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CIRCA
Steamboat vs. Savage:
How It All Began...
May 14, 2004

by Denny Burkholder
Courtesy of WrestleLine.com

 

Randy Savage goes outside and mugs the timekeeper for his bell, which is mounted on two crossed pieces of wood. 

He climbs to the top rope with it. Women in the crowd are screaming at this point. In the arena, among the fans witnessing the show live, the thought that Randy Savage might actually be trying to murder Rick Steamboat in the middle of the ring is not lost on the marks in the crowd. Hebner flips out and starts counting for Savage to get down. Like it's going to do any good - the match is over. Savage could care less. Savage jumps, and buries the timekeeper's bell into Steamboat's throat. 

That incident is one of the best-remembered WWF moments of the 1980s. It launched Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat from WWF midcard limbo - a corner he'd previously occupied with popular stars like Junkyard Dog and Tito Santana - into a supremely popular Intercontinental Title threat. It sent Randy "Macho Man" Savage from disliked heel to absolutely despised villain in the minds of fans. 

It provided both Savage and Steamboat with a hot program, and the payoff came in from of the largest WrestleMania crowd ever in 1987, stealing the show from a Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant main event in the process. It all started with right there at a WWF Superstars of Wrestling TV taping in Binghamton, N.Y. in October 1986. This was when the WWF taped three shows at a time, which meant the live crwod was almost entirely in the dark about what would happen on the two weeks of TV leading into the first episode of the show they were attending. Nobody knew what they were in for when the Savage-Steamboat Intercontinental Title match began with no warning. 

And they certainly didn't expect what they saw at the end of it.

OCTOBER 1986
Randy Savage had just escaped with his belt in a televised IC title defense against WWF newcomer Koko B. Ware, the "Bird Man," on WWF Wrestling Challenge. Post-match, hosts Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan introduced this week's edition of "Wrestling Rebuttal," a brief promo from a WWF superstar stating his point of view on a particular subject. This week, we get Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat. "What makes Ricky Steamboat steam is the way Randy Savage - the 'Macho Man' - misuses, mistreats, abuses Elizabeth on TV!" Steamboat fumed. "I can just imagine what goes on behind closed doors. Savage, what does it do, give you some inner strength to carry on and be the Intercontinental Champion? If I were you Elizabeth - and just take this the way you want it - the next time that savage pushes you around on national television, I's slap the grease right off his nose."

Savage was at the tail end of a feud with George "The Animal" Steele that centered around the furry, simple-minded Steele's affection for Elizabeth, the valet and actual wife of Savage whom the Macho Man controlled with ferocity. Steamboat had a successful midcard feud with newcomer Jake "The Snake" Roberts over the summer. Both guys were ready for another big program heading toward WrestleMania III.

SUPERSTARS OF WRESTLING: ONE WEEK BEFORE THE INCIDENT
A brief rundown of what aired on the edition of Superstars that preceeded the Savage-Steamboat episode:

- Bob Orton & Don Muraco (as a tag team), the Hart Foundation, The Can Am Connection (Rick Martel & Tom Zenk), The Islanders (Haku & Tama), and Butch Reed each won jobber squash matches.
- Big John Studd & King Kong Bundy (w/ manager Bobby Heenan) defeated The Machines ("Big Machine" was Blackjack Mulligan, "Super Machine" was Bill Eadie, who was Masked Superstar and Demolition Ax at various times in his career). Captain Lou Albano managed the Machines in what was then billed as his last appearance as a WWF manager, as Albano would briefly leave the business to become chairman for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
- Piper's Pit: Roddy Piper's guest this week is Hulk Hogan. Interesting segment... Piper was newly a babyface after returning from sabbatical to confront Adrian Adonis. Hogan and Piper don't pretend to like each other, but Hogan tells Piper they're both fighters, and they're a lot alike. Piper listens with intrigue and Hogan finishes by saying he doesn't know which road Piper is traveling on, but they're both headed to the same destination.
- Honky Tonk Man's "Vote of Confidence" campaign w/ Jesse Ventura enters its final week as they solicit one last batch of mail from fans. Honky pleads for more support, using backhanded compliments to gain heat.

SHOWTIME

"Hello everyone," Rick Steamboat says in a promo opening Superstars of Wrestling in early November 1986. "I've got the opportunity of a lifetime, being able to wrestle Macho Man Randy Savage for the Intercontinental Championship on national television. Millions of viewers! Mr. Savage, you can bet that I'm gonna be giving you my best shot."

After the opening credits roll, we get right to our marquee matchup.

Intercontinental Title: "Macho Man" Randy Savage (C) vs. Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat.

As Savage enters, referees Dave Hebner and Danny Davis are both in the ring. Davis and Hebner appear to be arguing over who is going to ref the title match. Eventually, Davis leaves in a huff, and Hebner is our referee. Steamboat enters as Jesse Venutra comments "It's another first for the World Wrestling Federation. I cannot believe that they would put a match like this on television. I mean, you got two of the greatest athletes in the world in that ring right now."

