(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Ricky Steamboat vs. Randy Savage – WrestleMania 3

wwe wrestlemania 3 savage steamboat

To many people, this is the greatest match in WrestleMania history. Others say it’s the greatest wrestling match period. It’s a timeless classic, one that set the standard for what WrestleMania is supposed to be about. And now, over thirty years later, we’re looking back to see if this classic still lives up to the hype, or if its continued praise comes from the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia.

Today we look back at the Intercontinental Championship match between ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage and Ricky ‘the Dragon’ Steamboat from WrestleMania III.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

The story

This was the culmination of a six-month storyline that started when the villainous Savage cheap-shotted Steamboat. Savage attacked Steamboat as he greeted fans ringside and hit his larynx with the ring bell, which hospitalized Steamboat. As the months went by, Savage and Steamboat met many times, resulting in many intense and bloody contests. This feud needed to be settled, and the only place to do was WrestleMania. This WrestleMania match would bring a decisive finality to this long and intense rivalry between two of the best in-ring wrestlers WWE had at the time.

Oh, and there was also a Beauty and the Beast­-style story involving Savage’s valet Miss Elizabeth and Steamboat’s second George Steele. Because, reasons, I guess.

The match

This match originally took place on March 29th, 1987 at WrestleMania III. It was originally rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. It was also voted Match of the Year for 1987 by both the Observer and Pro Wrestling Illustrated. TJR’s John Canton also praised it, rating it a full five stars out of five. And many years after the match, Steamboat said that this match was “the moment in time that defined me as a wrestler.” With so much praise, let’s see how well this match holds up.

This is for Savage’s WWF/E Intercontinental Championship. Savage breaks up the first lock-up and Steamboat arm drags him on the next one. Steamboat ducks a clothesline and lands another arm drags. He ducks under Savage’s legs and lands a third arm drag. Steamboat choke-lifts Savage up and throws him down hard. Savage escapes to ringside and Steamboat gives chase. Savage hits Steamboat as he re-enters the ring and then pushes his throat into the top rope and pins for a one-count. Savage lands an elbow and chokes Steamboat in the corner as the crowd starts chanting for Steamboat. Steamboat dodges a corner charge and lands a wrist-lock drop, followed by an arm wringer. He jumps out of the ring, draping Savage’s arm across the top rope. Steamboat maintains control of Savage’s arm until Savage whips him into the ropes and drops him with a back elbow. Savage throws Steamboat to the floor and uses the next few moments to recover.

Savage pulls Steamboat to the apron and drops an elbow across his face. He hits a few stomps and then smapmares Steamboat into the ring. Another elbow to the head gets Savage a two-count, as does a kneedrop. He goes to smash Steamboat’s face into the turnbuckle. Steamboat counters and smashes Savage instead. Steamboat lands right hands and Savage gets tied up in the ropes.

Steamboat lands a few punches until Savage kicks him away. Both men reverse Irish whips. Steamboat lands a flying crossbody for two. Another arm drag and a counter tackle gets Steamboat a one-count. Another tackle and yet another two-count. Savage dodges a charge and kicks Steamboat’s back and then tosses him back out. But Steamboat skins the cat and gets back in…only to eat a clothesline to the floor.

Steamboat gets up but Savage tackles him from behind and he goes careening into the stands. His manager George ‘The Animal’ Steele lifts him up and carries him to the ring, only for Savage to toss him back out. Diving ax handle from the second rope to the floor. Savage isn’t done. He lands a second one in the ring followed by a running elbow, all for a two-count. Then Steamboat gets driven throat-first into the top rope, yet still kicks out at two. Atomic drop by Savage. Two-count. vertical suplex. Two-count. Steamboat tries fighting back but gets shut down with a rake to the eyes. Yet he still manages to kick out at two following a gutwrench suplex. Steamboat escapes another atomic drop and sends Savage into the ropes. Savage counters a back body drop with a kick and charges. But Steamboat ducks and lifts Savage up and out to the floor.

Steamboat tosses Savage back into the ring and lands a diving karate chop and pins, but Savage gets a foot on the ropes. Another karate chop to the chest. Savage kicks out. More chops to the head. Savage falls out of the ring. Steamboat gives chase and returns to the ring. Savage tries to cheapshot but Steamboat shoulder checks him in the gut and goes for a sunset flip. Savage holds onto the ropes and then kicks out at two. Steamboat ducks a clothesline and rolls Savage up for another two-count. Jackknife cover. Savage escapes yet again. Small package. Two-count once more. Scoop slam/corner slingshot combination by Steamboat. Another pin and another kick-out. Steamboat avoids another atomic drop and goes for a roll-up. Savage escapes and counters into his own roll-up. Steamboat escapes and lands more punches but Savage pulls him into the steel ring post. Multiple Irish whip reversals ensue. Steamboat hits the ref by accident and Savage clotheslines him down. Diving elbow drop. Savage gets a visual three-count but the ref’s still out. Steamboat grabs the timekeeper’s bell, only for Steele to pull it away from him. He goes back to the top rope, bell in hand. Steele pushes him off and he hits the mat hard. Savage goes for a scoop slam. Steamboat counters with a cradle. One, two, three! Steamboat wins the match and the title.

