Anatomy of a Series: The Legendary Steamboat/Flair Trilogy
It all began, unexpectedly, with a horse.
In last week’s Master Class, Ricky Steamboat credited Ric Flair with teaching him how to be a great babyface. So I looked up the third match in their 1989 trilogy. About 20 seconds into ring entrances, I texted a friend and said, “I think I need to do an Anatomy of this Steamboat/Flair match, it’s a 2 out of 3 falls.” He replied that he’d never heard of it, and I said, “I stand corrected, it’s just a regular 1-fall match. I got distracted by the pony.”
I love when wrestling goes over-the-top at the appropriate moments. I love when wrestling tells a good story. And AMEN to wrestling being simply great work in the ring. I watched that match and wrote down every minute detail, ready to feel the magic.
It was okay [checks overhead for lightning to strike]. I originally planned to compare it to the Steamboat/Savage match from Wrestlemania 3 (which got all the hype, but did not share the same place in Steamboat’s heart). Then I realized that what I really needed to do was watch the first two matches before I could pass judgment on the third.
Chi-Town Rumble (February 20, 1989, Chicago, IL)
NWA Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat
This match was made after Steamboat pinned Flair during a tag team bout. The Dragon enters first to generic soft rock music, his entourage consisting of wife Bonnie and toddler Richie all in matching white. You can see where this story is going already: the family man, valiantly challenging the fast-living demi-god. And here he comes, flanked by trumpeteers, ladies in sexy black dresses, and Hiro Matsuta. Flair refuses to enter the ring until he receives his bouquet of roses and a kiss.
These may seem like superficial details, but they all contribute to the emotions of this match before the bell even rings. Jim Ross and Magnum T.A. are on commentary, and they tell us that Flair was private-school educated and that his father was a doctor. Meanwhile, Steamboat’s only claim to fame is a bit of high-school wrestling success. Here are two very different men, vying for the same object of value and prestige.
Since I watched the third match before this one, my first observation is that this match moves faster. Lots of throws and dropkicks. Ross notes that Steamboat returned to the NWA to take the title from Flair. He is not intimidated by Flair’s reputation. They in turn build up Flair by saying he has “controlled the 80’s” since he came back from a plane crash. The momentum shifts constantly, and the crowd loves it.
In short order, the match gets very physical on the outside. J.R. is yelling about the prestigious belt and all the press in attendance, and the fans are wild. Back in the ring, Flair’s knee drops are perfect: he pulls down the knee pad first, and follows through with such momentum. And his figure four leg lock is sublime. He twists the ankle, he pulls on the ropes, he even gets a pin count several times without laying a hand on Steamboat’s shoulders. At just over 10 minutes in, both men appear spent and crazed with a desire to win.
Flair is blatant with his use of the ropes, and ref Tommy Young is blind to it, so when Steamboat makes a comeback and fails, the fans are livid. Steamboat cannot catch the break that he so richly deserves! Their pinning combos and reversals are reminiscent of the Savage match, but I suspect the near-fall was not invented at Wrestlemania 3. The tension builds as Jim Ross declares, “Steamboat is fighting for his family! For his young son! For every working class person in America!” I snap my pen in half with excitement.
Steamboat accidentally nails Tommy Young with a diving cross body; Flair tries to capitalize, but as he goes for the figure four, Steamboat sneaks in an inside cradle and ref Teddy Long slides in for the 3-count. Flair is in disbelief, cue generic music, and Steamboat calls for his wife and baby. The crowd is deafening.
Clash of the Champions VI: Ragin’ Cajun (April 2, 1989 – New Orleans, LA)
NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ricky Steamboat vs. Ric Flair
This is the 2 out of 3 falls match that I was originally looking for. There are fireworks and ladies for “Rick Flair” (this is how the future endeavoured TBS intern spelled Flair’s name using the first-ever version of PowerPoint). Steamboat’s baby is wearing a dragon costume, and his wife thinks she’s attending (her own) sexy wedding ceremony. Terry Funk joins Jim Ross on commentary, and the front row is lined with past NWA Champions.
Steamboat begins on a cocky note by slapping Flair in the face. The binary notions of good and bad taught to me as a “WWF kid” did not prepare me for the nuances of this experience. Between dueling wristlocks, football tackles, and hip tosses, Flair is praised for his moxy as much as Steamboat is for his professionalism. We get all the old favourites, like flying head scissors and high vertical suplexes. We get various pinfall attempts, as the commentators remind us of the 2/3 fall situation and the time limit.
I like that Flair and Steamboat make pin attempts through wear-down and submission holds. It adds a lot of interest to the match, as does J.R’s description of the holds. He points out what makes the holds painful, and how the wrestlers add leverage or pressure. Flair sells pain like it should be: he builds to it, showing an increasing amount of discomfort, and then pain.
Steamboat dominates and an unbelievable chop-fest ensues. Terry Funk crows that he loves wrestling of this caliber, and who can dispute him, he’s Terry Funk! That’s why I love someone like JBL on commentary today. He speaks with authority. When Steamer misses a drop-kick, they wonder if this is his first big mistake. Flair goes for the figure four, Steamboat cradles him (just like in Chi-Town), but this time Flair reverses it for the first pinfall at 19:33. Tell me that you love this consistency!
