ROAD TO WRESTLEMANIA – On Sunday April 5, 2020, Wrestlemania 36 will be held at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
Long before Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment developed the idea for professional wrestling’s annual signature event, Florida was a hotbed for those looking to make a living in the squared circle.
Over the next 12 months, ABC Action News will profile grapplers with ties to Tampa Bay who left quite an impact on the sports entertainment industry.
TAMPA, Fla. – Richard Blood developed an affinity for wrestling at an early age. By the time he reached high school he was “pretty good at it.”
In 1971, his senior year at Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport, he captured a state championship. During his tenure with the Pirates, Blood – who would later become Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat – was exposed to professional wrestling for the first time.
“One night, myself and a couple other guys from the team drove across [Tampa] Bay to the old Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa,” Steamboat recalled during a recent trip to Tampa to promote WrestleMania 36. “We sat in the front row with our Boca Ciega wrestling shirts . . . we were the real deal!”
A couple years later, his interest in pro wrestling was piqued even further when his high school sweetheart was away at vocational school. Her roommate was the daughter of Verne Gagne, a professional wrestling champion and owner/operator of the American Wrestling Association.
After listening to what Gagne had to offer, Steamboat decided to give it a try. He underwent six weeks of rigorous training with Gagne and his head trainer Khosrow Vaziri – also known as the Iron Sheik.
Tampa Bay area resident/former WWE champ Hulk Hogan defeated the Iron Sheik to win the title for the first time.
The training took place in Minnesota – home of Gagne’s organization. In 1976, Steamboat made his professional wrestling debut in the AWA using his real name, Rick Blood.
Before the end of the year, he was back in the Sunshine State, working for Eddie Graham’s promotion Championship Wrestling from Florida. That’s where he picked up the last name “Steamboat.”
“I’ll never forget it, I was sitting in Eddie’s office with Jack and Jerry Brisco. Eddie said you look a lot like [legendary wrestler] Sam Steamboat,” he said. “We’re not going to say you’re his son, we’ll make you a nephew.”
After working with CWF for about a year, he took his act north to the Carolinas where he made a name for himself working for Jim Crockett Promotions. JCP produced television matches under the Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling and World-Wide Wrestling monikers.
Steamboat cut his teeth by working with some of the best wrestlers of the era. Among them Wahoo McDaniel, Paul Jones and Ric Flair. He calls Flair one of his favorite guys to work with and the pair went head-to-head in some legendary championship matches.
In 1985, Steamboat left JCP for New York and World Wrestling Entertainment. He took part in the first three WrestleMania events. During his three-year WWE stint, Steamboat took part in a memorable feud with Randy “Macho Man” Savage before he left the company for Atlanta-based World Championship Wrestling.
Back in those days, it was common for wrestlers to “switch sides,” going from babyface (good guy) to heel (bad guy) for storyline purposes. Steamboat is perhaps the only grappler of his time who played the “face” role his entire career.
Bob Roop, a former wrestler, booking agent and promoter, says Steamboat’s in-ring work was among the best of his generation.
“Ricky was a good hand – that’s the highest compliment you can give a professional wrestler; he worked hard every night and he knew what he was doing,” Roop said. “As far as him never being a heel, nobody would have bought it. He was perhaps the nicest guy I ever worked with and that was no act.”
Steamboat retired from active ring duty in 1994, but his impact on sports entertainment continued. He worked as an instructor with Tampa native/former wrestler Steve Keirn at a WWE training center on Dale Mabry Boulevard.
Among his star pupils, several wrestlers who have a good shot at taking part in WrestleMania 36 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
“Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins and Bray Wyatt to name a few,” Steamboat said. “Passing along what I learned when I was first coming up to guys just entering the business was a highlight of my career.”
On November 8, Steamboat was honored by a group of his contemporaries at a “Legends Luncheon,” a quarterly gathering of former professional wrestling personalities with ties to Tampa Bay.