When I was eight years old I went to a WWF match with my best friend, Bob. His father had gotten us ring-side seats and, when the Bushwhackers came out for the tag-team match, Butch licked Bob’s right palm. Turning to me, Bob raised his hand aloft as if it were the Holy Grail. “I’m never washing this hand again,” he said, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t for at least a couple days.
Butch and Luke went on to win their match, as they often did, but I could barely pay attention. I was too anxious for the main event: Macho Man Randy Savage.
In retrospect, Tucson, Arizona, my hometown, has never been a very glamorous place. But there’s no way you could have convinced me of that as I watched the well-oiled, well-tanned Savage stalk to the ring in his rhinestoned neon Speedo. He was bigger and stronger than my dad, something I didn’t known was possible until that night, and the crowd leapt to its feet when he entered the ring. I clutched my soda so tightly I could feel the wax on the paper cup scraping off and collecting under my fingernails. This is what life was all about.
Two decades later, I can’t remember who the Macho Man wrestled that night—Ric Flair, maybe?—but even back then it didn’t really matter. For a kid raised in the early 1990s, before professional wrestling was completely marginalized as a tacky sideshow, the Macho Man was the pinnacle of manhood. He was a G.I. Joe come to life, and he played the hell out of that role for decades to come.
For better or worse, all the celebrated tough guys from my childhood have fallen away over the years. Arnold Schwarzenegger became a hated politician and then a shamed philanderer. Jesse Ventura also became a politician, just a weirder one. Hulk Hogan is a laughable reality star, and the Ultimate Warrior has turned into an angry, homophobic conservative commentator. Rambo? He’s a plastic surgery victim.
With them has gone the illusion that I could hold onto being a kid forever. But the one constant was the Macho Man. Here he was brazenly smashing through a performance of Romeo and Juliet to hawk Slim Jims (“Art thou bored?”), there he was going head to head with Spider-Man as Bonesaw McGraw. The Macho Man probably never made as much money as some of his former WWF colleagues, and he certainly didn’t achieve the mainstream fame some of them have. But I think I can speak for millions of Americans when I say I liked him just where he was—slightly out of sight, to be sure, but when you saw him he reminded you of a time when life was as simple and fun as good guys in colorful spandex beating the bad guys in colorful spandex. He was like a visit to the attic to look at your old but beloved toys.
Randy Savage died today after suffering a heart attack that led him to crash his car. Though I hadn’t thought of him for months if not years, his passing saddens me in a very existential way. We all grow up, we all lose sight of our youth, and we all forget what it’s like to be so excited and lost in the moment that you let a grown man slobber on your palm. I think what made the Macho Man so great is that he appeared to have never forgotten that. He died not a half-serious ex-governor, but a totally serious professional wrestler and entertainer. I know which one I respect more.