The Intercontinental Title: Stealing the Show
August 15, 2005 by Jamie Green
As a regular visitor to OWW, I have recently read Colm Kearns' comprehensive History of the WWE Title articles. The response he has received from it tells me that today's wrestling fans still care about the pre-Attitude era of wrestling. Therefore I have decided to focus a series of columns on my personal favorite title in the history of wrestling, the Intercontinental Championship. Unlike Colm's articles, my columns will not be as much timeline based as much as I will highlight important moments in the championship's history. For this first article, I will give an intro regarding the significance of the IC title, a background setting up my chapter, and include my first installment entitled "Stealing the Show: Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat."
A Gateway to the Top Tier
Only in wrestling could the Intercontinental title make sense. Even in boxing, where it seems everyone has a title, a secondary title wouldn't work. The Intercontinental Title is what I call a secondary title. Where the WWF/E title is the ultimate prize, the IC title is secondary. The secondary title has been used in the majority of promotions for several reasons. First, it gives a boost to storylines and creates a thread for fans to follow. Anytime a title is at stake the fans are more interested. A secondary belt also gives improving mid-card youngsters a solid career goal to strive for. And the fans love the ride. The IC title is and has always been a test and a platform for performers. Guys like Bret Hart, Steve Austin, The Rock, and Shawn Michaels were all given the Intercontinental belt to prove that they were worthy of the ultimate prize.
The Intercontinental title was conceived in the WWWF era of wrestling to provide Vince McMahon Sr.'s Northeast territory with a secondary singles championship belt. The "story" went that WWWF North American Champion Pat Patterson unified his title with the South American Championship, therefore making the belt, you guessed it, Intercontinental. As years passed, the term "Intercontinental" had no real definition, though every wrestling fan knows what the title means.
Oddly enough, the first major catalyst in making the Intercontinental Title prestigious was when Hulk Hogan defeated the Iron Sheik in January of 1984 for the WWF Title. The Hulkamania Era had arrived and would be staying in office for several terms. While Hogan reigned as WWF Champion for basically five of the next six years, the IC title was used as a hotbed of activity for all the rest of the WWF roster. For faces, it was the only belt they could receive a shot at. For heels, it was the only belt they'd likely have a chance to win.
Until Bret Hart won the WWF Title in autumn 1992, the WWF Champion could only be a certain type of wrestler. Vincent K. McMahon had witnessed Bob Backlund's monotonous reign as WWF Champion and figured the most believable WWF champions and contenders would be the most imposing personalities. So while Hogan battled Big John Studd, King Kong Bundy, One Man Gang, Hercules, Roddy Piper and Andre the Giant, a series of fast paced and well-schooled workers were battling over reign of the IC belt. Jimmy Snuka fought Don Muraco in a cage. Tito Santana and Greg Valentine carried a feud for the strap for over a year. Santana would emerge victorious in a Cage Match in Baltimore. After the match, Valentine went completely mad and broke the title against the cage. A new belt was constructed, the classic IC belt that was in existence for the next 12 years.
In February of 1986, Santana lost his title. Thanks to corrupt officiating by Danny Davis and a pair of brass knuckles, Tito was beat by the red hot Randy Savage at the Boston Garden. Santana's loss, Savage's subsequent reign, and his eventual defeat would bring the Intercontinental title its first major highpoint.
STEALING THE SHOW
On March 29, 1987, the WWF Intercontinental Title had its first great moment. If any two wrestlers embodied the Intercontinental Title and its importance in wrestling, they were Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat. Steamboat was the clean cut good guy who was almost overbearingly positive. He was someone you'd want your mother to re-marry. Randy Savage probably spit at his mother. He was a complete jerk in every possible way, yet was an unbelievable talent who genuinely carried the IC belt with pride. Though both men had been wrestling for quite a while, in the WWF they were still considered rising stars. After all, this was 1987 when wrestlers weren't allowed to develop as fast as they do now. Steamboat was 34 years old and Savage was 33
I could say the Steamboat-Savage match at WrestleMania III was their coming out party, but everyone involved in that evening had a coming out party (ok, maybe not Little Beaver). The two combatants had been working a classic feud for several months. In a televised match for the title, Savage had Steamboat's throat draped over the security gate outside of the ring and dropped an axe-handle that jammed the Dragon's throat into the gate. Savage, not yet finished, threw Steamboat into the ring, ascended to the top rope and delivered a blow with the ring bell that brutalized Steamboat's larynx.
