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Professional wrestler Angelo Poffo wasn't a star in the ring, but was to his family

LARGO — Dr. Jerry Graham lit his cigars with $100 bills. Gorgeous George died broke. Ric Flair blew big paychecks for 15 straight years.

Those were all big stars in professional wrestling, their names plastered on the tops of bills.

Angelo Poffo's name usually appeared lower in the bill. And he didn't make nearly as much money.

But Mr. Poffo stayed away from the fast life. He rarely drank and was devoutly religious. He stowed away his money and sent his two sons to college.

Though Mr. Poffo would carve out a nice career in wrestling — he was a title winner and was inducted into the sport's hall of fame — his sons would become his greatest legacy.

Randy "Macho Man" Savage and "Leaping" Lanny Poffo would become stars during the sport's surge in popularity in the 1980s — something they attributed to their level-headed father.

Mr. Poffo, who lived in Largo, died March 4. He was 84.

"I have always been proud to call Angelo Poffo my father," Savage said in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "He is a great example of a self-sacrificing, hard-working man who always put his family first. … He has always been my hero and my mentor, and the priceless gifts he gave I will have and cherish forever."

The only child of Italian immigrants, Mr. Poffo spoke no English his first day of elementary school in Chicago. He became fluent in it and Italian. As an adult, he preached persistence and thrift, never swore and drank only the occasional glass of red wine, his family said.

Originally, Mr. Poffo dreamed of a career in baseball, not wrestling. But while batting for DePaul University, he took a fastball to the head that hurt his game. He entered professional wrestling in 1949, the same year he married fellow student Judy Sverdlin.

Though unknown in wrestling circles, Mr. Poffo already had a great accomplishment. Four years earlier, as a 20-year-old seaman, he had set the world record for consecutive situps. With four witnesses and a couple of German prisoners of war holding his legs, Mr. Poffo cranked out 6,033 situps.

Breaking the record took four hours, 10 minutes, and rubbed the skin off his lower back. The devout Catholic had intended to stop at 6,000, but changed his mind as he neared the end. "I did an extra 33, one for each year of the Lord's life," he said later.

Ripley's Believe It or Not! commemorated the achievement with a championship belt and a trademark cartoon.

When he got into wrestling, he performed under his own name, the number 6,033 emblazoned on the back of his trunks. He wrestled in Chicago, one of three markets in the nation to embrace wrestling in the 1950s.

"Those shows were on four nights a week," said wrestling historian and photographer "Dr. Mike" Lano. "They introduced the world to Gorgeous George (Wagner), ("Nature Boy") Buddy Rogers and Johnny Valentine."

Usually, Mr. Poffo appeared in tag-team matches rather than the main events. Then as now, producers determined billing and titles based on perceived market appeal.

Nonetheless, Mr. Poffo attained a measure of stardom in 1958 when he defeated Wilbur Snyder for the U.S. TV title.

He invested the money from his winnings while others squandered theirs.

"The boys made fun of people who didn't go out and blow their money and party," Lano said. "But they ended up being jealous. Angelo was one of the few who not only provided for his kids and put them through college, but had something to show for himself."

Sometimes Mr. Poffo capitalized on the image, wrestling as the "Miser" in a sequined cape with a dollar sign on the back.

"He made a great impression on me in my initial decision at age 5 to be a wrestler," said Terry Funk, a key player in another wrestling family. The Funks, led by Dory Funk Sr., and the Poffos pulled travel trailers across the country in the 1950s, gathering after matches for food and stories.

Mr. Poffo was not afraid to take on the wrestling establishment, and broke away in the late 1970s and early 1980s to promote matches for his sons. He bought television air time on 22 markets and prepared local spots for Randy or Lanny to pointedly challenge whoever they were going to wrestle next.

In the process, Mr. Poffo discovered his own stars, such as Bob Orton Jr., Ron Garvin and the One Man Gang, all of whom went on to success with the World Wrestling Federation.

Mr. Poffo continued to wrestle occasionally into his mid 60s until stopping in 1991. He was inducted into the World Championship Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1995. At 55, Lanny Poffo still wrestles internationally. Randy Savage, now 57 and one of wrestling's biggest stars, has largely withdrawn from competition. Both live in Pinellas County.

"If anybody remembers any of my success," Lanny Poffo said, "it will be because of my brother's. And if anybody remembers his, it will be because of my father's."

Terry Funk, now 65, said Poffo led a life that others could emulate. "He knew where the quality in his life lies, and that was with his family. That's the way he lived his life," Funk said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

>>Biography

Angelo John Poffo

Born: April 10, 1925.

Died: March 4, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Judy; sons Randy and Lanny Poffo; and one granddaughter.

Professional wrestler Angelo Poffo wasn't a star in the ring, but was to his family 03/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 11, 2010 10:57pm]
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