Enter The Dragon: A True Legend
Originally published in 2006
Written by Colm Kearns
Ricky Steamboat may not be the first name that comes into your head when you consider all time greats in wrestling (particularly if you are a younger fan), he hadn’t the mic skills to match Ric Flair or Shawn Michaels and he never wrestled as a heel but when it came to in ring talent and the ability to put on a classic match Steamboat was among the very best. Whether it was putting on all time classics with legends such as Ric Flair or helping to elevate younger stars like Steve Austin in WCW Steamboat done it with the skill, fluency and passion that are the mark of a great in ring talent.
Steamboat was born in New York on February 28th 1953. He was a talented amateur wrestler and planned to become a wrestling coach but was put off by the lack of job opportunities. As faith would have it, his girlfriend met Donna Gagne in Minneapolis.
Donna was the daughter of legendary promoter, trainer and wrestler Verne Gagne. Steamboat went to Gagne’s training camp in Minnesota in 1973 and so took the first step on his journey to becoming the wrestling legend he is today. Under the tutelage of Gagne (who also trained Ric Flair and the Iron Sheik) Steamboat under went an incredibly tough training regime that saw him drop 40 pounds in 12 weeks. He underwent four weeks of cardio work and weight training before even learning the basics of wrestling, 12 weeks after starting he wrestled his first match against his fellow trainee Scott Irwin.
His wrestling career proper began in the AWA in 1976 where he wrestled under the name Dick Blood; he cut his teeth but never achieved much success there. He then moved to Eddie Graham’s Florida territory where he began using the name Rick Steamboat supposedly a son of wrestler Sam Steamboat. He became one of Florida’s most popular stars and was main eventing within two months. It was in Florida that he began to incorporate martial arts techniques into his matches, which he learned from Dean Ho.
In 1977 he went to Jimmy Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic promotion and pinned TV champion Ric Flair on his debut there thus began one of the greatest feuds of all time. Steamboat lost the TV title to Baron Von Raschke four months later but continued to feud with Flair for the US title (which Flair had defeated Bobo Brazil for). The feud saw the title trade between the two in several brilliant encounters around the country and many memorable televised moments such as when Flair ground Steamboat’s face into the TV studio floor badly bruising and bloodying his face, to make it look more legitimate Harley Race cut and recut Steamboat’s face with sandpaper backstage (and off camera) following the match; it is a dedicated man that willingly lets his face be cut open with sandpaper. Another moment occurred in November of 1978 when Flair was boasting in the ring with two models when suddenly a vengeful Steamboat burst from behind the curtain and attacked Flair, tearing off his expensive designer suit leaving the Nature Boy in his shoes and briefs. Angles such as this are remembered fondly by long time NWA fans and at the time they helped Steamboat become one of the top faces in Mid-Atlantic. Flair would later say that some of the matches he had with Steamboat at this time were better than their famous three match series in 1989 (covered later). Dave Crockett (brother of Mid-Atlantic promoter Jimmy Crockett) credited the feud as being a huge reason for his territory expansion at that time; “the rivalry was a great thing for the company…. we were drawing a younger audience. Suddenly, we had teenagers coming to the matches to see Ricky Steamboat.”
Over the next few years Steamboat continued to impress in Mid-Atlantic wrestling terrific matches with Flair, Blackjack Mulligan and NWA World champ Harley Race and also in tag matches with Jay Youngblood and Paul Jones (both of whom he captured the NWA World Tag Team titles with). He also won the NWA Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight title from Hussein Arab losing it in April 1981 to former (W)WWF World champion Ivan Koloff and participated in the first Starrcade event (in which he and Youngblood defeated the Brisco brothers to win the Tag titles). However soon afterwards he announced his retirement and left Mid-Atlantic, fans were saddened by the news thinking they had seen the last of one of the greatest in ring talents they have ever had the privilege to see.
Steamboat however merely wished to spend time with his family and it is doubtful that he ruled out wrestling again. Steamboat was a dedicated family man and always put their needs before that of his wrestling career, it was a trait that helped him have a successful marriage but hindered his wrestling career in some ways. Many people believe he would have been NWA champion in the early 80’s but he did not wish to take on the exhausting traveling schedule that was required of an NWA champion in those days. It is also the generally accepted reason as to why he wasn’t given a lengthy singles title run in WWF or NWA.
When he did return to the ring in 1985 it was in Vince McMahon’s rapidly expanding WWF, much to the dismay of NWA fans. His early highlights there included competing at the first two WrestleManias and engaging in an intense feud with WWE Hall of Famer Don Muroco that drew huge crowds at house shows. At this point WWF were running two house show tours one headlined by Muroco and Steamboat and the other by wildly popular World champion Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik, to the surprise of many Steamboat and Muroco both out-performed and out-drew Hogan and Sheik. Because of this WWF considered making Steamboat World champion but it was not to be. Perhaps because like the NWA WWF were reluctant to put such faith in someone who did not make wrestling his first commitment or perhaps they were took a ‘if it isn’t broke don’t fix it’ approach to Hogan as champion.
