Sunday, February 24, 2019

Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat 4/2/89 – 2 out of 3 falls for the NWA World Heavyweight Title – Clash of the Champions VI: Ragin' Cajun

Like many Midwestern children of the 80s, my introduction to professional wrestling was courtesy of the mainstream rise of Hulk Hogan and the World Wrestling Federation. Sure, there were kids cooler than me with bitchin' parents that took them to see the local AWA shows when they were kids, but I was not among that elite sect that knew of the Hulkster or Bobby “The Brain” Heenan or “Mean” Gene Okerlund before they were swept up in Vince McMahon's quest for world domination. So for me, it was a babysitter that let me stay up late enough to see Hogan and Paul Orndorff escape a cage at the same time on Saturday Night's Main Event. That was exciting enough (and the boys in my 7th grade class debated feverishly the following Monday whose feet hit the floor first. “Hogan's legs were bent! Orndorff's were straight!” Man, Jesse Ventura really thought that made a difference, didn't he?), but it wasn't until later that year, when the Intercontinental Champion, The Honky Tonk Man, besmirched the virtue of former champ Randy Savage's manager, the lovely Elizabeth, that I got hooked.

The “Macho Man” took on Honky Tonk's stablemate, Bret “Hitman” Hart, on a November 1987 edition of SNME, and the ferocity displayed by Savage while defending his manager's honor was captivating, eventually leading me back several months to a VHS copy of WrestleMania III rented from the gas station down the street. And that's what led me to probably the best WWF match of the 1980s—Randy Savage vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat for the Intercontinental Championship. And if Randy Savage was a crucial discovery, well, Savage vs. Steamboat was a revelation.

Until Savage vs. Steamboat, the wrestling I had seen (with the exception of Savage/Hart) was mostly cartoon characters punching each other, much like that Hogan/Orndorff cage match. But this—this was a pair of athletes trying to one-up each other, to prove who was the best...with a healthy dose of babyface revenge thrown in for good measure. Recovered from a vicious attack on his larynx months earlier, Steamboat came at Savage with passion and drive, seemingly trying for a pin every 10 seconds  (in fact, that match featured 22 near-falls in 14 ½ minutes of action) and pointedly lifting Savage up by his throat early in the contest. This was skill, storytelling, and wrestling that finally blew my brain open—and I needed more.

Unfortunately for me, cable television didn't exist in my home town yet, so instead of getting to sample other companies that focused more on the athleticism of pro wrestling, I was stuck with the 1980s WWF product, forced to imagine the epic clashes I was soon reading about in magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated. The so-called “Apter Mags” (nicknamed as such because the stories in PWI, Inside Wrestling, and The Wrestler were defined by the expert match photography of their lead photog, Bill Apter) were blacklisted from coverage of WWF events, due to Vince McMahon's drive to make his own WWF Magazine the top sports entertainment publication, and so their editorial stance was to put over the in-ring product of the WWF's top competitor--NWA territory Jim Crockett Promotions, aka Mid-Atlantic Pro Wrestling--as superior across the board. Inches upon inches of column space were spent singing the praises of NWA Champion Ric Flair, the Road Warriors, Barry Windham, the Rock 'N' Roll Express, and the rest of the Mid-Atlantic roster. (They even tried to put over the title reign of Ronnie Garvin!) With stories of epic half-hour clashes and images of brutal bloodbaths, I was being taught that the NWA was where the real wrestling was happening—but I couldn't see any of it.

Then, in early 1989, everything changed. Hilbert, Wisconsin got cable. As the Cablevision trucks tore up the local yards, I begged my mom to sign up. I needed to see Flair and Sting and Lex Luger and all these guys I was reading about, people who allegedly could tie any WWF wrestler in knots. After a few weeks of cajoling, Mom relented, and I had access to Pay-Per-View and Turner Broadcasting just in time for a double-shot of wrestling events on April 2, 1989. Live, I tuned in to WrestleMania V (I mean, I shelled out like $40 for it, so) and watched now-WWF Champion Savage take on (and lose to) the company's top comic book character, Hulk Hogan. Later that night, I rewound the tape I had running on TBS during 'Mania and turned on the show they broadcast live in direct competition to the WWF's top show of the year – Clash of the Champions VI: Rajin' Cajun, from the former Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling (now bought by TBS owner Ted Turner and renamed World Championship Wrestling). The main event of Clash VI? Five-time former NWA World Champion Ric Flair challenging the man who defeated him just over a month prior – Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat.

