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Wrestling Fantasy Camp:
Learning with Professor Steamboat  

May 29, 2003

by Rick Scaia   
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com


[NOTE FROM THE PRESENT DAY: Nothing particularly relevant to current events this week.  Just a re-print of one of my favorite memories from the time spent at WrestleLine.  They sent me down as a VIP for two of the Pillman Memorial events, but it was the 2001 fantasy camp portion that I'll remember perhaps most fondly.  Ricky Steamboat, my favorite wrestler from my childhood, took over the seminar and, with Terry Taylor's help, probably taught me, the rookie campers AND the experienced HWA workers more about the mechanics of working a psychologically sound wrestling match than any of us had ever picked up before.  And he did it in about an hour.  And also:  Steamboat worked some spots as a heel, the only time he's ever done that in public. Good times.


On-Site Report: Pillman Fantasy Camp --/-- August 8, 2001 
WL column Originally Published August 9, 2001

The official t-shirts for Wednesday's Mark Curtis Fantasy Camp listed about a dozen names of wrestlers who were expected to arrive to help coach fans... and although the majority of them were prevented from making it to the camp, the handful of celebrity trainers who did appear as scheduled sent the assembled campers home plenty happy.

The legendary Ricky "the Dragon" Steamboat led the fantasy faculty, which also included Hugh Morrus, Terry Taylor, and Bill Alfonso.  HWA head (and event mastermind) Les Thatcher and his top HWA talents/trainees also lent a hand and advanced this year's Curtis Camp class substantially beyond where last year's participants left off.

Where last year, side headlock takedowns were about as complicated as things got, this year, Steamboat was coaching his patented deep armdrag takeovers, while Morrus had campers running criss-cross patterns!

While the number of celebrity trainers was down from last year, the crew of campers also number fewer, so the "student/teacher ratio" wasn't all that out of whack. Among the dozen or so campers were two returnees from last year, as participants came from near and far (including Oklahoma, Chicago, and New York) to get the second annual camp underway.

Things started out shortly after 11am with some stretching and calisthenics... once everybody was loose, Les Thatcher got on the house mic and welcomed everybody. He also introduced Pam Hildebrand, the widow of Brian "Mark Curtis" Hildebrand, who thanked everybody for coming out in remembrance of Brian.

And then it was on to the (simulated) ass-kicking!

With trainers at a premium, Les named Terry Taylor as "captain" of Ring #1, while Hugh Morrus was put in charge of Ring #2. As Bill Alfonso and Rick Steamboat got involved, they wound up joining Taylor in Ring #1... but for the opening hour or so of the camp, Hugh was the trainer to watch.

For the press, VIPs, and on-lookers assembled, Morrus kept his crew on their toes with a mix of comedy and cutting remarks... he'd riff on a camper till he got it right, but always made sure it was all in good fun at the end of the showdown. Hugh also affectionately dubbed some campers "Konnan" or "Disco" when the campers screw-ups resembled the bad habits of some of Hugh's famous co-workers!

However, Morrus' ring was also notable at this early stage for another reason: within the first hour of camp, he had student running the ropes. Back bumps, lock-ups, headlocks and headlock takedowns all went much faster than last year. But despite the advanced level of his students, Morrus and Ring #2 soon lost its hangers-on, as we all hit the other side of the gym.

Taylor and Ring #1 were starting to discuss armdrags, at which point Les Thatcher suggested that there is no one better qualified to teach armdrags than Ricky Steamboat. At this point, Steamboat stepped into the ring for the first time, and immediately commanded the attention of all. In fact, all the students in the ring were soon positioned around ringside with the rest of us, as Steamboat and Taylor went through the mechanics of how to deliver the patented deep armdrag that Steamboat was so well known for.

In the process of working out the kinks, Steamboat lamented that its been way too long since he'd done this stuff, and even wondered if he should even try to take a bump. Within a few minutes, it seemed like Steamboat was as smooth as any wrestlers we see on TV today, and he was fully into the flow of teaching the armdrag.

But before long, campers got a special bonus. Steamboat and Taylor began working some mini-spots, and Steamboat emphasized the many ways you can work an opponent's arm. This segued into a discussion of ring psychology and how a wrestler can use certain moves to tell a story. For over 30 minutes, Steamboat would first lecture and then put into practice these ideas of making every little move mean something.

