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#38 Ricky Steamboat
Any discussion of the best technical wrestlers in history has to involve the tremendously talented Ricky Steamboat. Steamboat's career mirrored that of his contemporary Ric Flair, as the two clashed numerous times throughout their careers in the ring before Steamboat was forced to retire with a back injury in 1994.
Steamboat was a successful amateur wrestler in high school and began his professional career in 1976 wrestling in the AWA as a babyface under his real name, Richard Blood. Steamboat was sent to work in Championship Wrestling from Florida and promoter Eddie Graham decided that he was never going to be a babyface with the name Richard Blood, so Steamboat needed to be repackaged. Thinking he resembled popular Hawaiian wrestler Sammy Steamboat, Graham decided to book Ricky Steamboat (who is half Caucasian/half Japanese) as Sammy's son, which instantly gave Steamboat some credibility as a babyface in the territory.
Steamboat found a long term home working for the National Wrestling Alliance in Jim Crockett Promotions, which was running under the Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling banner. Steamboat was brought in as a young, handsome babyface who impressed the crowd with his athleticism and technical skill, coupled with a humble and soft-spoken personality. His personality clashed with another young wrestler, a brash and arrogant wrestler from Minnesota, Ric Flair. Flair's charismatic and fiery interviews called out Steamboat and forced the young star into a feud with Flair. Their first big match took place on Mid-Atlantic TV when Steamboat defeated Flair for the NWA Television Championship.
For nearly the next decade Steamboat would remain a top-midcarder with the NWA, engaging in many notable feuds but never really cracking the main event consistently. Many of his feuds came through the tag team ranks with his longtime partner, Jay Youngblood. The two engaged in memorable feuds with Sgt. Slaughter and Don Kernodle, Paul Jones and Baron von Raschke and a famous feud against the Brisco Brothers, who turned heel and attacked the younger pair of Steamboat and Youngblood. A famous moment came when Youngblood and Steamboat painted yellow streaks on the backs of Jones and von Raschke to goad them into a fight, which might be the most Southern wrestling angle in the history of Southern wrestling.
Steamboat would also have a couple of notable singles feud in the territory in addition to his tag team success. There was always the feuds with Flair, but in addition he was in some hot contests with his former mentor, Wahoo McDaniel and a feud with Tully Blanchard over the NWA Television Championship. One of the most notable things about all of those feuds is that in every single one of them, Steamboat was the babyface. That includes feuds with some pretty popular wrestlers like McDaniel and the Briscos. It is a testament to how good of a babyface Steamboat was that he did not turn heel while feuding with such popular wrestlers.
After having a falling out with NWA booker Dusty Rhodes, Steamboat jumped over to the WWF as Vince McMahon Jr. began to go national. McMahon gave Steamboat the nickname "The Dragon" which gave Steamboat some color to his straight-laced personality, while not diminishing his natural, humble persona that fans gravitated towards. His early time in the WWF began with some mid-card feuds, mainly with Don Muraco and Hercules Hernandez. His first major feud came against Jake the Snake Roberts and began when Roberts delivered a DDT on the concrete floor outside of the ring on a May 3, 1986, edition of Saturday Night's Main Event. The move legitimately knocked out Steamboat and sparked a long feud with Roberts, leading to a Snake Pit match at The Big Event, a WWF special event at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto that drew more than 50,000 fans, who saw Roberts dominate Steamboat for most of the match, only for Steamboat to claim victory with a surprise small package out of nowhere. Their feud continued, culminating in another Snake Pit match on Saturday Night's Main Event in October that saw Roberts about to unleash his pet boa constrictor, Damien, on Steamboat, only for Steamboat to pull out his Komodo dragon and chase off Roberts in a moment that should be immortalized.
Following the feud with Roberts, Steamboat became the number one contender for the Intercontinental Championship against current champion Randy Savage. In November of 1986, Steamboat met Savage and was brutally assaulted by Savage, who allegedly crushed Steamboat's larynx with the ring bell. After being sidelined for a couple months, Steamboat returned to confront Savage and a match was set up between the two at WrestleMania III. Steamboat won the match and the title in a match so good it has become synonymous with superior in-ring quality. After winning the title Steamboat asked for some time off to be with his wife and son, a request which led to Steamboat losing the championship to the Honky Tonk Man and put him in the bad graces of the WWF for the remainder of his time there. Following WrestleMania IV Steamboat announced his retirement from professional wrestling.
After sitting out for most of 1988, Steamboat returned to the ring by appearing as Eddie Gilbert's surprise tag team partner teaming up against Flair and Barry Windham in January of 1989. Steamboat defeated Flair at the Chi-Town Rumble to become new NWA World Heavyweight Champion, and then successfully defended the championship against Flair on a April 2 edition of Clash of the Champions. Steamboat would then drop the title back to Flair at WrestleWar in May. All three matches are regarded as instant classics and are recognized by many fans as the best feud of all-time from a match quality standpoint. The mere mention of the phrase "Steamboat vs Flair" is one that instantly leads to memories of tightly rolled pinning combinations, submission holds and high-drama.
Following his feud with Flair, Steamboat engaged in a feud with Lex Luger but a contract dispute between Steamboat and the office led to him leaving the company. Steamboat remained a free agent throughout 1990 and wrestled mainly for New Japan Pro Wrestling, engaging in top level feuds with Keiji Mutoh and Hiroshi Hase. Steamboat returned to the WWF in 1991 for a very brief run that saw him pick up plenty of victories but never engaged in any meaningful long term feuds and he left the promotion towards the end of the year.
Steamboat found himself back in WCW by late 1991 and soon captured the WCW World Tag Team Championships with Dustin Rhodes. Steamboat later was involved in a critically acclaimed feud with The Dangerous Alliance and Rick Rude, which helped carry the company during the absence of Ric Flair. Throughout 1992 and 1993 Steamboat became attached to the WCW Television Championship, winning the championship twice during that time frame. Despite the fact that his career was winding down, Steamboat continued to have some of the best matches of his career against the likes of Stunning Steve Austin, Dustin Rhodes, Scott Steiner and Steven Regal.
In 1994 Steamboat engaged in one final feud with Flair over the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, but his chances at winning the championship were spoiled when Austin attacked Steamboat. Steamboat and Austin would engage in feud, leading to match at Clash of the Champions on August 24, that saw Steamboat critically injure his back, but still manage to defeat Austin. The feud helped establish Austin as a top singles competitor in the industry, but the downside was the injury to Steamboat's back was so bad that he was forced to retire. Steamboat remained retired until he returned to the ring nearly 15 years later, turning back the clock for a pair of memorable matches against Chris Jericho in WWE.
Steamboat was one of the last old-school, traditional babyfaces to find a ton of success in American wrestling. During a time when babyfaces were over-the-top colorful figures like Hulk Hogan and Dusty Rhodes, Steamboat caught the attention of fans by being classy and humble. Steamboat was a lot like the great babyface champions of the 60s and 70s, like Verne Gagne, Bruno Sammartino, Jack Brisco and Dory Funk Jr. Steamboat did his talking in the ring, sold well and got fans to believe in what he was doing. His superior technical ability got him over with the audience; whether you knew wrestling was fixed or not, Steamboat looked like a champion because his work looked so tight and realistic. Although he was never really a top guy, he was truly one of the best babyfaces of his generation and one of the best overall workers of any generation.
Next week, #37 will be revealed, a top star from the 1990s that carried a struggling company into the new millennium.
The Top 50 so far:
50.Ted DiBiase (click link for description of the qualifications of the list)
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat