While the generally accepted belief is that in order to cope with the grueling, seemingly endless, life on the road for pro wrestlers in the 70s and 80s, drugs were a necessity, don’t tell that to Lanny Poffo; the former wrestler doesn’t buy it. “It’s a complete cop-out,” he contended. “I was on the road for over 300 days a year and I never did one drug.”
Substance abuse is just one topic delved into in the new documentary 350 Days, featuring Poffo, as well as other wrestling luminaries such as Bret “The Hitman” Hart, “Superstar” Billy Graham, Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff, and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. The film’s title, a reference to the average number of days spent on the road by wrestlers in Poffo’s era, is a brutally honest peek behind the curtain of the secretive pro wrestling industry.
In addition to being a friend of the film’s associate producer Evan Ginzburg (producer of 2008’s Oscar-nominated The Wrestler), Poffo’s inclusion came about as a result of his unique, often differing, perspective on the controversial period. Though he’s quick to clarify his narcotic abstaining claim with an asterisk of admitting to using anabolic steroids for a total of four months during the height of his career, he makes sure to add that it’s not something he’s proud of and that no one but himself is responsible for his lapse in judgement. “Just because I got away with it doesn’t mean you should do it,” he cautioned.
Infidelity is another subject covered over the course of the two hour runtime in the Fathom Events-presented project. While the majority of the athletes interviewed claimed unfaithfulness was simply a normal coping mechanism to get them over the hump during their frenetic schedules, Poffo again believes it’s a crutch. “When my contemporaries say they got divorced because of wrestling, I tell them almost all of my friends from high school are divorced and none of them wrestled. If you want to blame somebody, look in the mirror and blame that guy,” he stated firmly.
Poffo, a second generation performer, has had quite the storied career. Starting out working for a variety of regional promotions, including his father Angelo’s Lexington, Kentucky-based International Championship Wrestling (ICW), the athletic Canadian-American eventually landed in Vince McMahon’s national World Wrestling Federation (WWF), the ultimate destination for every young grappler. Although never achieving quite the same level of success as his iconic brother, the late Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Poffo was a vital part of the booming wrestling, aka sports entertainment (a McMahon-coined term abhorred by purists of the game), business in the 80s.
He began his WWF (now WWE) gig as Leaping Lanny, a babyface, or good guy, in primarily an enhancement talent role. That meant his job was mainly to put up a valiant fight against the top heels, or bad guys, in the company, while simultaneously making his opponents look as dominant as possible. In the process, Poffo would take a plethora of punishment from his foes in what would ultimately result in a losing effort more often than not. On the surface, that might seem to suggest a lack of appreciation for Poffo’s ability. But on the contrary, his unmistakable athleticism and expertise in bumping, or falling to the mat, in the ring in a believable way was a welcome asset. And while not as glamorous of a position as performers such as Hulk Hogan, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and Andre the Giant, it was a necessary one nonetheless.
In Poffo’s first WWF run, he portrayed a character known just as much for poetry as he was for body slams and dropkicks. His gimmick of reciting self-penned poems before the start of his matches that poked fun at his evil adversaries was an instant hit with fans. And it was his penchant for writing, as far back as age 10, that would eventually propel Poffo into inheriting his “poet laureate” moniker. “I wrote a poem and read it on the old TNT (Tuesday Night Titans) television show,” he recalled. “McMahon thought it was fantastic and basically told me to do a different one before each match.”
Like most wrestling personas, Poffo’s lighthearted, nice guy routine had a shelf life, and it wasn’t long before he crossed over to the dark side. Still a wordsmith, however, he simply altered his poetry style into more of a fiendish approach, and in the process, the Genius was born. While both roles were satisfying, Poffo gives his time as the Genius, an intelligent, cocky, rule breaker decked out in an academic cap and gown, the edge when it comes to picking a favorite. “As the Genius, I got to be in the main events for four months straight. I made about 23 appearances in Madison Square Garden throughout my career but only two of them were as a main eventer with Hulk and that was as the Genius,” Poffo remembered. “That made my journeyman career before that well worth it.”
Not everything about the ex-wrestler’s livelihood was completely copacetic, however. One particular incident, occurring inside the ring, but with a lasting psychological effect, caused Poffo to see the business he loved in a not-so-appealing light.
