Randy Savage and his Unorthodox Approach to Calling a Match

Randy Savage is readily considered one of the greatest entertainers and wrestlers of all time. For good reason, too. He had the physique, he had the intensity, he had the promos, he had innumerable memorable matches, and he had the girl. Each time he stepped foot in front of the cameras, he brought something so unique and extraordinary that it was hard not to gravitate towards his fighting spirit.

He worked differently than many during his time. While a wrestler like Ric Flair could go out there and wrestle 5-star hour-long broadways by simply calling the match in the ring (never discussing details of the match in advance with his opponent), Randy was detail-oriented and felt comfort in meticulously writing out in advance, step-by-step, how his matches would play out from bell to bell. This was often met with criticism from his peers…

Jerry Lawler on his feud with Randy Savage and how working with him was easy despite a rough start

Jerry Lawler and Randy Savage had a memorable feud in the late 1970s and early '80s that came to fruition in quite the unorthodox way.
Jerry Lawler and Randy Savage had a memorable feud in the late 1970s and early ’80s that came to fruition in quite the unorthodox way.

Randy Savage and Jerry “The King” Lawler had a memorable feud in the late 1970s and early ’80s that came to fruition in quite the unorthodox way.

In those days, Lawler’s promotion, the Continental Wrestling Association, was the main promotion in Tennessee, Kentucky, and parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Indiana and Arkansas. Before “Macho Man” Randy Savage became one of the most recognizable figures in the world of professional wrestling, the real-life Randy Poffo, alongside his brother Lanny Poffo and father Angelo Poffo, created an “outlaw” wrestling promotion in 1978 out of Lexington, Kentucky called International Championship Wrestling. ICW was considered an outlaw promotion due to the fact that they did not have affiliation with the National Wrestling Alliance. They often promoted shows in direct competition against NWA regional leagues such as Lawler’s CWA.

Did you know? ICW running shows in direct competition against CWA caused much animosity amongst members of each promotion. Tensions ran so high that during one instance in the parking lot of a gym, Randy and Bill Dundee ended up getting into a scuffle where a gun was drawn!

“What happened was,” Jerry Lawler begins in an interview with WWE.com, “Randy Savage, his brother Lanny Poffo and his father Angelo Poffo got the idea that they wanted to start a little promotion of their own. When you’re on the bottom rung of the ladder, you usually think the way to get attention is to try to get the rub off the established guys. Well, what Randy and his group did is they started making challenges. Randy Savage would go out and say, ‘I’m going to wrestle Jerry Lawler this Saturday night in Lexington!’

“Of course, I was never going to be there. I didn’t even know this was being done. Then Randy would go out to the ring and say, ‘Would you look at this? Jerry Lawler’s a coward!’ That was their philosophy on how to make a name for themselves.”

Savage ended up challenging Lawler several times on-air during TV programming of his family’s rival wrestling promotion, ICW. Savage, with ICW cameramen in tow, eventually showed up on Lawler’s front doorstep to challenge him while Lawler was at the Mid-South Coliseum for a match.

“I said something like, ‘Hey, that’s my house!’ I thought the guy was nuts, to be honest,” Lawler says. “After this maniac literally showed up at my doorstep, I wanted to blast him on the air, but Jerry Jarrett and I realized that doing so would give them the credibility they so desperately craved. So, I kept my mouth shut, figuring that eventually he and his little group would just go away.

“It had gotten so personal between us that we knew it would draw. That was always our philosophy– ‘personal issues draw money.’

“There were still plenty of bad feelings, as we felt they were running opposition and trying to cut into our business, while these ICW guys were just trying to survive and eat. The hatred between two us had so much credibility in the fans’ eyes that we didn’t even really advertise the first match all that much. Randy and I went to Lexington and nearly sold out the building, which was unheard of at Rupp Arena. We did it like a shoot, where we had an ICW referee and one of our own referees, I think Paul Morton, to keep it fair. After everything that had gone done, I guess you could say I was a little concerned if we could work together, but we never had any problems. I heard from so many guys later who worked with him that he was always so paranoid about his matches and wanted to work out everything in advance. Randy was never that way with me. He was intense yet laid-back, very easy to work with–I think we had some good matches.

“He was so off the wall and entertaining, even as a heel, that gradually the people started to like him. In those days, you listened to what the fans wanted and gave it to them. And just like that, Randy was hot again, teaming with me. When we started working with WWE in the early ’90s, he was happy to come back and we started all over again. I always enjoyed working with him. Intensity-wise, he was one of the best, and the people believed in him.”

Randy Savage and Jerry Lawler face off in a Steel Cage match for the Southern Heavyweight Championship, December 12, 1983

George Steele talks about working with Randy Savage and their differing philosophies on how to conduct a match

Randy Savage dropping an elbow on George 'The Animal' Steele at WrestleMania 2. Steele's old school methodology clashed with Savage's approach in many ways.
Randy Savage dropping an elbow on George “The Animal” Steele at WrestleMania 2. Steele’s old school methodology clashed with Savage’s approach in many ways.

