Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The History of NWA/WCW Starrcade, part 2 (1986-1988)

Welcome back to The History of Starrcade!

Moving right along to 1986....

Starrcade '86 - Greensboro Coliseum/The Omni -

Starrcade '86 was the first one I was aware of as a wrestling fan.  On Saturday mornings I'd watch World Wide Wrestling and see ads for the VHS release.  I must say those commercials were GOLD.  Whoever put those together had me at "hello."  When I used to watch those Turner Home Entertainment tapes I looked forward to the previews as much as the event itself.

The 1986 edition suffered greatly from its main event plans being derailed only a month out.  Jim Crockett Promotions had intended a major World Title push for Magnum TA, which would've kicked off at Starrcade with a huge win over Ric Flair.  Who knows what would've happened, had that come to fruition.  Magnum was enormously popular, built like a brick shithouse, and had rugged good looks that appealed to a crossover audience.  The NWA could've had another Hulk Hogan on their hands, and may very well have been able to compete with Vince.  But unfortunately it was not to be, as Magnum suffered a career-ending car crash in October, and the promotion had to scramble to put together a new main event for its biggest show of the year.  The bookers cleverly turned Nikita Koloff babyface by having him show compassion and remorse over his longtime enemy's injury.  I like that choice a lot actually.  Thus Nikita took Magnum's place in the main event and became one of the NWA's top faces for the next two years.

The company also put the spotlight on one of the secondary main events, even naming the show after it.  Starrcade '86 was the television debut of the Scaffold Match - a horribly dangerous gimmick bout where the combatants are forced to fight twenty feet above the ring on a three-foot-wide platform.  They renamed it The Skywalkers Match (I wonder if George Lucas ever considered suing) and it took on a pretty mythic quality.  But before we get to the top-billed matches, let's take a look at the rest of the show.  For the second consecutive year Starrcade emanated from both The Omni and the Greensboro Coliseum.

Starrcade '86 opened with Tim Horner & Nelson Royal vs. Don & Rocky Kernodle, which sounds pretty nondescript on paper but featured surprisingly good action and a fast pace.

Next was Jimmy Garvin vs. Brad Armstrong in a very strong undercard bout.  These two had good chemistry and worked hard.  Brad Armstrong was a pretty underrated talent, always good for a solid opening match to rev up the crowd.  This went to a time limit draw which was probably a mistake given its spot on the card.  A blazing ten minute match with a decisive finish would've been more appropriate.  Still, this was good stuff.

The next two matches were throwaway tag bouts - Hector Guerrero & Baron von Raschke vs. Barbarian & Shaska Watley; and Ivan Koloff & Krusher Kruschev vs. The Kansas Jayhawks.  Both were quite forgettable and about the only intrigue came later during the evil Russians' promo on their former friend Nikita.  One thing that I found disturbing was the sound of the live crowd cheering when von Raschke did his goosestep bit.  That's not something a sane person would cheer.

The first of many gimmick matches was next, as Wahoo McDaniel faced Rick Rude in an Indian Strap Match.  While the concept of two enemies bound together is always intriguing, I hate the "touch all four corners" rule.  I find it silly and cumbersome and it really disrupts the flow of the match.  As expected this was mediocre, and I found it strange that both guys were bleeding from a piece of leather.  This would also be the first of many blood-soaked bouts on this card. 

The Central States Championship was next, as Sam Houston defended against Bill Dundee.  The NWA certainly had a lot of regional belts back in the day.  This was well-worked while it lasted.  Sam Houston was actually quite good in the ring; it's a shame the WWF never did anything with him.  After a ref bump Dundee tried to get away with using Sam's boot as a weapon, but the ref saw it and called for the DQ.  That was certainly different.

The second half of this show had nary a match without blood.  I said this about Starrcade '85 and it's true here as well: when every match results in one or both guys bleeding all over the place, it takes away meaning from the instances where it really matters.  It's just a bad idea to overuse this effect.  Case in point the Hair vs. Hair match between Jimmy Valiant and Paul Jones.  As far as I could tell this wasn't a No DQ match, but both guys ended up using a foreign object, sometimes in plain sight of the referee.  And about halfway through, Valiant was bleeding profusely.  If ever a match didn't need blood, this was it.

Things picked up in the Street Fight between Big Bubba Rogers and Ronnie Garvin.  While nothing fancy, this match was realistic and gritty, and had some nice stiff action.  Garvin relied way too heavily on right hands, but this was still fun to watch.  The object was to either pin your opponent or knock him down for a ten-count.  Garvin eventually piledrove Bubba, but Jim Cornette whacked him in the head with his tennis racket, leading to a double countout which prompted the referee to declare the first man up the winner.  Bubba then distracted the referee long enough for Cornette to hit Garvin in the knee, allowing Bubba to get to his feet first.  Decent little fight with a clever finish.

