Friday, May 20, 2011

(November 15, 1952 - May 20, 2011)

Growing up, I can't remember not loving professional wrestling. It wasn't on every night of the week, there weren't monthly pay per views that cost more to watch than you'd make working two days at a part-time job, and it still embraced subtleties and nuances, rather than bombastic pomp and over-the-top circumstances.

Randy "Macho Man" Savage was instrumental in changing that.

My parents probably don't know this, but it was my grandmother who really got me into professional wrestling. She was Polish (the only of my four grandparents that wasn't Italian), and she loved Ivan "The Polish Hammer" Putski. As legend has it, she broke the arm off a chair watching him wrestle one time - because that's what wrestling meant in the '70s.

If you were Italian, Bruno Sammartino was to wrestling what Joe Dimaggio was to baseball. Pedro Morales was there for Latinos, and Bob Backlund was our squeaky clean, red-white-and-blue champion who would never cheat to win, and would never fight dirty until his opponents forced his hand. [Unrelated aside: I swam competitively against his daughter, with him sitting in the stands!] The Grand Wizard, Freddie Blassie and Captain Lou Albano were diabolical managers who represented everything bad in the world, while Arnold Skaaland was their baby-faced counterpart, crusading against their conniving, back-handed ways with a work ethic that epitomized the prevailing spirit of blue collar America.

The bad guys back then were truly bad guys, and you never cheered for them. It wasn't allowed. But today, "Magnificent" Don Muraco would be the people's hero with his smug arrogance and cocky swagger, and fans would give Blackjack Mulligan an ovation to see his leather claw turn an opponent's head into a bloody cheese grater. I remember crying when Superstar Billy Graham tore Bob Backlund's championship belt in half, and I can still remember the horror, shock and seething hatred I felt when Captain Lou Albano turned on his greatest heel, pulverizing Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka with his own South Pacific headband before Ray "The Crippler" Stevens piledrived him twice into the bloodied concrete floor.

At the time, wrestling was restricted to black and white televisions with bunny ear antennas. My parents didn't want me staying up until midnight to watch, but I watched anyway. Sometimes the reception was so bad all I could do was listen. Sometimes I had to watch with the volume off so my parents couldn't hear. But I always had to watch. I used to love when my grandmother would babysit because I could stay up late and watch with her in the living room.

That was before Randy Savage.

In my mind, he and Hulk Hogan represented the end of an era and the dawn of another. The Hulkster and Macho Man brought wrestling out of black and white and into color - off of local affiliate channel 9's overnight and onto NBC prime time. It was the vision of Vince McMahon Jr, carried out on the backs and charisma of his wrestlers.

And Macho Man was the manifestation of charisma. He was Gorgeous George, Superstar Billy Graham and an '80s rock star, all rolled into one. And when he anointed Miss Elizabeth his manager, the WWF's first Diva was born. That's what I love most about the clip above - it is everything Randy "Macho Man" Savage helped wrestling become.

It is not a barrage of coconuts to the head, it is three minutes of theater building to the Honky Tonk Man's guitar pop. Professional wrestling went from carnival attraction to three ring circus. From gray and grainy to neon technicolor. From Cold War simplicity to turn-of-the-millennium complexity. From sport to entertainment.

In my lifetime, professional wrestling has been a mirror of American culture - and today, with the passing of Randy "Macho Man" Savage, that mirror sustained a horrible crack.

Rest in peace, Randy...

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