While Jerry Lawler found Randy to be laid back and easy to work with during their feud, George “The Animal” Steele has a different take. In his GEORGE ‘THE ANIMAL’ STEELE talks about differing philosophies in how to conduct a match with RANDY SAVAGE in an extract from his autobiography, ‘Animal’:

“To be honest, I took offense to what Randy was proposing.”

“Randy showed up in the locker room with a script that was probably four or five pages long,” Steele opens up in his autobiography, Animal. “I felt like he wanted me to audition for something by Scorsese. What was this, pro wrestling or Broadway?

“Now, I was an old-school guy. I learned about the business in the backseats of cars going to and coming back from shows in places like Kalamazoo and Muskegon. I learned from the likes of Crusher Cortez and Leaping Larry Chene. I went to school between bites of bologna sandwiches and swigs of beer. The class was called Wrestling 101, and everything was impromptu. There were no scripted scenarios, there were only instincts. Everything we did was to get heat on our opponent. You’d back off just before a riot broke out, and then turn the knob on the stove again to get it reheated. You played the crowd like Pee-Wee Herman played a Stradivarius (or was that a bicycle horn?). I’d been wrestling since the 1960s, and this was 1986.

“To be honest, I took offense to what Randy was proposing. So I pretended to read the first page, slowly crumpled the paper, and tossed it into the trash can. I did the same thing with the rest of the pages, very slowly and very deliberately. All the while, Randy was going ballistic. I just told him to calm down, listen to me in the ring, and we’d have a great match. What’s that old saying – what goes over in L.A. might not work in Peoria? That was exactly how I felt.

“You can’t teach an old Animal new tricks. I was nearly 50 years old. I was on another sort of slide, and this one was not into a kiddie pool. It was my career as a wrestler. I was two decades older than a lot of the other guys in the locker room, including Randy. In a ring full of chiseled bodies, I was not all sharp angles. I looked like I’d come out of a Jell-O mold. Any reference to six-packs had more to do with Stroh’s or Pabst’s than abs. I looked a lot more like the guy sitting in the 21st row than I did somebody that Michelangelo sculpted.

“There was nothing wrong with Randy’s approach; he was just being a professional. Me, I was being a hard-head and I took it the wrong way. He was part of wrestling’s future and he was getting a big push. There were big plans for him. Meanwhile, I was becoming part of wrestling’s past.

“George “The Animal” Steele was in wrestling’s rear-view mirror. My ways were becoming past tense.

“Eventually, Randy and I compromised. While we never choreographed a single one of our many matches, we repeated a lot of things that had worked well in the past…”

Randy Savage vs. George “The Animal” Steele on Saturday Night’s Main Event on March 14, 1987

Ricky Steamboat on the difference between working against Ric Flair and Randy Savage

Randy Savage faces off against Ricky Steamboat at WrestleMania III, a match that inspired a generation.
Randy Savage faces off against Ricky Steamboat at WrestleMania III, a match that inspired a generation.

Throughout his 30+ years in professional wrestling, WWE Hall of Famer Ricky Steamboat had done it all and seen it all, wrestling all of the top names along the way. One of the many things that made The Dragon so great was that he was able to adapt to many different styles in the ring.

According to once rival, Ric Flair, “Ricky Steamboat had everything — charisma, work rate, intensity and one of the best bodies in our business. He was just amazing.”

So what did Steamboat have to say about working with Ric Flair and Randy Savage, arguably two of the best professional wrestlers of all time?

“I learned early in my career that I should try to adapt to the guy that I was wrestling.

“Savage [was] the kind of guy that [liked] to make sure that every single move, every single point, every single reason in the match – the storyline, the psychology – is pretty much taken apart, dissected, planned out…

“With Ric [Flair] and I, when the promoter came to us and said we were going to Broadway – we were going the hour – most of the time we wouldn’t even talk about the match. We’d look at each other in the locker room and he’d say, ‘Ok, see you in the ring…’

“We’d go out there and just wing it.

“When we did that two-out-of-three falls match in New Orleans, we had our three finishes and that was it – the rest we called in the ring. We’d listen to crowd responses and if something came up in the course of a match and we got a good response from it, then ok –we’ve got a little fork in the road here and we’re gonna take a right and it changes. That’s old school…”

Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat – World Heavyweight Championship, WCW Clash of the Champions, September 12, 1989

“With Savage, it was, ‘We’re gonna do this step one through step one-hundred and fifty seven..’

“Whether or not it works, we just keep going through the numbers…

“We got to the point where I’d turn a page in my notebook and I’d say, ‘Ok this is step one hundred and twelve, I’m going to do this, this and this – tell me the rest of the match…’ And he would go through and tell me the rest of the match.

“We would take bits and pieces of ideas that we came up with and try it in the house show that we were working that night, and if we got a pop from it, we’d say, ‘Okay, we’re going to use that in the pay-per-view…'”

Randy Savage vs Ricky Steamboat – Intercontinental Championship, WrestleMania III, March 29, 1987

Ric Flair speaks at length on Randy Savage

Randy Savage and Ric Flair, pictured here at WrestleMania VIII, had contrasting mentality in and out of the ring.
Randy Savage and Ric Flair, pictured here at WrestleMania VIII, had a contrasting mentality in and out of the ring.

