As Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat chopped each other's chests and flung each other around the ring at WWE WrestleMania III, they couldn't have known how loudly and long their effort would echo.
What began as an Intercontinental Championship match—a tale of a hero conquering a villain between the ropes—became the inspiration for future generations of wrestlers. The bout transformed what a WrestleMania midcard match could be, bolstered the legacy of the IC title and remains a benchmark for in-ring dramas.
On March 29, 1987, Savage and Steamboat composed a classic that resonates even today, some 30 years after the Pontiac Silverdome hosted the third edition of The Showcase of the Immortals.
"Everywhere I go, every appearance that I do, that match is always brought up," Steamboat told Bleacher Report. "I have a lot of eight-, nine- or 10-year-olds coming up to me at appearances saying, 'We just watched you last night, what a match you and Randy Savage had.'"
What a match indeed.
From its first intense lockup to the inside cradle that crowned Steamboat champion, the two Hall of Famers flourished. They pulled off a stirring story of revenge and resilience, of two evenly matched warriors leaving their guts on the canvas.
Former WWE Superstar Zach Gowen was a kid when he watched it, and it most certainly left an impression. "The match blew my mind," he said.
Mike Johnson, veteran wrestling journalist of PWInsider.com, said of the match, "Sure, there were spectacles on the WrestleMania stage before it, and there were big matches, but nothing like that match for the Intercontinental Championship."
Deonna Purrazzo, who has competed for WWE, Ring of Honor and Impact Wrestling, noted that it's a clash she never tires of watching:
This is the kind of praise Savage vs. Steamboat has received for three decades.
The wrestlers crafted something special that night. Champion and challenger broke ground with their masterpiece, the foundation for which began four months prior.
The Buildup and the Bout
The calculating Savage attacked Steamboat after their IC title match on WWF Superstars in November 1986. He leaped from the top turnbuckle with the ring bell in hand. Steamboat flailed around on the mat like a cod in a fisherman's boat. His hands clutched his neck.
The Dragon had suffered a storyline injury to his throat.
Until WrestleMania, he rested, recovered and stewed. In the Silverdome, it was time for him to pay The Macho Man back. The two men clashed over Savage's IC title with Miss Elizabeth in the champ's corner and the unhinged simpleton George "The Animal" Steele backing up Steamboat.
As much as retribution was key to the narrative, Steamboat said that he and Savage wanted to zero in on the gold.
"We both agreed to make this a championship match and focus on the belt. That was the story going forward, not so much me getting revenge and attacking his throat."
Savage demanded that Steamboat rehearse the match ad nauseam, the perfectionist wanting to get every moment right. That dedication, the two wrestlers' skill and excellent chemistry led to a work of art.
Steamboat caught Savage and lifted him off the floor, producing a lasting image in the process.
The bout often kept a high-octane pace. Each man was always in motion. Early on, Savage retreated and circled his foe. As the match unfolded, The Macho Man played the crafty but cruel technician picking Steamboat apart.
The Dragon withstood the punishment and several times over seemed assured of victory. At one point, he nailed Savage with a flying chop, but the champ put his foot on the bottom rope just before the referee could count to three.
This kind of close call was commonplace by design.
The wrestlers chose to fill the match with near-falls. "We went less than 17 minutes, and we had 21 false finishes. False finishes taking people on an up-and-down ride," Steamboat said.
That amount of narrow escapes has become more prevalent in contests today. The Macho Man and Steamboat kick-started that trend.
"I've had this told to me a hundred times—the match was way ahead of its time," Steamboat said.
A Stolen Show
Andre the Giant vs. Hulk Hogan was WrestleMania's marquee match, a collision of behemoths that sold the event.
WWE billed Andre as undefeated. The Hulkster had been world champ since 1984. This was a meeting of forces of nature that would be the company's biggest bout to date.
Steamboat and Savage, though, were not content with letting the powerhouses get all the spotlight. They went into their contest with their eyes on snatching the audience's attention.
"We didn't know it was going to happen. All we wanted to do was to put together a match that would steal the moment and steal the show," Steamboat said. "We knew the numbers were going to be huge. With that many eyeballs on us, we wanted to go out there and make a statement."
A purported 93,173 fans filled the then-home of the Detroit Lions, and Savage and The Dragon did everything in their power to be what each of those people left talking about.
As massive as Hogan vs. Andre was and how iconic their pre-match staredown has become, it couldn't compete with the IC title clash. As Johnson put it, "Even that moment had to follow Savage and Steamboat."