After a one-minute break, they are back at it, and Steamboat delivers no less than fifteen elbow drops to Flair’s knee, then applies his own figure four. Flair is in agony. He gets to the ropes. Next Steamboat applies a Boston Crab. Flair is beside himself. Relentless pin attempts, backslides and bridges. Steamboat is thrown brutally into the barricades outside the ring, then body slammed onto the floor. Flair digs in with more methodical, creative pin attempts. Steamboat, buoyed by the crowd’s support, makes a comeback and works on Flair’s back (injured in that plane crash). He puts Flair in a double-armed chicken-wing, and Flair submits at 34:13 into the match.
Flair lies on the mat for the entire one-minute break, and is slow to return to his feet when the action begins again. Chops galore, then Flair works on Steamboat’s knee, and the sickening chop-exchange continues. Flair tries for several rope-assisted pins to no avail, so he goes back to Steamboat’s leg. Steamboat musters a bit of offense, and the commentators are amazed by how fatigued these men must be. The fans don’t seem to be one-sided here, but are simply fired up.
Steamboat attempts another double-armed chicken-wing, but his legs give out after all of Flair’s punishment. Both men fall backwards to the mat, but Steamboat lifts one shoulder to score his second (championship-retaining) pinfall.
In his post-match interview, Steamboat graciously thanks everyone, from the TV station, to his fans, to Flair’s fans, and says it’s time to move on to other contenders. Jim Ross shows him the playback, in which Ric Flair’s foot is under the ropes during the final pinfall. He says that Flair has a legitimate gripe, and Steamboat wholeheartedly agrees. THIS MAKES SENSE, WHAT IS HAPPENING.
WrestleWar 1989: Music City Showdown (May 7, 1989 - Nashville, TN)
NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ricky Steamboat vs. Ric Flair
Flair enters to his usual Strauss, with fireworks, and exactly 40 ladies dressed in identical sparkly dresses. The crowd cheers because it is awesome. Then we hear oriental-style music. What is that odd silhouette coming through the smoke? It’s The Dragon in a red uwagi and his wife Bonnie in a matching red showgirl outfit. Between them is the probably-hearing-impaired-by-this-point baby Richie, riding a white pony and wearing a red/white sparkly Elvis-style jumpsuit with a guitar sewn onto it. “The family unit is so important to The Dragon!” cries Jim Ross. There are a lot of WOOOOOs, and they are all coming from me.
As I said at the beginning, this match didn’t wow me. I took seven pages of detailed notes, and the words “wrist lock”, “chops”, “arm drag”, “arm bar”, and “tackle” are repeated a lot. I wanted to get excited, but the mechanics of this match didn’t meet my expectations. After watching the first two in the series, however, I could appreciate this match in a different way.
A large portion of the 31 minutes feel repetitive, but every move and every hold is well-executed. Every move and hold is called. The ref’s counts are heeded, and the wrestlers work to manipulate the count correctly. A panel of judges sits ringside to keep score, in case the match goes over the time limit. The judges report their scores at intervals, adding urgency to Flair’s plight, and they talk about the match needing to be offensive in order to garner points. All of these details make the match real.
The men on the mic do just as much storytelling as the men in the ring. They talk about the stamina required for these matches, and report that Flair has undertaken a more demanding workout routine (calling to mind a Rocky-esque workout montage, except with “Easy Lover” playing and lots more women). They talk about Steamboat being the only one to make Flair submit. Every time Steamboat works on the arm, they tease the double-armed chicken wing that was Flair’s undoing. They emphasize the consistency of Steamboat’s strategy, and Flair’s when he attacks the leg. If The Dragon doesn’t have his leg, he loses his agility, and he is ripe for the figure four. This is the final chapter of a clearly laid-out story.
This final chapter needs the first two in order to make sense. The evenly-matched competitors. The long-fought battles. The astonishing submission (and the mystery of whether it will happen again). The match seems slow, but is actually laying the foundation for an accelerated, fever pitch at the end. An admirable champion who kicks out of 2-count after 2-count. A desperate challenger whose high-flying lifestyle informs his skilled abandon in the ring. Why is the crowd on their feet? Because it all makes sense.
Steamboat attempts a body slam, but his “virtually useless” legs give out and Flair rolls over into an inside cradle. 1-2-3. Steamboat raises Flair’s arm in respect, and limps out of the ring for Flair to enjoy the accolades.
Even though I’d planned to compare the third match to Steamboat/Savage, it was really the 2 out of 3 falls match that stands out (and is the one Steamboat claims as his shining moment). That Clash of the Champions event aired for free, and drew a crowd of only 5,300 people to the Louisiana Superdome. The match went for 55 minutes, and the only thing they discussed before going to the ring was the finish. “Let’s go have a blast.”
Two years earlier, the Steamboat/Savage match had a live audience of over 93,000. That match went for 14 minutes, and every single move was choreographed and memorized ahead of time by its competitors.
When people ask Ricky Steamboat which match is his favourite, his answer is always the same: “Which one do you think?”
When I saw on twitter that former Smackdown writer @alexdgreenfield was enjoying an old Flair/DiBiase match this week, I asked him how he’d compare it to Flair/Steamboat. He replied, “it’s apples to oranges”, and that helped me realize that making a comparison was not the point at all. Watching the series of matches made more sense. Thanks for replying, Alex.
And thank you to Darryl Stewart, a loyal TJR reader who told me about dailymotion.com – without it, I couldn’t have included these matches in their entirety.
Thanks for reading! Please comment below, on twitter @kickyhick or by email firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m going to analyze the Jericho/Fandango match from Extreme Rules next week, as a book-end to my analysis of their match at Wrestlemania.