Dear Lanny Poffo…
You died 3 months ago. You were my friend for 7 years, as of 2016. But the first time I ever saw you was in 1986, when I went to watch you wrestle in person.
The first time I ever saw you, I was a child and a fan. The second time I saw you, I was an adult and a prospective business associate, interested in penning a screenplay about the life of your older, more famous brother, Randy Poffo. The last time I ever saw you, it was over a WhatsApp video chat, and by then, if I’m to believe your words, we had become brothers ourselves…
Which was fitting, since I’d always loved you. In fact, when I was growing up, you were my favorite professional wrestler in the world.
I tried to tell you this, but I couldn’t make you believe it. After all, you were a wrestler, and as such you knew a lot about blurring the line between what’s real and what’s fake. Moreover, you knew a lot about blurring that line in the course of playing an audience and getting a reaction. So when I told you that you’d been my favorite wrestler, you kind of squinted at me. It didn’t make sense: Why me?
Why you? Well, it was simple: before every match, you read a crisp, perfect, rhyming poem, taunting your opponent. This was during your “Leaping Lanny” years, when your opponents were all heels (bad guys). Being heels, they took themselves very seriously. But your poems fearlessly ripped them apart. They’d be charging in to attack you before we even heard the opening bell.
As a kid, above all else, I loved two things: wrestling and writing. To me, the fact that a poet-wrestler even existed was too good to be true, let alone the fact that he was awesome. Yes, you were corny, and so was the whole gimmick, and you didn’t have any of the badass vibe that characterized the era in which you came up, but also, you were happy. As a character and (as I’d later learn) as a person. And that was infectious. And Lanny, you weren’t entirely corny: you recited poems, yes, but you also used them to roast your dumb opponents. In this way, you were a satirist, something of a rude court jester (a persona you’d bring out in full later on, when you turned heel and wrestled as “The Genius”). It didn’t matter that you were one notch above a jabroni (a wrestler who always loses to make the other guys look good – although you played a lot of offense and often won). It didn’t matter that the Lanny Poffo match was usually the first one on the card, a way of warming up the audience as they bought their popcorn and found their seats. You were my guy. I have the notebooks to prove it. I’d sit there writing my own wrestling poems, sincerely, painstakingly modeled after yours.
Still, I understand that you probably weren’t too many youngsters’ favorite, not in an era when they could choose Hulk Hogan – or (of course) your older brother, Randy Mario Poffo, known in most circles (especially squared ones) as the “Macho Man” Randy Savage. That was another factor behind your squint: Why choose me when you could just as easily have chosen Randy…?
Indeed, Randy was the superstar. I didn’t even know you guys were brothers till I grew up (it wasn’t part of the storyline, despite the fact that, come to think of it, you did look awfully similar…). It wouldn’t have readily crossed anyone’s mind that the undercard-grappling near-jabroni would be related to the champion. And in the meantime, you and your brother embraced very different approaches to the profession:
You were a gymnast. A professional. Smiler. Poet. Comedian. Fun guy. Light guy. Friendly face. Accessible. Relatable. Unpretentious. With the people. Over yourself. Just out there having a good time.
Randy, he was an earth-wide wildfire. Randy wasn’t a poet; he was the poetry. One look at those eyes and you saw The Fever: it never quit. He was a maniac. Surrealist. One-man phenomenon. He made no sense yet he made perfect sense. The music. Those outfits. Sunglasses. Miss Elizabeth. His grumbling speech patterns. That body: heavyweight and middleweight in one. Such agility. But power. The man moved like lightning. He was scary. The audience tended to come unglued before he even got to the ring. And when he got there, forget it – it was like all the planets in outer space had crashed together.
That’s one hell of a shadow, but you didn’t mind living in it. Quite the contrary, with Randy’s soul-blessing (after he died: 2011, age 58, in true Randy fashion – unique: not too old, not too young), you made money off it. You made the rounds, round the world. Told the stories. Eulogized him for the Hall of Fame. Made sure his legacy was intact, running strong.
Which was why I emailed you when I wanted to write his story.
This was right before the second time we met. The first time we met, I was nine years old, and I didn’t speak to you. It was September of 1986. The Philadelphia Spectrum. You could feel, to paraphrase the late, great Gorilla Monsoon, “the electricity in the air.” It was the first time I’d ever gone to see a live card. My dad had taken me. You were right there near the front door, signing autographs for the fans. Only you, none of the other wrestlers. You were accessible, with the people.
You were Lanny Poffo.