The bell rings as Savage quickly hits the ropes. Steamboat threatens to chop him on the rebound and Savage hits the breaks. Lock up takes both guys to the ropes. Hebner forces a break. Wristlock tie-up, which Steamboat escapes with a rollthrough. Savage sends him to the ropes. Steamboat baseball slides to avoid the clothesline and armdrags Savage as he turns around. Into an armbar, as Savage powers up and backs Steamboat into the turnbuckle. Irish whip breaks the hold. Whip into the opposite corner by Savage. Steamboat jumps onto the ropes, leapfrogs Savage, slides back through Savage's legs, and bodyslams him. Steamboat covers for two. Another patented Steamboat armdrag and Savage is back in the armbar.

Savage makes the ropes for a break. Before Steamboat lets go, Savage grabs a handful of hair, puts the Dragon against the ropes and elbow smashes the back of his head. Savage grabs a headlock and gets whipped to the ropes. A pair of shoulder blocks drops Steamboat, but Savage keeps running the ropes and falls victim to the armdrag one more time. Back to the armbar, and Steamboat gets a one count before Savage snaps out of it and gets to his feet. The Dragon switches to an arm wringer. Savage goes back to the hair and yanks Steamboat into the corner for a turnbuckle smash.

Savage in control, as he snapmares Steamboat and drops the high kneedrop. Cover gets two. Macho Man climbs to the top rope and connects with a double axehandle. Steamboat sells it like he's been shot, sailing backward into the opposite corner. Cover gets a long two. Savage argues with Hebner about the count, and McMahon on commentary notes that this was indeed a fair two count by Hebner.

Savage goes back to work on Steamboat, but the Dragon punches him in the gut a few times. Steamboat whips Savage into the corner. Savage runs up the ropes to the top, and leaps backward at Steamboat for a flying body press. Steamboat rolls through it and gets a two count. The crowd gets excited, apparently sensing this was the finish. Steamboat blocks a right hand from Savage and pounds away. Another irish whip to Savage, as Steamboat runs after and catches Savage's knees in the face. Steamboat blocks a tunrbuckle smash and delivers one to Savage. The Dragon goes to the top rope and hits Savage with a knife-edge chop. Steamboat appears to go for the pin, but opts instead to grab a handful of Savage's hair and punch him in the face a few times.

Savage tries to escape the ring. Steamboat stops him by grabbing his tights, so Savage throws Steamboat to the floor instead.

Steamboat re-enters with a shoulderblock and sunset flip, but Savage holds the ropes and punches The Dragon between the eyes to thwart the pin attempt. Savage tosses Steamboat out of the ring and turns around to celebrate while Steamboat skins the cat to get back in the ring. Steamboat pushes Savage into the ropes and schoolboys him for two. Back elbow to the face puts Savage back in control. Steamboat reverses the rope whip and leapfrogs Savage, who plows over Dave Hebner on the follow-through. Savage turns around and Steamboat drops him with a knife-edge chop.

The Dragon mounts the top rope and nails his finisher, the flying body press. Steamboat cradles Savage for the pin, and the crowd is going absolutely nuts, because Steamboat has the IC title won and Hebner appears to have come back to his senses in time for the count. Hebner counts one, and Danny Davis runs in and grabs his arm to break the count. Davis argues a bit more with Hebner, presumably trying to replace him in the match due to Hebner getting knocked loopy - but Hebner is OK now, and before he can tell Davis that, Steamboat gets in the middle to see what the problem is. Davis leaves the ring as Savage plants a knee in Steamboat's back while he's distracted.

Savage pulls Steamboat out of the ring and drops him neck-first on the steel railing. Savage rolls into the ring to break the count and then goes back outside, placing Steamboat hunched over the railing neck-first. Back in the ring, Savage climbs to the top rope and nails Steamboat on the back of the head with a double axehandle.

The moment Savage hits Steamboat, there are three little kids in the front row, directly in front of Steamboat - probably no older than seven or eight. The camera catches the expressions on their faces changing from "Wow, the action is right in front of us!" to "Oh no, something bad just happened." One of those priceless touches you can't plan for, but it made the scene that much more impactful. Steamboat repells back from the barricade clutching at his throat with both hands. His tongue is out, and he's staggering around as if he can't breathe.

Hebner calls for the bell and the match ends with a double-countout at 7:03. But Macho Man isn't finished, and he rolls into the ring, grabbing Steamboat by the hair on the way in. Savage lies Steamboat down in the middle of the ring. This whole time, Steamboat has been holding his throat with both hands. The crowd reaction goes back and forth between stunned silence and angry shouts directed at Savage (and Hebner for not being able to stop him).