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“The Dragon” had left the WWF in mid-1988, his stock having inexplicably fallen after his classic IC title win. As is the case with many backstage sagas of the era, the truth behind why lies somewhere in the middle of stories about his rising popularity threatening Hogan, or Steamboat asking for time off after his title win to be with his wife, who was about to give birth to their son, Ricky Jr. His title reign was unceremoniously ended by The Honky Tonk Man (a wrestler we'll charitably say was not known as someone who could keep up with a Steamboat or Savage in the ring – his most effective offense was a chipboard guitar to the head) in a fluke upset a mere 65 days after 'Mania III, and upon his return to the company after his paternity leave, he quietly lost a first round match to Greg “The Hammer” Valentine in WrestleMania IV's WWF World Title Tournament. With the writing on the wall, Steamboat gave his notice, and almost a year later, a rejuvenated Steamboat returned to the South, shocking his old rival Flair as “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert's mystery partner in a tag team match against the “Nature Boy” and his Four Horseman stablemate, Barry Windham. Mere weeks later, he was NWA World Champion, pinning Flair in a five-star classic at the Chi-Town Rumble in Chicago. That Feb. 20 match happened before we got our cable subscription up and running, but Clash VI was due to more than make up for it with a best-two-of-three-falls rematch between the new champ and his dark reflection.

The beauty of the Steamboat/Flair feud is reflected in a legendary in-ring interview segment conducted before the Chi-Town Rumble match, with Flair still cockily holding the NWA Title. Picture it: Ric and Rick, probably the two best pure wrestlers in North America at the time, face to face. Years of matches against each other have established them as near-equals, matching each other move for move. Ric, the dirtiest player in the game, able to leverage a pull on the trunks or a foot on the ropes as effective as any martial arts chop; Ricky, the master of those same high-flying chops and top rope cross-body blocks. Ric, the multi-time NWA Champ, the standard-bearer of the Alliance; Ricky, the journeyman, the prodigal son come home. On this night, Ric, the ultimate ladies' man, stands in the ring surrounded by models, decked out in a custom-made suit, his eyes obscured by designer shades. He calls out “Mom's Apple Pie,” the dedicated family man, and Ricky makes his way to the ring, dressed in his wrestling gear, a headband, and a take-no-shit expression. “You've got to be bored to death,” Flair taunts. “The same woman every night? Come on, buddy.” He motions to the ladies in the ring, offering Ricky his pick for the night. (There's no room for female autonomy in Ric Flair's world, apparently – not unlike Ricky's domineering rival back in the WWF). “You don't like it, buddy, but this – WHOO! – is what being the World Champion is all about.” He throws it all in Ricky's face – the expensive suits, the Rolex, the fancy shoes – and Ricky just stares at him, stone-faced and nonplussed. As dynamic a speaker as Ric always is, Ricky is as much a plain-spoken, deliberate—and almost absurdly whitebread—babyface.

“I despise what you represent, Ric Flair. I despise everything that you like, everything that you do, the way you represent the National Wrestling Alliance as a champion...the difference between you and me and the bulk of the fans here tonight is that you represent all the evil materialistic things in this world today, rather than the family unit.” It's the ultimate 1980s feud – Gordon Gekko vs. Lloyd Dobler (without Lloyd's taste in music, or his wit, but work with me here – at least he was a kickboxer). When Flair derisively tells Steamboat to go home and “help the Missus with the dishes,” Ricky responds by launching into the champ and tearing the $1500 custom suit off the Nature Boy's body, press-slamming him to the mat in his underwear. The crowd is unglued, and the stage is set. The family man versus the ladies' man. The best in-ring performer in the country versus the dirtiest player in the game. Rick versus Ric for the World Heavyweight Championship.