During a 1987 battle royal, a match in which several wrestlers are competing simultaneously with eliminations achieved by tossing your opponents out of the ring, televised on NBC’s Saturday Night’s Main Event, Poffo was ousted by a newly heel Andre the Giant. But when he hit the floor, his entire head was immediately covered in blood, resulting in a virtual crimson mask. While the stunt, including the self-inflicted razor blade cut on his forehead (a common practice in wrestling called ‘blading’), was planned ahead of time, the incision was deeper than it was supposed to be. Poffo, a novice at the exercise, couldn’t help but feel used. “I don’t want to seem bitter but almost nobody, other than my brother, Rick Martel, and Rene Goulet, showed any concern backstage on whether or not I was bleeding to death. They got what they wanted out of me,” he lamented. “I was chosen to be the sacrificial lamb for Andre by McMahon, Gorilla Monsoon, and Dick Ebersol of NBC. They wanted plenty of blood for TV and they got it. My feelings were hurt, but I’m not still angry about it because I realize now it was just the pecking order at the time,” he continued.
Another unfortunate event occurred several years later, after his time working for the WWF had come to an end. But unlike the blading incident, this one didn’t take place inside a ring. In 1995, Poffo signed a contract with World Championship Wrestling (WCW), his former employer’s primary competitor, which Savage was working for at the time. However, despite being signed for five years and receiving regular paychecks, he was never contacted to come to work and was ultimately never used. Although the glaring oversight had nothing to do with Poffo himself but was instead an unfortunate consequence of WCW being a grossly mismanaged company, the experience was still aggravating. “The phone never rang,” he noted. “I was ready, I was getting tanned everyday, training twice a day. It was very frustrating.”
Poffo’s last appearance for WWE was three years ago when he inducted Savage into their Hall of Fame. It was a well-documented bittersweet occasion for him, as his brother had a falling out with the promotion many years earlier, a rift that was never rectified and was severe enough that before his untimely death, Savage instructed Poffo not to allow WWE to ever enshrine him posthumously unless both their father and Poffo himself were immortalized with him. While the specific reasoning behind Savage’s request had to do with his objection to the entire Von Erich family getting inducted in 2009, an honor that he believed was unwarranted, the issues between him and his former employer were much more deep-rooted.
“My brother was always upset about WWE holding a legends battle royal in 1987 at the Meadowlands in New Jersey and not inviting our dad even though all of his friends and contemporaries like Gene Kiniski, Killer Kowalski, and Edouard Carpentier were in the match,” Poffo said. “Pat Patterson (former wrestler who was in a management position at the time) said it was an oversight, which is complete bullshit. Patterson never had one good thing to say about my brother or father. It was done with malice,” he claimed.
While Patterson didn’t make the cut, Poffo lists several wrestlers who he particularly enjoyed working with throughout his tenure, namely Hogan, Terry and Dory Funk Jr., “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig, Nick Bockwinkel, and even the legendary Lou Thesz, whose heyday occurred in the 40s and 50s and is widely regarded as one of the most skilled wrestlers of all time. “I got to wrestle Lou Thesz. Pretty good, right?” he opined. “He was past his prime and I felt like a huge star like him shouldn’t be in the ring but then I realized he was in better shape than me!”
These days, the Clearwater, Florida resident has a much quieter, less drama-filled, life. Poffo released his first biography earlier this year, albeit, in an unconventional manner, in the form of a comic book through Squared Circle Comics. “Nikolai Volkoff (Editor’s Note: Volkoff passed away just hours before this was published; Royal Flush offers our condolences to his family and friends) did it before me and I like comics,” he said matter-of-factly.
Retired for a number of years, save for a couple of minor matches on the independent circuit in 2012, Poffo doesn’t rule out a return to the industry that was once such a major aspect of his life. “I’m turning 64 this year and I still feel young. I’m very health conscious,” he declared. “I’d love to go back and be a manager. If the phone rang and someone made me an offer, I’d certainly listen.”
Since he doesn’t watch much television, Poffo doesn’t follow the current wrestling scene very closely. And while the modern style is quite different and has evolved immensely from 30 years ago, he refuses to knock it. Ring of Honor (ROH), founded in 2002, recently invited him to one of their events as a guest and he was impressed with what he saw. “The Young Bucks, Jay Lethal, many of the performers there, they are very talented. And they’re selling a lot of tickets,” he added. “I don’t knock success.”
Regarding 350 Days, the ex-grappler is proud to be a part of it and hopes its initial one-night premiere morphs into a lengthier run in the near future as well as a pick up by Netflix. As for his career of choice, Poffo sums it up nicely. “I got to travel all over the world and didn’t have to pay a penny. Some of the best things in my life happened because I was a professional wrestler,” he reflected. “I have no regrets.”
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