My dad approached you with our program. You swiftly dashed off a lightning-like L and P. You seemed a head taller than my dad, but that was probably because of your boots. Truth be told, the two of you looked alike: brown hair, brown mustache. And as I knew in his case but would only later learn in yours: Jewish genes. You kept it secret in the business. You made it known within the first 30 seconds of our first 2016 call (“You know, I’m a member of the tribe…”).
In ‘86, like I said, I was too intimidated to speak to you. But I looked up at (and to) you. You were a giant, your jacket sparkling royal blue. I couldn’t believe that you were standing there in front of me, epitomizing all that wrestling is and was: Greek mythology come to surreal life, making real life that much larger.
I noted inwardly how you resembled my dad. This would continue as the years went on. He’s about five years older, but your hair grayed at around the same time. And at around the same time, you decided, across time and space, to take leave of the mustache.
Even before I knew you it was like I knew you.
But I never imagined the way our paths would cross…
Some years after Randy Savage died, I read a story about him in Sports Illustrated. I learned about how he’d been a talented baseball player, only to get sidelined by an injury and switch to wrestling, the family business already paved by you and your dad Angelo before you. I found it fascinating how Randy’s appetite for excellence was so severe that when one path was closed to him, he quickly steered and mastered another. He was out to prove himself, to make sure that his life actually meant something.
I wanted to write a screenplay about him. I looked you up on the Internet. Then I emailed you, expecting no reply: Would you want to help me do it?
You got back, but you weren’t all in at first. Programmatically, you kept folks like me at bay. I was a striver, scraper – ambulance chaser. That is, of course, for all you knew.
But as you thought about the idea, you began to like it. And as we communicated more, you began (it seemed) to even like me.
We met in San Jose some months later. You were all in: you gave me all the stories. You even let me in on some secrets. And you answered every last question I threw at you – except, of course, for one (“Did Randy actually talk in that grumbling voice?”).
The information was gold, but equally invaluable was what I picked up from the margins. I got a feel for you, a sense of who you were as a person. And through that, I also got a feel for Randy. For one thing, you conducted yourself, always, as a true professional: responsive, efficient, clear, steady, dependable. For another thing, you had an absolutely INsane sense of humor: you didn’t just go in for the easy joke; no, you back-flipped off the top rope, going in for raw shock value, making sure I didn’t just laugh, but came to pieces.
Our screenplay made its way through the system, impressing suits and producers and gaining traction in the ways we’d hoped (note to reader: more to come…), but in the meantime, we gained something deeper, more sacred: the experience of doing something together, as partners, as brothers, down in the trenches, your hopes my hopes, my dreams your dreams. It got to the point where I couldn’t text you without getting a phone call in response. This is an exasperating trait when somebody is alive. But it’s something I miss dearly now that you’re gone.
Nobody expected you to die, Lanny. You were 68. Your friends were counting on 90. On the last night of your life, in true Lanny fashion, you went out to see a Broadway show. You were in New York City. The show was “Wicked.” You posted on Facebook that you’d loved it. Of course you had. It was a show! And Lanny Poffo was a showman. Your brother: a shaman. You: a showman. I can see you applauding all the musical numbers. Can see you rising to your feet when the performers took their bows, saying to your agent, who was with you, “Oh, they were just excellent, weren’t they?”
Did you know that you had heart failure, Lanny? You often breathed pretty heavily on the phone.
And did you know that you had unrecognized greatness? You often moved in the ring like a star halfway to heaven.
You’re all the way there now. I miss you badly. I still have our project, but it’s not the same because I don’t have you.
The last time we spoke (it might have been the second to last), you paid me a compliment that I hold near. You said, in light of all we’d created, all we’d shared and navigated, “Randy was the older brother, I was the middle brother, and you’re the baby brother.”
You put me in the lineage. Was it a wrestler’s move? A way of playing the audience? The same way you’d let me know you were a member of the tribe?
Did you have other friends like me? Friends you called at 1AM? People who knew the secrets, heard the lowdown jokes?
I’ll never know the answers. But I don’t need to. It was enough to just know you.
Met you in ‘86. Was a child. Met you again in ‘16. Was a man.
Lost you in ‘23. Was shattered.
I walk around talking to you sometimes. Reciting your old poems underneath my breath. Trying to get the rhythm, nail the deep voice. Crack your smile. Hear the roar of your loving fans.
Then the reverie breaks. I come back to the world. It’s a harsh one, but you loved it so. It’s a place where myths are real, yet legends die.
Your baby brother