Meanwhile, over in the WWF, Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, the Mega-Powers, were exploding over Savage's misogynist insecurities, claiming Hogan “lusted” after Elizabeth. It was an intense feud – Savage's attack on Hogan in the first aid station of Milwaukee's just-opened Bradley Center was disturbing to watch as a 14-year-old – but there was still something cartoonishly burlesque about the idea of superhero Hulk Hogan having any sort of sexual thoughts whatsoever (internet sex tapes didn't exist in the 1980s). With Flair and Steamboat, the beef between womanizer and boy scout felt, for lack of a better word, real. And leading into the Clash's best-of-three main event, the stakes felt real as well. 

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The  best wrestling matches unfold like a three-act play, and that's pretty blatant in a best-of-three-falls match. The first fall is the introductory stanza, the opening salvo that establishes the story being told. In this case, the opening moments are that in-ring promo choreographed into in-ring action. Despite Steamboat holding the NWA World Title—despite having beaten Flair for it just over a month prior--The Dragon still has something to prove. After all, Flair's been beaten for this title four times prior, by a murderer's row of legends: Harley Race, Kerry Von Erich, Dusty Rhodes...aaaand sure, Ronnie Garvin, too. And he's regained it—quickly--each time.

It's been said that the first lockup of the match sets the tone for the entire bout, and this one's no different. Steamboat and Flair tie up, collar to elbow, and almost immediately end up with Flair backed into the corner. As the ref forces the break, Flair shoves Steamboat away with almost a “you're not worthy” sense of bullying dismissal, which Ricky responds to immediately with an angry slap to the face that catches the Nature Boy off guard and pops the crowd. It's almost rhythmic – 1, 2, shove, slap! They re-engage and drop to the mat, chain wrestling all the way to the ropes, with Steamboat giving chase and forcing Flair again into a corner. This time, there's no chance for Flair to shove Steamboat away—Ricky just hauls off and...1, 2slap! And the crowd loves it. Flair's in shock and to a degree, so are commentators Jim Ross and Terry Funk—Steamboat is out to prove that he may be a boy scout, but he's no pushover. And that's the match in a nutshell, although we've still got about 52 minutes to flesh this all out. Man, that second slap is everything.

Steamboat knows he's in for a long night, so he calls back to his last great epic title feud and borrows a trick from the Savage match at WrestleMania III. At around the 14-minute mark of the first fall, he goes into a flurry of pinning attempts, throwing Flair on the defensive as he scores two-count after two-count, the same strategy he employed to frazzle the Intercontinental Champion. And as he matches Flair chop for chop, he's got him on the ropes. But Steamboat slips a bit when he whiffs on a dropkick and Flair goes for his patented figure-four leglock. The Dragon sees an opening here to reverse the lock into an inside cradle, again calling back to the finish of 'Mania III, but unfortunately for Steamboat, Flair saw that match too. He shifts his weight and rotates the cradle onto Ricky's shoulders, and referee Tommy Young counts 1, 2, 3. The first fall goes to the Nature Boy. You're not in the WWF anymore, Dragon.

(Ross and Funk keep reminding us we're not in the WWF, too.  “I can't think of any two athletes in better condition competing for a major championship on April 2." Damn, are these pretzels making me thirsty, or is the commentary just too salty?)

Again, there's something to be said for classic stories told in the classic fashion. There are plenty of ways to play with the first fall in a match like this, but nine times out of ten, in this era, the heel wins the first fall. It's the same principle as a babyface beatdown in a tag match – the good guy needs to be put at a disadvantage to engender sympathy from the audience. It's wrestling 101. Sure, there are other stories that can be told with the best of three falls, but again – Steamboat is the underdog with something to prove here. Flair's the five-time champ that's regained the title every time he's lost it, and his inevitable victory hangs over Steamboat's title reign like the Sword of Damocles. And now, down one fall to none, it's ever more apparent, and the drama is amplified in the second fall.