From my notes, here's a quick outline of some of the topics Steamboat covered, and which we -- as fans -- don't normally get to see on TV during a typical 4 minute match:

  • Using the "attacking the arm" thing as his focus, Steamboat broke down the basic heel and face roles and how body language and things like that will affect how fans perceive you and your moves.
  • In discussing heel/face roles, Steamboat actually played the role of the heel in several spots with Taylor. For me, it was surprising just how easy it seemed for Steamboat to shift into that role, and Steamboat himself mentioned just a few minutes later that he'd wrestled over 6000 matches and not a single one of them was as a heel. For all intents and purposes, this was Steamboat's public debut as a wrestling heel!
  • This also led to a brief discussion of how Steamboat believes many other guys flopped between heel and face frequently because it was a way to maintain interest in their character and to keep them as top draws. He is proud that he never resorted to that, at which point Taylor bolstered his point by saying that it's actually much harder to be a really good babyface than it is to be a good heel, commending the Dragon on his years of work.
  • As a babyface, there were a few things key to Steamboat's performances. One was "fire," which both he and Taylor classified as the most important thing a babyface can have (even more important than pretty hair or high flying moves). "Fire" -- as demonstrated by both -- is what Hulk Hogan always showed while "hulking up," and once you can get a crowd behind you when you do that routine, you've got it made. Steamboat said not enough guys really show that fire today, and it's led to a situation where most wrestlers don't behave differently enough to distinguish themselves as heels or faces, which is part of the reason why crowds may be apathetic at times.
  • Of course, showing "fire" is always the set up for the other key component of a babyface's enterprise: the Comeback. Steamboat talked about how the Comeback is hard. It can be hard because it might play to silence if you don't have "fire" or if you or your heel opponent hasn't done his job right earlier in the match. And it can also be hard because this is the part of the match where both guys can "blow up" (get exhausted) very easily. Even a 2 minute comeback can wear a babyface out; and it's just as hard on the heel, who has got to bump extra wild during the comeback, and constantly feed the babyface for the next move(s). It's important to do this if you want to have a 3-4 minute (or longer!) sustained comeback with the crowd on its feet.
  • Even a year after the fact, Steamboat and Taylor used the Triple H/Rock Iron Man match as an example of a well-plotted piece of psychology: HHH went up by several falls, and then that allowed the Rock to sustain his heat for almost 30 minutes while he waged his comeback. They tipped their hat to that booking... Les also piped in that the recent Indians/Mariners game was a fine example of how a great comeback can entice and entrance a crowd.
  • Another trick from Steamboat's playbook was dubbed "the Hope Spot." Steamboat never let a heel opponent get more than 4-5 moves in a row without some retaliation. Even if it was just a feeble punch of something, Steamboat felt it was important to show the crowd he was still in the match. If the fans thought he was out of the match, THEY would go out of the match, was his thinking.
  • If a baby and a heel each do their job right, the result is magic, and fans will get into it every time. As an example, Steamboat said, "I wrestled Flair 500 times, and I won -- what? -- three times... so why'd they keep coming back to it?". Though rhetorical, the answer seems clear enough: because Steamboat and Flair were such a great face and heel, respectively, that fans ALWAYS thought Steamboat could win, despite his track record against Flair.
  • Steamboat also briefly touched on tag team psychology, drawing on examples from his days teaming with Jay Youngblood. He laid out the concept of the hot tag, and even discussed how an early-match "false) hot tag (really only a lukewarm tag) could pop a crowd and draw them into a match before you go for the real hot tag later on.
  • He also talked about the concept of turning your back on an opponent during a match, basically disrespecting him. Though it might seem a good "heel" move to act like your opponent doesn't concern you, it's a bad move in the long run, because fans will start to think the same thing. Anytime a guy turns his back on an opponent, it should be for a reason (to pose to the crowd and get attacked from behind, for instance), otherwise it puts both guys chances of getting over in jeopardy. Steamboat even mentioned that if he ever felt like he'd been disrespected, he'd work a little stiffer for a few minutes to remind his opponent of proper etiquette.
  • Another topic that both Steamboat and Taylor spoke strongly on was the current "over-choreographed" style of TV wrestling. In addition to the obvious concerns that the highspots are causing psychology to disappear as a part of the typical wrestling match, Steamboat feels strongly that sticking to a prepared script of spots takes away the flexibility to adjust, to change on the fly to emphasize what is working with a particular crowd or to shift away from something that's tanking. Steamboat and Taylor said that if they'd ever worked together (they never did, not even once), they would have had a finish set up ahead of time, and then called everything else on the fly. That is in direct opposition to how so many of the newer generation of workers handle things.
  • Steamboat says it takes away from the fun to over-prepare like that. It takes away from the fun of performing, because you're too concerned in the ring that you'll skip a spot. [Les joked that it doesn't even matter, because if you're putting together a match spot-by-spot, you can just go back and do #5 if you forgot to do it, even if you'd already advanced to #9, because, there's no story or psychology to the match to ruin!] But it also takes away from the fun of being on the road. While other guys are obsessing over how to plot their match, Steamboat and Taylor could be shootin' the breeze, playing cards, whatever, watching everybody else pull their hair out. And they'd be confident that their match would be just as good and well-received as anyone else's.

