If you have never watched a professional wrestling match in your life, I recommend that you start by watching work of one man. Richard Blood was an amateur wrestler in high school who decided to transition to the psuedo-sport of professional wrestling and was trained by professional wrestling legend Verne Gagne. Despite having a last name that was perfectly suited to being a villain, Ricky was perhaps more suited to the role of underdog hero than any other wrestler in history. So he was giving the last name Steamboat and would proceed to win over audiences all over the world from 1976 to 1994.
And he’s one of the few to become a legitimate superstar in the wrestling business without ever working as a heel.
Excitement and Execution – The Thrilling Style of the Dragon
When it comes to the actual in-ring action of professional wrestling, it is best to look at it as a mix of grand theatrics and action movie choreography. Sometimes an action movie can lack strong characters but can still dazzle us with the skill involved, and wrestling matches can be the same way. Professional wrestlers may not be competitors in a legitimate sport, but they are legitimate athletes and actors that do all of their own stunts. So matches can have a great deal of physicality and athleticism that makes them fun to watch in a “shut up and eat your popcorn” kind of way.
So when it comes to the artistry of wrestling choreography, Ricky Steamboat is one of the best to ever perform in a wrestling ring. Steamboat possessed a natural grace that made even the simplest moves a thing of beauty to watch. He was famous for his superbly executed armdrag takedowns (a modified, flashier version of a judo style hip toss and common move in wrestling), but also for his hard-hitting knife-edge chops to his opponents chest. Ricky was also one of the first wrestlers to work at a breakneck pace in his matches and to routinely leave his feet to hit a jumping dropkick or fly off the top rope to deliver a signature chop or crossbody attack.
This mix of exciting high-flying moves and excellent technique in his mat game endeared him to crowds who knew that he would keep the audience engaged for the entire duration of his match. The WWF capitalized on his look and signature chops by naming him “The Dragon” in tribute to Bruce Lee, giving him a new aspect to his wrestling character that didn’t compromise his ability to be taken seriously as an athlete and hero.
Wrestling Is Storytelling – Psychology and Selling
But the best action movies are when the actors, stuntmen and the choreographers work together to tell an emotional story. When you watch the lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s easy to tell that the interaction between the two characters is more important that the difficulty of the swordplay. Vader is infinitely more experience but has an emotional investment in testing Luke’s limits, while Luke has a personal vendetta against Vader because he believes Vader murdered his father, but he also is a hero who is trying to fight off his more negative emotions and be true to what he believes. This makes the fight infinitely more engaging than the outstanding stunt work of the Star Wars prequels that fail to tell a story with an emotional hook.
The same philosophy holds true in wrestling. At it’s most simplistic, every match is designed around causing pain to the competitors in order to generate an emotional response from the audience. The hero suffers in order to cause the audience to sympathize with them and root for them to overcome the odds and triumph, and the villain eventually gets his comeuppance in a satisfying faction. This works in pretty much any medium with an antagonist, so it’s no surprise that wrestling benefits from this basic narrative structure.
The art of a wrestler acting as if he is in pain is called selling. This incorporates both the bumps one takes off of slams and hard hits as well as the reactions to strikes and holds. As a match goes on, a good wrestler will sell that he is becoming more exhausting and that any body parts that have been attacked by the opponent are suffering and causing them problems. Ricky Steamboat is one of the all-time great sellers; he would watch boxing matches to see how men reacted to taking punches in order to make his body language more realistic. But he also knew how to emote and let the audience know how much pain he was in, and was also very good at selling his anger when his opponents broke the rules. All of this helped elevate Steamboat’s matches from a simple exhibition of moves into a compelling drama.
Talent is Rewarded
Steamboat was a very special performer and one of the absolute best in his era. He saw great success both in Jim Crockett Promotions (the regional promotion that would later become the mega-company WCW) and in the World Wrestling Federation, winning championships in both companies. The high-point of his WWF career was defeating “Macho Man” Randy Savage for the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania III. In front of 90,000 fans in the Pontiac Silverdome and on a show headlined by the biggest main event in history (Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant), it was this confrontation that stole the show and inspired generations of smaller, faster, more athletic wrestlers who realized that you didn’t have to be a giant to be larger than life.
While that match is a classic, it isn’t the first thing I think of when I think of Ricky Steamboat. After his WWF career ended, Ricky spent a year in retirement staying at home with his family before returning to WCW to work a program with Ric Flair for the promotion’s prestigious World Heavyweight Championship. Steamboat and Flair had already worked with each other almost a decade earlier and immediately formed a chemistry with each other that defies expectations. Steamboat was amazing and Flair was perhaps the greatest of all time, but working against each other they elevated each other to an even higher level.
It was the perfect mix of a pure, squeaky clean hero fighting the most despicable villain. “The Dragon” was all about sportsmanship and family values, while Flair surrounded himself with women and booze and material possessions and prided himself on being “The Dirtiest Player in the Game”. Their trilogy of televised matches in 1989, including a 55-minute draw at Clash of the Champions VI, is revered by many as perhaps the greatest matches of all time. If you want to know what makes wrestling a unique and truly special artform, watch Steamboat and Flair go at each other.