What did Ricky Steamboat do wrong? It seems that every NWA, WCW, or WWF push he got ended sooner than it should.  He never got more than a single title in McMahon’s promotion, yet many consider his title win one of the greatest match’s in WWF history.  Vince, in fact, had him drop the belt to a comedy fill-in gimmick. He was fired via FedEx by Eric Bischoff when a legitimate back injury sustained amid a fantastic rivalry with Stunnin’ Steve Austin sidelined him.  

    Twenty-five years after that firing in September 1994, I’m still steamed that Steamboat was seemingly out of the wrestling purview when I’d only had a precious few years to see him.  When he hit Jericho with a still stellar flying crossbody off the top in 2009, I was made angrier at the 15 years, during which I didn’t get to see it.

    So what the hell happened?  How did a guy that had three Meltzer certified 5-star matches in a row in a four month span with Ric Flair in 1989 find himself essentially out of the business five short years later?  This, keep in mind, is on the verge of a decade, the 1990s, when years would span pass without 5-star WWF matches.

    Digging into it, it seems that Steamboat was a victim of bad circumstance, some nagging injuries, and, greatest of all, the sin of wanting to be both human and a wrestler.

    After Wrestlemania III, when Ricky Steamboat and Randy Savage put on a classic match, miles beyond anything that had ever been seen at previous wrestling pay per views, it would seem Steamboat and Savage were destined to rise to the top of WWF.  While it happened for the latter, Steamboat was doomed by his personal roles as a husband and soon-to-be father.

    Let’s be clear: Steamboat v. Savage does not have the crazy workrate or athletic ability displayed in an Okada v. Omega or a Gargano v. Ciampa match. If you came to wrestling later than say 1996, when WCW cruiserweights revolutionized the American breed of professional sports entertainment, watching the old Steamboat and Savage match might not thrill you.  However, in historical context, it was miles beyond what other wrestlers were doing in 1987. The Wrestling Observer named it match of the year.

    Why then was his Intercontinental Title reign that followed so brief?  In short, he pissed Vince off. Just weeks after the title win, Steamboat asked for personal time to be with his wife who was expecting their first child, a son, who would also go on to wrestle as Richie Steamboat.  Where once WWF had planned a lengthy title run for Steamboat, Vince now sought to punish him by having him drop the belt, not back to Savage who was now on a World Title trajectory, but to Butch Reed. When unreliable Butch Reed no-showed the schedule event, Vince did not decide to put off his hasty punishment.  Instead, he had Steamboat lose that night to the comedy gimmicked Honky Tonk Man.

    It was meant to be a slap in the face.

    When Steamboat did return, he was not involved in any storylines of note.  He was not reintroduced to the IC or World Title chase. In the big tournament for the vacated world title at Wrestlemania IV, he lost in the opening round to Greg Valentine.

    Think about that.  A year after the greatest match in WWF history to that point, on a night when the other opponent in the match, Randy Savage, would be crowned World Champion, Steamboat was booked to lose in the first round to a guy well below the midcard.  Valentine didn’t even get an entrance for that match and they still booked him to beat Steamboat. The WWF could have, had an epic rematch of the Wrestlemania III show-stealer by having Steamboat and Macho meet up in later rounds, or even the final – Vince clearly wasn’t having it.

    Steamboat by that time took the hint and departed the company.

    No bother-his move over to WCW in 1989 was stellar.  Within two months he would defeat Ric Flair for the NWA/WCW World Title at the Chi-Town Rumble in February.  He successfully defended the belt against Flair at the Clash of the Champions in April of that year before dropping it back to Flair in May at WrestleWar.  All three matches were instant 5-star classics.

    Again, what should have primed Steamboat for a longtime push in the main event scene was abandoned quickly.  Steamboat briefly feuded with Lex Luger for who should be number one contender to Flair, but a contract dispute with WCW meant he was gone from the promotion shortly after.  At least he went a year with WWF after Wrestlemania III. He didn’t make it to the end of 1989 with WCW.

    Steamboat hung out for a year, wrestling in North Carolina and in New Japan Pro Wrestling.

    In 1991, surprisingly perhaps, he was welcomed back to the WWF.  But this was booked quite poorly. Convinced he must now have a gimmick, McMahon stuck “the Dragon” label on Steamboat, never referring to him as Ricky Steamboat, and treating him as if he were a new wrestler to the promotion, not a former Intercontinental Champion who had staged one of the greatest matches in the company’s history.  Again, it seemed Vince was putting him out there in a way to punish him for his original sins of asking for time off to be with his wife and newborn son.

    He was put in no meaningful storylines, only appearing on PPV in six-man tags.  His singles wins were against jobbers, and McMahon even booked Skinner, of all guys, to beat Steamboat.  The WWF has claimed that Steamboat was bitter and tough to work with, and that he left that year rather than lose in a squash to the Undertaker as booked.  Whether that tidbit is true or not, it’s easy to imagine how Steamboat would have become difficult in an environment that did not treat him for the caliber of wrestler he was as a former Intercontinental and NWA World champ.

    His return to WCW in 1991 was wildly cheered.  He came back as a surprise partner for Dustin Rhodes when Arn Anderson and Larry Zybysko took out Rhodes’ partner Barry Windham in a parking lot attack.  At Clash of the Champions on November 19th, Steamboat was announced as Rhodes’ new partner and the crowd pop was HUGE. He and Rhodes defeated Arn and Zybysko that night, in what would be one of eight runs as a Tag Team Champion in WCW with various partners (including a young, pre-Dean, Shane Douglas).

    Over the next three years, when I came into my wrestling watching prime as a child, Steamboat would also have several reigns as Television and US Champion, putting on stellar matches with the likes of Steven Regal and Steve Austin.  By 1994, he was pack in the World Title hunt, challenging Ric Flair at Spring Stampede for the belt. They double-pinned each other in that bout, and Flair won the rematch to hold onto the belt.

    Soon after, Steamboat suffered a back injury in a win against Steve Austin for the US Championship once again.

    What followed was a sad metaphor for the way WCW would go.   

    Hulk Hogan came in, and, along with new head of the promotion Eric Bischoff, set out to remake the WCW in the image of the WWF, bringing in castoffs for Hogan’s glory days with Vince’s brand.  When Steamboat gave up the belt to Austin because he could not wrestle, Hacksaw Jim Duggan was brought in to squash Austin in less than thirty seconds. You read that right: one of the greatest wrestlers of the 80s and early 90s, Steamboat, and the greatest wrestler of the late 90s, Austin, were both supplanted by washed up, no move-set Hacksaw Jim Duggan.  

    Austin, like Steamboat, was unceremoniously fired (his was by phone at least) after the squash.  Both were told injury was the issue. But it is very clear that neither Steamboat nor Austin (once promised a WCW World Title push pre-Hogan) were in Bischoff or Hogan’s vision of the “Hogan versus the Monsters” plan that would nearly sink the company until the NWO storyline emerged.  Because, you know, Hogan versus the Butcher (Ed Leslie) at Starrcade ’94 was so much more interesting than Hogan versus Steamboat or Hogan versus Austin would have been.

    But this is where Steamboat and Austin’s paths diverge.  Austin, while it took a few years in ECW, did get his long-deserved, big-time title reigns and main event pushes.  Ricky Steamboat deserved that same spot in both companies. While it’s fair to say he got to sniff the top spot and hold it at least for a minute where countless others never did, I think it’s just as fair to say he’s the greatest wrestler that never got the long held World Title run he deserved.

    And I’m still steamed 25 years later.

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