Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat teaching aspiring wrestlers how to tell the right story

WWE Hall of Famer Ricky Steamboat, center, gives pointers to independent wrestler Cam Zagami, right, as referee Kevin Quinn looks on. Brian Campbell

Standing in the center of a ring, housed within the narrow walls of a nondescript Police Athletic League gym just wide enough to hold it, quite possibly the greatest pure babyface in pro wrestling history distilled wisdom to an attentive crowd.

It has been nearly 23 years since a back injury sent WWE Hall of Famer Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat into retirement and more than six years since a health scare forced him to give up taking bumps for good. However, Steamboat, a month shy of 64, hasn't lost his youthful zest for the business, let alone his fit and muscular frame.

With more than 40 years of experience in the only profession Steamboat has known, teaching remains the lifeblood of his enthusiasm. In late January, Steamboat was the special guest at a seminar put on by independent Northeast Wrestling (NEW) promotion in Waterbury, Connecticut.

Steamboat spoke for five hours to a crowd of more than 30 aspiring pro wrestlers, giving pointers and advice to performers ranging in experience from those who have yet to make their debut, to established independent names, including Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling veterans Ricochet, Matt Taven and Vinny Marseglia.

"It's a way of giving back, and it's one of the only means to help pass the torch," Steamboat told ESPN.com. "There's just something about guys who come wanting to learn."

Since 2005, Steamboat has worked in various roles for WWE, including road agent and NXT trainer. These days, he makes occasional appearances for the company as an ambassador, which allows him the ability to freelance on the independent scene, where he gives seminars and often appears as a guest referee.

Steamboat's connection with the indie circuit predates his post-retirement WWE run, when he made a series of memorable guest appearances during the fledgling days of both Total Nonstop Wrestling and Ring of Honor, working with the likes of CM Punk and Mick Foley.

But despite Steamboat being most well-known during his 1980s heyday for his aerial moves, martial arts strikes and deep arm drags, the concepts of technique and athleticism no longer make up the basis of his message. Steamboat, whose real name is Richard Blood, is much more focused on returning to the basics.

"A lot of the young guys today can do a bunch of fantastic stuff, but I find that they are not connecting the dots," Steamboat said. "It's not much of storytelling. They are out there just doing stuff to fill in the blanks, just doing stuff to do stuff. I would like them to be able to tell a story so the fans could actually follow the match along."

Steamboat's teaching relies heavily on the foundations of what made him successful: psychology, selling and telling a cohesive story by focusing on one body part. A stickler for tiny details, he calls them "Ricky's Rules." He also spoke at length about properly managing a heel's heat in the midst of a babyface's comeback and not overselling to smaller opponents.

"We have an expression that nowadays a lot of the guys are just working for the pop, and that's crowd reaction," Steamboat said. "[In some ways] we are, but I'd like for the fans to be able to react, and you would get your pop, but it's because of the part of storytelling that you are telling in your match, instead of just getting a pop because you did some kind of fantastic move."

Trained in Minnesota by Verne Gagne and The Iron Shiek in 1975, Steamboat says the biggest difference between the business today and when he first debuted with the AWA in 1976 is the number of opportunities to work under the old territory system.

"In my first couple of years, I had the honor most of the time to be in with 15- and 20-year ring veterans," Steamboat said. "It was like on-the-job training, schooling me on telling a story in your match. When those kids out there get in the ring today, they are looking across the ring at someone with six months or one year experience."

Steamboat estimates that he averaged between 200 and 250 matches per year during his first few years as a professional, compared to "one show a week or every other weekend" that many young wrestlers get today. It was during those early matches that veterans constantly whispered in his ear, giving him an education on timing and how to work a crowd while not being afraid to crank up a hold in order to get his attention and correct a mistake as it's happening.

"The WWE has a great school in Orlando and most of the trainers are of my upbringing," Steamboat said. "I know they are trying to teach [storytelling] and bring that across. But you can be in a class with 70-something guys and girls and train all day long and even have matches in class, but it's not quite the same as when you are doing a live event every night."

While Steamboat was known as one of the most breathtaking high-fliers during his prime, he says today's product focuses too much on big spots packaged right after one another. To that end, he pointed to last year's WrestleMania 32 match between The Undertaker and Shane McMahon as one that featured perfect pace and deliberate action, allowing the big spots, including McMahon's leap from atop the Hell in a Cell cage, to speak for themselves.