And then Savage went up the roped with the bell. A simple trademark big elbow would have probably enraged fans at this point. But Savage had the timekeeper's bell... and he used it. Some in the audience - particularly the children - look worried. Steamboat took a bell to the throat after already selling a major injury to that area, and everyone was buying it.

The Dragon sells it, and a few second later, springs up to his feet, clutching his neck. He staggers for a few seconds, and then falls to his face again. A somber Vince McMahon on commentary: "Steamboat can't breathe. Get that animal away from him." Savage raises the bell over his head again threateningly. An excited McMahon: "Come on! Steamboat can't BREATHE!" Savage take the bell to the top rope one more time and the crowd goes insane, fearing for Steamboat's health. Hebner grabs Savage's ankle and shakes him off of the ropes. He drops the bell. The fans cheer.

Close-up on Steamboat (McMahon: "He's turning purple!"). An assortment of WWF officials, arena attendants and paramedics arrive and put Steamboat on a stretcher. By this time, Steamboat is flailing and kicking so badly that he actually falls off the stretcher and needs to be put back on. A slow-motion replay of Steamboat being stretchered out of the arena shows the attendants holding Steamboat onto the stretcher as they roll it. All the way down the aisle, Steamboat is holding his neck and gasping desperately, still moving. McMahon criticizes the officials for holding him down, since The Dragon needs to sit up to get oxygen and they aren't allowing him to.

THE LIVID LEGEND

That match was the first to air on the our-long episode of Superstars of Wrestling that week in November 1986. As the show progressed with matches including the Junkyard Dog, Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff, Dick Slater, Dino Bravo (still a brunette), Tito Santana and others, Vince and Jesse were left to announce the remainder of the show without Bruno Sammartino, who was sent backstage to provide updates on Steamboat's condition.

Sammartino was not famous for his acting ability, but as he stood outside the door where paramedics were supposedly working on Steamboat - reportedly with tubes down his throat to open the flow of oxygen - Bruno put forth that he was sickened and upset about the whole incident.

Late in the show, Bruno gave another backstage report and was treated to a visit by the assailant himself, Randy Savage:

Bruno: It was one of the most devastating things I've ever seen. No excuse in the world for it. There was no reason by this slime, this so-called champion...
Savage: Did they send the hot dog to the hospital yet? What's the update? Tell me, man? Did he go to the hospital? Did they send 'im?
Bruno: ARE YOU HAPPY ABOUT IT?
Savage: Did they send the hot dog to the hospital yet, huh? Put some mustard on him right now; get him all set up for the champion, right there! I'm so proud of myself!
Bruno: You, you SLIME, You're HAPPY ABOUT IT! (Bruno attacks Savage, and a crew of babyface midcarders pull him off)

A FEUD IS BORN

Savage vs. Steamboat is remembered as one of the most entertaining feuds in the WWF/WWE over the past 20 years. Savage and Steamboat were both phenomenal talents who only needed a chance to succeed, and they would. It was pretty simple, in that regard: Savage made the fans hate him, Steamboat won the crowd over, and the two of them were great wrestlers besides.

What Steamboat lacked in interview skills, he made up for in down-to-earth likeability and the talent to convey excitement through action rather than words. Savage had enough interview savvy for the both of them put together, and could keep up the pace with Steamboat on the mat (and in the air). It was the honorable babyface with family values battling the dirtbag villain who disrespected women and worshipped himself. Opposites as men, but quite equal in the ring.

Not to discount the angle itself, because it definitely worked. The live crowd was postiively stunned - there was pratically no inkling of a buildup to this feud, and what little there was - such as Steamboat's "Wrestler's Rebuttal" on Challenge - hadn't aired yet at the time of the TV taping. The quality title match on free TV was a surprise treat for fans that immediately became a shocking spectacle.

In addition, mixing Danny Davis into things took viewer's minds ever farther away from any idea that we might be watching the beginning of a Savage vs. Steamboat feud. The Davis "heel ref" stuff had been the major angle on WWF TV for a while, and became the story behind several TV matches involving everyone from Santana and Greg Valentine to Don Muraco and Bob Orton. It looked as though this was another installment of the Davis heel turn saga. And it was... but only as an excuse to break the Steamboat pinfall. Davis didn't figure into the match besides that, and to this day, few people ever mention his involvement in the Savage-Steamboat attack. He preserved the surprise for fans of that time, without mucking up the historical perspective Savage-Steamboat has earned.

The Sammartino attack that followed was a product of Vince McMahon Jr. still feeling a need to capitalize on whatever marketability Sammartino had left over from his days as top banana, and the need for Savage to feud with someone while Steamboat took his time off. This was also one of Bruno's final platforms in the WWF before the falling-out that has left him bitter to this day about the business.

It took a lot of stars crossing to bring Savage-Steamboat to prominence. The biggest of those stars were in the ring, though - as it should be.

E-MAIL DENNY
BROWSE THE CIRCA ARCHIVES


  
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