From now until Wrestlemania, I will be counting down my five favorite Wrestlemania matches of all time, from how they came about to what impression they left on the show, the company, and the business. Today, I will examine the first legendary Wrestlemania match that remains one of the very best in WWE history- Savage vs. Steamboat.
Some elements of the Savage-Steamboat match dated as far back as Wrestlemania II. Savage’s pathological obsession with the Intercontinental Title preceded that event, as did the lingering rivalry with George “The Animal” Steele over Miss Elizabeth. Savage beat Steele at Wrestlemania II, but Steele remained on the periphery of the Intercontinental Title program and even accompanied Steamboat to ringside for this match.
The rivalry between Savage and Steamboat escalated when Savage brutally attacked Steamboat before a scheduled title defense. Savage draped Steamboat’s throat over the barricade and smashed him with his double axe handle. He brought Steamboat into the ring and crushed his throat with the ring bell. In an era with fewer weapons and crazy spots, the attack resonated. Steamboat was out of action for months and continued to favor the throat, even at Wrestlemania.
Before the match, Savage and Steamboat delivered interview promos with Gene Okerlund that set the stage for their contrast in styles. Savage was typically manic and wild, while Steamboat showed a fiery focus on getting revenge on Savage by taking his all-important title belt.
After a quick lockup, Savage left the ring to pull Elizabeth to another corner and keep her far away from Steele. When Savage reentered the ring, Steamboat met him with a series of his trademark deep arm drags. Savage got Steamboat to chase him out of the ring and clocked him as he crawled under the bottom rope to gain the advantage through heelish means.
Savage stayed in control and threw Steamboat over the ropes to the floor (not a DQ, Steve Corino). He focused his attack on Steamboat’s damaged larynx with knees and elbows. The pace picked up significantly with both wrestlers coming off of the ropes in a flurry. Steamboat got a near fall with a nice cross-body, but Savage clotheslined him to the floor after Steamboat skinned the cat to stay in the ring. Steamboat was worn down and Steele had to help him back in the ring to beat the count.
With Steamboat on the floor yet again, Savage climbed to the top turnbuckle and dropped a double axe handle on Steamboat’s back. A few more big elbows, an atomic drop, and a vertical suplex weakened Steamboat, but Savage could not keep him down for three.
The exhausted Steamboat managed to back drop Savage to the floor when Savage rushed him. He started to answer some of Savage’s offense with his own- a chop from the top rope and several diving forearms. He got near falls off of a sunset flip, a schoolboy, a jackknife, and a small package, but Savage kicked out each time. He damaged Savage more with a slingshot into the turnbuckle and they traded rollups for another pair of two counts. This series of creative covers is often imitated even today, but it is hard to match the drama seen here.
Savage inadvertently whipped Steamboat into the referee to knock him out, which left no one to count three when he hit his patented Elbow Drop. He retrieved the ring bell, only for Steele to prevent him from using it. As the referee made it back to his feet, Steamboat countered a bodyslam into a small package to get the three count on Savage.
The Intercontinental Title was Steamboat’s greatest accomplishment up to that point in his career. He lost it a couple of months later to the far lesser Honky Tonk Man. It would prove to be his last great WWF moment, as he returned to the NWA not long after. As great as the match was, he would also wrestle a series of three matches with Ric Flair in the summer of 1989 that were on the same level. It says a lot that Savage and Flair- two of the greatest to ever lace up a pair of boots- both wrestled Steamboat in their most memorable matches.
Savage became a babyface over the summer of 1987. His popularity led him to capture the WWF Title at the next year’s Wrestlemania. He held it until the following Wrestlemania, when he once again turned heel to split up the Mega Powers and feud with Hulk Hogan. The three year run from 1987-1989 was the pinnacle of Savage’s career and one of the best stretches any individual wrestler has ever had.
Why It Worked
While most of the matches on this list are clustered after the first 10 years of Wrestlemania, this match set the standard. Steamboat and Savage knew each other so well at this point that they could work seamlessly. For every move, there was a counter. For every high spot, there was a narrative explanation for how we got to that point. The match was shorter than the others on this list- only 15 minutes from bell to bell-, and they did not waste a second of that time.
Savage and Steamboat are both tremendous athletes with unmatched technique, but the thing that distinguished this match was its pace. There were slow periods that built to dramatic flurries. In the end, it was Savage’s attempt to cheat that took him out of the ring and cost him the match. Steamboat used his guile to pin Savage rather than brute force, which is a bit of nuance lost on many wrestlers.
The only substantive criticism of this match deals with the fact that the wrestlers scripted it move-for-move rather than calling it in the ring. While I understand that wrestling would get stilted and lose some of its fan engagement if this was the standard practice, I think it worked in this limited circumstance. In fact, I don’t think this level of precision would have been possible without extensive planning.