Dragon Masterpiece: new WWE DVD spotlights Ricky Steamboat
Just as important as the top dog in a territory in the kayfabe days was the No. 2 drawing card. In a sense, No. 1 was only as good as No. 2; in fact, they co-existed as stars and drew money because of the chemistry between the two. Simply put, No. 1 couldn’t have captured the imagination of wrestling fans—not to mention all those title belts–without No. 2. Meanwhile, in most cases, they both were probably each taking credit for the houses at the time, i.e., the money drawn at the arenas, because, well, that’s how the business was back then. A little legit professional jealousy was always considered good for the business, with the lines of fantasy and reality blurred.
In the late ’70s, the money-drawing rivalry in Memphis was Jerry Lawler vs. Bill Dundee, while Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat helped ignite the Crocketts’ Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling (MACW) not long after a plane crash crippled one of its biggest stars–and nearly the territory itself. The tragedy that ended the career of longtime U.S. champ Johnny Valentine, a true legend in the area, also seriously injured Flair’s back, which he rehabbed like a man possessed to come back months ahead of schedule. Valentine’s retirement forced the territory to usher in a new era sooner than expected.
Although the stage was set for Flair to rise from the wreckage as an inspirational babyface, booker George Scott went another direction. Before he was ready to work again, Flair appeared at ringside as a heel, ensuring that MACW fans wouldn’t feel sentimental about the Nature Boy as he prepared to make his return. Flair ridiculed the fans during a memorable studio appearance for making the mistake of sending him get-well cards. When he ripped up those cards, crowing that the fans were fools for caring about him, his heel fate was sealed. Flair may have returned more despised than he was before the plane crash—now that’s heat.
Timing is everything in all forms of entertainment, and the wrestling business is no exception. Not long after his actual in-ring return, Flair reportedly asked booker Scott to be paired up with the athletic Steamboat, real name Richard Blood, a chiseled rookie who had adopted the well-known surname of ring-veteran Sammy Steamboat. Scott trusted Flair’s instincts, which resulted in a new style of working, first in the Carolinas, and, later, the rest of the country. While the Valentine era was known for stiff, methodical contests, especially his bouts with guys like Wahoo McDaniel, Steamboat and Flair set a new standard of pure athleticism. The two young lions immediately clicked, with their athletic, state-of-the-art (especially for the time) bouts captivating MACW fans.
One underrated, unique aspect of the kayfabe era was the effect of the national wrestling magazines, later referred to as “the Apter mags,” on young marks back in the ’70s. Much like fans today flock to the Internet every day for the latest rumors, ’70s- and ’80s-era wrestling fans at the time thirsted for as much actual “news” as they could decipher in those largely fictional Apter mags, sold at supermarkets and drug stores. The notion seems ridiculous now, since we all know that nearly all of these Apter stories were as imaginative as the angles themselves. There was a time that, much like the razorblade-induced scar tissue on stars’ foreheads, these kayfabe-suited stories helped fans put aside common sense and believe that maybe pro wrestling was legitimate. The fact that I never saw Flair or Steamboat wrestle during the late ’70s made them larger than life to me–I knew they must be good because, hey, they were always listed near the top of the NWA’s top-10 contenders, while Lawler was rarely included in the “Official Wrestling Ratings.” Like fellow heartthrob Tommy Rich, Steamboat appeared on dozens of Apter covers as he and Flair feuded. Little did I realize at the time that the majority of the magazine coverage was given to guys who were working territories like New York, Georgia and Mid-Atlantic, where the mags were hot-sellers.
Crockett’s “World Wide Wrestling” program began airing in Memphis in late 1982, so I was finally able see what the fuss was all about. Unlike the WWF, whose TV I found extremely boring, or Georgia, which to me came off like a watered-down version of Memphis by the time my family got cable (I missed three incredible years of WTBS rasslin’ in ’79, ’80 and ’81), Mid-Atlantic was entertaining, realistic TV, with a “real” sporting event-type feel. I recall my mother watching World Wide with me once and making the comment: “Now, see, this stuff doesn’t look as fake as our wrestling.” My reply was something like: “Mom! Gosh, why do you have to go and say that?” I was a such a little diehard Memphis mark who was still in denial that rasslin’ was sports theatre.
I must admit, though, that I was impressed with Flair and Steamboat, the area’s two top stars who were good friends and partners at times…but even better enemies. Flair and Steamboat battled over the area’s TV title, the Mid-Atlantic championship and, eventually, the U.S. title and NWA World title through the years. While the flamboyant Flair was the man whose name was synonymous with the Crockett territory, Steamboat was nearly just as important in their success, especially after the Nature Boy had captured the 10 pounds of gold. While Flair was defending the belt around the world, the red-hot feud between Steamboat and partner Jay Youngblood vs. Sgt. Slaughter and Don Kernodle was as entertaining as anything in wrestling at that time, culminating with the Final Conflict cage match in March 1983, which sold out the Greensboro Coliseum with reportedly more than 10,000 fans turned away.
