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Lanny Poffo and the brotherhood of wrestling
The Review checks in with 'The Genius'
By JOHN LAW - Niagara Falls Review


A recent photo of Lanny Poffo (right), with his brother Randy 'Macho Man' Savage. The legendary Savage died of a heart attack May 20. PHOTO: Special to The Review


On the day Elizabeth Taylor died, former WWE wrestler "Leaping" Lanny Poffo got a rude awakening on the shelf life of fame.

He was surrounded by people in their 20s who had no idea who she was. All of them knew who Lady GaGa is, of course.

Less than two months later, he got another reminder about fame -- this one far more personal when his older brother, wrestling legend Randy "Macho Man" Savage, died of a heart attack on May 20. He hadn't been active in years and seemed to be ostracized by the WWE (formerly the WWF). But his death sparked a massive outpouring of emotion from fans young and old. Even if they had never seen a single match, they knew who the Macho Man was.

Thousands of e-mails poured into Poffo's inbox, to the point he had to delete them, good and bad.

"He was one of the main people when wrestling exploded in the '80s," recalls Poffo, scheduled to appear at the Niagara Comic-Con at Dave & Busters this weekend on Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls, Ont. "I wasn't shocked (by the response), but I was overwhelmed."

Of course, Poffo has been answering questions about his brother for 25 years. Savage is one of the most beloved wrestlers of all time -- the icon who was Hulk Hogan's arch-nemesis during the World Wrestling Federation's pop culture explosion in the mid-1980s. He embraced gimmicks, but was also one of the most technical, high-flying wrestlers of his era.

Which only makes his absence from the WWE's Hall of Fame more baffling. Rumours as to why have circulated for years -- a fallout with WWE owner Vince McMahon is the likely culprit ... but they don't matter now: Savage will never get to hear the applause of a WWE crowd again.

Poffo, who was with his brother the night before he died, says he never asked about the Hall of Fame. But he suspects it didn't bother him.

"If you put him in the Hall of Fame or don't put him in the Hall of Fame, does it really matter? You can't make him any more famous. He's actually more famous for not being in it.

"There are two people that obviously deserve to be in the Hall of Fame that are not in, and that's Bruno Sammartino and the Macho Man. But it's too late now, because whoever is selected to give the speech on Randy's behalf is not giving the people what they want. Nobody could give the speech of the Macho Man. Now it's too late.

"(But) Randy wasn't hurt by it, and Vince McMahon wasn't hurt by it. The only people that got hurt are the most important -- the wrestling fans."

Still, Poffo realizes the most obvious choice to speak for Savage if he goes in the Hall of Fame is himself. He's still on good terms with the company, and promises to do his brother proud.

"If they asked me, I would do it. I would do the best job I could, and I'm telling you right now it wouldn't be good enough because there's only one Macho Man and there's plenty of me."

Though his brother's shadow was huge, the Canadian-born Poffo forged his own identity in the WWF. After he recited a poem during a wrestling talk show, McMahon asked him to read one before every match. Later came The Genius, who would enrage the crowd with his literary put-downs. It would be Poffo's most enduring character.

At first he would throw the scroll into the crowd afterwards, but when they didn't go far enough, he wrote them on Frisbees instead.

These were old school gimmicks that still worked -- when a young wrestler recently asked if he could borrow Poffo's act, he gave the green light. Wrestlers hand down each other's tricks over the years.

"I mean, I've stolen from Edgar Allen Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I promise you, I'm not a real genius, but I never, ever recited a poem that I didn't write."

Not everyone was a fan. While working in the WWE front office, former wrestling great Jay Strongbow would never tell Poffo who he was wrestling against until the last moment, making it harder to come up with a poem.

"He said, 'I hate your gimmick.'"

Instead of complaining to his brother or McMahon, Poffo fought back with more poetry.

"I bought a 49-cent notebook and I started writing every possible poem for every possible circumstance that I could ever have," he says.

"We were low tech back then. So I wrote all these poems for everybody they could put against me, and if not, I'd do a generic poem. And I found with my back to the wall, sometimes I'd be able to write a poem within five minutes."

Wrestlers always have to earn that freedom, however. When the sheer force of their personalities dwarf whatever scripted nonsense the writers give them, they become stars. Most all of the greats, from Roddy Piper to Randy Savage to The Rock, brilliantly blurred that line.

"All these people had personalities, and they would have been handcuffed by writers that would put something on the TelePrompTer for them to read. If it looks a little too packaged now, it's because it is.

"I miss the old days when they just told you what to say, but not what words to use. But the talent today is fantastic."

Talent like CM Punk, whose already classic promo on last week's episode of RAW had wrestling fans buzzing with their favourite question: Was that real or fake?

Sitting on the entrance ramp, Punk -- openly declaring he's leaving the company in a few weeks -- blasted McMahon, mocked his own fans, and provided a fascinating peek into wrestling politics before his microphone was turned off.

Poffo didn't see it, but knows it was one of those big moments fans crave.

"It's so hard to entertain anybody any more because we've already seen everything," he says. "The very fact you'd even ask me about (Punk) proves it got over. That's the litmus test. That means millions of people all over the world are asking about it."

A former gymnast, Poffo was always one of the WWE's more athletic performers. But he made a choice not to put his body at risk every night -- he saw too many legends hobbled too young.

His most famous bump came on Saturday Night's Main Event, when he gave Hulk Hogan the OK to body slam him over the top rope. It was a one-time-only thing, unlike his brother who took crazy abuse every night.

"I decided, I'm on NBC -- even if I get hurt, so what? I want to give the people everything I've got. But you see, Randy used to act like that in Paducah, Ky., -- Scranton, Pa., -- he would throw his body everywhere. I picked my spots to do it.

"I've never hurt anybody, and I've never been hurt. It's a bit because I'm lucky, and a lot because I'm very, very good."

Now 56, Poffo urges every current wrestler to plan for tomorrow. They're one injury away from being an ex-wrestler.

"I just warn them to save their money, because once they're done with you, they are done with you. They say, 'WWE wishes them best of luck in their future endeavours' -- something very antiseptic when they don't want you anymore."

THE FACTS
WHAT: Lanny Poffo at Niagara Comic-Con 2011
WHERE: Dave & Buster's, 4955 Clifton Hill
WHEN: July 9, noon to 6 p.m.
Free admission



RELATED LINKS

  • Lanny Poffo story archive