Steamboat kicks Act 2 into high gear, trying to tie the match quickly, tossing Flair to the mat with a press-slam and immediately climbing the ropes and connecting with a flying chop to the head for a two-count. Flair eventually stops the momentum, though, with a back suplex, and Steamboat's back to working from underneath. But it's not at all hopeless, as Steamboat's fighting spirit keeps the fans invested and screaming. It doesn't take long for Ricky to gain the advantage again, and after dropping about a dozen elbows onto Flair's knee, he locks in Flair's own hold, the Figure Four, before Flair's able to. Mirror reflections of each other yet again. Flair eventually reaches the ropes to force the break, but it's here that Steamboat switches to a Boston crab and starts working on Flair's back.

The back is a notorious weak spot for Ric Flair. In 1975, Flair was involved in a plane crash that broke his back in three places. He rehabbed intensely and miraculously returned to the ring something like eight months later, but it became a storyline weak spot for years (in fact, for the rest of his career, Flair never landed flat on his back, always taking back bumps at a slight angle). So while Flair manages to force another rope break by clawing his way to the apron, he starts to get desperate now that his back is softened up. Finally, at around the half hour mark, we see the Dirtiest Player in the Game surface, as Flair finally uses the ropes for leverage in an unsuccessful pin attempt. When Steamboat's involved, Flair seems to hold himself to a higher standard, needing to prove that he can beat Steamboat cleanly. And he's played it clean 'til now—acting like a shithead, sure, but a cleanly wrestling shithead. But now that his back's been targeted, he's pushed into short cuts. But the damage has been done. At 34:14 of total match time, Steamboat lifts Flair into a double-arm chicken wing submission that stretches Flair's back to its breaking point, and Slick Ric has no choice but to submit. We're tied, one fall apiece, as Steamboat drops Flair, pancaking him into the mat. Flair lies still and prone, fearing for his health, as the one-minute rest period gives him nowhere near enough time to recover.

Flair's back is on fire, and as the third fall begins he's even more desperate, panicking his way out of an abdominal stretch attempt by poking Ricky in the eye. As Steamboat reels in the corner, tending to his eye, Flair finally recovers enough to charge the corner and clip the Dragon's knee. And just like that, Flair's got the edge again, beginning to target his favorite body part—the one that gets torn to shreds by his trademark figure-four.

Forty minutes in, Steamboat misses a running boot in the corner and hangs that same knee on the turnbuckle, wrenching it awkwardly and sending the Dragon into searing pain. There's blood in the water, and Flair smells it, attacking the knee with stretches and knee drops of his own. He finally locks in the figure-four and Steamboat slaps the mat in pain (which would signal a submission today, but 1989 is before the dawn of the UFC and MMA, so tapouts don't exist in wrestling yet, resulting in what are now unintentionally hilarious sequences of wrestlers tapping the mat to sell pain, but not give up). He's in the hold for two full minutes as Jim Ross and Terry Funk describe the blinding pain of the dreaded figure-four. “If at this point you submit, you're essentially saying, 'I hand you the World's Championship,'” says Funk. “That's very hard to do!” But Ricky doesn't submit, eventually rolling Flair over and reaching the ropes, mercifully forcing the break. But the damage is done, and Steamboat sells the knee for the rest of the match. He fights back valiantly, chopping Flair and whipping him to the ropes, but Flair does his signature flip over the turnbuckle and out onto the ring apron, running to the next ring post, climbing the buckles, and connecting with a high cross-bodyblock—Steamboat's own move!--for the closest two-count in the match, an absolute heart-stopper of a false finish that sends the fans into a frenzy. Steamboat fights back again, but as he lifts Flair for a slam, his knee buckles from the pressure and the challenger lands on top of him for another cardiac two-count. Flair locks in a sleeperhold, and the champ begins to fade. He's been in no greater danger than he is here, and it looks like Flair may be closing in on his inevitable sixth world title. In fact, Tommy Young lets Steamboat's arm drop three times, and nearly calls for the bell before the Dragon springs to life. Young decides to let the match continue, even though a third arm drop is normally akin to a submission, a signal that the wrestler is passed out and unable to continue. Steamboat fights back to his feet and desperately runs Flair's head into the top turnbuckle. Now both men are desperate. Steamboat goes for a pin after a well-timed enziguri to the back of Flair's head, but it's still not enough, and Flair kicks out. Ricky climbs the ropes for a desperation splash and whiffs badly, crumpling to the mat.

