CM Punk and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat: An Oral History

From a rivalry borne out of the hubris of youth to the respect of two veterans of the mat wars, the story between CM Punk and Ricky Steamboat in Ring of Honor is a classic one of redemption and how respect is earned.

The power of nostalgia cannot be doubted in our culture, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than in the world of professional wrestling.

The inclusion of pro wrestling legend Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat in this past Saturday’s match on AEW Collision between CM Punk and Ricky Starks is another example of this. A significant chunk of Punk’s AEW run—from his feud with MJF, to his match with Samoa Joe, and now to this latest chapter in his feud with Starks—is littered with callbacks to his time in Ring of Honor.

In a way, the story between Punk and Steamboat started before The Dragon’s arrival in Ring of Honor. At the ROH Second Anniversary Show, in February of 2004. CM Punk was in the tournament to crown the first-ever ROH Pure Wrestling Champion. Punk faced AJ Styles in the finals, and as a result of a controversial application of the rope break rules—as their match was the first ever to be contested under Pure Rules—Punk had reason to think that he was screwed out of the title.

The two men would have a rematch a month later at “At Our Best,” and to ensure that there would be a clear, decisive winner, none other than Ricky Steamboat was named the referee for the evening. We’ll leave aside for a moment the choice of having someone with little experience with the unique rules of the Pure Division (regardless of their legendary status) being a referee for such an important rematch, but the allure of Steamboat in Ring of Honor was enough. He was always a natural fit for the promotion’s style and emphasis on pure wrestling, so the crowd was thrilled to see him.

During the course of the match, Punk captured Styles in a sleeper, and it very much appeared that Styles’ hand dropped three times, which would have made Punk the winner and new Pure Champion. However, Steamboat ruled that was not the case, and Styles would go on to retain the title. Punk took out his frustrations after the match on Steamboat, who retaliated with a series of chops and his trademark arm drags to send Punk scurrying.

At ROH’s next show about another month later—yes, ROH shows used to be nearly a month apart before TV—Punk faced Bryan Danielson one-on-one, and Steamboat was back again to fulfill contractual obligations and referee the match. Punk was of course, unhappy about this development, and after coming up short against Danielson, he and Second City Saints partner Colt Cabana took their frustrations out on Steamboat until the Briscoes made the save.

They would meet again at “Round Robin Challenge III,” in May of 2004. This style of show had happened twice before, with singles competitors where each would face the other two in the course of the same night. This time, it would be three tag teams—the Second City Saints, of Punk and Cabana, The Prophecy of BJ Whitmer and Dan Maff, and The Briscoe Brothers. The Saints entered as the champions and any match where the champs were involved would be a title match. The titles changed hands two times that night, but the Saints walked out as champions at night’s end, losing to Maff and Whitmer, who lost to the Briscoes, who lost again to Punk and Cabana. For those keeping score, the Round Robin Challenged finished with all three teams going 1-1. Steamboat’s involvement came in the first match of the night, as he prevented the Saints from taking a walk-out count-out loss to The Prophecy, and after losing the titles the Saints again attacked Steamboat, putting him through a table. At the end of the night, as the Saints celebrated winning their titles back from The Briscoes, Steamboat returned for retribution against Punk and Cabana.

At “Generation Next” a week later, Punk and Steamboat had a “verbal confrontation,” which again led to Punk leaving Steamboat laying. According to some versions of the story, the payoff was eventually going to be a Punk/Steamboat match in ROH, but Ric Flair of all people convinced Steamboat that working a small independent promotion like ROH would tarnish his legacy. Any editorializing there can be left as an exercise to the reader.

The Final Confrontation—literally called as such—came at “Reborn: Completion” in July of 2004. By this point, Punk and Samoa Joe had already embarked on the first match in their legendary trilogy, and Punk was on the verge of a face turn. This final confrontation cemented it. The two men brawled for a few minutes, with Punk hitting a piledriver and teasing the Randy Savage ring bell attack, before Steamboat fought back, eventually downing Punk and standing over him with the ring bell. Steamboat went on to tell Punk that he recognized his talent, but that if Punk keeps up the attitude, Steamboat will keep kicking his ass. Steamboat offered the truce, but before anything could happen, Generation Next (the new faction consisting of Alex Shelley, Roderick Strong, Austin Aries, and Jack Evans) hit the ring for the attack. Punk teased an alliance with Gen. Next, but would throw in to help Steamboat fight off the upstarts.

A newly babyface Punk wouldn’t cross paths with Steamboat again until October at “Midnight Express Reunion.” He continued his feud with Samoa Joe, while Steamboat feuded with Generation Next. But they intertwined again this night, as Punk teamed with Ace Steel, John Walters, and Jimmy Jacobs to take on Generation Next in an 8-man elimination match. Punk was eliminated by disqualification after taking a chair away from Gen. Next and taking out three of them with it. Steamboat took umbrage with Punk’s lack of discipline, and they jawed about it, but nothing further.

The last time Steamboat and Punk would cross paths in ROH would be Steamboat’s second to last appearance in the company. At “All-Star Extravaganza II,” in December of 2004, Steamboat asked to sit ringside for the final contest in the legendary trilogy between CM Punk and Samoa Joe. Steamboat would also play a role in what could have been the finish to the match, as Punk’s arm dropped three times in Joe’s Choke (now known as the Coquina Clutch), but he started to recover and bring it back up as referee Todd Sinclair went to ring the bell. Steamboat stopped the timekeeper from ringing the bell and got Sinclair’s attention on the reviving Punk, and the match would continue. Joe would go on to win the match anyway, but Steamboat’s intervention saved Punk from a premature defeat.

A few weeks after this, Steamboat would show up at “Final Battle 2004,” to put to rest his war of words with Mick Foley over the value of pure wrestling versus hardcore wrestling. It was Steamboat’s last appearance in Ring of Honor. Six months later, Punk would finally capture the ROH World Title at “Death Before Dishonor III,” kicking off the Summer of Punk. Steamboat would return to WWE as a producer on a Legends contract and even see a brief in-ring return in a feud with Chris Jericho in 2009. He would also go on to participate in a ten man tag on Monday Night Raw against Jericho, Edge, Kane, Matt Hardy and The Big Show, teaming with Jeff Hardy, John Cena, Rey Mysterio and, yes, CM Punk.

From a rivalry borne out of the hubris of youth to the respect of two veterans of the mat wars, the story between CM Punk and Ricky Steamboat in Ring of Honor is a classic one of redemption and how respect is earned. It continued on Collision, as once again, Steamboat stood for all that was right and just in the sport of professional wrestling, and once again, he caught a beatdown from a flashy young performer with world titles in his future. And once again, he was saved by CM Punk.

Everything old is new again. Time is a flat circle. History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends. However you want to say it–that last one is Mark Twain, by the way–it rings true.

Especially in the world of pro wrestling.