The greatest trilogy in the history of pro wrestling kicked off 26 years ago today. On this date in 1989, Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair began a classic three-match series that remains one of the most influential rivalries in wrestling history.
It is amazing to think that this classic series is 26 years old. It feels like yesterday that I was counting down the hours before Chi-Town Rumble. Sure, it wasn’t the first time Flair and Steamboat wrestled. Their rivalry dates back to the late 1970s. But for a young fan like me who only read about these great matches in magazines, it was the first time I was going to get a chance to witness this Dream Match.
[adinserter block=”1″]Flair vs. Steamboat really was a dream match at the time. Steamboat left the territory in 1984 when Dusty Rhodes took over as booker. Steamboat would land in the WWE while Flair soared to greater heights with the expansion of the territory. Even apart, my friends and I always tossed out Flair vs. Steamboat as the dream match we’d like to see. Steamboat tore it up in the WWE, creating a WrestleMania masterpiece against Randy Savage while Flair was stealing the show with everyone. Yet at the end of the day, every WWE and WCW fan knew that Flair and Steamboat were the best workers in the business and a match between the two would have to happen.
As fate would have it, we would all get our wish. Steamboat would leave the WWE in 1988 after a disagreement with the WWE. Steamboat announced his second retirement in several years. Flair had just finished up feuds with Barry Windham and Lex Luger and was looking for new challenges. Ted Turner had just purchased Jim Crockett Promotions, creating WCW. Turner wanted to feature Flair and he knew the best way to do it was against his greatest rival. Thus Steamboat was signed and returned home shortly thereafter.
Ric Flair revealed in an interview on WWE.com that he was instrumental in bringing Steamboat back to WCW for the series in 89.
“I requested to [NWA producer] George Scott, and they gave him a very lucrative deal for the three big shows and TV tapings in-between. I said, “Let’s go get him.” George knew how good he was, because he was there in the infancy of the relationship. Who wouldn’t want to have him, right?”
Steamboat returned in an odd angle. The angle took place on WCW’s TBS show which was odd because up until this point, the Saturday night TBS show was relegated to squash matches and long promos. Again, this was a new era and a new regime so things were about to change.
The angle that kicked it off actually took place prior to this event. Ric Flair interfered in a match between Eddie Gilbert and Barry Windham. Flair and Windham double-teamed Gilbert. Gilbert came back the next week and a challenge was made to wrestle Flair and Windham with a mystery partner, “Mr. X”. The mystery partner entered last and revealed himself to be Steamboat. A great match between these two teams ended with Steamboat pinning Flair and the war was back on!
Enter Chicago. The match was made for Chi-Town Rumble. Flair would defend the NWA world title against Steamboat. The match itself was a technical masterpiece. Ironically many will call this match the worst of the series. I disagree. This match set the stage and was a critical part in telling the entire story of the trilogy and yes, the entire trilogy was a well-booked story. Steamboat had Flair’s number and Flair was obsessed with beating him. I dare anyone to find a series of matches from 1989 that holds up today better than this series, including this first match. Jim Ross added an element of emotion when Steamboat pinned Flair that cannot be ignored.
I will admit that I was pissed when Tommy Young was bumped. I had lived through four years of Dusty finishes that I thought had been flushed away from the company. I assumed that this match would end with some kind of screw job, the same way many of Flair’s matches did under the previous booking regime. I was pleasantly surprised and I think that is why the finish was so exciting. The roar from the crowd and the excitement from Jim Ross when Teddy Long counted Flair’s shoulders down iced the cake in Chicago.
I had the chance to talk to Ricky Steamboat a few times on my old Pro Wrestling Radio show. We talked quite a bit about his matches with Flair. Steamboat and I talked specifically about this match in Chicago and surprisingly, it was not his favorite.
“Even though, I get asked a lot, even though that was the match in which I had won the world belt, and was the only time I had the world belt, the match that I liked was the second match, the re-match, the two out of three falls match from New Orleans, where we almost went the hour. I like that match better. People always say, “God, the one in Chicago is the one you won the belt. You won the belt! Come on, the one Chicago!” No, I said, “The match that I like better.” You know, Eric let me say this. I have been working with Flair since the late seventies, he and I going into little Sumter, South Carolina, or even Greenville, South Carolina, you know little Spartanburg. Believe it or not him and I had better matches than the match in Chicago, then the match in New Orleans. In these little spot shows, where we had 6-1200 people sitting there. I did not know that about our Chicago match.”
Flair said this about the match in an interview on WWE.com.
“It was hard, because the fans were starting to like me even though I was the bad guy. [Ricky’s wife] Bonnie insisted on coming to the ring with him. It was a nightmare. He needed to be by himself. He didn’t need a woman that wanted to be Miss Elizabeth that was never going to be Miss Elizabeth. I never got along with Bonnie and she doesn’t like me. She just disrupted his career and thought she was Miss Elizabeth and she wasn’t.”
[adinserter block=”2″]Steamboat felt that the crowd was a big part of what made this match so great. He was asked on WWE.com whether or not the fans and atmosphere contributed to the legend of this match.
“Yes. Flair had a ton of fans in Chicago. A lot of guys in Chicago loved the bad guys. His transition to being completely loved by the fans might have started as early as then. They loved Ric Flair, as flamboyant as he was.”
So here we are 26 years later and thanks to the WWE Network, anyone can hop on the network and watch any one of these great bouts at any time in perfect quality. I would highly recommend that you watch these matches in sequence to truly appreciate the masterpiece that was crafted between Flair and Steamboat.
Happy Anniversary guys, pro wrestling would have never been the same without this historic series. Check out the match here on the WWE Network.