Worst Wrestling Returns I: Ricky Steamboat

I make no qualms about Ricky Steamboat being my favorite professional wrestler of all time. A flawless in-ring specimen, Steamboat is regarded as one of the greatest workers of his or any era. Having brilliant matches with Ric Flair, Randy Savage, Steve Austin, Bret Hart, and Rick Rude – you hear very little about his WWF stint in 1991. Although he had brilliant matches on both sides of his WWF (WWE) run, the second time “The Dragon” flew north, Steamboat slipped through the fingers of creativity. 

Background

Steamboat had made a name for himself in Jim Crockett Promotions, winning the World Television and United States title belts. On top of this, he had established a strong babyface connection to fans and naturally-gifted in-ring prowess. 

It is no wonder then why the WWF snatched up Steamboat in 1985. Re-christened “The Dragon”, Ricky Steamboat would be one of the top faces in the company, with his crowning moment being at WrestleMania III, in which he won the Intercontinental title in the culmination match in a feud with Randy Savage. Such bout is still thought to be one of the greatest matches in WrestleMania history. 

However, when asking for time off to be with his wife shortly after giving birth, Steamboat had the belt prematurely ripped off him to be given to The Honky Tonk Man. Upon return, the WWF had little idea what to do with Steamboat, who did not even progress beyond the WrestleMania IV WWF title quarter-finals, eliminated by Greg Valentine in the first round. 

Steamboat is a one-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion (Photo courtesy of TheSportster)

Leaving for WCW, Steamboat cemented his status as one of the greatest in their different critically-acclaimed matches against Ric Flair. Winning the NWA World Heavyweight title, Steamboat’s brilliant yet brief run ended before he rounded out the year; this was followed by a short tour of New Japan. 

WWF-Bound

It is fair to say there was no decisive turning point when things turned pear-shaped during Steamboat’s return run. Rather, his career plateaued in a disappointing fashion as he never got off the ground. 

We start on rocky ground as Ricky Steamboat debuts as simply The Dragon. Whilst previously just dragon in nickname, he now came to the ring with a large chest piece and literally breathing fire, which Vince McMahon insisted on. As Steamboat later explained: “That was Vince wanting to repackage me and coming out in the dragon’s outfit. The company was taking a different turn on really specializing on who you are and trying to make the character different from the guy you were in the ring with.” 

No mention was made to past glories such as his IC title win. 

The Dragon had only a solitary PPV match, at 1991’s SummerSlam. This was a throwaway six-man tag in which the Hawaiian teamed with fellow nouns The Texas Tornado and The British Bulldog, in a victory over Power & Glory (Paul Roma & Hercules) and The Warlord; Steamboat pinned Roma. 

At 1991’s untelevised King Of The Ring, he failed to pass the first round. He went to A 15-minute time limit with Ted DiBiase, which whilst protecting both men, did little for either. 

The Dragon mostly competed on house shows, regularly beating the likes of Haku, Tanaka, and The Barbarian.  

Steamboat’s only loss would be on a house show to Skinner. The next day, Steamboat gave his notice and left. The reasons for this vary and are likely a combination of various factors. 

  • His treatment: the new name, gimmick, and non-allusion to the past. 
  • The Dragon never had a storyline or on-screen rivalry. Steamboat was disheartened creative had nothing for him. He even pitched a heel character under a mask but this was vetoed by Pat Patterson; Steamboat would never turn heel. 
  • Steamboat was given a yearly salary of $52,000 (around $110,000 today), according to the Main Event Marks Podcast. This is about how much Elizabeth got paid for her appearance at SummerSlam 1991, for comparison. 
  • A low card placement. Although scheduled for an appearance at Survivor Series, he was set to be sharing a match with Big Bully Busick and The Berzerker. 
  • An apparent upcoming squash match loss to The Undertaker. There are also claims he was supposed to lose to Irwin R. Schyster – doing a spot where he was carried out on a stretcher twice at a singular TV taping. 

Aftermath

Ricky Steamboat left for WCW. Here, he would actually later bring back his dragon attire. 

Here, Steamboat again became a top name, perhaps most famously feuding with The Dangerous Alliance, most notably Rick Rude. 

Ricky Steamboat had a memorable rivalry with Rick Rude (Photo courtesy of Pro Wrestling Post)

The Hawaiian native won the Television title twice, the United States title, and the WCW World Tag Team titles (at one point unified with the NWA tag belts to make the NWA/WCW Unified World Tag Team championships). He won his tag belts with two then-young pups: Shane Douglas and Dustin Rhodes. Needless to say, he displayed a lot of potential the WWF missed out on when they had the chance. 

During a feud with “Stunning” Steve Austin over the US belt, the master of the flying crossbody injured his back, necessitating retirement from wrestling. 

Epilogue

Steamboat’s failed second return is not like most. It was not a bad action such as booking or character (although his new, goofy outfit did not help) but rather inaction. 

Although an impressive win streak, going unbeaten for over six months, it did not matter. The only televised wins were over enhancement talent whilst the company seemed disinterested to give him any real storyline or angles. You could be the best wrestler in the world but without any substance, you will always be limited. 

The WWF blew away the chance to recapture the popularity of a once-top star they could have had again. Why they did that, I will never understand. The WWF were dragon their heels with this one, slaying their own dragon character like a corporate Saint George.   

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