Praise flooded in from everywhere.
Gene Okerlund, who interviewed Steamboat onscreen before the contest, raved about it years later. "I've seen a lot of great matches after being in the business 46 years, but I think this is the very best. I label it as one for the ages, and I don't think in my lifetime, or probably a few more lifetimes, we are going to see anything like it." Okerlund told Brian Campbell for ESPN.com.
At home, a young Gowen rented WrestleMania on VHS. He managed to avoid spoilers before popping the tape into his VCR.
"I went into WrestleMania III completely cold. I was sold on Hulk vs. Andre, but it was this match that captured my imagination," Gowen said.
He was far from alone. It's clear that other wrestlers witnessed Savage and Steamboat's thievery that night and took note.
When Steamboat marched out of Michigan with the IC crown in his grasp, Chris Jericho was one of the spectators left inspired by the moment.
Jericho, who would go on to become intercontinental champion a record nine times, wrote in his autobiography Undisputed, "Ever since I first saw Ricky 'The Dragon' Steamboat holding that title when I was in high school, it was my biggest goal to one day be the champion just like him."
Savage vs. Steamboat was more than the standard babyface-reaches-the-mountaintop tale, though. The path to The Dragon's victory is what made it so special.
The WrestleMania III match showed off what is possible with top-notch performers acting is if they are the main attractions, regardless of where they actually sat on the card.
Gowen counts himself among those influenced by what he saw that night.
"I didn't know that a pro wrestling match could be painted with such color and depth," he said. "That match truly added a new dimension for what pro wrestling can be for me."
Johnson, who has been covering pro wrestling for PWInsider.com for 13 years, believes Savage vs. Steamboat changed the game for many performers.
"Just about every wrestler that grew up watching that show—and they are many from the Attitude Era that did—they grew up with the ideal that the stage at WrestleMania was where you stole the show because that's what they saw Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat do in the Pontiac Silverdome," Johnson said.
"When you saw guys killing themselves in TLC matches or trying to pull out an incredible workrate match with great back-and-forth near-falls, all of that comes from that moment in 1987."
WrestleMania wasn't about great matches before Savage vs. Steamboat; it was about big stars and big moments.
The Show of Shows has since seen a number of bouts draw from The Macho Man and The Dragon's playbook—Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon in a ladder match at WrestleMania X, Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13, The Hardy Boyz vs. The Dudley Boyz vs. Edge and Christian at WrestleMania X-Seven, Jericho vs. Michaels at WrestleMania XIX.
Steamboat remarked that independent wrestlers or WWE Superstars often approach him to say how much that 1987 match meant to them. He's often reminded of its impact but remains humble about it.
"It's funny how that match just sort of stuck out and continues to stick out by today's standards. We don't have a lot of high-risk moves. These guys today have taken everything to a different level," Steamboat said.
To him, however, it wasn't about moves; it was about theater. "What was so entertaining was the story that was being told," he noted.
That story sung.
It clearly spoke to Jericho who sought to recreate its climax over 20 years afterward. Y2J got a chance to take on one of his childhood icons in a brief feud with Steamboat in 2009. The two men called back to that famous WrestleMania III match.
"I wanted to pick Steamboat up for a body slam and have him roll me up for the pin, the exact finish of his famous WrestleMania 3 match vs. Randy Savage," Jericho wrote in The Best in the World: At What I Have No Idea.
It's hard to blame him. Savage vs. Steamboat was a magical ride. It's one that stuck with us, fans and wrestlers alike.
"When you have a match that can still stand the test of time, that speaks volumes. Like in the music industry, sometimes there are classics that go on and on forever," former WCW world titleholder Jeff Jarrett said of the WrestleMania III tussle on Busted Open Radio (h/t WrestlingAudio.com).
Reflecting on the influential, acclaimed contest is bittersweet for Steamboat as he does so without his dance partner from that night. Savage suffered a fatal heart attack in 2011.
"I wish he was still with us here today so that we could share the accolades that I am getting 30 years later," Steamboat said. "Sitting side by side and sharing all these moments with these fans."
Ricky Steamboat is a WWE Hall of Famer and former NWA world champion. Mike Johnson is a pro wrestling journalist with PWInsider.com. Zach Gowen is a former WWE Superstar who is now a motivational speaker, independent wrestler and one-half of the team The Handicapped Heroes.
Ryan Dilbert is the Lead WWE Writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes from Steamboat, Gowen and Johnson acquired firsthand.