"How long did they let that moment breathe?" Steamboat said. "What that means is you've got to let the fans realize what they just saw. And they may play it back and re-enact it in their minds a half a dozen times. 'Oh, I can't believe it! Did you see how far he fell?' Big moments, you've got to let it soak in. It actually adds to the drama so you don't throw away the move and the moment."

Asked whether he would be tempted to chase the big pop had he come up in today's age of daredevil moves that wow audiences, Steamboat says it's a loaded question.

"For every 100 times you can nail a big move, it's that 101st time where you over-rotate and it can end your career," he said.

Long after his retirement, Steamboat's flirtation with staying active and helping young wrestlers came to an abrupt end in 2010. One year after a brief renaissance, when he wowed nostalgic fans at 57 by keeping up with Chris Jericho during a feud that included a match at WrestleMania XXV, Steamboat worked an angle on Raw when he was attacked by members of Nexus.

The impact of taking bumps added up negatively, and Steamboat was hospitalized two days later with a brain aneurysm, officially ending not only his in-ring career but also his time as a hands-on trainer.

"It was a pretty good wake-up call," Steamboat said, conceding that the scare hurt him much more on an emotional level. Despite having been retired from full-time wrestling since 1994, Steamboat says staying active in the ring until his mid-50s eased the transition that every retired athlete must go through.

"To me, the match time was fun. That was my time in the ring," he said. "Nobody could take that away in what I could do and being able to tell a story. That was a major portion of my heart that went away when I was not able to do that. It's hard. I don't think I'll ever [fill the void.]

"I just had to come to grips with myself and realize I can long longer be the guy that I was. I still get down on myself a little bit because my heart says, 'Hey, remember all the fun you had? Go in there and do it.' And then the brain speaks up saying, 'Hey, be smart about it.' You've got the devil on one side and you've got the man, God, sitting on the other one. I'll never get over it, but I've just come to a better understanding of it now."

Steamboat remained committed to fitness after the health scare, hitting the gym five days a week. By severely limiting carbohydrates from his diet, he dropped 15 pounds from the 225 he wrestled at against Jericho and appears visually to be in better shape.

Steamboat, who retired to the St. Petersburg, Florida, area where he grew up, says he still benefits from "the occasional rub" of fans recognizing him at stores and gas stations. He takes joy in surprising them by carrying a stack of 8-by-10 pictures of himself in his truck that he autographs and gives out on a daily basis.

"Without our fans, we wouldn't have anything," Steamboat said. "I owe everything I have to the ones that paid money. It trickles down to them paying my salary, so I'm always thankful."

Steamboat says he is always asked about the same two matches from his legendary career when approached by fans: His WWE Intercontinental championship victory over Randy Savage at WrestleMania III in 1987, and his memorable title trilogy against Rick Flair with WCW in 1989.

"The Flair trilogy is a very close second, unless I'm going to the Carolinas, in which Flair and I campaigned there for a long time," he said.

Steamboat's classic match with Savage, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in April, is an example of what he calls "a championship match" because of how aggressively both the babyface and heel tried to win at all costs, constantly going for finishes. It's the same advice he gave backstage recently to two wrestlers in the main event at an independent show.

"They wanted some pointers, and I said the best thing I could tell them is it's a championship match -- we were taking [the belt] off the good guy and putting it on the bad guy -- so make it a championship match," Steamboat said.

After the show, the two wrestlers approached Steamboat for his opinion and were disappointed to find out he felt they had missed the mark, referencing a key spot in which the heel connected with a powerful move only to strut around the ring and showboat before going for the pin.

"I told him everyone in the place knew the babyface was going to kick out," Steamboat said. "He said that he was a heel and he needs to showboat, but I told him he put it in at the wrong place. By not waiting to showboat until after the kickout, he wasted the move and lost the moment. He should have covered that babyface like he was trying to win at any cost."

An audible change in Steamboat's voice took place when recalling the moment in which he could see in the heel's eyes that he was getting it. These moments of teaching success are what motivate him to continue passing on everything he feels blessed to have learned.

"After doing it so many times, you know what works," Steamboat said. "You know when to fit [moves] in and when not to. But these boys, they don't have that luxury. I went to school that way. Watching the guys apply [what they learned] is one of the main reasons I do what it is that I do."