Steamboat was in phenomenal shape for the era, and the girls loved him. But he was so athletic in the ring that the male fans didn’t consider him a pretty boy. Work-wise, I’d say Steamboat was in an elite class inside the ring, along the lines of Jack Brisco and Shawn Michaels. As Harley Race says: “Steamboat was very, very good. He was easy to work with–if you could keep up with him, that is.” Clips I saw of a one-hour Broadway between Steamboat and Race back up the former NWA World champ’s remarks. He was super smooth very early in his career and, with the possible exception of Ricky Morton, nobody sold an opponent’s offense quite like Steamboat. His realistic style of taking abuse always seemed reminiscent of a heavyweight boxer on the ropes after 10 rounds. He was the total package—he really could do it all.
Flair and Steamboat’s battles for the NWA title were legendary, including a one-hour draw on March 17, 1984, in Greensboro, and the main event of a card in enemy territory when the NWA “invaded” East Rutherford, N.J., on May 29, 1984. When Dusty Rhodes took over the book for Crockett in 1984, he appeared to have handpicked Magnum T.A. as his top ally, leaving Steamboat the distant number three babyface. After losing to Tully Blanchard at Starrcade ’84, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat debuted in the WWF in 1985. As good as Steamboat was in the ring, he was horrible on the mic, so he agreed to the addition of a martial-arts gimmick a la Bruce Lee and, later, to carrying a komodo dragon to the ring to help distinguish himself under Vince McMahon’s expanding circus tent. He told Wrestling Perspective: “It looked like Noah’s Ark. Vince was the proclaimed Noah.” Later, he begrudgingly added a spectacular fire-breathing display to his entrance. “I’d have to go about every three months to get a blood check,” he says. ”Kerosene has a lot of lead in it, and it’s the same thing as kids eating lead paint.”
While Steamboat never worked heel (Flair’s lone criticism of the Steamer), the longtime Mid-Atlantic babyface went on to have an amazing career (and incredible matches along the way) in the WWF and later in the NWA/WCW with the likes of Randy Savage, Flair, Rick Rude and the team of Steve Austin and Brian Pillman. Steamboat and Flair seemed to get better with age; their classic 1989 series featured some of my favorite matches of all time. Of their major bouts that year for the NWA title, I’d rank their New Orleans bout first, the Chicago title switch a close second and the Wrestle War bout in Nashville a distant third, despite the incredible angle afterward with Terry Funk. (Steamboat was miffed that he was not told about the Funker’s post-match attack, thinking he and Flair would be meeting in immediate rematches over the next few months, continuing the rivalry.) I immediately left a high-school soccer game my senior year in April 1989 so I could arrive just in time to catch the main event of Steamboat defending against Flair at the Mid-South Coliseum. Although less than 3,000 fans showed up, Flair and Steamboat went 35 minutes and tore the house down with an amazing bout–a far cry from the predictable 10- to 15-minute Lawler bouts in the same building during that time.
A new WWE DVD release–Ricky Steamboat: The Life Story of the Dragon–including a documentary chronically Steamboat’s career, is available today via Amazon (just click the link below)*. The Nexus (the official name of the former NXT rookies) brutalized Steamboat last night on RAW, which had to have him thinking, “There’s gotta be a easier way to plug a DVD.” Still, it was pretty cool seeing Lawler and Steamboat standing back to back in the ring to fend off the attack, as their paths rarely crossed throughout their careers. Storyline-wise, the angle also made sense, as clearly these punks have no respect for anyone, including Steamboat, one of the spectacular performers the business has ever known
Although I can think of about a dozen other bouts that should be included, the new WWE DVD includes some of the best matches you’ll ever see, including:
NWA World Tag Team Championship Match
Jack & Gerry Brisco vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat & Jay Youngblood
Starrcade November 24, 1983
NWA World Heavyweight Championship Match
Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. “Nature Boy” Ric Flair
Boogie Jam March 17, 1984
Intercontinental Championship Match
Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. Randy “Macho Man” Savage
WrestleMania III March 29, 1987
2 out of 3 Falls Match for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship
Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. “Nature Boy” Ric Flair
Clash of the Champions VI April 2, 1989
Iron Man Challenge Match
Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. Rick Rude
Beach Blast June 20, 1992
No Disqualification Match for the WCW World Television Championship
Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. Steve Austin
*Your favorite wrestling Web site gets a commission for each Steamboat DVD when you buy clicking the link below, so buy dozens for your family and friends. (Also, check out the new Mattel WWE Legends figure featuring the Dragon–very cool.) I hope to have a full review up next week.