Winner and NEW WWF/E Intercontinental Champion after 14:35: Ricky ‘the Dragon’ Steamboat


This match has long been praised as the stuff of legend. It was considered the first true ‘workrate’ match in WWE history and it set the standard for the best in-ring athletes for pro-wrestling’s biggest company. A lot has happened in the 30-plus years since this match first took place, and now that we look back at this ‘timeless classic’…yeah, it’s still fantastic.

This match was simply…professional wrestling. I know it’s cliché to say that, what with fans chanting “this is wrestling” redundantly in almost every big match these days. And yet, there’s something about this old match from almost thirty-five years ago that gives it a sense of…timelessness. Savage and Steamboat had amazing chemistry together. The wrestling was so simple yet both wrestlers got so much out of what they did. Everything was so crisp and smooth. Every action mattered and there was no wasted movement. And the crowd was absolutely insane. They roared in excitement over the simplest of moves or counters. In other words, Savage and Steamboat mastered the art of controlling and captivating an audience and put on a clinic on how to do that.

The main theme of this match was desperation. Both men were desperate to win the coveted Intercontinental title and would do anything to win. That was best shown with the countless pinfall attempts from both guys. As John Canton noted when he reviewed this match, there were at least twenty pin attempts throughout the match, and most of them came in quick succession during the match’s second half. By that point, both men had weakened each other so badly that any of those pins was believable as a potential near-fall. Both men wanted to win so badly that they tried anything and everything to win. To both of them, the ends justified the means. They didn’t need to land a ‘finishing move’ to end the match; just getting the three count by any means necessary was more than enough. The fans understood that, which is why they went nuts for every pin attempt. That sequence was so special that it laid the groundworks for many later wrestlers to copy their formula. I’ve seen the same of quick pin exchanges in several great matches: Bryan vs. KENTA, Kobashi vs. Hansen, Bret vs. Owen, just to name a few. Those later wrestlers understood Savage and Steamboat’s winning formula and tried to improve upon it for themselves. Like Flair/Steamboat II, this match was so ahead of its time that it was just begging to be copied and emulated until the end of time.

What these two wrestlers did here was devilishly simple: they didn’t need to craft a complex tale of interwoven plot threads or rich history into one match. Instead, they told a simple story of two competitors wanting to win something prestigious. And what fan doesn’t identify with wanting to win? It’s the simplest and most basic story in wrestling. There have been many cases over the years whereby a wrestling match needed some crazy angle or over-the-top story to sell tickets. But for all the wacky hijinks that have taken place over the decades, it’s the simplest stories that have been the best-sellers. Matches built upon winners and losers and the desire to be the best have done much better than those with over-the-top theatrics and esoteric characters. That’s why this match is so great; the story’s stripped bare to tell a straightforward tale of a champion and a challenger, and the lengths to which both men will go to win.

And yet, for all that praise, there’s one small part of this match that bothered me: the finish. Steamboat scored an upset victory that came about following interference from George Steele, which itself came about because Savage wanted to use a foreign object. Whereas everything before that point was airtight and logical, that finish came across as a cheap cop-out done to justify having Steele at ringside. Even though the ring bell was an integral part of the storyline reason behind this match, Savage having to rely on it once again cheapened Steamboat’s win, in spite of the eruption of cheers from the crowd. It was the one blemish that was so out of left field compared to the logic and story told in the ring. Point blank, the match would’ve been better without Steele’s interference. Savage was already at the point of pure desperation and he was willing to risk disqualification to win. He was already in complete control of the match, so why couldn’t he control himself for another twenty or so seconds? All he had to do was land one more quick pin or lock in a simple submission and the victory was his. What purpose would the weapon serve, especially if Steele got in his way again? Maybe I’m nitpicking here, but by going in that direction is weakened the decisiveness of Steamboat’s win. He didn’t win on his own; he took advantage of shenanigans, which is a heelish thing to do. Yet Steamboat came across as the hero here. So it would’ve been more logical for the match – and therefore more cathartic for the fans – for Steamboat to overcome one last hurdle and beat Savage completely on his own and win the title without any questions or asterisks next to his victory.

Final Rating: ****3/4

This match is up there with Shibata/Ishii and Eddie/Rey as one of the greatest under-fifteen-minute matches of all time. Unlike many matches from the 1980s, this one still holds up tremendously well thanks to the incredible skill of the wrestlers involved and a white-hot crowd that loved everything they did. It’s not 100% perfect due to a slightly deflating finish, but otherwise it’s still special. Few matches from that era hold up so well.

To say this match was ahead of its time or influential would be an understatement. Many, many, many wrestlers have taken this match’s formula and applied it to their matches, hoping to achieve the same level of fame and success as these two. Few of them have succeeded. Then again, Steamboat and savage wore some pretty big boots in this match, so it stands to reason that it would be hard for anyone to fill them.

Thanks for reading.