The next match was more or less the same type of bout, as Tully Blanchard faced Dusty Rhodes in a First Blood match.  JJ Dillon got in Dusty's face at the outset, and Dusty responded by elbowing him in the forehead, which broke Dillon's head open.  Now, I'm pretty sure hitting someone with a padded elbow would absolutely NOT cut their forehead open.  See what I mean about unnecessary blood?  Since this was a First Blood match the announcers talked about neither guy wanting to get hit with a punch.  Nevermind that every wrestling match consists of both guys getting punched in the face repeatedly and they bleed basically never.  This was terribly dull and ended with yet another screwy finish - Tully bled after a ref bump, so it was missed, but then Tully hit Dusty with a roll of quarters (a weapon Bubba just used in the previous match - did the two booking committees not talk to each other first?) and the ref only saw Dusty bleeding.  Game over.  This match was not good.

The titular Skywalkers match was next as the Road Warriors took on the Midnight Express.  It should be noted that Hawk wrestled this match with a broken leg.  Twenty feet above the ring.  On a scaffold only three feet wide.  He was more man than I will ever be.  The match itself was literally all spectacle.  Visually it was very cool; four dudes brawling while precariously balanced two stories above the ring.  I mean it's horribly dangerous and not at all worth the risk considering how limited the wrestlers are in that situation, but I can absolutely see why people paid to see it.  After less than eight minutes of pretty forgettable action the two teams dangled from the scaffold and took turns kicking each other until the Midnights dropped to the mat.  I can't imagine being asked to take that bump, especially during that era.  Anyway, not much of a match, but it looked cool.

Wow, look at 'em up there......wait, how come they aren't doin' anything?

The semi-main slot went to what I had previously considered the best match on the card, the World Tag Title match between The Rock n' Roll Express and The Andersons.  I remembered this being a dramatic, balls-out, back-and-forth affair.  I'm not sure what I was watching at the time, because this was terribly one-sided.  Almost from the beginning Ole and Arn dominated the action, first picking apart Robert Gibson and then in the second half isolating expert babyface seller Ricky Morton.  While this made for solid storytelling, it was honestly kinda dull to sit through.  It reminded me of the SummerSlam 2002 Chris Benoit vs. Rob Van Dam match, where Benoit controlled almost the whole thing only to lose at the very end.  When you have two exciting high-fliers they need to be on offense for a little while to get the crowd excited.  Also, this type of match would've worked much better if the Andersons had been the Champs going in.  Then it would be a case of the underdog good guys getting destroyed but pulling out a surprise win.  This didn't even have a hot tag at the end, Gibson just ran in and all four guys brawled before Gibson dropkicked Morton on top of Arn.  I found this match pretty disappointing.

The main event was another story however.  Ric Flair and Nikita Koloff had very compelling little man-big man chemistry, and this reminded me of the later Flair-Luger matches.  Nikita controlled the early parts of the match before Flair's strategic cunning took over.  This ended up an engaging battle, and after a ref bump it got so out of hand that Tommy Young disqualified both guys.  Now, on a show that didn't already feature several screwy finishes, this would've come off as a "Holy shit, this is wild!" kinda moment.  Sadly there were already so many ref bumps and bladejobs, it became more of a "one too many times to the well" sort of ending.  The biggest show of the year should have some kind of definitive finish, not a shmozz.  Regardless this was still the best match of the night.

Nikita was a formidable-looking foe.

Starrcade '86 was a sprawling four-hour event with a smorgasbord of gimmick matches and just too much going on.  It felt very unfocused and while a few of the matches were solid, nothing exceeded three stars.  Granted the company's long-term plans got totally effed when their intended new top babyface had his career yanked out from under him, but the rest of the show was still just not that good.  This event is mostly remembered for the spectacle of The Road Warriors and Midnight Express trying not to fall to their deaths for eight minutes.  Not the NWA's best event...

Best Match: Ric Flair vs. Nikita Koloff
Worst Match: Jimmy Valiant vs. Paul Jones
What I'd Change: Trim this down to three hours and cut maybe three matches.  And for God's sake, not every big match needs blood!
Most Disappointing Match: Rock n' Roll Express vs. Andersons - just way too one-sided and methodical
Most Pleasant Surprise: Flair vs. Koloff
Overall Rating: 5.5/10

Starrcade '87 - UIC Pavilion - 11.26.87

The 1987 edition was the first-ever PPV broadcast by Jim Crockett Promotions.  Crockett was expanding rapidly with designs on competing with the WWF, and moved into the non-traditional locale of Chicago for his flagship show.  Unfortunately Vince McMahon had designs on squashing the NWA's PPV hopes and ran the inaugural Survivor Series against it.  Not only that but he issued an ultimatum to the cable companies: Run Starrcade and you can't have WrestleMania IV.  The ploy worked, and only a handful of cable providers kept Starrcade, which meant it got destroyed by Survivor Series (which to be fair was an awesome PPV).

