With a name like Dick Blood, there was little chance Ricky Steamboat could have ever achieved his ultimate status as one of pro wrestling's greatest babyfaces.
But when Richard Henry Blood became matinee idol Ricky Steamboat, the young wrestler's fate changed almost overnight.
"I walked into Eddie Graham's office, he took one look at me and said, 'You look a lot like Sam Steamboat. We're going to make you his nephew - Ricky Steamboat,''' the wrestler recalled.
The celebrated Florida promoter noticed a similarity between his young charge and Hawaiian veteran Sam Steamboat (Sammy Mokuahi), and wisely sensed that the name change might prove beneficial to the rookie.
Did it ever.
That was nearly 40 years ago, and a lot has happened since then. For the next two decades, Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat would earn a reputation as one of the greatest workers in the business, and quite possibly the greatest babyface of his generation.
And, unlike many others who carried the mantle of babyface ("good guy" in wrestling parlance), Steamboat never turned heel ("bad guy") during his illustrious career.
"I cannot come up with a main-event name (in the modern era) who throughout their career didn't work as a heel or a face at some point," he says.
"Not that I didn't try," adds Steamboat, who will take part in the final Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest scheduled July 31-Aug. 3 in Charlotte.
Steamboat, 61, actually pitched the heel idea to then WWE creative guru Pat Patterson back in the early '90s.
"Pat simply told me that it would probably ruin my career," says Steamboat.
As things turned out, Patterson's blunt words of wisdom were probably solid.
Still, while he will be remembered as one of the greatest babyfaces ever in the business, Steamboat says he wonders how he might have fared as a bad guy.
"I just wanted to experience what it felt like on the other side of the fence. As we all know, the heels have the most fun out there in the ring."
The business, though, might have seemed a little more tainted, a little more impure, with Ricky Steamboat as a bad guy. If anyone had to finish out his career as the hero in the proverbial white hat, there was nobody better for the job than the handsome, clean-cut, fair-playing Steamboat.
He was a "fan's wrestler" who embodied what a true good guy should be - always willing to sign autographs, arriving early at arenas to meet his fans and never too busy to shake a hand.
It's unlikely that fans would have ever bought into a Steamboat heel turn anyway.
"Ricky Steamboat was just so good. He was as good a babyface as there ever was," says veteran NWA referee Tommy Young, who officiated many of Steamboat's matches in the Mid-Atlantic area. "I just have so much respect for him."
Steamboat's impeccable credentials over an 18-year career speak for themselves. He was NWA world heavyweight champion, a four-time U.S. heavyweight and world TV champion, two-time Mid-Atlantic champion and co-holder of the world tag-team title on more than a dozen occasions.
Steamboat held the Intercontinental title in WWE (then WWF) and was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2009. He has worked for that company since 2005 and currently is employed under a legends contract.
Steamboat admits the thought of turning heel had crossed his mind more than once.
From purely a financial standpoint, the move had monetary benefits.
"When you are a face for a long time and you turn heel, your stock value immediately goes up, especially if you're able to pull it off in the ring and on the mic," he says. "Then you ride that horse as long as you can. When it starts to falter, and when attendance drops, then you can turn back babyface. And your stock value goes up again."
In Steamboat's way of thinking, it was quite simple.
"For a year they'll boo you, and for a year they'll cheer you," he says.
Steamboat points to several examples of performers who had sustained lengthy babyface runs, only to turn heel for certain periods of time before eventually making the switch back to good guy.
Paul Jones, one of wrestling's top babyfaces during the '60s and '70s, turned the territory upside down when he attacked Steamboat, his partner at the time, in a memorable angle in the Carolinas.
Jones turned on Steamboat at the end of a two-ring battle royal, and a blazing feud ensued, with Steamboat and partner Jay Youngblood painting yellow streaks down the backs of Jones and new cohort Baron Von Raschke in order to embarrass them into defending the world tag-team title.
Fans were aghast over Jones' despicable turnaround, but they responded by packing the houses throughout the territory to see him get his comeuppance.
"Paul had been a longtime babyface," notes Steamboat. "When he made that turn, he was off and running as a heel. And what a great heel he was ... great on the stick doing interviews as a heel. Those are moments like that where I said ... if they can do it, I can do it."
'Tell 'em Gerald'
There was no greater testament to Steamboat's enormous popularity than his ability to help turn the popular Oklahoma brother tandem of Jack and Jerry Brisco.
It took a lot of goading from Steamboat, Youngblood and the Briscos to convince promoter Jim Crockett Jr. to go along with the plan.
"We had a lot of conversations with Jimmy Crockett trying to get him to approve," recalls Jerry Brisco. "Jack and I had been strong babyface draws for so many years. Jimmy didn't think it would work. But we assured him we weren't really going to change our wrestling styles. We were just going to be more aggressive."
"Of course we had the perfect foes in Youngblood and Steamboat," adds Brisco. "They had just come off that big run with Don Kerndodle and Sarge (Slaughter). We stepped right into it because they were still real hot from that."