Speaking of Ric Flair, here is what he had to say about Randy Savage and their match at WrestleMania VIII (H/T: WrestlingInc).

“That was a huge day for me and my first dance at WrestleMania, of course. It was just a tremendously well-written program. It was like he was married to Liz back then and she was a huge commodity and a huge star with the WWF, or that’s what they were called back then, of course. And the thing was, ‘She was mine before she was yours.’ It was well-written and done and Randy worked hard at it and I worked hard at it. We had a really good match. Curt Hennig, God rest his soul, managed me and Liz managed Randy and we gave them a helluva show and it was awesome. That was my first Mania and one of the finest memories of my career.

“My thoughts about Randy are different. I think he was such a competitive guy. Randy had a really hard time relaxing and I feel bad. I think about the times I used to say to him, ‘Hey man, just calm down and don’t worry about this and this and this. Whatever happens is going to happen.’ If you go to sleep at night worrying about what’s going to happen the next day, it’s just too hard. You know, he worked like I did, 365 times a year back in the old days. He actually broke in in Charlotte in 1975. I’d only been here a year when Randy moved in down here. He played semi-pro baseball, I think, in St. Louis and was doing fairly well but wasn’t blowing up the ladder like expected so he came here and broke in the business.

“The irony in that is when I first moved here in ’74, I actually traveled with his dad several times. I knew the whole family very well. His dad just passed recently and I think that hurt Randy really bad. They were very close. Randy just dropped out of sight when the company was sold from WCW (to WWE).

Flair goes on to talk about whether or not Savage is one of the 10 greatest wrestlers ever.

“Of course. Yeah. Of course. I didn’t always agree with Randy. I’m not gonna lie to you. I didn’t sweat things out like he did. But I wasn’t… I didn’t have to fight like a dog in that race they had to be whoever they were in the eighties in that show, where everybody was fighting for position every day of their life. I didn’t have to evolve from that. I never had personal differences with him, nothing about lifestyle. It was just about business and it doesn’t stop my opinion (of him) — he always did favors for me. He came in and opened some of my Golds Gyms. We were great friends. He and I clashed in business, but outside of the ring, we were great. He could drink beer and have a good time. And, I made him laugh and helped him take his mind of things that bothered him. We got along great and had a lot of fun together.

“I used to say to him all the time, he probably died with 300 million dollars in the bank. I’m not exaggerating. I’m being facetious. But, Randy was very thrifty. I used to say to him all the time because he would stay at hotels that were less cost-effective than where I stayed. (laughs) You can criticize it all you want but I’m going to enjoy the moment because you never know, you know.

“The irony in that is Randy was only 58-years-old. That’s sad because I guarantee you he’s got enough money to live 200 more years. He made it. He worked hard to earn it. He worked very hard to earn it. He deserved it. But I always used to say to him, ‘Man, you live for the day.’ Today’s another example of why you have to live for today. You never know.”

Randy Savage vs. Ric Flair, WrestleMania VIII, April 5, 1992

Despite using a different strategy than most wrestlers during his day, Randy Savage’s detail-attentive approach, in a lot of ways, mirrors WWE of today. Currently, road agents, many from Randy’s time in wrestling, work side by side with performers to put together the logistics, flows and big spots of matches. Agents also help run and produce house shows and live events and are very much involved with the creative writing process. In this regards, Randy was ahead of his time. With his incredible success and thorough knowledge of the psychology of the business, Randy would have been a huge asset to any company if he were still with us today. And regardless of his approach (whether fueled by paranoia or not), or the opinions of the peers he worked with, Randy inspired so many and will forever be considered one of the greatest of all time.

Update: After reading this article, “Hustler” Rip Rogers reached out to us to add his two cents.

Rip Rogers and Randy Savage during the time with ICW
Rip Rogers and Randy Savage during the time with ICW

“Randy pretty much taught me how to call it in the ring.” 

“I was with Randy pretty much from 1978-1983. He pretty much taught me how to call it in the ring. At that time, I had never seen or heard of him having a scripted match. He must have changed. When I heard that his match with Steamboat was scripted I never really believed it. We were in separate dressing rooms with no phones. Refs would give finishes in different dressing rooms, sometimes during instructions. The refs would tell you how long to go. I still teach calling it in the ring, like a quarterback audible in football. If you learn this, it’s so much easier. Unfortunately, very few know how to do this today. Years ago it was standard. You worked 6-7 days a week and learned from the older guys, when rasslin’ was rasslin’…”

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JP Zarka
JP Zarka is a teacher, singer/songwriter, producer, executive producer of The Pro Wrestling Stories Podcast, former co-host of The Genius Cast with Lanny Poffo podcast, and editor-in-chief of ProWrestlingStories.com. Originally from Chicago, he has called London home since 2008. He can be reached on Twitter @pws_official.