Welcome to part six of our History of the WWF Intercontinental Title. In part five, we looked at the title’s history up to the end of 1986. Today, we pick up with Macho Man Randy Savage still as champion but what would lie ahead in 1987 for him.
At the tail end of 1986, during an edition of Superstars, Ricky Steamboat had a title shot against Macho Man Randy Savage. Savage would retain by countout but post-match he continued to assault his opponent and, in storyline, injured his opponent’s larynx with the ringbell.
During a bout on the episode of of Saturday Night’s Main Event that aired on January, 3, 1987, during a match with George ‘The Animal’ Steele, Savage attempted to injure his neck in the same way Steamboat’s had been. This prompted his foe to return, save Steele and commence a battle that would lead to that year’s WrestleMania, at the Pontiac Silverdome.
After his return, Steamboat would challenge Savage across the country for his title with the pair trading wins, predominantly by DQ or countout, with the title remaining around the waist of the champion. Often Steamboat would stand in for Andre the Giant – who would give him his title shot – but nearly always the pair’s matches would close the shows on the b-show loop.
You would imagine that after months of competing against each other on the house show circuit, it’s fair to assume that when they met on PPV it would work very well. Even the biggest fans of their matches would, at WrestleMania III, be blown away by the encounter.
As Ricky Steamboat would remark later: “The one moment above all that fans bring up from my career when they run into me is the Savage match. Here it is, 30 years later, and everywhere I go that’s what people want to talk about.”
And no wonder.
During the 14 minute and 35 second match, the pair would share 22 two-counts. At one point, Savage was about to use the ring bell as a weapon but was stopped by Steele who knocked him off of the top rope. When Savage then attempted to give Steamboat a scoop slam, Steamboat reversed it into a small package to get the win and become the new WWF Intercontinental Heavyweight Champion. It was the first time, in fact, that the title would change hands at WrestleMania. And what a match to mark such an occasion.
Jesse Ventura, who was co-commentator on the night, would say: “For me, it was the greatest match I ever saw. Ever. First of all, it was in the biggest venue in history, the Silverdome, where we broke the Rolling Stones’ record with 93,000 people. Of course, it was Hogan and Andre, which was the big draw. But the “Macho Man”-Steamboat match was the greatest match that I’ve ever witnessed in my life.”
The hugely influential match was considered an instant classic by both fans and critics and was named 1987’s Match of the Year by both Pro Wrestling Illustrated and the Wrestling Observer. To this day, it is still regarded as one of the best matches in the history of WrestleMania.
It has also become famous for the amount of effort both men, but particularly Randy Savage, put into scripting the bout. Lanny Poffo, Savage’s brother and best known to WWE fans for portraying ‘The Genius’ would later say: “Randy was unheard of [in scripting matches]. Randy was the most effort ever put in by one man. Ever.”
Steamboat would add: “Back in the day, more often times than not, you would get the finish of the match and the rest you would call in the ring, but we wanted to make this one special. We were both on the same page: To make it a championship match, it’s the number of times you are trying to beat a guy and the number of times that he is trying to save his championship. That’s the picture we wanted to paint where the fans think we are going to be calling a fall and then we sucker them.”
Of course, it wasn’t just Steamboat and Savage who needed to know the 22-fall match inside out. Dave Hebner, the match’s referee, also had to be on top of things. “Nobody had ever done this. I had to know everything that was going on, which is an awful lot of finishes for me to remember. I couldn’t sleep the night before knowing that tomorrow I was going to have the biggest match in the world.”
And it was.
After ending Savage’s 14-month reign as the champion, many assumed that Steamboat would go on to have a lengthy spell with the title. In the end, though, it wasn’t to be.
Several weeks after WrestleMania, with his wife expecting their first child, Steamboat requested time off from Vince McMahon. Vince, who is notorious for his lack of downtime, was furious and the decision was made to have someone beat Steamboat for the title. After ending a 14-month reign, Steamboat’s time with the gold lasted just 65 days.
“The reason I left was that my son was born in 1987, and I asked for time off,” said Steamboat. “Here I am, the Intercontinental champion, and back then, whenever you had that championship, the company was looking at you pretty hard and grooming you to be the next [heavyweight] champion. That’s how much that belt meant. But it was short-lived, because I wanted to be there when my son was born.”
Although Savage and Steamboat would continue to battle it out on the house show circuit after WrestleMania, Vince McMahon’s plans for Savage were greater and a new challenger was required to do the deeds. There are contradictory reports as to how the WWE came to decide on who was to face Steamboat for the gold and that’s where we’ll pick this up in the next instalment.
You can read all previous ‘History of the WWF Intercontinental Title’ pieces here.