The Iron Man Match is a difficult gimmick to get right. Unlike the standard singles contest, in which a lot of the tension and engagement is created by not knowing when a decisive pinfall or submission will occur, the Iron Man Match and its clearly defined endpoint could easily leave fans feeling flat. Whether thirty minutes, an hour, or longer, the gimmick runs the risk of the audience only really buying into the final few minutes. The narrative that needs to be weaved throughout the contest has to be enough to carry the crowd from the opening bell to the closing seconds – something that is easier said than done.
1992 WCW is often a much-lauded time period and promotion, yet the War Games match between the Dangerous Alliance and Sting’s Squadron at WrestleWar in May served as a creative peak; the second half of the year, largely a Bill Watts-led decline. However, there was still enough juice in the feud post-The Match Beyond to carry them through to the next PPV, Beach Blast. In the semi-main event, Dustin Rhodes, Barry Windham and Nikita Koloff defeated Arn Anderson, Bobby Eaton and Steve Austin by disqualification, but it was a match earlier in the evening that stole many of the headlines as Rick Rude met Ricky Steamboat in a 30 Minute Iron Man Match.
The initial flames of the feud between the two teams was fanned by Rude’s issues with Sting himself, but what made it such an engaging storyline was how this animosity wasn’t limited to the signature players alone. This was most effectively highlighted when Ricky Steamboat decided to handle Madusa’s ongoing involvement in his own way, grabbing her for a spanking in the middle of the ring. Looking to defend ‘his girl’, Rude and the Alliance branded Steamboat both a ‘woman beater’ and a ‘pervert’; Steamboat’s actions were enough to earn him a (kayfabe) broken nose from a beatdown as well as maintain the need for a definitive end beyond the War Games.
From a working perspective, the two men weren’t strangers to each other having clashed in WWF (including a Steamboat victory via disqualification at the first Royal Rumble). By the time the two were clashing in 1992 WCW, things felt very different. Though it was often the WWF who were championed for their ability to fine-tune a wrestler’s gimmick and look for the better, Rude and Steamboat were rare examples that saw elevation moving away from the Federation. For Steamboat, it was primarily a move away from the cartoonish caricature he had become and a return to the straight-laced worker who was one of the best in the world. As for Rude, he was aesthetically the best version of himself by this point: getting rid of the poodle perm for a shortcut turned him from a guy who might put a move on your woman to one who would definitely succeed when doing it.
Sometimes, the gimmicks (or lack thereof) that wrestlers have make the narrative an open goal for the booker. Outside of laying his hands on Madusa, Steamboat had always been presented as the ultimate family man, a man who was soft-spoken and did most of his talking in the ring. Contrastingly, Rude was an arrogant braggart who was always looking to give women a Rude Awakening if he got the chance. Still, this natural opposition does not a good match make, nor necessarily an automatically engaging one.
The two had met earlier in the year at Superbrawl II, a match in which Paul E. Dangerously interfered whilst dressed as a ninja to help Rude pick up the victory. At least these types of shenanigans were made less likely by the fact that managers and valets were banned from ringside, allowing all of the focus to be on the in-ring action. Still, this didn’t stop WCW and Steamboat from really emphasizing the ‘family man’ presentation as he headed down to the ring with both his wife and his son by his side.
Indeed, it was Rude’s initial proximity to Steamboat’s son that saw things kickstart into high gear; Ricky landing the first blow with a straight right hand to the face that sparked almost eight minutes of control for the face. Targeting Rude’s rib and back area saw Steamboat use a bear hug, a bow and arrow, and a Boston crab, though he also didn’t hold back in getting slightly down and dirty with some knee strikes as well. A suplex into a faceplant saw the first nearfall for Steamboat, a pinfall that would have been seen as ample reward for the dominance of the opening third of the match. However, things quickly took a turn for the worse.