Next up for Steamboat was an intense feud with Jake ‘the snake’ Roberts, it began when the two wrestled to a no contest on Saturday Night’s Main Event in May 1986, following the match Jake executed a DDT to Steamboat on the concrete floor badly injuring him (in storyline). Steamboat showed a darker side in the feud and his rage towards Jake was more ferocious than was usually seen in feuds at the time. In a ‘Snake Pit’ match in August which saw Steamboat defeat Jake and the feud ended when Steamboat was once again victorious in another match in September.
What was the come next was a feud that would that would leave cement Steamboat in the memories of every wrestling fan of the era. It began when Steamboat got in an altercation with Intercontinental champion Randy Savage, in an almost unprecedented act on brutality Savage crushed Steamboat’s larynx with the timekeeper’s bell, an act which would keep Steamboat injured until December. A vengeful Steamboat returned and after a few house show outings the two men were set to meet at the biggest event of all time; WrestleMania III. On front of over 70,000 fans and with the IC title up for grabs Steamboat and Savage wrestled and emotionally charged fast paced terrific match. The match featured a huge amount of near falls and stole the show, even eclipsing the epic Hogan/Andre main event. Despite the acclaim from fans and wrestlers alike Steamboat himself was not overly impressed with the match, this was because Savage had insisted on planning out every spot of the match and even practicing it. Steamboat had the same school of thought as Ric Flair believing that for a match to be truly great it should be called on the fly in the ring. But he was in the minority and the vast majority of wrestlers and fans loved it including Chris Jericho who said that it was the reason he became a wrestler.
Unfortunately fans didn’t have a chance to see what Steamboat could do with a major title as he requested time off to spend time with his wife and baby son. As a consequence he dropped the title in a short and un-hyped match in early June. Many believe that Steamboat’s request for time off upset WWF management and that belief was justified when WWF done little with Steamboat following his return. Although he participated in all of the major PPVs of the era (including good matches at Survivor Series ’87 and the first Royal Rumble) he had no major feuds or angles. It was a waste of a great talent and Steamboat seeking to spend time with his family and perhaps disillusioned by WWF’s misuse of him left the company shortly after WrestleMania IV.
Fast forward to early 1989 and in the NWA, World champion Ric Flair and US champion Barry Windham are set to face Eddie Gilbert and his mystery partner in a live TV match. To the surprise of fans in attendance and the TV audience Steamboat turned out to be Gilbert’s partner. The majority of the offense was dealt by Steamboat and Flair played the part of the desperate cowardly heel perfectly. It instantly re-ignited their feud and led to NWA World title match at the Chi-Town Rumble in February 1989. At Clash Of The Champions V Flair taunted Steamboat saying that he should “go home and help the missus with the dishes” (playing off Steamboat’s image as being a whipped goody two shoes), an enraged Steamboat attacked Flair and like he had in the 70’s tore the expensive clothes off his advisory before beating him through the audience with a series of chops.
When the two met on PPV at the Chi-Town Rumble it was nothing short of a five star classic. The finish saw referee Tommy Young accidentally knocked out by Steamboat, then Flair attempted his signature Figure-4 Leg Lock but Steamboat reversed it into an inside cradle and a second referee rushed to the ring and counted the three. The referee raised Steamboat’s hand but the crowd were skeptical as they expected the dreaded ‘Dusty finish’ (a much over used finish in NWA matches of the era) which would see Tommy Young recover in the time to reverse the decision and disqualify Steamboat for knocking him out. But when Young recovered he joined second referee Teddy Long in raising Steamboat’s arm in victory and the fans let out a collective sigh of relief. After 13 years of hard work and great matches Rick Steamboat was finally the World champion.
The inevitable rematch came at Clash Of The Champions VI in New Orleans. It was an outstanding 55 minute long 2/3 Falls match that many rated as being even better than their first encounter. After a grueling match which saw both men gain falls it was Steamboat who emerged as the winner after he collapsed while locking Flair in a Double Chicken Wing pinning both men’s shoulders to the mat but Steamboat managed to raised his at the last second for the win. However after the match it was revealed that Flair’s foot was under the ropes during the pinfall. This led to Flair threatening legal action (in storyline of course) if he did not get a rematch. The NWA consented and scheduled another rematch at Music City Showdown in May, to prevent a repeat of the controversy the NWA appointed three former World champions (Terry Funk, Lou Thesz and Pat O’Connor) as judges to keep score in the match. In the event of a draw the judge’s decision would decide the outcome. As it turned out the judges were not needed Flair cleanly pinned Steamboat in a match many consider the best of the three they wrestled that year (which really is saying something). After the match Steamboat congratulated the new champion and raised his arm in a sign of respect.
