Few wrestlers leave the industry without scars. Crippled bodies and bank accounts, let alone the tragedies of drug abuse and death seem to be the norm. One wrestler who managed to survive the worst of the biz and have a normal and healthy post-performer life was Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. One of the heroes of my childhood, Steamboat was perhaps the smoothest and most athletic wrestler of his generation. He made everyone in the ring with him look good, but few could hold a candle to his athleticism and ability and arsenal of moves.
Apparently, back in the 1970s when a lot of wrestlers were pretty tubby, Steamboat earned a reputation for making everyone lose weight when they went in the ring with him. All his opponents knew he would not slow down the tempo or not give a 100 percent. So, before a Steamboat match, lots of the old guard wrestlers who normally did a sleeper match could be found on tredmills and doing cardio training just so they didn’t have a heartattack when they got in the ring with the Dragon!
He also studied how to act as an athlete. He’d watch videos of punch drunk boxers to see how they reacted to blows when they were at their limit, adding a weird hyper realism to his efforts that made the comic book world of wrestling come to life.
He was a natural, and his matches with Rick Flair, Don Morrocco, Randy Savage, and Jake Roberts were amazing. His match with Randy Savage at WRESTLEMANIA III remains an all time great, as do his series of three championship bouts with Rick Flair. He was one of the few wrestlers to remain a “babyface” (good guy) his whole career, a testament to his pervasive popularity (most folks become bad guys when the crowd no longer “pops” for them). Apparently, Steamboat always held the matches with Flair in higher esteem because there was more improvisation and innovation during the match. Savage, though, was a meticulous wrestler. Every spot was carefully worked out before hand. On the road to wrestlemania, they would try out different spots for house shows, to see how the crowd would react. They kept intensive notes on all these combos, then put the best ones into their wrestlemania programme and voila, instant classic!
With Flair, it was more natural. They’d “call it in the ring”, a form of pro wrestling where most of the match is improvised on the spot, reading the crowd and changing things mid stream. You had to be really good to make this kind of match look good. They are easy to screw up and most wrestlers today don’t know how to do it. Steamboat and Flair had wrestled hundred of times together in the 1970s, so they knew each other inside and out and turned those championship matches at the end of the 1980s into industry standards.
But Steamboat’s career also introduced me to the Orwellian nature of pro wrestling in the WWF. Back before Vince McMahon ate all the other promotions, wrestling was broken into territories, and wrestlers made money on their names. If Abdullah the Butcher was coming to town, be it Calgary or Atlanta, it drew crowds. Wrestlers made their living building their brand, as it were, from territory to territory. When the WWF wanted to be the only game in town, it rebranded wrestlers, ignored their storied past achievements, and launched them as if they were new. Steamboat was given the nickname “The Dragon” and dressed in martial arts gear, to give him a Bruce Lee hero quality (he’s half Japanese, but whatever). When he came back to the WWF after working in the WCW, he was rebranded “the Dragon.” No first or last name anymore. He dressed in a weird dragon costume, spoke in crypto mythic tongues, and blew fire before his matches. Even his own past with the WWF was erased! This is the kind of revisionist history that would make a Stalnist proud!
Thankfully, the WWE eventually started to acknowledge its own past through the WWE Hall of Fame. And while the HoF is full of politics and vendettas and biases and other junk as much as proper remembrances, it was great to see Steamboat get his due.
So here are highlights from the match with Savage at WMIII. Long live the Dragon, last of the old school good guys!