long tournament; the villain had every advantage and looked to be able to win the championship he had robbed from Hulk Hogan. In his way was a beloved but worn down man who was going to have to rely on every ounce of physical and mental toughness to survive. The Macho Man valiantly battled against the odds, but just when it seemed like he might gain the upper hand in the contest, DiBiase’s charge Andre the Giant was able to intimidate him and open the door for DiBiase to get a sneak attack on Savage. With her man in dire straits, Elizabeth rushed to the backstage area and came back out with Hulk Hogan, who came down to make sure that Andre would not interfere any further.

Ironically, Hogan would be the one interfering in the match, saving Savage from DiBiase’s “Million Dollar Dream” sleeper hold variation by cracking Ted’s spine with a metal folding chair. The Macho Man capitalized on this blow and soared off of the top rope to deliver his patented flying elbow drop and pinned DiBiase to become the new champion. It wasn’t exactly the noblest of wins, but DiBiase had more than earned his comeuppance. The important thing was that Savage had overcome all odds and was rewarded with the top prize in the company.

Randy Savage would be one of the most successful box-office draws the WWF would ever had, more than proving his worth as the WWF Champion. His exciting matches and unmatched charisma led him to many more accolades for over a decade after this career defining night. I don'[t want to get into every detail because Savage’s story is distinguished and unique and I will be writing more about them in the future. But for now, what’s most important is to know that Randy Savage is one of the most recognizable, talented and brilliant performer in wrestling history. He didn’t just bring something special; he was something special.

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Superstar Spotlight – Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat

If you have never watched a professional wrestling match in your life, I recommend that you start by watching work of one man. Richard Blood was an amateur wrestler in high school who decided to transition to the psuedo-sport of professional wrestling and was trained by professional wrestling legend Verne Gagne. Despite having a last name that was perfectly suited to being a villain, Ricky was perhaps more suited to the role of underdog hero than any other wrestler in history. So he was giving the last name Steamboat and would proceed to win over audiences all over the world from 1976 to 1994.

And he’s one of the few to become a legitimate superstar in the wrestling business without ever working as a heel.

Steamboat

Excitement and Execution – The Thrilling Style of the Dragon

When it comes to the actual in-ring action of professional wrestling, it is best to look at it as a mix of grand theatrics and action movie choreography. Sometimes an action movie can lack strong characters but can still dazzle us with the skill involved, and wrestling matches can be the same way. Professional wrestlers may not be competitors in a legitimate sport, but they are legitimate athletes and actors that do all of their own stunts. So matches can have a great deal of physicality and athleticism that makes them fun to watch in a “shut up and eat your popcorn” kind of way.

So when it comes to the artistry of wrestling choreography, Ricky Steamboat is one of the best to ever perform in a wrestling ring. Steamboat possessed a natural grace that made even the simplest moves a thing of beauty to watch. He was famous for his superbly executed armdrag takedowns (a modified, flashier version of a judo style hip toss and common move in wrestling), but also for his hard-hitting knife-edge chops to his opponents chest. Ricky was also one of the first wrestlers to work at a breakneck pace in his matches and to routinely leave his feet to hit a jumping dropkick or fly off the top rope to deliver a signature chop or crossbody attack.

This mix of exciting high-flying moves and excellent technique in his mat game endeared him to crowds who knew that he would keep the audience engaged for the entire duration of his match. The WWF capitalized on his look and signature chops by naming him “The Dragon” in tribute to Bruce Lee, giving him a new aspect to his wrestling character that didn’t compromise his ability to be taken seriously as an athlete and hero.

Steamboat and Hart

Wrestling Is Storytelling – Psychology and Selling

But the best action movies are when the actors, stuntmen and the choreographers work together to tell an emotional story. When you watch the lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s easy to tell that the interaction between the two characters is more important that the difficulty of the swordplay. Vader is infinitely more experience but has an emotional investment in testing Luke’s limits, while Luke has a personal vendetta against Vader because he believes Vader murdered his father, but he also is a hero who is trying to fight off his more negative emotions and be true to what he believes. This makes the fight infinitely more engaging than the outstanding stunt work of the Star Wars prequels that fail to tell a story with an emotional hook.

The same philosophy holds true in wrestling. At it’s most simplistic, every match is designed around causing pain to the competitors in order to generate an emotional response from the audience. The hero suffers in order to cause the audience to sympathize with them and root for them to overcome the odds and triumph, and the villain eventually gets his comeuppance in a satisfying faction. This works in pretty much any medium with an antagonist, so it’s no surprise that wrestling benefits from this basic narrative structure.

The art of a wrestler acting as if he is in pain is called selling. This incorporates both the bumps one takes off of slams and hard hits as well as the reactions to strikes and holds. As a match goes on, a good wrestler will sell that he is becoming more exhausting and that any body parts that have been attacked by the opponent are suffering and causing them problems. Ricky Steamboat is one of the all-time great sellers; he would watch boxing matches to see how men reacted to taking punches in order to make his body language more realistic. But he also knew how to emote and let the audience know how much pain he was in, and was also very good at selling his anger when his opponents broke the rules. All of this helped elevate Steamboat’s matches from a simple exhibition of moves into a compelling drama.

Champion

Talent is Rewarded

Steamboat was a very special performer and one of the absolute best in his era. He saw great success both in Jim Crockett Promotions (the regional promotion that would later become the mega-company WCW) and in the World Wrestling Federation, winning championships in both companies. The high-point of his WWF career was defeating “Macho Man” Randy Savage for the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania III. In front of 90,000 fans in the Pontiac Silverdome and on a show headlined by the biggest main event in history (Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant), it was this confrontation that stole the show and inspired generations of smaller, faster, more athletic wrestlers who realized that you didn’t have to be a giant to be larger than life.

While that match is a classic, it isn’t the first thing I think of when I think of Ricky Steamboat. After his WWF career ended, Ricky spent a year in retirement staying at home with his family before returning to WCW to work a program with Ric Flair for the promotion’s prestigious World Heavyweight Championship. Steamboat and Flair had already worked with each other almost a decade earlier and immediately formed a chemistry with each other that defies expectations. Steamboat was amazing and Flair was perhaps the greatest of all time, but working against each other they elevated each other to an even higher level.

Flair vs. Steamboat

It was the perfect mix of a pure, squeaky clean hero fighting the most despicable villain. “The Dragon” was all about sportsmanship and family values, while Flair surrounded himself with women and booze and material possessions and prided himself on being “The Dirtiest Player in the Game”. Their trilogy of televised matches in 1989, including a 55-minute draw at Clash of the Champions VI, is revered by many as perhaps the greatest matches of all time. If you want to know what makes wrestling a unique and truly special artform, watch Steamboat and Flair go at each other.

It’s perfection.

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