"How in the world are you going to be able to even come close with Jack and Jerry Brisco?" Steamboat recalls Crockett asking him.
It wasn't an unfair question. The Briscos were the No. 2 babyface team behind Steamboat and Youngblood in the Carolinas.
"Jack and Jerry also wanted to work heel," says Steamboat. "I told Jim to leave that part up to Jerry and me. Jerry was great on the stick. The only thing Jack would say was a few words.
He'd look over to his brother and say (in an Oklahoma drawl), 'Tell 'em Gerald.' He'd always call him Gerald. And what a great heel Jerry was."
The switch from fan favorite to hated heel came subtly when Jack "accidentally" injured Steamboat's leg by falling on him while Steamboat was trapped in Jerry's figure four leglock.
The fans blamed the Briscos for purposely injuring Steamboat despite the brothers' denials.
An all-out war between the two teams broke out when the brothers swiped Youngblood's Indian headdress and claimed it for their own.
The Briscos achieved their goal of winning the world tag-team belts when they won took the straps from Steamboat and Youngblood on two occasions during 1983 before losing them to the popular duo for the final time on a Thanksgiving Day show at the inaugural Starrcade in Greensboro, N.C.
"Those guys told Jay and I after it was all said and done that it was the most fun they had in their entire careers," says Steamboat.
It still remains Jerry Brisco's fondest memory from his Mid-Atlantic days.
"Holding the world tag-team championship belts with my brother was very special," he says.
Blessing for Flair
The consummate wrestler's wrestler, Steamboat was widely regarded as one of the top workers in the business during an active career that spanned from 1976-1994.
Promoters knew he was money when they saw his good looks, sculpted physique and ability in the ring.
The late wrestling star and booker George Scott originally brought Steamboat into the Carolinas after watching him perform on Atlanta television. Steamboat was an instant success.
"He caught on like wildfire," recalled Scott. "I immediately recognized his potential. This kid had something special."
Steamboat's classic battles with 16-time world champion Ric Flair, over a 17-year period, are considered among the greatest in the modern age of pro wrestling.
A three-match series with Flair in 1989 over the NWA world title is ranked at the top of a lofty list.
"One of my greatest blessings was the day Ricky Steamboat walked into the office of Jimmy Crockett in Charlotte, North Carolina," says Flair.
"Ricky Steamboat had everything - charisma, work rate, intensity and one of the best bodies in our business," Flair said of his greatest rival.
"I learned so much from Ric Flair ... just listening to him guide me early in my career," says Steamboat. "I think one of the biggest attributes that helped me and other guys, too, during that era was the fact that we wrestled nearly every night back then. Monday night we'd be in Greenville and the next night we'd be in Columbia, so it's only 90 miles."
Steamboat explains that fans would often caravan from one town to the next to attend wrestling shows, which made them change their matches on a nightly basis.
"What it made Flair and I do was to change our match. Flair and I would work with one another sometimes seven nights a week, and with four weeks in a month, we had to keep changing up the matches with fans following the circuit every night. It would always test me and Ric to do something different.
"Through that you would learn. We did so much stuff on the fly. There was so much main-event talent - guys like Paul Jones, Wahoo McDaniel, Blackjack Mulligan, Greg Valentine. And even some of the mid-card guys that we used on television to get us over were great talent. They were the third or fourth match on the card each night. By today's standards, those guys could be main-eventers."
Out of the hundreds of matches the two had, did they ever have a bad one?
"I'm going to say no," says Steamboat. "There were matches that were better than others. But we always gave it our best in the ring."
Steamboat says it got to be "a personal issue" between the two to see how far they could go most nights.
"We pushed each other to extreme limits. We were out there hangin' and bangin' for 40 minutes, 50 minutes every night. Who could blow up who? We did that without anything being said. It was just an ongoing thing where I'd look across the ring at Ric, he would look at me, and here we go. And we would just push and push and push.
"Fifty minutes into the match, the guys backstage watching would go, 'How in the world are you guys able to go at the speed you're going?' and we've already put in 50 minutes. It was pride, ego, male testosterone. Anything you want to say. That was an ongoing thing between us over a number of years."
Their relationship outside the ring was just as professional.
Both had come out of Verne Gagne's training camp in the early '70s, and both settled down in Charlotte, raising families and opening gym businesses there. They were two of the city's biggest sports celebrities long before pro teams such as the Hornets and Panthers invaded the town.
"We never had any kind of locker-room disputes or anything outside the ring," says Steamboat. "We were very respectful of each other. We grew to enjoy each other in the ring only because of the respect we gave each other and our respect for the business ... and for the match that particular night. It didn't matter if it was 200 fans in Columbia of if there were 15,000 fans in Greensboro. We would go out there and take them on a ride."
"They just complemented each other so well," says Young, who served as third man in hundreds of matches between Flair and Steamboat. "Either guy could work with anybody. They both had great matches with others besides each other. But it was magic when they worked with one another."