With a number of decisions needed across a window of thirty minutes, creative ways to end falls are key to the success of any Iron Man match. After an Irish whip into the corner to once again work Rude’s back, a charging Steamboat was met with a sudden knee to the face. A pin with a handful of tights saw Rude, against the run of play, take a one nil lead. Rather than feel weak or cheap, it felt legitimate; Steamboat had taken one risk too many in trying to press his advantage, ate a knee to the face and that stunned him long enough for Rude to get the three.
There is a formulaic feeling sometimes when it comes to an Iron Man match, one somewhat in keeping with the booking of the War Games. Just like the heel team always winning the coin toss to get the numbers advantage, the obvious narrative of the Iron Man match is for the heel to go ahead and for the babyface to fight from underneath – anything to stack the deck against the good guy and get the fans engaged, cheering for their hero. Again, because something is obvious doesn’t make it good, and Rude and Steamboat still had a long way to go.
In the next few minutes, the booking of the match worked perfectly to highlight how dangerous Rude was as an opponent, how intelligent and calculating his actions could be. Taking advantage of his opportunistic first pinfall, Rude quickly utilized a Rude Awakening to establish a two-fall lead, before seeking to really establish his dominance and put Steamboat out of sight. With the arrival of Bill Watts came the much-loathed ‘top rope moves are banned’ rule, a badly misguided decision in 1992, yet perfect as a heel weapon in this contest. A top rope kneedrop crushed Steamboat, giving him a DQ and a point on the board at least, yet leaving him out for the subsequent Rude small package. Rude was not only still two falls ahead, but had also severely compromised his opponent in the process.
One of the biggest complaints made about Rude as a heel worker was that he was never as good when on the attack compared to his almost unparalleled skills in bumping for his opponent. Though there is some merit to this – Rude did love a modified chinlock or three – this was a perfect example of where a move of that kind only served to add to the narrative. Rather than feel like a breather, a slog, a waste of time, Rude’s chinlock on Steamboat was taking seconds and minutes off of the clock. With two falls needed for a tie and three for a win, time was slipping away for Steamboat.
In keeping with the first decision of the contest, Steamboat’s route back into the match came from Rude overextending himself, overcomplicating things when he was in control. A piledriver had not been enough for a three fall lead, so Rude upped the ante again with an attempted tombstone piledriver. Big mistake. A reversal not only gave Steamboat his first pin in around ten minutes, it suddenly had Rude more than a little worse for wear.
As the twenty-minute mark rolled around, both men were down on the mat after a double clothesline Rude would roll onto Steamboat in an attempted pinfall, only for Steamboat to bridge out and turn the pin into a backslide for a third fall. The match was now tied and on a knife-edge. Rude had already shown he was capable of an opportunistic pin or to bend the rules to his own will, yet Steamboat had scored two pins showcasing his superior technical abilities.
Which would win out come the final bell?
Both had chances to put the match to bed in the final ten minutes, including Steamboat almost grabbing a three count with a Rude Awakening of his own. With four minutes left, Rude would lock in a sleeper hold and somehow managed to stay on as Steamboat rammed him into multiple turnbuckles. Just as it looked like the Dragon was fading and the ring announcer told the crowd one minute was remaining in the contest, Steamboat would use the turnbuckle to send Rude backwards, hook the leg and take the lead with only half a minute to go.
Rude was almost apoplectic with rage and the last thirty seconds saw him attempt several pinfalls on a barely conscious Steamboat. Each time, however, Steamboat was able to kick his way out before the three count. One last pinfall attempt off of a slam was not enough for Rude, and as the seconds ran down, Steamboat was declared the winner by four falls to three. Against all of the odds, Steamboat had managed to turn around the contest and defeat Rude from what seemed like an irreversible position.
For my mind, very few matches have as engaging work and as interesting a narrative as this one does. Like any great story, there are peaks, troughs, moments of tension and an effective protagonist and antagonist holding it all together. Oh yeah, and the good guy wins in the end – can’t forget that.
Carve out thirty minutes of your time thirty years after the fact and enjoy the epic that is Rick Rude versus Ricky Steamboat from Beach Blast 1992; you will not be disappointed!