After fifty-one minutes, the rivals are still even. One fall apiece, both lying face down on the mat. Steamboat's knee. Flair's back. Mirror reflections of each other, nearly going an hour with no definitive winner. Both men slowly crawl back to their feet, and just like at the beginning of the match, Flair starts to shove Steamboat away from him. After all this, he still tries to bully the Dragon, but this time into a corner instead of out. And just like the beginning of the match, the Dragon slaps him in the face, with a vicious chop. A reflex, not even thinking, but still not being pushed around. Another chop, and Flair reels, and another. And another. It's not even anymore—those shoves lit the last of the coals in the Dragon's engine. He whips Flair to the ropes and fells him with maybe the most brutal chop of the match, and Steamboat drops to one knee, striking his trademark “I love you” pose for the nuclear-hot crowd. Flair begs off and Ricky adjusts his knee for the final onslaught. He blocks an atomic drop and connects with a clothesline that would have scored the three, except Flair's leg rests on the bottom rope. But he's not moving. Steamboat picks him up, whips him to the ropes, and lowers his head for a back drop—only to have Flair collapse an elbow onto the back of his head. It's not a strike so much as Flair just sort of falling onto Ricky's neck. And just like that, we're back at even. Flair climbs the ropes, but Steamboat catches him and launches him across the ring with what might be the last of his strength.

And it is the last of it. He lifts Flair back into the double-arm chicken wing that he used to win the last fall, but his knee has had enough. He falls backward, and Flair lands on top of him, his shoulders sliding to the mat in front of the Dragon's. The ref slaps the mat once. Twice. Steamboat's shoulder rises. Three times. It's the third fall, and—just barely—it goes to the Dragon.

Or does it? As the referee slapped two, Ric's right foot slid under the bottom rope, which should have forced a break. But Tommy Young didn't see it, and after 54 minutes and 29 seconds of intensity, the Dragon retains.

Flair hollers in protest, but the referee's decision is final. As the commentators debate whether Flair's foot was indeed under, Steamboat celebrates and heads to the back, where, in a post-match interview with Jim Ross, he congratulates Flair on an epic contest, but is eager to look beyond his old rival and seek out new challengers.

But! There's the question of Flair's foot. Ross and Steamboat look at a replay from a new angle, and there it is—the Nature Boy's foot is clearly under the bottom rope. Steamboat is in disbelief – after neatly an hour in the ring, in which he fought to prove to his dark reflection that he's the better man, and can win without the dirty tactics of his stylin' and profilin' counterpart, it turns out his victory, like so many of the Nature Boy's, is tainted. “If I were that man, I have to say...I'd be talking to my lawyers, and I'd have a very good case for a rematch.” Steamboat is too noble, to just of a man, to deny what he's just seen, and it's evident in his eyes—he knows he'll have to meet his greatest rival for the title one more time.

And sure enough, one month later, at Wrestle War '89, it takes Ric Flair another grueling 31 minutes, but he finally achieves the inevitable, regaining his title—but cleanly, in the middle of the ring. Still, for a two-month period in the Spring of 1989, Ricky Steamboat was finally on top of the wrestling world as World Heavyweight Champion.

Everyone who's watched the Flair/Steamboat trilogy of 1989 has their favorite. For some, it's the Chi-Town Rumble main event where Steamboat takes the belt. For many, it's the May 7 match where Flair regains the strap. But the Rajin' Cajun' main event, for me, was the greatest match I had ever seen. By a lot. And for almost 30 years, it remained the greatest match I had ever seen, until Kenny Omega won the IWGP Title from Kazuchika Okada in 2018 (in yet another epic best-of-three-falls clash). But even with that title match from New Japan's 2018 Dominion show in Osaka in the rear view, Flair/Steamboat will always be my personal favorite. It was Flair and Steamboat that showed me what pro wrestling could be—the stories it could tell, the emotions it could trigger, the gasps of disbelief it could provoke. The melodrama of Savage and Elizabeth got me hooked, it is true. But thanks to Steamboat and Flair on April 2, 1989, there was no going back. I was a wrestling fan for life. No Bill Apter photo could have done it justice had I not seen it for myself.

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