Wrestling fans were furious. They had tolerated a year of the Macho Man's dirty antics and the painful way he treated his wife Elizabeth, but this was beyond anything they'd ever witnessed. Steamboat was an admirable guy, a true technician who made pro wrestling look as real as it has ever looked. Fans were pleasantly surprised to see Steamboat turn up just weeks later in the middle of a Savage match looking for revenge. Though Steamboat could not penetrate the security surrounding the ring, the date was set. WrestleMania III was the stage.
Steamboat-Savage was slated as the ninth match out of twelve, preceding a Jake Roberts-Honky Tonk Man dud, and following a Butch Reed-Koko B. Ware even-bigger-dud. Engulfed between some of the biggest gimmicks in the WWF, the crowd was jacked up for an IC title match contested between two wrestlers that would pull off an all-time classic.
Even in the introductions, the Pontiac Silverdome crowd is going ballistic for this match. As with every big event in the WWF in the 1980's, fans at home are treated to the commentary of Gorilla Monsoon and Jessie Ventura. These are two men who always treated wrestling with the utmost respect it deserves, and the only announce team in the WWF qualified to call a match like this. We see that Steamboat is accompanied to the ring by George "the Animal" Steele. Animal Steele (as Ventura refers to him) is there as both a friend to Steamboat, and an enemy to Savage, his opponent in the previous WrestleMania. Savage exits the ring to maneuver Elizabeth from one side of the ring to another, as we hear the sound of the bell. The sun is setting on the Michigan crowd as seen through the translucent Silverdome roof. By the time a winner is decided, the dark of night will be upon us.
Flashbulbs explode as two patented Ricky Steamboat Arm Drags begin the match, impressing the announcers, the house, and everyone who's ever watched a wrestling match. Savage exits the ring in typical Macho Man style, allowing a Steamboat pursuit. Quickly Savage climbs into the ring and greets the trailing Steamboat with a shot to the head. "I don't think there's a better talent in the world right now than Macho Man," says Ventura, presumably echoing a statement that at the time was felt by many inside the business. As Savage maintains control of Steamboat, Gorilla can only agree with his partner, adding that the Intercontinental champ has faced all challengers.
The Dragon regains control with several high arm elevations, springing Savage if not into the lights, fairly close. Steamboat is indeed as aggressive as ever as Ventura points out. Savage then delivers a cheap elbow to a set of boos that Detroit fans usually only employ for Mike Ditka's Chicago Bears. After Steamboat flies over the top rope and to the floor for the first of several times, it is apparent that Savage is prepared for the match.
A Macho shot to the Dragon's throat sends the crowd reeling into downright furor. Steamboat climbs into the ring, only to be chucked out again quickly by Savage. All the while, even Gorilla puts Savage over, complimenting him on his strategy. It is at this point that the key to the match becomes apparent. There will be no Front Face Locks or Reverse Chin Locks. In fact, these two mat wrestlers have abandoned that style altogether in order to keep the match moving. There is never a period of inactivity for either competitor. Even Animal Steele and Elizabeth are busy. Savage gets Steamboat back into the ring long enough to attempt the first of 19 pinning attempts in the match, each attempt completely different looking from the others.
The crowd is still buzzing over these innovative workers as the tide turns. As Steamboat backs Savage into the ropes, Savage's arms get tangled. This is the first of several instances in the match where the rules and officiating actually favor Steamboat. For over a year Savage has used everything from brass knuckles to leverage moves to score pin falls, so it is only fair to the 93,173 announced in attendance that Steamboat gets an advantage. As the heel Ventura explodes on the microphone, Steamboat explodes right hands at the vulnerable Macho Man.
Savage finally escapes only to once again be greeted by another copyrighted Steamboat armdrag. Next is a magnificent spot in which Savage reverses Steamboat over the top rope. But like Shawn Michaels in the Royal Rumble, Steamboat manages to hang on to the top rope and curl himself back over the ropes. However it may have better suited Steamboat to go over the first time, as he is greeted with a hard clothesline by Savage that again sends him to the floor. "You gotta get up pretty early in the morning to outsmart the Macho Man," quips Ventura as only he can. A "Pearl Harbor" job by Savage sends the Dragon over the ring barricade and into the extremely lucky first row of fans. However Steamboat looks anything but lucky as he struggles to his feet with the aid of Animal Steele.
