When I choose to introduce my friends to this particular hobby of mine, there is always one match that I start out with: the WrestleMania III classic between “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. It’s no coincidence that my first two “Superstar Spotlights” were on these two men; I wanted to talk about this match sooner rather than later and it helps to have a frame of reference for who each participant is.
There are many reasons I choose this match over others. One is the epic scale of the event at which it takes place; the crowd at WrestleMania III is enormous and I feel helps to legitimize wrestling to new viewers who may not realize just how popular the sports drama really is. Another key reason is that in 1980’s it was still customary for every wrestler (or his manager) to give a brief interview explaining why a match was taking place, and this match is no exception. Randy Savage’s interview is excellent as it puts over his arrogant and intense character, his flying elbow finish, the athleticism of the two wrestlers, his intent to put Steamboat out of the business, and the match’s prize: the Intercontinental Championship.
Ricky Steamboat will never be considered a great interview, but there is a good deal of passion in his interview, and he explains how long he has been waiting for this match making it seem more important. It’s a good babyface promo and it also establishes his character with the classic line “This Dragon is breathing fire! This Dragon will scorch your back!” It may not be one of my favorite interviews ever like Savage’s is, but it works nicely.
Another key addition to the pre-match proceedings is a short video package highlighting Savage’s brutal attack on Steamboat’s throat with a ring bell, including a great shot of the Dragon holding his throat as he’s carried off on a stretcher. This succinctly explains why the match is happening and establishes that the contest is a grudge match, as personal as it gets. I find that a match with a simple but meaningful story behind it works best to get a new audience engaged.
And of course, as any wrestling fan knows, the match itself is just a magnificent display of athleticism and intensity. Savage and Steamboat are tremendous performers in their own rights, but they had been working on house shows up to this trying new ideas and Savage carefully plotted out the entire match so that himself and Ricky could commit it to memory and get the best crowd reaction possible. While some feel that this extreme level of choreography takes away from the art of a match (including Steamboat who preferred to call matches on the fly), I would argue that Savage had such an uncanny understanding of how crowds react that it doesn’t matter. All that matter is that the crowd is engaged for the whole match.
The opening is surprisingly tentative; Savage tries to sneak attack his challenger but Steamboat knows he is coming and keeps his eyes on the Macho Man. The Champion also takes a moment to jump outside the ring to pull his manager Miss Elizabeth away from George “The Animal” Steel, a friend of Steamboat’s and longtime adversary of Savage’s. Steele is a character that’s enamored with Miss Elizabeth and it’s clear that his mere presence has Savage unsettled.
One of the key elements of this match is that Ricky Steamboat, usually a squeaky clean good guy, is enraged at Savage because of the injury he’s returned from. He starts with what he is best at; technical wrestling, and specifically his magnificent armdrag takedowns. Still, there is a level of intensity to these armdrags that isn’t always there and Savage takes them beautifully, making them seem like more than simple takedowns. But there’s an uncharacteristic moment where the Dragon lifts Savage off the ground by his throat before returning his focus to Savage’s arm. He also takes a moment during his assault on Savage’s limb to snap it against the top rope, which for those not in the know is a taut steel cable with some decorative tape and is not fun to come into contact with.
Rage is a double edged sword of course; while Steamboat’s anger allows him to control the opening minutes, it also leads to him making small mistakes that the champion is all too willing to capitalize on. Savage rushes out of the ring and baits Steamboat into following him, then goes back in the ring and attacks the Dragon as he comes back in. He throws the Dragon out of the ring over and over again to try and catch his breath and also goes after Dragon’s throat, but this only fires up Steamboat even more, as he starts hitting the ropes and connecting with shoulder blocks and a crossbody block that very nearly pin the champion. A moment where Savage gets caught in the ropes allows them to cement the idea that Steamboat isn’t his usual sportsmanlike self as he delivers several blows to the tied up champion.
Savage smartly uses Steamboat’s momentum against him by sidestepping a charge and hitting a flying knee to the upper spine to get his momentum back. He throws Steamboat out of the ring again and Ricky holds onto the top rope and elevates himself back into the ring in a crowd-pleasing athletic maneuver, but Savage stays on him by throwing his arm across his throat and pushing him out of the ring with a move called a “clothesline”. The Macho Man has given up on trying to catch his breath and follows the Dragon outside of the ring and hits the flying knee a second time, sending his opponent over the ringside barricade and into the crowd. It is only with George Steele’s help that the crowd’s hero is able to make it back into the ring.
Knowing that he has the advantage, Savage is relentless in his attack; he flies off the top rope to deliver devastating double axe-handle strikes and throws him overhead with suplexes in an attempt to pin him down, but can’t make it. He jumps in the air and drives a knee into Steamboat’s throat and snaps it down across the top rope, but the Dragon refuses to quit. He may not be able to get in definitive control, but he can still win. He cradles Savage with several different pinning combinations at a blistering pace, causing referee Dave Hebner to exhaust himself dropping down to count the shoulders over and over again. This leads to a key moment in which Savage throws the Dragon into the referee, too out of sorts to avoid the incoming Steamboat and falling to his back incapacitated. Referees in wrestling are usually pretty fragile. Savage ascends to the top rope and delivers his patented elbow drop, but there Hebner is unable to make the win official.
This leads to the match’s conclusion. Hoping to take advantage of the knocked out referee, Savage exits the ring and grabs a ring bell, hoping to make good on his promise to put Steamboat out of wrestling. This also serves to remind the audience of why this contest is happening and why it is so intense. Unfortunately, just like the match’s start, George Steele costs the Macho Man his advantage. Though the champion foils the Animal’s attempt to take the bell from him and climbs back up to his favorite perch, Steele recovers and shoves Savage off of the top rope in a nasty fall, getting a measure of revenge in their long lasting feud.
Hebner is recovered and Savage is still in better shape that Steamboat. He picks up off the mat, but takes a moment to place his right hand on his back; the fall has cost him badly. He lifts the Dragon up to attempt a slam but his back is too weak to complete the move and Steamboat uses the momentum to roll Savage to the mat and hook a leg, finally getting the three count. The crowd erupts as Steamboat gets his revenge and wins the Intercontinental Championship.
While Savage lost on this night, both men walked away from the match better. The contest displayed two athletes in the prime of their careers working with such speed and intensity that fans almost had to have a sense of whiplash from viewing the contest. It was a revolutionary style at the time and still remains compelling to this day.Twenty-eight years later, many fans still consider this to be their favorite match.