Since hanging up the boots, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat — known in the wrestling world for his ability to tell a story in the ring — now passes that knowledge on to the next generation of wrestlers.
“When I started in the business, I was always looking across the ring at a 10-, 15-, 20-year veteran,” said Steamboat, who will be in Kingston, Ontario, Saturday for Chinlock Wrestling’s third annual charity show. “It was almost like on the job training… [Independent wrestlers now are] looking at a person that may have six months or one year, two years [of experience].”
Steamboat, inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in 2002 in the inaugural class, said he stresses to younger talent that “80 percent of your storytelling is the body part.”
“If you pick a body part and start working on it, then the other guy gets the upper hand and gets a body part and is working on it, whenever you go back to the body part you have established, everybody that’s watching the match, they get it,” Steamboat said. “Because you established it early on.”
At one independent show Steamboat visited, he said the first three matches included an arm-drag series. Before the fourth match, Steamboat said, he asked the wrestlers which body part they planned to work — they also chose the arm drag in honor of Steamboat.
“I said, ‘They’ve been working the arm, by the third match, everybody’s getting up and going to concessions. They’ve seen it,'” Steamboat said. “Before they stepped through curtain, I said, ‘You work on his leg, and you work on his head and neck. They said, ‘We haven’t had chance to talk about it.’ I said, ‘Oh well, here’s your music,’ and pushed them through the curtain. [They had to] do everything on the fly.”
The two men, according to Steamboat, put on a “good” match and had their eyes and minds opened.
“I looked at promoter and said, ‘Part of this is on you,'” Steamboat said. “The bottom line to you when you’re promoting a show is that at the end of the night you want these fans to go home talking about your show, so next time you run, they come back.”
Steamboat also said that he’s a “big stickler” for the first match on any card to be “basic.”
“Any kind of wrestling match you’ll get a response from,” Steamboat said. “The point I’m trying to make is you don’t need to go out on the floor. You don’t need to crash through tables. You don’t need to use chairs or gimmicks. You’re the opening match. You know?”
‘LIKE PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY’
Steamboat himself put those storytelling skills to use in his wars with Ric Flair, which lasted more than 15 years and spanned promotions across the United States. The Dragon said they had such a “track record” — and wrestled more than 100 times over the course of their careers — that promoters would “automatically” put them together.
“Most times there would be just a look on his face, and I knew exactly what he was doing… He was very instrumental in me being able to perform at a level that I reached because he was taking me to school every night,” Steamboat said.
Steamboat also credits the Nature Boy with “jump starting” his career to main-event status.
“I was going through a learning experience every night,” Steamboat said. “He had a few years on me. Here’s our No. 1 heel telling me what to do as a babyface.”
Every night in the ring with Flair was like “going to school” for Steamboat.
“After so long of learning and then confidence grows and we really started to hook up and we were like peanut butter and jelly, the two of us in the ring,” said Steamboat, who classifies his trilogy of matches with the Nature Boy in 1989 as a defining moment in his career.
“When you first start and get into the business, you’re doing early matches and you wonder if you’ll make it to the main event,” Steamboat recalled.
The Dragon said he reached that goal after “hooking up with Flair,” and then he wondered about the next steps on the ladder — earning a championship in the promotions he worked for, then earning the world championship, which he did in 1989 at the Chi-Town Rumble.
“That was toward the end of my career,” said Steamboat, who pinned his rival in Flair to claim the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, “and I got out in 1994, and then you start to wonder, [will you] ever make into the hall of fame? It wasn’t till went back to work for Vince [McMahon] in 2005 that that question really started to play a factor on me.”
Of course, Steamboat made an impression, far beyond his WrestleMania III classic with Randy Savage. In 2009, he was honoured by the WWE Hall of Fame at WrestleMania and then later that summer was inducted into the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame recognized him way back in 1996.
‘THE CONSUMMATE BABYFACE’
Though the ever-enduring babyface for his entire career, Steamboat said there was a time in the ’90s when he approached Vince McMahon and Pat Patterson with the idea of turning heel.
“I said, ‘I’ve been in the business about 16 years or something like that. I’d like to have the opportunity to work as a heel,'” Steamboat recalled, “and they both shut that down right there. They said, ‘Ricky, you’re the consummate babyface. It wouldn’t work. As a matter of fact, I think it would hurt your career.'”
Despite his desire to garner jeers instead of cheers from the crowd, Steamboat said he never thought about who he would have wanted to work with.
“At that time, my memory best tells me that all I was concerned about was being able to turn,” Steamboat said. “I didn’t have a focus on any babyface because as soon as I said it, the rejection was said and just put a cap on it.”
Shortly thereafter, Steamboat left for World Championship Wrestling (WCW), where he finished his career. He also presented the idea of a turn to WCW leadership and they shot it down, too.
“Now, I’m happy that I was turned down because I’m one of the few guys who had a good career that spanned almost 20 years, and I didn’t have to switch,” Steamboat said. “There are not too many guys who did that. So I look back now, and it’s almost like a blessing.”
In today’s wrestling landscape, according to Steamboat, John Cena has “pretty much stayed a babyface.”
“I understand the fans have changed, but there’s a main event guy — I mean, he’s got fans that boo him and fans that hooray him. But his character has always been the babyface. I don’t know if he would turn if that would do anything.”
In addition to his appearance Dec. 2 at the Kingston Gospel Temple for Chinlock Wrestling, Steamboat is Prior to the Chinlock Wrestling appearance, Steamboat also will host “Dragon Tales Live” at 7 p.m., Dec. 1, at Yuk Yuk’s in Ottawa, Ontario, followed by a meet and greet. On Sunday, Dec. 3, he will take the stage in Toronto at Absolute Comedy Toronto for “An Evening with Ricky Steamboat.” Steamboat will spend about an hour telling stories that range the gamut from on the road and to in the ring.
As part of his appearance for Chinlock Wrestling, fans can bring a toy or donate $20 in exchange for a photo with Steamboat and and autographed 8×10.