SEMINOLE — With his outlandish outfits and taunting rasp, superstar Randy "Macho Man" Savage helped turn wrestling from a sweaty sideshow into a glitzy multimillion-dollar entertainment phenomenon in the 1980s.
His 1987 bout with Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat is discussed among wrestling fans the way baseball aficionados talk about Willie Mays' basket catch: the ultimate, the tops, the best ever.
In his career he played both the hero and the villain with equal aplomb.
On Friday, he was the victim.
Savage, who had settled in the Tampa Bay area and become known for his local charity work, died after his 2009 Jeep Wrangler hit a tree about 2 miles from his Seminole home.
Savage was driving west on Park Boulevard about 9:25 a.m. when he "lost control for unknown reasons" near 113th Street N, a Florida Highway Patrol report says.
The Wrangler jumped the median, crossed the eastbound lanes and rammed an oak tree in front of Bay Pines Evangelical Lutheran Church.
"I hear bam!" the pastor, the Rev. David Priebe, said. "It was a big, loud crash."
By the time Priebe got to the Jeep, he could hear sirens and see that Savage "was in trouble." He started praying.
Rescue crews pried the doors open and took Savage to Largo Medical Center, where he died. Savage, whose legal last name is Poffo, was 58.
Savage's brother, wrestler "Leaping" Lanny Poffo, told the website TMZ.com that his brother suffered a heart attack before the crash. The FHP's report said there may have been "a medical event," but that cannot be confirmed until there is an autopsy.
Savage's wife, Barbara Lynn Poffo, 56, also was in the Jeep. She was treated at Bayfront Medical Center for minor injuries, according to the FHP. The couple had just celebrated their first anniversary on May 10.
Both were wearing seat belts. The crash did not involve alcohol, according to the FHP.
Savage's rise to glitz and glory began in Downers Grove, Ill., where he was plain old Randall Mario Poffo. Back then his favorite sport was baseball and he idolized Hall of Famer Johnny Bench of the Cincinnati Reds.
In high school he was a two-time all-state player, establishing a school record for batting average (.524) that stood for years.
He played minor league baseball from 1971-75 for the White Sox, Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, where he was known as a quiet guy — so quiet, in fact, that his coaches barely noticed him.
So he switched to a far noisier sport.
"I traded my field of dreams for a ring of screams. Ooooh yeah!" Savage once told the Chicago Tribune.
When Savage gave up baseball, he chose to follow in the footsteps of his father, Angelo Poffo, an undercard favorite who won wrestling titles and was inducted into the sport's hall of fame. When Savage's father died last year, his famous son called him "a great example of a self-sacrificing, hard-working man who always put his family first."
Savage jumped into the ring in 1975, working his way through the Canadian, Midwest and the Mid-South regions, with his father buying television time to run ads promoting the matches — ads that featured Savage throwing out bold challenges to his opponents. He joined the World Wrestling Federation (now known as World Wrestling Entertainment) in 1985.
By then he had found a way to make his mark. He draped his 6-foot-1 frame in exotic outfits and sunglasses that looked like they were manufactured by NASA. He wore cowboy hats that seemed to be made of Vegas casino neon. He developed a signature move — a flying elbow off the top rope — that was imitated by backyard wrestlers everywhere.
He even brought along an eye-catching manager — his wife — whom he called "Miss Elizabeth" as part of the act.
He wasn't that quiet guy on the bench anymore. And he had that unforgettable catchphrase: "Ohhhhh yeah!"
"He had that hoarse voice and that up-and-down sing-song method of delivery that was totally unique to him and made him stand out right away," recalled Mark Beiro, a boxing and wrestling ring announcer.
He parlayed his unique look and sound into a role as a corporate pitchman, ordering fans to "Snap into a Slim Jim!"
It was all just an act, said fellow wrestler Terry Funk, who grew up with Savage. Offstage he was "very private and very intelligent. Whenever you make the money he made in the wrestling business at the time he did, you are not a dummy."
But when he donned the outfit and strutted into the arena to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance, "he was the Macho Man," said Funk. "He went into that character and he did it well."
Savage's theatrical trash-talk and dazzling outfits helped turn wrestling into a big box-office draw, said Funk, who named him, Ric Flair, Gorgeous George and Dusty "The American Dream" Rhodes as the "most flamboyant" wrestlers ever.
At first he played the villain, and "by combining clever theatrics with a busy wrestling style, he moved into the unofficial No. 2 spot behind (Hulk) Hogan," the Chicago Tribune reported in 1988.
He wasn't the biggest guy in the ring, but he didn't let that stop his climb to the top. "My big thing is coordination and quickness," Savage told the paper then. "I'll never be 300, 400, 500 pounds like some of those guys."
Then Savage switched again. He became a good guy wrestler battling villains like the Honky Tonk Man, an Elvis-like character who once clobbered him in the head with a guitar.
Savage was under contract with World Wrestling Entertainment from 1985 to 1993 and held both the WWE and Intercontinental Championships, according to the association. After trying his hand as a commentator, he returned to join World Championship Wrestling briefly before retiring again in 2000.
He and "Miss Elizabeth" divorced in 1992. Elizabeth Hulette died in 2003 from an accidental overdose of pills and alcohol while living with wrestler Lex Luger.
Last spring, Savage wed Barbara Lynn Payne. Funk said she was Savage's high school sweetheart.
Although he retired from the ring, Savage never really left show business. He played a wrestler named Bonesaw McGraw in the 2002 movie Spiderman, did small roles in TV shows like Walker, Texas Ranger and Mad About You, and growled his way through vocal performances in King of the Hill and Family Guy. In 2003 he even put out a rap album called Be a Man with titles like Tear It Up and Macho Thang.
In recent years he made a name for himself in the Tampa Bay area with his charitable work on behalf of schools and children's groups. He became a fixture at the Steinbrenner Family Foundation's annual Christmas concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall, doing a reading of the famous Clement Moore poem that began, "Twas the night before Christmas. Ohhhh, yeah!"
Within hours of the wreck Friday, fans began flocking to the crash site to leave mementos.
"I'm so crushed," said Adrian Stepp, 29, a teary-eyed shipping store employee who grew up watching Savage on TV and in recent years often waited on him at the store.
"I don't think I ever saw the man in a bad mood — unless he was faking it on stage."
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press. Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.