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A wrestling dynasty

In 1958, Angelo Poffo won a U.S. wrestling title. His sons followed in their father's footsteps, taking up the family business - no holds barred.

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 27, 2001


LARGO -- They don't own a neighborhood bakery, a pub or a dry cleaning shop. But when it comes to having a nice little family business, it's tough to beat the Poffos. In fact, they've been doing most of the beating over the past half century -- not to mention pummeling, pile-driving and body-slamming, with some flying elbows for good measure.

In the biff-bam-pow world of professional wrestling, the Poffos have been boffo.

At 76, Angelo is head of the clan. He has thinning, gray hair and moves with the stiffness of a man whose joints have taken a few poundings in life. But he still has a chiseled profile and blue eyes that light up when family members visit.

On a recent morning, Angelo answers the door to his shaded, modern condo off Indian Rocks Road. One of his two sons, Lanny, has just stopped by from his unit a few blocks away.

Almost on cue, Poffo matriarch Judy -- tanned and trim at 74 from daily mile swims -- emerges from the kitchen with a plate of seedless grapes for the former wrestling headliners.

Her husband may not register on the recognition meter with such current marquee names as the Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin or Goldberg. But for a spell in the late 1950s, during the pioneer pro wrestling days of Gorgeous George, Angelo Poffo was king -- a husky U.S. champ who drove from town to town with wife, making $300 in a good week, and who would wind up in the Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Son Lanny grabs a handful of grapes. "I can always count on eating right over here," he says with a grin.

At 46, he still sports the solid, though not quite as brawny, physique from his 1980s heyday first as good guy Leaping Lanny Poffo, then as World Wrestling Federation ne'er-do-well Lanny "The Genius" Poffo.

The brainy nickname was well-founded. In 1988, Lanny self-published a 172-page book of his poetry titled Wrestling with Rhyme. Now, he's working on a book of anti-smoking limericks (he has already written 147 of the planned 300), is a member of the Abraham Lincoln Society and earns a living helping arrange loans for college students.

In the hallway, a deep, gravely voice can now be heard. The fourth Poffo has arrived in his black Humvee. The low-riding, military-esque vehicle stands out in the pack, as does the man who drives it.

In the family, he is Randy Poffo. But to the rest of the world, he is "Macho Man" Randy Savage -- a flamboyant, take-no-prisoners star who, along with fellow Pinellas County resident Hulk Hogan, helped thrust pro wrestling into a mega-million entertainment and pop cultural phenomenon.

Angelo and Judy's older boy -- dressed in black duds that showcase his heavily muscled arms and chest -- is semi-retired from the business that has made him rich and famous. But the Treasure Island resident, 49, remains in constant motion. He travels frequently as pitchman for Slim Jim beef jerky. He recently completed his role as dastardly "Bone Saw McGraw" in Columbia's Spider-Man, opening May 3.

And on this morning, he's preoccupied about his latest project -- a public challenge to former partner and now rival Hogan, with whom he has a testy relationship, to wrestle him at the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg.

The proposed match would reunite two of wrestling's former greats, with all proceeds going to All Children's Hospital. Savage, who sounds in person much how he sounds in the ring, is irked. "He was on the radio this morning jawing about it, but he hasn't accepted yet. I don't know why he wouldn't jump on this thing. We don't have to like each other -- this is for the kids!"

Still, one recent Savage project has more personal meaning than the all rest. He thought of it in August and finished in November with the help of a local private school. It is a lasting tribute to his father and the amazing feat he performed on July 4, 1945.

In a way, it captures what the Poffos are all about.

The making of a champion

Angelo Poffo grew up with little excitement in his life. His parents had come to America from Italy, and he spoke no English when he began first grade in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove.

"I remember, my first day, it got to be around noon, and I didn't know what was going on, so I went home," he says. "That didn't go over real well."

Young Angelo got tough in a hurry, able to defend himself from kids who picked on him. But his immigrant parents were strict and overprotective. They insisted that he stay at home to study and do chores, and forbade him from working out in the high school gym or playing sports.

When Angelo joined the Navy during World War II, he saw his first weight room. He felt like a kid again. "I thought I was in heaven," he says. As a 24-year-old pharmacist mate, his unit was stationed at the Naval Destroyer Base in San Diego. Instead of taking leave, Angelo hit the gym for hours on end, sculpting his 6-foot, 200-pound physique.

