At this point, everybody knows the picture—”Macho Man” Randy Savage, clad almost entirely in denim, looking pensively into the distance while sitting on a rocky shore. It’s an indelible portrait of one of wrestling’s most beloved figures, something at once cartoonish and real, completely sincere and utterly ridiculous. It’s my favorite picture of a professional wrestler, something so uniquely keyed to the personality of its subject that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else striking the same tone. Here, for proof, is a picture of Bret Hart hanging out by a body of water, draped in denim:
It’s not the outfit—the cowboy boots, the company-issued shirt and sunglases, the watch, and the wash of the denim are all very, very Bret Hart. It just doesn’t feel “real” the same way the picture of Savage does. It’s hard to explain why—so far as photographs are concerned, neither are exactly documentarian. They’re very intentional, the subjects posed and the setting framed so that their audience, wrestling fans, can learn something about the wrestlers. In the photo of Bret Hart, you learn that he’s Canadian. In the photo of Randy Savage, you learn that he’s a man.
It’s hard to articulate what makes this so striking, so I’ll start with this claim and work backwards: Randy Savage is the most photogenic wrestler in history. Professional wrestlers are among the most photographed people on earth, so that’s saying a lot. At a wrestler like Savage’s level there are, at a minimum, thousands of cameras trained on the ring at all times. As a genre, wrestling photography is a unique intersection of the dynamism of sports photography and the intimacy of the portrait, a celebration of the human range of motion and an exploration of the human form posed with the intent of its consumption by the onlooker. In wrestling, the onlooker is the home audience, watching the action as dictated by a director and a team of camera operators working within a style that’s been polished and refined since the early days of Hulkamania to keep pace with the televised presentation of other sports like football, basketball, and hockey. We talk about this kind of image making in wrestling so often that we don’t realize that we’re talking about image making until the camera operator screws something up and misses a spot, or the director decides to cut to five or six different angles during a headlock.
More Pro Wrestling:
- A Pilgrimage to Scott Steiner’s Shoney’s
- Mechanics of Wrestling 101: Space
- The 1992 Royal Rumble Holds Up, Even If It’s Older Than You
Leaving aside the moving image, let’s consider the other cameras that capture a wrestling match. At ringside, there are professional photographers with their expensive rigs. In the audience, there are amateurs with any number of devices—disposable cameras in the 1980s and 1990s, point and shoot digital cameras in the 2000s, cell phone cameras now, and at all of those points in time photography enthusiasts with set-ups as impressive as the ones used by ringside photogs. Watch an old Hulk Hogan main event—notice how, after the bell, the home audience’s camera tends to cut to a wide shot of the arena, a God’s eye view of Hogan hitting his poses while thousands of flashbulbs pop in the seats? It’s an impressive spectacle, but it’s also a moment that’s not entirely for the home viewer. Hogan turns to each side of the ring and flexes several times so that everybody in the arena can go home with something to remember the night by. It’s what the crowd gets in exchange for giving up the comfort of the home viewing experience. According to cagematch.de, Hogan wrestled 160 matches in 1987—a lot of arenas, a lot of flexing, a lot of flashbulbs, an entire universe of photographs by professional and amateur photographers alike, impossible to catalog and collect, meaningful in the moment or for eternity to the person behind the camera. If wrestling is about making moments, it’s possible to measure the impact of a moment by noting the number of cameras lifted to anonymous faces, focused on the action in the ring.
I’m fixated on Savage’s greatness as a photographic subject because he doesn’t have to stop and pose to create a great opportunity for a shot. Take the above image of him and Ric Flair. Wrestling fans have been conditioned to see the backslide as a moment of drama, a will-he-or-won’t-he moment where the wrestler on the bottom of the move struggles to stack his opponent up on his shoulders for the win. It’s a basic pinning predicament, but one that’s hard to get out of. At home, the move happens in a matter of seconds, the commentary team screams about it, there is drama regardless of whether or not the wrestlers are any good at conveying drama. It just so happens that the two wrestlers in the photograph are two of the best ever, but look at Savage’s face—his gritted teeth, his eyes shut tight, his neck straining—and look at the crowd. There’s one person turned away. Everybody else, including the cop, has their eyes on what’s happening in the ring. Savage and Flair’s WCW encounters are not fondly remembered by many, but this ringside photo manages to make it seem just as life-or-death as their WrestleMania VIII match years prior, where this photo was taken:
So far as moments frozen in time go, this one is beautiful. Ric Flair eternally suspended in a state of terror as he hurtles over the top rope and towards the floor. Earl Hebner gazing intently at the action. The audience looking on, some with their own cameras in hand. And at the center of it, Randy Savage, completing the follow-through of his motion, tassels flying and sequins catching the light. That such a good image of this match exists is a miracle. That Savage was so consistent in creating such images is absurd. It’s almost like he had two brains running at once, one for the broadcast cameras and one for the still photographers, every detail of his wardrobe and every move in his arsenal designed to capture the attention of both kinds of camera.
More than anything, what makes pictures of Savage so compelling is his face. For more than a decade, little about it changed. His beard remained the same length, his hair maintained the same amount of wild frizz, and age seemed to weather it less than his contemporaries. And he knew how to work it. If you’ve seen his WrestleMania V promos leading to his match against Hulk Hogan, you know the level of intensity he’s capable of. If you look at the above picture of Savage getting bit by Jake Roberts’ cobra, you know the depth of pain he can convey. I mean, yes, he’s being bit by a cobra, but compare his face in that photo to the face he makes while trying to take Flair over on a backslide. Randy Savage was not a wrestler who believed in half measures—if he did anything, he did it big enough for the whole arena to see.
Of course, Savage is not a lone actor, even in photos where he’s the only man in the ring. Every single one of these images owes as much to the instinct and timing of the photographer as it does to him. Savage and his opponent make the moment happen, but it’s the photographer’s work that gives it an extra dimension. Roberts’ attack is a great example—the televised angle is a close-up shot of the cobra with a gigantic red X censoring everything. The photo, by contrast, is far more explicit. Jake Roberts gloating. Savage’s face a rictus of pain. The cobra. The distance between the photographer and the scene is perfect—it allows all three bodies to occupy the frame in full, forcing the eye to move from left to right to tell its narrative. The photo is more dramatic than what was shown on television.
From his look to his moveset to his facials to his uncanny command of his body, few wrestlers are Randy Savage’s equal on any kind of camera. I said earlier that the photo of him on the shoreline revealed that, among other things, he was a man. Think about how rare an impulse that is for most professional wrestlers, to say nothing of the wrestlers of his era. Why is Savage so captivating in photos? Because he was willing to do things like that, to go places other wrestlers weren’t capable of following. Each photo of him fills in more detail about the man, burnishes the reputation of the wrestler, elevates great moments to unforgettable ones. It’s a rare gift, one worth celebrating.