Not only was Steamboat a great singles performer, he also was a great tag-team wrestler with partners such as Jones and Youngblood. A match on March 12, 1983, with Steamboat and Youngblood against Sgt. Slaughter and Don Kernodle - a program billed as "The Final Conflict" - turned away thousands of fans at the Greensboro Coliseum, with traffic backed up for miles off I-85 and the streets lined up with fans hoping to scalp a ticket at the eleventh hour.
The two teams worked every night for 30-something straight days and set records everywhere they went.
The team of Steamboat and Youngblood was considered one of the very best in the business. And they left a lasting impression on fans in the Carolinas.
Steamboat still thinks often about his late partner.
"Jay was the best tag-team partner I ever had. We were like brothers. We could translate information to one another without having to speak it. All we had to do was look at one another during a match. I'd give him a nod and would say, 'I know what you want brother, I know what you want.' And we did it together for almost five years.
"The matches that we had with Sgt. Slaughter and Don Kernodle, and later when we turned the Brisco Brothers into heels, you can't dispute the crowds we drew and the accolades we got. There wasn't a lot of tape on those matches; many were at house shows. But we had tremendous matches with these guys.
"It was so much fun during that tag-team time in my career. I learned so much. Even though I was a main-event guy, there was stuff going on in the ring while I was standing on the apron, and I'm watching Jay sell or Jay fire back and the heels are getting heat. And I'm standing there so close, and I'm still learning. It was a lot of fun."
Sadly Youngblood (Steve Romero), son of longtime Texas star Ricky Romero, died at the age of 30 during a wrestling tour of New Zealand in 1985.
For those who were weaned on Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, it might be hard to fathom that "young" Ricky Steamboat is actually 61 years old.
But it's true, and he's got a birth certificate to prove it.
These days, says Steamboat, he feels lucky just to be alive.
He suffered a brain aneurysm in 2010 that nearly claimed his life. Technically called a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a brain aneurysm ruptures, causing bleeding into the compartment surrounding the brain.
"The neurosurgeon told me that the left side of my brain tried to separate from the right side, and the connecting blood vessels sheered. The way I understood it is that it was inoperable because it was down inside my brain. There was a waiting period, and I was in intensive care for three weeks. I went from 230 pounds to 199. I was hooked up all over. It was a life-and-death close call."
As a result, Steamboat, who at the time was a trainer at WWE's developmental facility in Florida, was no longer allowed to take any bumps in the ring.
"It probably was an accumulation of all the bumps over the years. It's no different than the NFL guys with the concussions," he says.
Retired from active competition since 1994, when he suffered two herniated discs at the base of his spine in a match with Steve Austin, Steamboat returned to the ring in 2009 for a series of bouts in WWE against Chris Jericho. Although he was well into his 50s at the time, Steamboat was as sharp as ever, leading fans to chant "You still got it!" in tribute to the ageless star.
"I'm 61 years old, and I'm in decent shape for a 61-year-old man. I still train four or five days a week. I don't do anything heavy because I don't want to jeopardize anything in my head," he says.
These days he's working out with much lighter weights.
"I remember back in the day when I was doing three to four times more weight. But I'm happy now. It's easier on my back and my neck and my shoulders. It's certainly easier on the pressure on my head which I'm always very, very conscious of. I don't want to put a lot of pressure up there and don't want to take any shots to it."
After living for decades in Charlotte, Steamboat recently moved back to the St. Petersburg, Fla., area where he got his first exposure to pro wrestling watching legendary announcer Gordon Solie on Saturday afternoons.
"I found a nice little house here about three minutes from the beach," he says.
In the back of his mind, Steamboat always knew he would return, recalling an old saying.
"I remember back in '74 when I left (Florida) to go to Verne Gagne's camp in Minnesota, and my friends told me, 'Once you get sand in your shoes, you always come back.' So almost 40 years later, I'm back."
"I've been really blessed to the point of being able to contribute to the company in this capacity, and also being back here in the Sunshine State. I have no room to complain," he adds.
"I am under a Legends contract," says Steamboat, who recently visited Malaysia to promote WWE's upcoming tour in October. "I'm like a diplomat. I do appearances and autograph sessions and speak for the company. It's a great gig for me. I'm glad I'm still able to do this and still have some notoriety, to keep this old dog going until it's time to ride off into the sunset."
Steamboat relishes the prospect of returning to Charlotte for the final hurrah of the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest.
"It's a really big deal for the fans. And just to have all the fans come up to me and say they remember watching me as a kid is special. Now you see them as grown adults with families of their own. They'll go home and dig up some old tapes and say, 'Yep, there he is!'"
Steamboat will be on hand throughout the day on Friday signing autographs, taking photos and talking to fans.
"It'll be a good day. If it wasn't for the fans who came out and bought tickets, none of us would be where we're at. It takes the family package to put it all together. And it will be good to see some of the guys I've worked with and sit and reminisce."
His role may have changed slightly over the years, but Ricky Steamboat remains the ultimate babyface.
"I've been put here to hang around a little bit longer and very happily give back."
For more information on Fanfest, visit www.NWALegends.com.
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.
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