by Irvin Muchnick
In what is somewhere between a hot story and a tempest in a teapot, confusion surrounds the current WWE role of the legendary Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. Regardless of where it fits on the spectrum, I think it bears close watching. His continuing gainful employment and benefits go to the issue of how this billion-dollar publicly traded corporation handles the inevitable serious traumatic brain injuries in its operations, and generally how this monopoly carny company treats legacy talent.
Steamboat, now 61 years old, was one of the most brilliant performers of the 1980s. Since retirement, he has served WWE as a trainer, as a “legend” (a category of retirees who get a modest annual stipend and merchandise royalties, and make infrequent guest appearances), and as an “ambassador” (pulling duty at corporate public events).
On June 28, 2010, Steamboat was involved in a skit, or “angle,” on the cable show Raw that got botched. Accidentally, some inexperienced wrestlers who had just been brought up from the developmental circuit beat Steamboat to within, literally, an inch of his life. This was one of several inconvenient real-world intrusions of the McMahon family’s business during the first of Linda McMahon’s two failed $50 million campaigns to win a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut.
The Steamboat incident was perhaps surpassed in sordid impact only by the nearly contemporaneous death, by painkiller overdose, of an active 29-year-old wrestler, Lance Cade, who had been fired by WWE – though not before getting blasted over the head with a chair by fellow “sports entertainer” Shawn Michaels, more than a year after Vince and Linda McMahon told the media and Congressional investigators that this unconscionably dangerous stunt had been abandoned.
I wrote a lot about the Steamboat near-death at the time; you can find the stories in the archives. If YouTube hasn’t been forced to take them down due to, you know, violation of intellectual property, the clips of the Raw fake assault gone sour are linked at https://concussioninc.net/?p=2619.
Steamboat later was hospitalized with a brain aneurysm (blood clot, essentially), and his survival was more touch-and-go than anyone knew. Thankfully, he did recover and was released.
Now here’s the flash-forward from Dave Meltzer in the August 11 issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter:
“An update on Ricky Steamboat. Steamboat is no longer working full-time here. He wasn’t cut, in the sense he still has a legends contract (those are usually $10,000 per year), but his regular job as a brand ambassador was eliminated. I’m somewhat surprised about this one just because Steamboat had all those health problems related to injuries in the Nexus angle years back, to the point it was life-or-death for a few days and I don’t know if he ever fully recovered. I know as of a year later he was still having fairly serious problems stemming from bleeding on the brain.”
Meltzer is almost impossibly accurate on these kinds of reports. The clear takeaway was that Steamboat lost his higher-octane ambassador gigs. As we’ll see, however, you’re never safe drawing firm conclusions in the verbally fungible, hocus-pocus world of WWE.
For my money, what matters is not what Steamboat’s title is or isn’t. Rather, it’s how much responsibility WWE is taking, in terms of retirement pay and coverage of medical bills, for this particular loyal “independent contractor.” I don’t care if they call him an ambassador, a legend, or WWE lawyer Jerry McDevitt’s executive assistant for saber-rattling.
I have never met or spoken with Steamboat. But I did talk to a friend of his who I consider a very reliable source. He confirmed that WWE had kept quiet just how scary was the aftermath of the 2010 on-camera screw-up. Ricky explained to my source that he didn’t have the type of brain bleed you get when you hit your head on a steering wheel in a car accident, which is right on the surface. Steamboat’s was so deep that the hemispheres of his brain were trying to separate. He continues to have serious memory problems, both short- and long-term.
I asked WWE corporate spokesperson Gina Tarraro about Steamboat’s health and company status. And to save a step, I cc’d McDevitt. He was the one who wrote back, in his charming style: “I don’t intend to make it a point to respond to your emails, or usual ill-informed diatribes. The false rumor you report is not new and is weeks old. In fact, Ricky’s status with WWE has not changed. He is still with WWE and in good standing, and recently received media training in preparation for upcoming Ambassador opportunities.”
First, I’m thrilled that Jerry is only responding to my email. Not intending to make it a point to do so. Heaven forfend.
Second, he referenced Steamboat’s “upcoming Ambassador opportunities,” which means he’s still an ambassador – right?
Over to you, Dave Meltzer.
“There’s been a change in his job,” Dave clarified. “He’s under a legends contract per his own interviews. He’s now taking indie [small, independent wrestling promotion] dates. He does appearances for WWE as well.”
The last thread of this yarn is WWE’s characteristically heavy-handed news management. Keith Harris of the website Cageside Seats yesterday got the same idea to do a Steamboat story, and he did the one thing that drives the management of ConcussionInc.net LLP up the wall: he beat us to the punch.
I’d provide a link to Keith’s piece, except for the fact that Cageside Seats appears to have taken it down earlier today. I’m guessing that this was under pressure from WWE. Cageside relies on the company’s supply of photos and, occasionally, on access.
This is not the most astounding nugget I’ve ever unearthed. Old warhorses like Ricky Steamboat don’t complain. For one thing, they’re not complainers by nature. For another, they know they have zero leverage, absent a talent union, which has never happened in their industry and probably never will happen. And for another, they’re scared about their health and future, and they know that if they make waves, ambassadorships tend to dribble into legendships, and legendships melt into becoming first in line for budget cuts, as WWE’s catastrophically ill-conceived streaming network continues to bleed revenue like an MBA’s worst aneurysm.
But that doesn’t mean that surrogates shouldn’t be raising hell on Steamboat’s behalf. He entertained fans for decades. Watching his back just a little bit in corporate politics is a hell of a lot more effective than pouring cash into the bogus sidewalk charity Wrestler’s Rescue.
If Keith Harris, in the course of enduring the wrath of WWE flacks, also assured that the company would slip an extra $10,000 here and there to Steamboat to help get him through his sunset years, then Keith should take a bow.