“The things that were bad were very bad, but the things that were good were very good”
The latest A&E Biography covering the life of Randy “Savage” Poffo is best summarized by a line from his former girlfriend Stephanie Bellars a.k.a. ‘Gorgeous George’ in a film produced by Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman.
If you were tuning in for a hero-worship piece on one of wrestling’s enduring figures, those elements came with alarming stories of Savage’s legendary paranoia that extended into uncomfortable descriptions from Bellars and those that saw his relationship with Elizabeth Hulette disintegrate.
This documentary had a distinctly different feel and tone than the previous ones on Steve Austin and Roddy Piper, although each documentary has its own outside producers with cooperation from the WWE throughout all the features. This one certainly tackled and addressed the most uncomfortable subject matter of the three.
The drug use was tackled with a fleeting connection to his time in the WWF and focusing more on how large he got in WCW. Whether intentional or not, the line that spoke volumes was Vince McMahon’s initial impression of Savage when he arrived in 1985 that he was “small”, which was akin to the mark of death for a wrestler looking to succeed in Vince McMahon’s land of giants in the mid-’80s. Why a wrestler would be resistant to steroids during this era is a more probing question than why they would engage. If few spots are available to headline, a wrestler of that era is more apt to mortgage the unknown health consequences down the road in favor of the immediate rewards of main event money as a visual threat to a dominating and physically imposing babyface champion.
Savage adjusted his attire once the company introduced drug testing, wearing a shirt for his matches as the image Savage had of himself was a defining trait, according to Bellars during his years in WCW. Bellars went so far as to describe Savage’s late-career process of going to his parent’s home where his father Angelo would provide Savage with “his medicine”.
Bellars outlined Savage’s routine use of Ecstasy during their relationship including the admission that the two were high during a bizarre promo segment on the October 25, 1999, edition of Monday Nitro where Savage revealed, “I ain’t no punk bitch”. Noted.
The documentary can be separated into two parts as Savage receives the treatment of an all-time legend throughout the first hour or so with a heavy reliance on his in-ring career, obsession with excellence, and his colleagues struggling with the paranoia that came with the individual that didn’t possess an ‘off switch’.
Much was made of the construction of the WrestleMania 3 match with Ricky Steamboat and the famous stories of Savage’s insistence on the match being mapped out move-by-move. Veterans of the industry would shake their head at this type of preparation leaving nothing for chance or calling things in the ring, the very reasons Steamboat has stated his preference for the matches with Ric Flair. However, the match remains a legendary one in folklore and it explores the subject of whether the pre-match planning should affect the reaction of a match that was viewed as spectacular on its day and continues to be one romanticized from that fan base?
In today’s era of WWE, there is a great deal of micromanagement attached to the product that isn’t to the degree of Savage vs. Steamboat but there has never been so many rules and constraints attached to a locker room of wrestlers where their words, actions, risks, and presentation choices are limited.
The move to WCW in 1994 was handled poorly and required a minimal level of fact-checking to see that Jerry Lawler’s memory of Savage “jumping” was not as he remembered it. Lawler has shared the same story in the past that Savage was scheduled to call Raw and left WWF high-and-dry, showing up on the competitors’ television. The truth was that Vince McMahon gave his on-air farewell to Savage almost an entire month before Randy Savage appeared on WCW programming. Second, was the impossibility of Savage appearing “on the other channel” given that Nitro wasn’t on the air until the following September. I don’t expect Lawler to have a crystal-clear memory, but I do expect a documentary team to find that hole in the timeline.
The numerous talking heads cited Vince McMahon’s belief that Savage was done inside the ring and thus, moved him to commentary when Savage wasn’t ready to stop wrestling. It begged for a response from McMahon to give his insight into the decision. It’s striking that the move to commentary was right around Savage’s 40th birthday, almost like a number that scared McMahon, yet today, that age is not a disqualifier and quite possibly, he learned a lesson after losing Chris Jericho.
Savage’s time in WCW is greatly underplayed with the major omissions from the documentary being his programs with Ric Flair and Diamond Dallas Page. While Savage and Flair had a feud in WWF, it was their run in WCW with the inclusion of Elizabeth (which was noted), that led to WCW’s turnaround at its live events in early 1996 that preceded the New World Order angle by several months. Flair does appear briefly in the documentary but it’s fleeting and doesn’t discuss their programs. It was surprising given that Flair is a major name for the audience of these A&E specials and of all eight subjects being covered, besides Piper, Savage would be the one I’d most want to utilize Flair for.
With Page, it was the program that made him in 1997, although it’s one I can see getting glossed over but would have provided a balance. The conclusion you were left with is that Savage was past his prime in WCW and well behind Hogan. Truthfully, he did provide a pivotal role, at least until the spring of 1998 when he left for knee surgery, although was hampered by the N.W.O. where he was cast in the shadow of Hogan after their Halloween Havoc match in 1996. In the N.W.O. years, his elevation of Page contributed to a massive babyface for the company during its hottest year in 1998.
The strength of the documentary from a wrestling perspective was the greater interest in his pre-WWF career. Savage was a tremendous baseball player and from accounts, was his true passion until injuries and a reality that he couldn’t play at the major league level forced a change in career paths. It outlined his father’s ICW promotion in Lexington, Kentucky, and eventual, cooperation with Memphis for a series of matches between Jerry Lawler and Savage in late 1983. Their final match in the territory was in June 1985 with Savage losing a ‘Loser Leaves Town’ match in front of 9,000 at the Mid-South Coliseum and moving to WWF.
For me, there was way too much of Todd Clem (“Bubba the Love Sponge”) in this documentary. By having Clem, it already gave the feeling of a tabloid piece as it’s impossible to take that individual seriously. It felt like one of the filmmakers believed that the “Tampa Radio Wars” between Hogan and Savage were so influential in the storytelling process that the documentary required the ringleader to participate. Then, he doubled as a voice of authority for the wrestling portions throughout Savage’s career and became one of the most prominent voices throughout the two-hour doc. Beyond that, it felt odd going from Clem and Hogan back-and-forth given their history and the elephant in the room it introduced.
The most disturbing elements centered around the fractured relationships that saw Hulette leave him and Bellars sharing some harrowing tales. For years, those in the WWF shared stories of how protective Savage was of Elizabeth and it bordered on inhumane treatment.
From the May 30, 2011 obit on Savage in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter:
Randy was insanely jealous and possessive. The joke was that he would keep her under lock and key, constantly paranoid that one of the other wrestlers would make the moves on her. And given her portrayal and how she looked, he probably wasn’t wrong to have those concerns. He would get mad if she would even engage in lengthy conversation with other men. When the cameras were off, and Savage would have to be away from her, he would have an older road agent or referee that he trusted be with her at all times to make sure none of the other wrestlers got near her. Savage, on occasion, chased down and hit fans who tried to touch her as she was walking to and from the ring. Lesser stars were let go for lesser actions involving fans.
Later, when she was no longer a character and he was still wrestling, he never wanted her to leave the house. He would come back from the road and check the miles on her car to see if she had gone anywhere and constantly check on her. She wanted out of the marriage badly by the time they were married in storyline. In the WCW days, whenever Elizabeth would come up to talk with him, Bobby Heenan would start singing the tune from an old TV commercial, “How do you handle a hungry man?,” from a company that marketed TV dinners. Elizabeth had confided in Heenan that when Randy was on the road, he’d buy a TV dinner for every night he was gone, because he wanted her to never leave the house.
Elizabeth became as much a focus of the documentary as Savage with her fall into drug addiction and an affair with Lawrence Pfohl (“Lex Luger”, not “Lugar” as captioned) before her death in May 2003. You could argue this was getting too far away from the documentary’s subject as Savage had long since been divorced from Hulette and the saga involving Luger could be its own separate piece.
The stories got more uncomfortable when Bellars revealed that while cleaning his house, she discovered surveillance footage of her home and that Savage had been filming her home without her knowledge.
Bellars did seem conflicted with the knowledge of the legacy Savage holds for wrestling fans and the good times she spent with him mixed with this other side that was deeply disturbing.
The documentary ends on a positive note with Savage’s complete removal from the industry, signified by the image-conscious performer allowing his hair and beard to go white. In his final years, he lost touch with just about everyone in wrestling save for his brother and what appeared to be a very closed circle. He reconnected with and married his high school sweetheart Lynn, who was in the passenger seat when Savage had his May 2011 heart attack. Lynn took hold of the wheel to avoid traffic before they crashed into a tree and Savage was pronounced dead at 58.
The fact Lynn was not interviewed in the documentary was notable and it’s hard to imagine she would look at this documentary as a glowing tribute given its ‘warts-and-all’ approach.
Without her involvement, the final years are left to the few public appearances he made and the promo he cut for the WWE All-Stars game, which was done through developer 2K. The significance of that deal was not heavily discussed, and while it was a 2K project, it was the first participation by Savage in any WWE-related project since leaving in 1994, which included a DVD the company put out in 2009 on Savage without his involvement.
In 2015, the WWE posthumously inducted Savage into its Hall of Fame despite Savage’s request while he was still alive to not be inducted unless his father and brother were included, which they were not, although Lanny Poffo did agree to accept the award on behalf of Randy.
For a base of wrestling fans that watched the WWF in their formative years, the industry has proven to be one with a ‘Peter Pan syndrome’ it elicits not just of performers, but also with fans. There is a certain security and nostalgia by believing that the heroes on your television set mirror those images off camera leaving one to, most often, be left disappointed. Wrestling thrives off creating a fantasy world and allowing its fanbase to remain rent-free despite the voices of reality growing louder and louder that you cannot ignore.
The term ‘complex character’ gets thrown around a lot. In the case of Savage, it’s an example of the person’s flaws and a ruthless obsession in his relationships that contributes to a polarizing view while weighing the side of him that cared for his family and seemed to find peace in the final years of his turbulent life.