Savage escorts Steamboat not so politely back into the ring to once again toss him over the top rope and to the floor. I can't imagine Steamboat would fair well in a battle royal. Rather than count Steamboat out of the ring, referee Dave Hebner reprimands Savage for his vicious tactics, which in turn fires up Ventura playing his part. A double axe handle by Savage is sold marvelously as Steamboat struggles to stay on his feet. Savage goes after Steamboat's throat using his top rope clothesline move. Savage scurries back into the ring to get a near fall on Steamboat. How quick is the Macho Man" A series of Dragon kick-outs follow while Ventura puts over Steamboat's endurance big time. Monsoon recognizes a good thing when he sees it as he states "this is beyond wrestling ability."
A series of reversals sends Savage TREMENDOUSLY high over top rope. He nearly cleared the barricade on that. Once back in the ring, Savage is placed in a pinning predicament by the challenger that sees the crowd go insane when they see the champ dethroned. But their elation is silenced as referee Hebner signals correctly that Savage had his foot over the bottom rope before the three was counted. After another series of near falls, Ventura utters that "this is one of the greatest matches I've ever seen." Steamboat is literally putting on a pinning clinic going through the book of near falls with Savage as the crowd buys into every single one of them.
Inevitably, Hebner gets knocked out and Savage takes control. Macho Man drops a dramatic elbow from the top on a brutalized Steamboat, but there is no ref to count to three! A spot almost always reserved for the face, the heel Savage can't score the pin fall. As to reprise the origin of their feud, Savage retrieves the ring bell from the timekeepers table to use on Steamboat. But being a supportive friend, Animal Steele won't let this go down. Savage still manages to ascend to the top, but only in time for Animal Steele to push him off the top rope to the ring canvas. Savage and Steamboat reach their feet simultaneously and Savage goes for a body slam. Out of absolutely nowhere, Steamboat reverses the move into a small package and stuns the world by getting the one, two, three on the unbeaten champ. The Silverdome explodes if not just for Steamboat, but for the athletic achievement that they have just witnessed. As some have later said of WrestleMania III, Hogan and Andre sold the show, but Steamboat and Savage stole it.
Months earlier Savage had nearly ended Steamboat's career. The Dragon returned motivated to take away his most important possession. Err, I didn't mean Elizabeth. Okay, his second most important possession, the Intercontinental Championship. Steamboat was the cleanest good guy in wrestling history and by his performance in winning the title he gave it more meaning than it was ever fathomed possible. Everyone remembers Steamboat-Savage for the IC belt at WrestleMania III. The IC belt is integral in the match's allure in 1987 and it is in retrospect in 2005.
Looking back I feel that Savage was at his best as Intercontinental Champion. His character was never better defined and his tactics in the ring were still fresh. The WWF did the smart thing and moved him away from the title (save one minor run vs. Honky Tonk to help establish him as a face) and towards the WWF Title.
WrestleMania III featured the alleged future of wrestling Hulk Hogan defeat the main man of the past, Andre the Giant. However, I believe the future of wrestling was greatly affected by Savage and Steamboat that night. They proved that technical wrestling did not necessarily mean two guys sitting on a mat for 30 minutes. Like Savage and Steamboat, guys like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho, and Chris Benoit would one day serve as World Champions utilizing the same style that Savage and Steamboat schooled us on that night.
As further proof of this match's contribution to wrestling, Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat would both soon be World Champions. Savage, as a face, won the title at WrestleMania IV, while Steamboat took the NWA title from Ric Flair just short of two years after his IC title win. For old school wrestling fans, how many matches from the WWF can you think of prior to March 29, 1987 that were as fluid as Savage-Steamboat" For fans that haven't seen this match, find a copy of WrestleMania III or any other tape that features it and buy it. It still holds up today as one of the greatest and most influential contests in the history of the product.
by Jamie Green ..
Colm Kearns wrote:
I'm glad to see my work has inspired others to write especially something so
good. Your match analysis was brilliant and I loved how you explained the impact
of the match on the WWF as a whole. Keep up the good work.
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