Dragon Tales with Ricky Steamboat
Photos credit WWE.Com
The wrestler pauses, thinks back and says: “You know, when we were both in our prime, I’d have liked to wrestle Shawn Michaels.”
It’s a sentence like this, the creation of an unseen dream match, that makes wrestling fans salivate. The man who would have tore it up with HBK in any ring the world over began his career as Richard Blood (a name already perfect for wrestler if not an action movie star) and though it would later be changed to Steamboat to many of us he’s simply The Dragon. While never stepping through the ropes to face Michaels, would have matches against Randy Savage, Jake Roberts and Ric Flair that, to this day, stand as templates to follow on ring storytelling and psychology, some of which Steamboat will share in his new show at Yuk Yuks Friday Night aptly titled Dragon Tales.
Before the bodyslams and roaring crowds, though, Steamboat had other athletic aspirations. It was as if he tried every sport he could fit into a week moving between football to basketball and then baseball. However, it was a random choice of where to set up a couple of wrestling mats that would change the course of his life and eventually led him to the grandest stage of them all.
“While we would practice basketball in the gym and off to the side they’d have the wrestling mats where the guys would be wrestling,” remembers Steamboat on how yet another sport caught his eye. “Into my second week I went up to my basketball couch and told him I’d go try that. I just walked off the court and onto the mat.”
The rest, as they say, is history…painful, bootleather tough history but history nevertheless.
He started his training with a man so strong he’d put iron in his name. Back then they called him Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri but wrestling fans know him as The Iron Sheik. Young Richard Blood knew him as a relentless coach that pushed him to the limits in what he still calls the toughest days of his life.
Along with other future WWF (now WWE) stars like Ken Patera and Jim Brunzell, the new recruits were put through the motions by Vaziri as though they were going into the military. Working in the basement of a 20-story building where Vern Gagne held his camp, Steamboat recalls having to carry men up 21 flights of steps in sub-zero weather and taking tough slams onto cement that kept his legs black and blue. That first week they didn’t even step inside of a ring!
“You couldn’t pick somebody up and body slam them in the ring because your feet would hit the ceiling. It was that low. You couldn’t suplex. You couldn’t hiptoss. They got these really thin, foam mats and they laid them down on the cement floor and that’s where we learned where to slam people.”
Early in his career he would receive the first of his name changes. Branching off the success of Hawaiian wrestler Sammy Steamboat, Ricky took up the last name. It was something the rookie was fine with though it’d take some getting used to. When announced the first time under the new name he had totally forgotten. It would stick, though, as he made his way through promotions like the CWF and NWA where he would become known for his high energy style and top drawing feuds with the Brisco Brothers, Sgt. Slaughter and Ric Flair.
One of the heads that turned was Vince McMahon who brought Steamboat into the WWF at a crucial time in pro-wrestling. Though nobody quite knew it yet, wrestling was about to go mainstream, into a golden age, and Steamboat was right there on the ground floor. First, however, he’d need an addition to his growing legacy.
Though his untimely death had occurred a decade before, the popularity of Bruce Lee hadn’t wavered. With his Asian features (inherited by his Japanese American mother), Steamboat was the perfect fit for a kung-fu style gimmick. Now given the nickname “The Dragon”, his jacket and trunks replaced with a keikogi and longer tights, he’d enhance the character using taekwando. It quickly caught on with the fans and landed him the third match on the inaugural WrestleMania.
McMahon’s vision and the popularity of characters like Andre The Giant and Hulk Hogan would see wrestling thrust into a brighter spotlight with the WWF now touring all across the country. Steamboat was along for the ride and after WretleMania 2 moved into one of his more memorable programs with then heel Jake “The Snake” Roberts.
“I considered Jake one of the best psychologists in our business. He had the timing, you know, what to do, why you do it. Not to mentioning putting it all together on the fly. Back then maybe only the finish was talked out before,” says Steamboat.
On one of the most watched televised wrestling events at the time, Steamboat used his slyness, and a crocodile, to counter Roberts usual fear tactic of unleashing a live snake on his opponents. Though some have described wrestling to be like a zoo, in those days, where pigs and snakes and crocodiles and parrots were totted from dressing room to arena, it lived up to it.
Or, as Steamboat says, at “one point in time you’d walk into the locker room and it’d smell like a barn!”
After a few years in the company, Steamboat would become tied to a match that became so tethered to the time that ripples are still felt today. WrestleMania 3 saw him face Randy Savage in an all out war the likes nobody had seen before. Though not the main event, it stole the show.
“We had 21 false finishes in a match that went less than 17 minutes from bell to bell. It got so detailed we had to write it down,” recalls Steamboat, revealing that he only watched the match in full himself a few years ago. Like everybody who has seen it, The Dragon couldn't help but be wowed by what he saw.
Just as linked to Steamboat as Savage is, one cannot talk about the career of The Dragon without mentioning the trilogy of iconic matches he had with Ric Flair after his first run in the WWF ended. The two had had a history in the past but these matches, now held up as benchmarks of the sport, have become favorites with fans for the duality between athleticism and storytelling.
“Flair was a major influence on my career,” says Steamboat. “We were like peanut butter and jelly. We would know each other so well we wouldn’t even have to say anything about what we were going to do next. I can’t say enough about the guy.”
Repackaged again when returning to the WWF, Steamboat was redubbed simple The Dragon and decked out in colourful attire resembling his name. Upping the ante, this dragon had to breath fire and Rick spent only a few days trying to master the technique. It wasn’t without some comedy. As he relays it, one morning, while his trainer was about to spit a mouthful of kerosene out onto a flaming torch, the wind shifted.
“I’m now watching this ten-year veteran running around the parking lot with his face on fire and he comes back and says, it’s ok. It’s just like a bad sunburn.”
Retiring in 1994 (though still popping up from time to time including a recent appearance at Starcade), Steamboat looks back fondly on a career that has amassed a lot of memories. Though he doesn’t particularly think of himself as a legend in the business, fans and peers of The Dragon will tell you otherwise, something that was accentuated in 2009 when Flair inducted Steamboat into the WWE Hall of Fame.
His matches remain blueprints for those entering the sport today and his legendary feuds will not soon be forgotten but it is this night the man known as The Dragon will never forget.
“When I started in the business I always wanted to be known as a good, decent worker,” says Steamboat. “After that you want to make it to the main events. After you accomplish that you want to be champion, then world champion. Throughout my career those were the goals I’d set. To me the highest award you can get in this business is the be recognized by all your peers and your fans.”