The number one way to make money in pro wrestling is with a great feud. Nothing draws bigger at the box office than an exciting rivalry pitting good vs. evil. Some rivalries are based on hatred, some are based on championships, and some are based on nothing more than a motivation to be the best. Today I spotlight one of professional wrestling’s greatest feuds.
“Nature Boy” Ric Flair vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat
The 1980s featured some of the greatest feuds in professional wrestling history. Bob Backlund vs. Sgt. Slaughter, Hulk Hogan vs. Roddy Piper, Dusty Rhodes vs. the Four Horsemen, the Rock N’ Roll Express vs. The Midnight Express, yet one has transcended the test of time. Chances are if you are a wrestling fan of the last thirty years, you have seen Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat tangle inside of a squared circle.
One of the most amazing things about Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat’s feud is that it spanned three decades. Flair and Steamboat headlined shows in the Carolinas throughout the late 1970s. Flair and Ricky Steamboat headlined pay-per-views in 1989. Flair and Steamboat wrestled a series of matches underneath some forgotten shows in 1994. Out of thirty years of matches, one stands out as coup de grace of the series. Flair vs. Steamboat from 1989 may be the greatest series of matches in pro wrestling history.
1988 was supposed to be the beginning of the end for two of pro wrestling’s legends. Ric Flair was barely holding on to his title through the political maneuverings of WCW’s booking committee. Ricky Steamboat one year removed from having arguably the greatest match in WrestleMania history was jobless. One could say that the only people that had confidence in either man were each other.
This wasn’t a feud that spawned from an explosive angle like breaking a coconut over the head, breaking a limb, or turning on your best friend. This was a feud built on one simple story…competition. Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat were both excellent wrestlers in the prime of their careers. Yet the question of who was better would catapult these two gladiators in pro wrestling history.
It all started on a Saturday night on WTBS. Barry Windham of the Four Horsemen had wrestled “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert. For weeks Windham and Flair had made life miserable for Eddie Gilbert through interference and sneak attacks. Gilbert had enough and challenged the two to a match on WTBS Saturday Night. Gilbert promised a mystery partner would help him even up the sides against foes once and for all.
The small crowd of a couple of hundred of people erupted into a thunderous ovation the following week. Ricky Steamboat arrived to a hero’s welcome. Steamboat first gained notoriety in Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, the predecessor to World Championship Wrestling. Steamboat picked right up where and Flair left off in 1982 by pinning Ric Flair in the tag-team match on television. The rivalry had reignited and a new book in professional wrestling was about to be written. “The Dragon has returned to the NWA,” screamed Jim Ross.
This wrestling feud didn’t need a whole lot of fancy angles. The biggest angle in the series took place on live television on February 15, 1989 at Clash of the Champions. Flair and Steamboat met face to face inside of the ring to sign the contract for their first official match. The signing ended with Steamboat ripping off Flair’s clothes and leaving him in his underwear in the center of the ring on live television. The rest of this feud was about the matches.
The two would wrestle all over the country, stealing the show on a nightly basis. The second of the trilogy would take place in New Orleans, LA on a free Clash of the Champions special. The show was huge for WCW on a lot of levels. For one, this would be the biggest match that WCW ever gave away on live television since the first Clash main-event. More importantly, WCW aired this show head to head with WrestleMania.
Other than Flair and Steamboat, the show was a bomb at the gate. 5,300 people attended the show at the New Orleans Superdome. The show drew a 4.3 rating on TBS. Behind the scenes saw a match in itself between Flair, Steamboat, and the booking committee.
Booker George Scott was fired just before the show, sending plans into disarray. Scott was replaced by a committee of bookers which included Flair himself. The original plan for the match was that it would have no decisive winner and end in a draw. Flair himself hated the idea and argued for Steamboat to go over.
Steamboat recollects in Flair’s book that the two only hit the ring with the finishes. The other 54 minutes of wrestling was called in the ring, something unheard of in today’s era of pro wrestling. Flair won the first fall with the same move that beat him at Chi-Town Rumble, an inside cradle. Steamboat won the second fall via submission with a double armed chicken wing. Steamboat would win the third and deciding fall with the same move, used as a pin. Steamboat won 2 falls to 1 in a match that went over 55:00.
Ironically, Steamboat’s NWA title reign lasted just about as long as his WWF Intercontinental title reign two years earlier. Flair and Steamboat would finish the trilogy on May 7, 1989 at Wrestle War. The NWA assigned former champions Lou Thesz, Terry Funk, and Pat O’Connor as judges. At 31:37 of one of the greatest matches of all-time, Flair caught Steamboat with an inside cradle. Flair won back the NWA World title for a seventh time and proved once again that he is still the man. The match won the two Pro Wrestling Illustrated 1989 Match of the Year.
Saying one match was the better than the other would do injustice to the entire series. Every match was like a classical music piece. The emotions went up, and they went down. Steamboat would make a move, Flair would counter, and Steamboat would wait and make another move. The matches were incredibly fast-paced for the time period, yet were nothing like the high-flying circus shows that you see today. Their matches were simply a thing of beauty and continue to hold up to the test of time.
My favorite match was their Wrestle War encounter, yet Ricky Steamboat tends to differ. I had the chance to interview Ricky Steamboat a few times on my radio show. On wrestling Flair, “We never had that kind of discussion between Flair and I. I knew his work ethic, he knew mine. That’s all it was. People ask me my favorite match. Like I was saying earlier, one of them was the one in New Orleans with the two out of three falls, and then the match I had with Savage.”
“Honestly, I never had a bad match with Rick Steamboat, and we probably wrestled each other two thousand times. In fact, some of our battles in 1978 may have been than the ones in 1989. But there weren’t cameras around for a lot of those early matches, so the memories are confined to the people who happened to be in the arena,” said Ric Flair in his book on his series with Steamboat.
This feud is remembered as one of wrestling’s classics. Yet, it would shock most to find out that the peak of this feud only lasted for five-months. Unlike great feuds of the past that went on for over a year, these two only had three big matches and wouldn’t hook up again for almost five-years.
Unfortunately the feud was over just as quickly as it began. Immediately following their Wrestle War match, Terry Funk attacked Ric Flair and put him out of wrestling for months. The angle turned Flair babyface, thrust Flair into a feud with Funk, and left Steamboat on the outside looking in. Steamboat’s desires for another series of matches quickly disappeared. Steamboat lost a match to Lex Luger at the Great American Bash in July and left shortly thereafter.
People have doubted these two guys for the last thirty years. I have a feeling they would prove their critics wrong even if it were for just one more time. Long live my favorite in-ring rivalry of all-time, Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat.
Check out more Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat matches on the following DVDs…
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