The reaction to the series was huge. All three matches received five stars from the highly respected Wrestling Observer newsletter and future WCW announcer Mark Madden later called them “the best three match series ever wrestled in an American ring.” The matches have become the measuring stick for rating any great match since and even today it is not unusual to hear a remark like; “well it was good but it was no Flair/Steamboat.” Sadly the highs of the battles with Flair were followed by a series of lows. His only two other high profile bouts of the year were a loss to Lex Luger and a DQ win over Terry Funk. After another hiatus he returned to WWF in 1991 but he was used as a midcard talent and was given a cartoonish ‘Dragon’ gimmick. Around this time Steamboat seeking a challenge and a change approached WWF booker Pat Patterson to request a heel turn. Patterson turned the idea down however saying that Steamboat was the ultimate good guy and that if they even had him “cut Hulk Hogan’s arm off with a chainsaw” the fans would say Hogan deserved it. Steamboat decided to try his chances with the NWA now called WCW.
Some of you may question Steamboat’s dedication to the business because of his many family related hiatuses I say look at the man in the ring. Every time he stepped between the ropes he gave 100%, he wrestled his ass off whether it was for the WrestleMania or the smallest of house shows. A further display of his dedication came in 2004 when he appeared in a non wrestling capacity in Ring Of Honour. In ROH Steamboat began a feud with indy star CM Punk culminating in an alliance between the two and a face turn for Punk. Everyone who witnessed the angle could see that Steamboat had lost none of his passion and done his best to get Punk over. Steamboat made sacrifices for his family because he loved them not because of any lack of passion for wrestling. This strategy may have cost him some title opportunities but today he has the best of both worlds; an incredible wrestling legacy and a happy marriage (a rare thing in the wrestling business).
Two months after leaving the WWF Steamboat captured the WCW Tag Team titles with Dustin Rhodes (aka Goldust). Over the next few months he teamed with Runnells, Sting and others to battle Paul E. Dangerously’s ‘Dangerous Alliance’ which included the late great Rick Rude, Arn Anderson and a young Steve Austin. In May he teamed with Sting, Barry Windham, Nikita Koloff and Dustin Rhodes to defeat the Dangerous Alliance in a ten man War Games match which also received five stars from Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer. He also fought Rick Rude for the US title in several in excellent matches including a 30-minute Iron Man match at Beach Blast in June. In September 1992 he defeated Steve Austin for the TV title making him one of the few men to capture all four WCW major titles.
His feud with Austin would continue on and off for the next year and a half after the entertaining bout, which saw Steamboat win the TV title, their feud took to the tag team ranks. Steamboat teamed up with a young Shane Douglas and battled Austin and Brian Pillman collectively known as the Hollywood Blondes. The two teams had incredible chemistry in the ring and they regularly stole the show in late 1992 and early 1993. After this feud Steamboat once again won the TV title but lost it a month later to Steve Regal.
In mid 1994 Steamboat re-ignited his feud with Flair. Both men may not have wrestled each other in five years and both were north of forty but they had lost little of their old magic. The two wrestled on the Spring Stampede PPV in April 1994 for the World title in a fantastic match. It may not have rivaled their series in 1989 but it was leagues ahead of anything else WCW put on at the time. The match ended in a draw and the rematch on WCW Saturday Night a month later may not have been as good but it was undoubtedly a very good match.
After this brief run of main eventing Steamboat slipped back down into the midcard to feud with once again feud with Steve Austin this time for the US title. They had wonderful heel/face chemistry and wrestled together extremely well particularly in matches at Bash At The Beach 1994 and Clash Of The Champions XXVIII. Sadly the feud ended prematurely when Steamboat suffered a back injury in September and was forced to forfeit the US title. Worse was to come when it turned out the injury forced Steamboat into early retirement. After 18 years of wrestling classic matches, participating in brilliant angles and being one of half of perhaps the greatest feud of all time (with Ric Flair) Steamboat’s career was finally over.
Steamboat left an undeniable legacy on wrestling as one of the most talented competitors ever to lace up a pair of boots. His career may have ended somewhat prematurely but he left wrestling fans with so many memories that is may not even matter. Everything he done in the ring he done brilliantly, his technique, psychology, execution and selling were almost without parallel. If you don’t believe me look at OWW’s ’50 greatest matches’ list and check what the top two are. Steamboat is also universally respected by his fellow wrestlers (a rare thing indeed) and many legends from Bret Hart to Steve Austin to Ric Flair cite Steamboat as one of their favourite opponents. Perhaps no one summed up Steamboat better than Flair when he said; “Steamboat had everything – charisma, workrate, intensity and one of the best bodies in our business…. He was just amazing. If he had any drawback, its that he never played the bad guy. Unlike wrestlers who could get the crowd to either love them or hate them, he only knew how to be the hero. But he’s the greatest hero I ever wrestled.”
Written by Colm Kearns (May 1, 2006) ..
Editor’s Note: Since this column was written in 2006, Ricky Steamboat has been featured back in the spotlight as an agent for the WWE. The Dragon was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009 and went on to feud with Chris Jericho, even getting in the ring a for a few more classic confrontations. In 2010, Steamboat was the victim of an infamous beatdown on RAW, and tragically suffered a real life aneurysm just a few days later. The legend has since recovered and returned to his duties of teaching the young stars of the WWE and will forever be remembered as one of the greatest of all-time!