He developed a burning drive to compete, but at what? After some checking, Angelo heard about a Naval record that might be attainable -- most consecutive sit-ups done at the fastest pace.

While his buddies went out on dates, Angelo became a human sit-up machine, doing endless repetitions with burning determination. The first time he tried for the mark, he amassed 5,000 rapid-fire sit-ups, and was told he had set the record. But his jubilation ended several days later.

He had used the wrong form.

To be official, the sit-ups had to comply with the standard form of the day: hands locked behind the neck, legs straight ahead, alternately touching right elbow to left knee, and left elbow to right knee.

Soon after, Angelo read of another man who had ruptured an aortic vessel and died while going for the record. Undeterred, he trained for another attempt. Four official witnesses were on hand in the base gym, and several German prisoners of war were brought over to hold his legs down. He wore them out. Four hours and 10 minutes later, the raw skin of his lower back bleeding into the mat, Angelo had shattered the record for quantity and speed with 6,033 sit-ups -- an average of one every 21/2 seconds.

He had planned to stop at 6,000, but as a devout Roman Catholic who felt grateful he hadn't died during the marathon, "I did an extra 33, one for each year of the Lord's life."

He became an instant celebrity on the base, and word soon spread beyond the Navy. Ripley's Believe It Or Not contacted him, and showcased his achievement in their newspaper strip, and presented him with a gold belt emblazoned with his record.

In recent years, the mark has been bettered, says Angelo, but not by anyone using the old-fashioned, elbows-to-knee, locked-hands style.

Growing up, Savage loved hearing stories of the magical sit-up mark. It remained a source of pride for him throughout his father's wrestling career, and throughout his own. He often thought about finding a way to honor his father in a special way. Then, this year, everything fell into place.

While working out at the 66th Street Gold's Gym in Pinellas County, he befriended Bo Vespi, the football strength coach at St. Petersburg's Admiral Farragut Academy. Vespi invited Savage to speak to the football team at the Naval prep school. Savage looked at the modestly equipped weight room, and it hit him. Renovate the workout facility -- and have it named for his dad, who had gone to Farragut boot camp in Idaho.

Savage did just that, paying for all new weight machines and weights, donating the old equipment to charity, and, with the school's blessing, staging a ceremony early last month in the school's gym.

Students and faculty packed the bleachers. Fellow pro wrestlers gave testimonials. Lanny read a poem he wrote, and Randy introduced his dad. An emotional Angelo got a standing ovation -- and saw his Ripley's portrait painted larger-than-life on the weight room wall by local artist Gary Smith, inscribed with "Angelo Poffo Powerhouse Gym."

"It was an incredible thing to watch," says Dave McKay, DJ at WQYK-FM 99.5, a Savage pal who hosted the event. "Randy was just determined to do something for his dad, while his dad was still able to enjoy the recognition. When Randy makes up his mind to do something, there's no stopping him."

Like father, like son.

Marriage and family

It's fitting that the boys pursued sports with a vengeance, considering their parents met in a gym.

Angelo, having returned home from the Navy, enrolled in DePaul University in Chicago. One day, he slipped on the parallel bars while working out, and his foot whacked the shoulder of an attractive co-ed walking by. "So that was it, I had to marry her," he says.

He was older, but due to the war, she was a year ahead, a sophomore, in college on a diving scholarship. They joked about the mishap, started dating, and were married after Judy's senior year in 1949. It was a hard sell to his deeply Catholic parents, because Judy is Jewish.

"At the reception," Judy says, "all the Jewish people were on one side of the room, and all the Catholics were on the other, and his mother said to him in Italian, 'What have you done?' "

But they survived it and began careers. Judy taught physical education for the Chicago park district. Angelo, meanwhile, took the advice of a friend, and decided to give pro wrestling a shot. He was strong and determined, and it turned out he was a natural. First came billings at small events and carnivals. He and Judy traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to work with an agent, and Angelo's ascent began. His fights were televised on the DuMont network, but much of his time was spent on dreary long-distance drives.

