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Brian Popkin



The Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat Story

Everything was going great. His wife was giving birth in two months to their first child. His boss had agreed to let him have two weeks off once his son was born. It was May 1987, a month and a half since his big match at the event of the year. He was still riding high on the wave of excitement following his Wrestlemania win against Randy Savage. The critics were still raving, calling it the match of the year. They said, "Hogan and Andre drew the show, but Steamboat and Savage stole the show." The wrestlers themselves loved the match. After the show at the Silverdome they had a big banquet. Everybody was coming up to his table saying, "What a match you two guys put on!" He had the respect of his peers and he worked hard to keep it. Night after night he had defended his Intercontinental title against Randy Savage. If you thought the Wrestlemania match was great, you should have seen these house shows. They headlined sold out shows all over the country. Their matches were 30 minutes long, twice as long as the PPV. Some were even cage matches. He was going to hold the title for at least year and then make a run for the big strap. At least that is what George Scott had told him. And George was a booker with the WWF as well as an old friend from his days in Charlotte ten years ago. Everything was going great...or was it?

Was Vince McMahon angry that his big match had upstaged the main event? Before the match Vince had said, "Look, I know you guys have been putting in time out on the road - the feature match is Andre and Hogan - don't you dare go out there and go thirty minutes and leave them with about four minutes." But, he worked their match within the given time. His match only went 15 minutes. Surely nobody could punish him for giving his all. Hogan seemed cool with it, but maybe behind the scenes was a different story. Was Vince upset that he was taking two weeks off? In those days, the WWF ran two house shows a night. They had an "A" show headlined by Hogan the Champ and a "B" show headlined by the IC Champ. The loss of the "B" show headliner could cost the company a good deal of revenue. Surely Vince had to have realized this when he told Ricky it was ok to take some time off. Or was he realizing this just now? And the IC Champ is supposed to set an example to the other wrestlers. If Vince let him have this time off, what kind of example would he be setting?

Ricky was told by McMahon that he had to drop the title in Buffalo. That year of holding the title sure seemed to go fast. It seemed like he had just won the belt less than two months ago. Vince said he wanted to give the belt to Butch Reed, but Butch was missing from action. *1* Vince didn't know who to give the belt to. Hulk Hogan saw the Honkey Tonk Man in the hallway and told Vince to put the strap on him. Hogan had found the one wrestler who had such an utter lack of ability that Hogan would look great in comparison. Ricky was upset so he decided to turn his two weeks off into an extended six months off.

Ricky made his return to the WWF early to participate in the first Survivor Series. This event was very important to the WWF. It was their first non-Wrestlemania PPV and it was scheduled at the same time as Starcade. Starcade was the first PPV for the NWA/WCW, WWF's main competitor, so the WWF went out of their way to squash it. One of the main attractions of the WWF's show was Ricky Steamboat teaming up with Randy Savage. The Survivor Series was a success, the opposition was squashed, and Ricky felt good. He felt refreshed coming back after his five months away from the ring.

Wrestlemania IV was coming up with a big tournament for the main title. The WWF had mistakenly printed their magazine three days prior with Savage on the cover with the belt. So the insiders all knew he was going to win. But, the fans who looked at the tournament brackets published ahead of time knew they were in for something special. The first round featured Hogan and Andre in a rematch of last year's Wrestlemania. And Steamboat and Savage were both in the same bracket. If they both won their opening round matches they would meet in the second round in a rematch of last year's match of the year. Ricky was happy to put Savage over to return the favor from the previous year. *2* But, that match would never happen. One of the bookers (Jay Strongbow) came up to Ricky and said, "You don't deserve this, but you're going to get beat in the first round by Valentine." It looked like Steamboat was being phased out of the WWF. Hogan had exerted his influence to get rid of George Scott, a booker and a Steamboat supporter. His wife, Bonnie, had just returned from the concessions stands trying to get some Dragon T-shirts, but they were all gone. His posters had been selling for ten years, but they were gone too. They had plenty of merchandise for everyone else, but nothing for him. He saw the writing on the wall and was ready to walk away.

Ricky wondered if he could he go back to NWA/WCW? He remembered the last time he was there four years ago. He had this big program with Tully Blanchard. They would spend two months in classic matches battling back and forth. The last match, he'd lose to Tully in a 60 minute "Broadway" match. Right after that Dusty Rhodes would take on Tully and get the pin in 5 minutes. He could see the same thing happening with Nikita Koloff. He'd build up the monster heel for Dusty and Dusty would knock them down. Dusty was doing the booking for all of the matches. So he just knew Dusty would put Dusty over: after Ricky had done all the hard work. Still four years was a while ago, maybe the company had changed the way they do business since then?

To answer his questions he turned to an old friend of his in Ric Flair. Flair was a top worker back in 1976. Flair recognized Steamboat's ability to make other people look good. He went up to the booker and said, "I want to work with this kid." They worked together and had great matches. These were the best matches of the year. The feud turned into Steamboat and Paul Jones against Flair and Greg Valentine for the tag team titles. It got Steamboat over for the first time. Flair was one of the main reasons for Ricky's success. Flair was still working as the top guy in the NWA/WCW where he had been for the last 14 years.