Around 2pm, the Dragon corralled his students into the ring to put into practice what they'd just learned. Some armdrags were attempted, some spots were tried where "work the arm" was the mantra. But mostly, campers and onlookers alike were just trying to process the phenomenal lesson in psychology we'd just received.

It's not like Steamboat dropped any entirely new concepts on the campers, but illustrating the little things, giving them names, illuminating the various parts of the mechanism that go into the overall machine... it was a really cool experience. I don't know if Rick Steamboat runs wrestling camps or anything down in the Carolinas, but watching him today, he oughta consider it.

Before too long, camp broke for lunch, and resumed with the campers switching to the opposite ring (and the other set of trainers). The camp also claimed its first casualty as Rich -- who would later identify himself as a long time Rick Reader, even back to the News From Dayton days -- went down with a bum ankle. Nothing serious, though. Everybody did walk out of the 2001 edition of the Curtis Camp under their own power!

During phase two of the camp, Morrus regaled his new audience with entertaining tales of his new workplace. Especially amusing were stories about the McMahons... how intimidating it is just to share a cup of coffee with Vince... how Stephanie likes to surprise Hugh by clubbing him from behind... how Shane wants to box Hugh... how Hugh won't go along with that until after the McMahons stop signing his checks! Fun stuff...

But after the anecdotes, it was back to work. In Ring #1, Steamboat and Bill Alfonso (now stepping in as a primary trainer) ran their new students through some basic paces, while Morrus once again did his best to push the boundaries by getting his new crew up to the point where they were running criss-crosses (a seldom-seen thing in today's wrestling world, now that I think about it). It was fun watching Hugh direct traffic, telling campers when to drop down, when to leapfrog, and when to look the hell out because they're about to collide with somebody!

The second session was cut short, as the majority of the afternoon was dedicated to the campers cutting promos with or against their wrestler of choice. David Penzer was on hand to act as interview/mic stand while the promos were filmed. One entertaining moment came when the backdrop toppled over behind Penzer, and he threatened to recreate Gene Okerlund's infamous SummerSlam faux pas from over a decade ago!

As the promos wrapped up and the HWA crew began preparing to move down the street for dinner, I was able to grab a few interviews before heading out... those will appear here on WL in the coming days/weeks.  With the Curtis Camp concluded, there was already a sense of excitement about the "main event," the actual Pillman Memorial Card on Thursday night at Oak Hills High School in Cincinnati, OH.

While it may not be the same "three-promotions-coming-together" atmosphere as in year's past, it seemed from the Curtis Camp that it will once again be a rare chance for fans to see past the TV characterizations and glimpse the real people behind the TV superstars. This is more about love of the business and love for Brian Pillman than anything, so of course, I will close coverage of Day One of the Pillman Memorial with encouragement for anyone in the area to come on down and check out the show. All the info you need about the show is at www.PillmanShow.com!

See you tomorrow on WL Live! and on Friday with complete Pillman Show results, as well as a regular edition of OO with the latest news and analysis!


Rick Scaia is a wrestling fan from Dayton, OH.  He's been doing this since 1995, but enjoyed it best when the suckers from SportsLine were actually PAYING him to be a fan.

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