Tomorrow is Wrestlemania, which would make tonight the annual WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Things have revolved around the induction of Steve Austin this year, which is only right. Austin is on a very short list of candidates for the title of biggest star in the history of wrestling, and if it comes down to him vs. Hulk Hogan (which it invariably does), Austin’s got my vote without even having to think too much about it. Hogan wound up having a few excellent matches, but you can pretty much count his best work on one hand. For Austin, you’d have to take off your shoes.
But Austin going into my favorite fake sport’s most prestigious hall of fame isn’t what I want to write about. Also going in this year: Ricky Steamboat.
You got that shit right. My favorite wrestler ever. Why is Ricky Steamboat my favorite? Because he’s in more of my favorite matches than anyone else, and that counts for a lot with me — I’m nutty like that. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s never been arrested for beating his wife, or had a drug problem, or had an attitude about putting other people over.
What better way to celebrate the Dragon’s induction into the hall of fame than by discussing some of my favorite matches of his. Here’s my top five, in chronological order:
vs. Jake “the Snake” Roberts (Saturday Night’s Main Event — October 3, 1986)
This was billed as a “Snake Pit Match.” Jake, one of the best heels there ever was, would allow his pet python to crawl over his beaten opponents. He carried the snake to the ring in a canvas bag and kept it in his corner during the match. This time, Steamboat came to the ring with a bag of his own. The match itself is excellent, one of Jake’s best, a good example of how Steamboat could perform wonders even when he only had a few minutes to work with. After Steamboat won, Jake went for his snake, only to turn around and run face-first into what was in Steamboat’s bag: a real live komodo dragon. So, dragon beats snake — remember that, those of you keeping score at home.
vs. “Macho Man” Randy Savage, for the WWF Intercontinental Championship (Wrestlemania III – March 29, 1987)
Obviously. This is the first of several Steamboat matches talked about by wrestling-watching social outcasts like me as the best match ever. Savage, another legendary heel, set this one up a few months before by attacking Steamboat outside the ring during a match at Saturday Night’s Main Event and crushing his larynx against the top of the barricade that separated the ringside area from the fans. Steamboat got to take a few months off to sell the injury, then came back to a super-hot feud with Savage and won the Intercontinental Championship from him in a flawless match on the biggest show in wrestling history. Not a bad deal. This wasn’t just a great match — it was easily the most influential match in the history of North American pro wrestling. The finish alone, with a seemingly out-of-it Steamboat rolling Savage up out of nowhere for the pin, has been ripped off hundreds of times by everyone from Ric Flair to Bret Hart to the Rock. And with good reason. It’s a great finish.
vs. Ric Flair, for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship (Chi-Town Rumble — February 20, 1989)
This would be another best-match-ever candidate from Steamboat. All three of his high profile matches with Flair in 1989 are considered among the greatest ever wrestled, but this one — the first — is my personal favorite. This is where Steamboat won his first and only World Heavyweight Championship. He held the belt a few months, defending it in Japan, and against Flair in a great best of three falls rematch on Clash of the Champions VI, before losing it back to Flair at WrestleWar in May. In terms of ring work, Steamboat vs. Flair in ’89 is the best feud ever. Their reprise in ’94, just in time for Steamboat’s unplanned retirement later that year, wasn’t half bad either. But for me, nothing beats this match from Chi-Town Rumble. Ricky Steamboat winning the big gold belt. Gotta love that.
with Dustin Rhodes vs. Arn Anderson and Larry Zbyszko, for the WCW World Tag Team Championships (Clash of the Champions XVII – November 19, 1991)
Goddamn, this was an exciting match. I remember watching it for the first time back in ’91 and being on the edge of my seat. This was originally scheduled to be Dustin Rhodes and Barry Windham challenging Anderson and Zbyszko for the tag titles, but Windham was injured and couldn’t work. Steamboat came out right before the match as a surprise replacement partner, and I just about hit the ceiling. He had been working in the WWF just a month before, and seeing him back in WCW was a big shock. He and Dustin Rhodes had what is still my favorite tag team match I’ve ever seen, and dammit if they didn’t win the tag titles at the end of it. This was the start of an almost three-year run in WCW for Ricky, one of the best in his career and, as it turned out, also his last.
vs. “Stunning” Steve Austin, for the WCW United States Championship (Clash of the Champions XXVIII — August 28, 1994)
Steamboat’s final feud with Ric Flair led straight into this one with Austin, which wound up being his final feud, period. His last match was this one, with Steve Austin back when he still had hair. Austin was the U.S. Champion and a hell of a worker, and he and Steamboat had some brilliant matches together. Steamboat injured his back doing one of his favorite spots — being thrown out of the ring but holding onto the top rope with both hands and pulling himself back in — called skinning the cat. This time, Steamboat bumped his ass on the ring apron on the way over, compressing some vertebrae. He skinned the cat and rolled Austin up for the pin and the U.S. Title (his fourth overall), but had to retire a month later. WCW head Eric Bischoff fired Steamboat via Federal Express. A year later, Bischoff pulled the same move on Austin, allowing him to go to the WWF and eventually create his “Stone Cold” gimmick and become the biggest star in the history of the industry. It’s appropriate, I think, that Steamboat gets to enter the WWE Hall of Fame on the same night as Austin. They’re linked together in a lot of good ways. Austin was definitely the bigger star, but to me the Dragon will always be the best.