Ricky asked Flair for some career advice. Flair told him to join him in the NWA. They had some good young talent and had great potential. Flair said he would put in a good word for him with his bosses and make this happen. Flair was true to his word and instrumental in Ricky joining the NWA in 1989. They had a title match against each other in New Orleans. It lasted 60 minutes and Ricky Steamboat won his first major title. It was also the match of the year. *3* They had another match against each other that was voted by PWI the third best match of the year. (The second best match of the year was Hogan/Savage.) Ricky had finally made it to the top thanks to an old friend.

Let us stop right there. He was on top of this business as the NWA champion. There is no need to detail his inevitable fall from grace. Let's not look at what has happened since then. His ill-fated return to the WWF in late 1991. His misuse as a new Dragon character, dressed in a goofy green foam dragon cape and cowl, that everyone laughed at. His fire-breathing gimmick introduced as part of his entrance. (Think of Triple H's water spitting entrance and substitute water with fire.) *4* Let's also skip past his carrying around a pet komodo dragon which was really a monitor lizard. His gimmick match against Jake "the Snake" Roberts, pitting his pet dragon against Jake's pet snake. His dragging around a baby alligator after the komodo dragon escaped from Titan headquarters in Stamford. His final WCW match against Steve Austin in 1994 when he got injured. His listening to the doctors telling him to quit since he had a suffered a spinal compression on two discs in his back. His getting shitcanned by Eric Bischoff abruptly after that injury. Instead let's focus on the positive side. Like how he stayed close to his family.

Ricky isn't the only wrestler to have a family. Dusty Rhodes, Jerry Lawler, Ted DiBiase, Jake Roberts: they all have families. Dusty Rhodes has a son that he neglected his whole life. His son grew up to be a bitter wrestler who won't forgive his father. Jerry Lawler had a son in Brian Christopher. Only Jerry wouldn't acknowledge him unless confronted with a DNA test. Ted DiBiase and Jake Roberts both had fathers who ignored them. They both got into wrestling and were more successful than their dads. They had earned their father's respect. But, they couldn't gain their love.

Ricky was getting Christmas cards every year from Steve Austin, Shane Douglas, Bret Hart, the late Brian Pillman, etc. Steve Austin calls him up twice a year to stay in touch. When he retired, they all went out for a night on the town. You should have seen them trade stories. Oh, what a night!

But, that was many years ago and he hasn't seen any of them since. Everyone is always busy working on the road. They are travelling all across the country, sometimes overseas. Even when they are in Charlotte, they only stop by Flair's Gold's Gym. Ricky's gym is just thirty miles north of there. It has been in the same place for the last five years. The wrestlers know where it is but are all too busy to make the trip.

Jake Roberts has a daughter. Only she wouldn't know it for how little he has been around. She hasn't seen much of him in her life, a few hours max. She has two pictures of him wrestling. It doesn't seem like much but those pictures are all she has to remember him.

Tonight Ricky is going out to dinner with his family. He's been coaching his son, Richie's amateur wrestling team for the last six years. Yesterday he watched his son finish second in a car race against other good old boys here in Charlotte. He will bring a folder full of autographed 8x10 pictures in case anyone at the restaurant asks for an autograph. He still appreciates his fans. He would be happy to give each of them a treat. But, if nobody comes up to him, that is ok too. He is here to spend time with his family. After the dust has settled, his family is all he has left.

*1* In truth, Vince was talking nonsense. Vince wanted to make Reed feel bad for no-showing so he publicly told everyone he would have gotten the belt. Reed had no heat and wasn't drawing at all. More importantly, there was no way Vince would have put the IC belt on a black man at that time. If he was willing to give a black man a chance with the IC belt it would have been Junk Yard Dog. Junk Yard Dog was a proven draw as a three time champion for Bill Watts' Mid-South Wrestling in 1984. He had headlined shows that sold out the New Orleans Superdome. By 1985 to 1986 he was one of the most popular wrestlers around.

*2*The original plan was to have Ted DiBiase win the title, and Savage win the IC belt. But, the Honkey Tonk Man refused to lose the belt to Savage. And the WWF couldn't have two heel champions, so Savage was given the WWF title and DiBiase was left out in the cold. It is a sad state of affairs when your worst worker - the Honkey Tonk Man is allowed to refuse to job to your best worker - Savage.

*3*This match is on one of the new Triple H DVDs. It was an inspiration to Triple H and is the only reason to buy this DVD.

*4*Once his matches began the announcers would "No-Sell" for him. They would act deaf, dumb, and blind. To them this Dragon was NOT Ricky Steamboat, he was a new wrestler who they had never seen before. Listen to them announce his match from August 1991 against Smash of Demolition. Listen to Bobby "The Brain" Heenan say, "This may be the biggest opponent the Dragon has faced in the WWF." Listen to Gorilla Monsoon uncharacteristicly agree with him, "No Question." A total disgrace.

Brian Popkin

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