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Love and Heartbreak in the Squared Circle

Is it possible for love to thrive in a sport where fact and fiction are basically inseparable?

Over the last few weeks, there’s been a spotlight on the unique pressure of being a couple working in pro wrestling. First, VICELand, launched its new documentary series on pro wrestling, Dark Side of the Ring, with an episode about the line-blurring relationship between “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth. Days later, WWE held their latest “Superstar Shakeup,” where wrestlers are switched between the Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live TV shows as well as the respective Raw and SmackDown live tours.

When the initial lineups for the Raw and SmackDown rosters were set coming out of the “Shakeup” shows, hardcore fans on Twitter and other discussion forums immediately noticed something out of sort. Andrade and manager Zelina Vega had been moved to Raw, while Charlotte Flair, Andrade’s real-life girlfriend, was staying put on SmackDown. Thanks, though, to what’s been reported as both Flair’s protests and FOX, the soon to be home of SmackDown, wanting a Mexican star, Andrade and Vega ended up being moved back. This created a new problem, though, because Vega’s husband, Aleister Black, had been sent to Raw along with Ricochet, his new tag team partner. So just like that, whatever plans there may have been for that tag team were out the window, and they were split up so Black could go to SmackDown.

It’s not normally this volatile. Because in 2019, having happy wrestlers and not being huge assholes isn’t the only reason to keep couples together on the same tour. For the last several years, WWE has had a suite of reality shows about their female talent and their relationships, the overarching Total Divas and its spinoff shows about specific families, Total Bellas and Miz & Mrs. While the ratings for Total Divas have been in enough of a freefall that it wouldn’t exactly be a big surprise if it was cancelled, a steady pipeline of new characters and relationships is exactly what that type of show needs to fuel its continued existence.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. In pro wrestling’s regional days, when female wrestlers weren’t just in short supply but were generally a touring act who didn’t stay put for more than a week or two, long-term relationships weren’t exactly feasible. If there was a woman on the road in a relationship with a wrestler, she was usually an on-screen character as his manager or valet. There were exceptions — Valerie “Sunshine” French, a Dallas staple in the 1980s, was brought in by her cousin, Jimmy Garvin — but in those days, it was pretty much always the case. Garvin replaced Sunshine with Precious, actually his wife Patti; Missy Hyatt got into wrestling as the valet of then-actual boyfriend John Tatum; and the Fallen Angel character was introduced after Nancy Daus began a relationship with Kevin Sullivan, and so on.

The most famous example, though, is “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth.

Savage had been a solo act for much of his career when he went to WWE in 1985, and if he was joined by any kind of manager or tag team partner, it was often his father or his brother. The exact story behind how Liz became an onscreen character has been told a few different ways over the years. But what’s generally agreed upon is that Vince McMahon wanted to give Savage a glamorous female manager, possibly inspired by a character on the prime-time soap Dallas, and the “Macho Man” suggested his own wife.

Elizabeth had some on-screen experience as the host of their mom-and-pop produced International Championship Wrestling TV show, so she had some idea what she was doing, and with her magnetism, she helped make her husband’s act even stronger. Whatever idea there was for her to be a Dallas-inspired villain went away once she settled into the role, creating the dynamic of the demure, likable babyface woman managing the psychopathic, controlling heel boyfriend.

The Dark Side of the Ring episode profiling Savage and Elizabeth focuses on their own personal variation on the potential confusion that the wrestling business throws into the mix, which wasn’t unique to them. But their line-blurring was of a particularly problematic variety: The on-screen relationship between them was, whenever Savage was a villain, framed as, at best, emotionally abusive on his part — and at worst, physically abusive. (The inference was strong enough that volunteers for a battered women’s support hotline picketed at least one WWF show early in the characters’ run.) So as fans became more aware over time that they were also married in real life, that started to reflect on the actual marriage of Randy Poffo and Elizabeth Hulette.

It was common knowledge that Poffo had internalized the Macho Man character to the degree that his “promo voice” became his regular speaking voice, so if that was true to life, what else was? While there have never been any stories of physical abuse in the public sphere, it’s clear from the documentary that Savage was keyed up to the point of being overly controlling. As reported by Dave Meltzer in his Hulette obituary in the May 12, 2003 issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Hulette had confided to fellow manager Bobby Heenan that when she was off the road and not performing, Poffo had left her a stack of Hungry Man frozen dinners because he didn’t want her leaving the house while he was away.

Throw in the on-screen drama, which did include one incident of physical abuse — Savage shoving Liz hard to the ground and threatening to “splatter” her with his title belt after he turned on Hulk Hogan in 1989 — and it’s easy to see how fantasy and reality can become hard to distinguish from each other. When they got divorced in 1992, several months after Hulette disappeared from TV, there was enough of an elephant in the room that Savage addressed the issue via an announcement letter in the official WWF Magazine.

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From his perspective, it was a cautionary tale, similar to others in the wrestling business. Canadian wrestler turned trainer Lance Storm has routinely told the story of the first time he met Savage, which was not long after he got married himself, and was offered a piece of advice by the Macho Man: “I did an angle with my wife one time, and I ain’t got no wife no more.”

While your mileage may vary as to how much that impacted Savage’s marriage, it’s not bad advice. If there’s one rule of wrestling relationships, it’s that TV storylines will dictate real life way too often. On-screen couples have a way of becoming real couples, and on-screen splits between real couples have a way of becoming real splits. WWE star Daniel Bryan, for example, quickly hit it off with his now-wife, Brie, when they teased a relationship on TV. His fellow SmackDown star, Rusev, is married to Lana, who has been his manager the whole time that they’ve been on TV. While they weren’t explicitly portrayed as a couple at first, the fact that the Lana gimmick was an obvious rip-off of the Ludmilla Drago character from Rocky IVIvan Drago’s manager who also happened to be his wife — meant that the suggestion was always there. The reverse logic being true — famous examples include Steve McMichael and wife Debra and the aforementioned Tatum and Hyatt — also meant that when Rusev and Lana briefly split on TV, there were rumblings that there was more to it. In fact, a report on Wrestling Observer Radio suggested that Vince McMahon wanted to legitimately break up their relationship because “a guy like Rusev” didn’t deserve Lana.

The most famous example, though, saw Kevin Sullivan, then running the creative side of WCW, put together a storyline in 1997 where his wife Nancy, aka “Woman” — the former Fallen Angel — left him for Chris Benoit. Just what kind of shape their marriage was in has been debated, but within a few months, Nancy actually left him for Benoit. And for about a decade, it was the “ur example,” the reason why you don’t mess with your actual relationships on TV that way. It was almost a joke. That is, before that relationship ended in tragedy, Sullivan was best known to hardcore fans and a lot of wrestlers as “the guy who booked his own divorce.”

And even if it hadn’t ended the way it eventually did (with Benoit murdering both Nancy and their 7-year-old son, before killing himself), there was still a clear lesson: Wrestling is fucking weird and fucks with the reality of its performers (and their relationships) in extremely unhealthy ways.