"Wrestling Declassified" is a new, weekly series for WrestlingINC.com in which we draw together lesser-known details regarding some of the most noteworthy matches, angles, and stories in pro wrestling history. We'll also include commentary and new information from the men and women of pro wrestling who generously share their reflections for this series. For the first-ever installment of this series, we're looking at one of the most celebrated matches in pro wrestling history, Randy "Macho Man" Savage vs. Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat at WrestleMania III.
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It's a safe bet that for the better part of the past quarter-century, many pro wrestlers have set their watches to the classic Savage/Steamboat bout at WrestleMania III. Ranked #2 in WWE's "Top 30 Matches in WrestleMania History" (finishing just behind The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XXV), the dramatic exposition unfolded before a packed Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan on March 29, 1987 .
"Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant sold the event," said Pro Wrestling Illustrated Publisher Stu Saks in WWE's The True Story of WrestleMania documentary. "But when you come right down to it, there were two other people that stole the event and that was Rick Steamboat and Randy Savage wrestling for the Intercontinental title."
In some respects, it's easy to unpack the key ingredients that have helped the match to retain a treasured place in the hearts and minds of fans. It was a bout in which a respected championship (the Intercontinental strap was a much-coveted title back then) was on the line. Randy Savage came into the battle as the reigning champ and a much-hated arch heel and he was met in combat by fan favorite Ricky Steamboat. Looming on the periphery was a subplot in which George "The Animal" Steele pursued an oddly endearing infatuation with Savage's valet, the lovely Miss Elizabeth.
In Brian Solomon's book WWE Legends, Steele—who worked as a schoolteacher until he began wrestling year-round for WWF—explained that his feud with Savage was supposed to run for three months but because fan reaction to the "beauty and the beast" story was so overwhelming, the angle ran for much longer than what anyone had originally anticipated. Steele and Savage clashed at WrestleMania II in a fight for the IC title and Savage came out on top in that meeting. Steele's appearance at 'Mania III in Steamboat's corner one year later effectively capped their long-running feud.
The official time of the match from bell to bell was 14 minutes, 35 seconds and at the end of the fray, Steamboat got the strap. Although Steele didn't quite get the girl, he did win the hearts of millions of wrestling fans worldwide. "The Animal" ended up playing a decisive role in the fight when he prevented Savage from using the ring bell on Steamboat.
To many wrestling stars, including the likes of Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio, it was the pacing and execution of the match by Savage and Steamboat that turned it into a show-stopper.
Longtime OVW trainer "Hustler" Rip Rogers worked closely with Randy Savage when the two performed in International Championship Wrestling. Randy's dad Angelo Poffo owned ICW and both Savage and Rogers were top-tier performers for the promotion. Although Rogers has never actually seen Savage's match against Steamboat (Rip proudly notes that he has never watched any WWE pay-per-view), he spoke to WrestlingINC.com about Randy's work ethic and style.
"I was taught the basic concept in wrestling was to call it in the ring and that's how Randy and I worked," Rip explained. "Randy knew this was special; after all, he got to work with Ricky Steamboat. So he probably took some extra time to figure it out. He might have micromanaged a bit because he was a bit out there…as am I."
Writing in his 2004 autobiography To Be the Man, Ric Flair noted that Savage had indeed carefully planned virtually every aspect of the match, allegedly to the chagrin of Rick Steamboat.
"Randy drove Ricky insane, going over each move again and again," wrote Flair. When people praised the match as the greatest in World Wrestling Federation history, Steamboat would kind of shrug. He shared my belief that the best matches are called in the ring and on the fly, not laid out on paper."
Rick Steamboat confirmed Flair's take on rigorous and detailed behind-the-scenes planning in an interview with Wrestling Observer, indicating that of the course of a month prior to WrestleMania III, he planned the match with Savage one step at a time, numbering each move in a notebook. The two would then verbally drill one another on the order in which things were to unfold in the ring.
"It got to the point to where I would turn page after page after page in my notebook and then at about the fourth page, I'd say, 'Okay this is step 112. I'm going to do this, this, and this. Tell me the rest of the match.' And he would go through and tell me the rest of the match, said Steamboat.
Steamboat also commented briefly on the match during his appearance in The True Story of WrestleMania, suggesting that the back-and-forth near-falls in the match made it the kind of nail-biter that really held fans' attention.
"It would go back and forth a couple of times; maybe where the good guy would have the bad guy covered and then the bad guy would have the good guy," recalled Steamboat.
Ever the old-school traditionalist, Rip Rogers is skeptical of the idea that near falls could somehow make any match better.
"Near falls are a joke," said Rogers. "They're a shortcut. Every pin should mean something."
Nevertheless, the contest continues to garner accolades, sparking a passion that many grapplers carry into their in-ring work to this day.
Jason "The Gift" Kincaid, who has held the NWA Smoky Mountain championship for three years and is arguably one of the hottest unsigned cruiserweights in the indy scene today, told WrestlingINC.com that the match stands out in his mind as one of his personal favorites.
"Growing up, I was a huge Steamboat fan," said Kincaid. "So, I remember really looking forward to him getting his revenge on Savage. Of course, I had to wait for it to become available at the video rental store. I remember it being a 'class 6 white water rapids' of emotions for me. I must've watched it 20 times before I returned the tape. Once I actually got into the sport, I grew to appreciate it on an even deeper level."
Chris Jericho has offered similar compliments when reflecting upon the match.
"That really influenced me during my whole career," Y2J said in The True Story of WrestleMania. "That was always the watermark for me of what a great wrestling match was."
Indeed, with Randy Savage's untimely passing in 2011, his epic bout with Ricky Steamboat at WrestleMania III is now not only regarded as a masterpiece of athletic ability and in-ring storytelling but also as a sentimental favorite that will undoubtedly continue to stand the test of time for fans and wrestlers alike.