When Superheroes Die

It seems that only bad news comes by telephone these days. In the era of texting, Twitter and Facebook I rarely get an actual phone call unless it’s from someone with unpleasant information to report. This cynical dictum held true a few days ago when a friend and fellow wrestling fan called to inform me that Randy Poffo had died. Better known as Macho Man Randy Savage, the veteran wrestler had apparently suffered a heart attack while driving with his wife (who was unharmed in the resulting crash). I had not seen or thought about the Macho Man in quite some time, but that didn’t stop me from feeling a strong sense of loss. Another one of those I had once cheered for in the ring had gone on to the join the roster of wrestlers who have passed away way before their time.

Sadly, this phone call was not the only one of its type over the past decade or so. The first came in 2003 when another friend had called to inform me that Curt Hennig, aka Mr. Perfect, had passed away. This was followed a few months later with the news that Miss Elizabeth, my first celebrity crush and former manager and wife of Savage, had died of an overdose. After that the calls just seemed to keep coming. Crash Holly killed himself a few months later. Hercules Hernandez and Big Bossman both died of heart problems in 2004.

I got my turn to play the bearer of bad news in this macabre telephone chain in 2005 when I learned from the WWE website that a week before he was set to win the championship Eddie Guerrero was found dead of heart failure in his hotel room. A friend of mine who had loved Eddie teared as I told him the news over the phone. Then came the death of Earthquake, Bam Bam Bigelow, Bad News Brown, and finally Sherri Martel, another of Savage’s former managers. Then, in 2007 Chris Benoit and his family were found dead inside their Fayetteville, Georgia residence. Benoit had killed his wife and son and then himself.

The list sadly goes on and on. A website called deadwrestlers.net keeps a running list of the deceased that reads like a tragic who’s who of former superstars, managers, and performers. The causes of death are rarely natural. There are countless suicides, heart attacks, and drug overdoses at relatively young ages. In 2009 a wrestler named Andrew “Test” Martin was found dead in his apartment of an overdose of oxycodone. I had been a fan of Test and was saddened enough by the news that I was moved to write an essay for PopMatters eulogizing the former superstar. I lamented the tragic history of wrestling that fans have commiserated over long before Mickey Rourke’s The Wrestler brought the dark underside of the industry to the masses. And now, Randy Poffo has been added to that list.

When I was a child Macho Man Randy Savage formed an integral part of a type of Good Guy trinity in professional wrestling that included Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. This was before Bret Hart, before the NWO and the Monday Night Wars, and before Stone Cold drank his first beer in the ring. This was a time when the good guys (faces) and the bad guys (heals) were clearly defined and easy to spot. While Macho Man had some great runs as a heal, it was his role as a face that he is best known for. With his stylized way of speaking, flamboyant costumes and cowboy hats, and his penchant for great mic work always punctuated with the iconic, “Ooooooh yeah,” it was hard not to find a wrestling fan who did not love him.

During his career Macho Man teamed up and feuded with some of the greatest names in the industry. Personalities like Rick Flair, Jake the Snake, and Ravishing Rick Rude, to name only a few. He was the heavyweight and intercontinental champion multiple times, appeared at several Wrestlemanias, and in addition to working for the WWE also wrestled for WCW and TNA. For non-wrestling fans Savage was easily recognizable as the face of the Slim Jim brand, and had a memorable appearance in the first Spiderman film.

Macho Man moved to the WCW about the time that I began to drift away from wrestling. By the time I returned to watching his star seemed to have waned. He popped up for a brief stint in TNA (Total Nonstop Action Wrestling) and prior to that he had attempted a rap career with an album titled, Be A Man. While some fans mocked Savage’s short-lived musical aspirations to me it was an example of a melancholy trend that, while not unique to wrestling, boils down to the question of: when you’re used to being a superstar, what do you do with yourself after your time in the spotlight is over? While some are able to find work in the business side of the industry and others are able to thrive in other lines of work, like Macho Man the rest are not so lucky and tend to float on the periphery of popular culture.

Upon the news of Savage’s death many fans and wrestlers turned to Twitter to express their loss and share stories about the Macho Man. Many fans mentioned that they were going to watch Savage’s epic battle with Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat at 1987’s Wrestlemania III to honor the fallen superstar. On his Twitter feed comic book writer Brian Reed said something that must have resonated with many fans: “Pro wrestlers dying is about as close as our culture gets to losing super heroes.”

Other reactions included former champion Kevin Nash who tweeted, “I lost a close friend today. If anybody in heaven is wondering who the cat in the ugly cowboy hat is it’s Randy. Love you Bro. Never another.” Wrestler and actor Dwayne Johnson, better known as the Rock, said, “RIP Randy Macho Man Savage, you were one of my childhood inspirations and heroes. Strength, love and prayers to the Savage/Poffo family.” Hulk Hogan, who had a complicated relationship with the Macho Man over the years, went on Twitter to report that recently he and Savage had started speaking to each other after ten years of silence. Hogan, who is now at TNA, wrote in one of his posts: “Thank you maniacs for all the beautiful things that were said about Randy. I feel so sad, there’s only a few of the crew left.”

I have now joined the legions of fans online who are sharing memories and grief over the loss of Savage. I do it, not just to communicate my own grief at the loss of a childhood hero, but to illustrate just how common the culture of mourning has become for wrestling fans. My ghoulish telephone chain between fellow wrestling fanatics is a good example of this. I have commiserated with other fans whose circles of friends have their own rituals of grief which they perform when yet another wrestler passes away. If you look at message boards, pro wrestling web sites, and YouTube you see countless examples of fans coming together to mourn, not just Randy Savage, but all the wrestlers who have put their health in jeopardy to entertain us. Amidst all this shared grief comes the recurring question of, “Why does this keep happening?”

Since no satisfactory answer seems to be forthcoming from anyone on the inside of wrestling, all we are left with is the fact that another superstar has passed away. While the media has provided Randy Savage with a respectful sendoff and the public has given the event the same due as any other deceased celebrity, the die hard fans are left with the knowledge that Macho Man’s death is another example of pro wrestling’s tragic history. The adult in me is saddened by the passing of Savage. But more importantly the kid in me, which is what allows me to suspend disbelief when watching these mythic battles in the ring, is absolutely devastated at the loss of a hero. Rest in peace, Macho Man. You will be missed.