On one trip, he drove former boxing champ Joe Louis, who had become a wrestling referee, to a match in Minnesota. They stopped at a restaurant, but Louis was refused service because he was black. Angelo brought dinner back to the car so Louis could eat. On another trip in West Virginia, he escaped an angry mob with a police escort -- because he had wrestled a black man. "Blacks and whites could box together, but this crowd didn't like to see wrestlers' skin touching," he says. Poffo's crowning moment came Dec. 27, 1958, when he dethroned Wilbur Snyder for the U.S. TV Title in Cincinnati. All the while, he and Judy were raising a family. They moved several times a year, enrolling Randy and Lanny in parochial schools wherever they went, to stick with a standard curriculum. The boys loved any chance they could to watch their dad wrestle, but all the moving was hard. Like their father, they learned to get tough quickly.

"Randy would come home from school with his tie off to the side, and his hair a mess, and I knew he'd been fighting," says Judy. "He couldn't take anyone saying a bad word about his dad if he'd lose a match. Lanny was calmer. He'd walk away. But not Randy."

Playing sports became the constant in the brothers' lives. They did everything -- basketball, football, wrestling. But for Randy, the ticket was baseball. In 1971, as a junior catcher, he batted .500 at Downers Grove North High School, then hit .521 as a senior. And upon graduation, he was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals organization as a switch-hitting catcher.

He was assigned to play in the rookie Gulf Coast League in Sarasota, and made the All-Star team his first two seasons. In his third year, his dream of a Major League career was derailed when he collided full-force into the catcher on a close play at home. His right shoulder was badly separated. The muscles were torn. He signed with the Cincinnati Reds in the Florida State League in '74, but could see his prospects of ever throwing again with pro-ball power were nil.

So the son of the man who did 6,033 sit-ups in four-plus hours did something unheard of. He spent the next eight months in his own private rehab -- throwing 1,500 balls against the wall with his uninjured left arm in Sarasota.

"I wasn't naturally ambidextrous, but I taught myself to throw left-handed," he says. "I guess persistence was my best attribute. I felt if I can do that, I can do anything."

Savage could still hit, and he was good enough to earn a contract in '75 with a Chicago White Sox farm team as a left-handed first baseman. But he hadn't mastered the vital side-arm throw from first to second on double plays. The White Sox released him.

He was devastated. But there was a logical place to turn. The family business.

'It was in my blood'

Lanny had already made the leap, joining his dad as a tag-team partner. Now, seeking a new career, Randy signed on, bulking up his 6-foot-1 frame to a rippled 230 pounds. "It was always in the back of my mind," he says. "I guess it was in my blood."

Angelo managed his two sons. And when the duo was signed by wrestling executive Vince McMahon in the mid-'80s, Angelo retired.

Unlike his father, who kept his surname due to his notoriety from the sit-up record, Randy sought a new identity. He was the Spider, the Executioner, the Destroyer, Macho King Randy Savage, and finally -- as one of wrestling's main attractions from the mid-'80s to the late '90s -- Macho Man.

Along the way, he won a dozen championships, including WCW heavyweight champion three times, and the WWF title three times. (He even dethroned Lanny for two smaller titles in the early '80s.)

He was known for his flying elbow-drop from the top rope, his athleticism and the eye-popping colors and stripes of his trunks, cape, sunglasses and cowboy hat. The garb was designed by Tampa artist Michael Braun, who outfitted rock stars such as Jimi Hendrix and Vanilla Fudge. He knows Savage well.

"The key thing about Randy is this: If your work habits measure, say, an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, he's going to be about a 15," Braun says. "When you're sleeping, he's working. This is no exaggeration. And anybody around him has a hard time keeping up, because he's always moving at a fever pitch."

It's the Poffo way, a relentless determination to accomplish a goal -- from the most sit-ups ever, to throwing 1,500 balls a day to become a lefty, to penning hundreds of public-service limericks and wrestling poems. Or Judy Poffo's boundless energy and calm to keep the family on an even keel.

Back at his parents' condo, Savage grabs his cell phone. He's checking his messages. He's talking to his manager. He's talking about his Hogan challenge to officials at All Children's, where he has helped in various fundraisers over the years.

Soon, he needs to take off for the gym and a daily two-hour workout. But he takes a moment to reflect.

"I'm just so proud of my mom and dad and brother," he says. "As as far as my dad is concerned, I'll never fill his shoes. He was a pioneer who did some amazing things that opened doors for us. That's why I wanted to give something back to him."

A thanks for the founder of the family business.

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