Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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 [email protected]


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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Dodgers close in on World Series with 6-1 win over Cubs


    CHICAGO — Yu Darvish pitched into the seventh inning, Chris Taylor homered again and the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Chicago Cubs 6-1 on Tuesday night to open a commanding 3-0 lead in the NL Championship Series.

    Los Angeles Dodgers' Chris Taylor hits a home run Tuesday during the third inning of Game 3 of baseball's National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs. [Associated Press]
  2. Peter Budaj, Lightning lose to Devils in shootout; Nikita Kucherov scores

    Lightning Strikes

    NEWARK, N.J. — For Peter Budaj, Tuesday's season debut had a shaky start.

    The Lightning’s Vladislav Namestnikov, right, battles Damon Severson for the puck.
  3. Mother's testimony about toddler's death brings judge to tears


    TAMPA — Nayashia Williams woke up early on May 7, 2014, to the sound of her daughter calling for her. It was the last time the young mother's mornings would begin with a summons from Myla Presley, who couldn't yet climb over the mesh fencing around the playpen she used as a bed.

    Deandre Gilmore looks towards the gallery Tuesday in a Tampa courtroom. Gilmore is accused of killing the 19 month-old daughter of his girlfriend in 2014. He said the child fell while he was giving her a bath. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
  4. Speakers: Getting tough can't be only response to teen car thefts


    ST. PETERSBURG — Bob Dillinger remembers coming to Pinellas County as a legal intern in 1975. There were five major poverty zones in St. Petersburg.

    Wengay Newton, Florida House of Representatives (in front, in center), talks as a panelist to a packed room during a community forum on "Reclaiming our Youth: Is Juvenile Justice a Reality?" at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum in St. Petersburg Wednesday evening (10/17/17). The event was presented by the Fred G. Minnis, Sr. Bar Association. Community leaders discussed the ongoing auto theft epidemic among Pinellas youth.
  5. Internal White House documents allege manufacturing decline increases abortions, infertility and spousal abuse


    White House officials working on trade policy were alarmed last month when a top adviser to President Donald Trump circulated a two-page document that alleged a weakened manufacturing sector leads to an increase in abortion, spousal abuse, divorce and infertility, two people familiar with the matter told the …