Starrcade '87 holds a special place for me, as it was the first one I ever watched all the way through.  I mail-ordered the VHS tape in 1988 after reading glowing reviews in Wrestling's Main Event magazine, and upon viewing it for the first time I was blown away.  The action was athletic, physical and intense, and at the time I loved that the NWA did so many gimmick matches (When you're 12 years old nothing is as cool as a Steel Cage match, except maybe a Scaffold Match).  Amazingly this show ran under 2.5 hours but it doesn't at all feel incomplete.

SC'87 was built around Ric Flair's quest to regain the NWA Title.  The Board of Directors wanted Flair to drop the belt to someone a few months earlier and win it back at Starrcade, I guess hoping to recreate the magic of SC'83.  The problem was, no one wanted to be a two-month lame duck Champion, and the only babyface who agreed to it was perennial midcarder Ronnie Garvin (who was a fine worker but no credible World Champion).  Garvin won the Title in a cage match that September and then announced he wouldn't be defending it until Starrcade.  Not much of a story for a PPV main event, but the match itself was pretty goddamn good.  Flair and Garvin beat the bejeezus out of each other, engaging in a war of chops and Figure Fours, and frequently using the cage as a weapon.  After 17 minutes Flair caught Garvin off the ropes and hotshotted him into the cage (in one of the least painful looking spots ever), and cradled him for the win and his fifth NWA Title.  Lame ending aside this was a pretty great match.

Garvin slaps on the Figure Four

The rest of the show was nothing to sneeze at either. 

Three of the undercard bouts involved recently-acquired UWF talent, as Crockett had bought the former Mid-South territory from Bill Watts and staged a UWF Invasion.  Unfortunately he botched it completely by presenting most of the UWF wrestlers as far beneath his homegrown stars (a mistake Vince would repeat 14 years later after buying out WCW).

Still the invasion yielded some decent stuff on this show, starting with a pretty fun six-man opener pitting Larry Zbyzsko, Eddie Gilbert and Rick Steiner against Michael Hayes, Jimmy Garvin, and a young facepainted powerhouse named Sting.  This was nothing amazing but it was a nice way to warm up the crowd, and Sting was already hugely over.  The match inexplicably ended in a draw; Sting really should've pinned one of the heels given how quickly they pushed him.

Second was the only bad match on the show, as UWF Champion Steve Williams defended against Barry Windham.  On paper this sounds fantastic, but when they're only given six minutes and the match ends with a cradle out of nowhere, you can't expect much.  Since the show ran so short this should've gotten at least five more minutes.

The show got a huge boost in the third spot, as the Skywalkers gimmick match was brought out again.  This time though The Midnight Express would face their greatest rivals, The Rock n' Roll Express.  The scaffold match is one of those gimmicks that sounds cool but is very difficult to execute well, given how dangerous it is.  Fortunately the Midnights and RnR delivered an entertaining little fight twenty feet above the ring.  As a kid I thought this match was all kinds of awesome, and it was actually much better than the previous Skywalkers Match.

The sleeper hit of the show was a TV Title unification match between NWA TV Champ Nikita Koloff and UWF TV Champ Terry Taylor.  Oddly this match got the most time of anything on the show, but these two had nice big man-little man chemistry and the match featured very solid mat wrestling.  Koloff unified the belts and Taylor was Stamford-bound soon after. 

My second-favorite match of Starrcade '87 was for the NWA Tag belts, as Arn Anderson & Tully Blanchard defended against hometown icons The Road Warriors.  I consider this the definitive LOD match, as Hawk and Animal dominated the action almost the entire time, except for a brief second act where the heels worked over Hawk's knee.  The finish came swiftly as the Warriors decimated Anderson with the Doomsday Device (which I had never seen before and it blew my ever-lovin' mind).  It appeared the Road Warriors had won, and the crowd exploded.  Unfortunately the overused Dusty Finish struck again; Animal had backdropped Arn over the top rope moments earlier and was therefore disqualified by downed referee Tommy Young.  That's some pretty bad booking from a business standpoint given how over the Road Warriors were, but I still loved this match until that latent DQ. 

You don't want none of this, Tully.

The other main event, for the US Title, was Lex Luger vs. Dusty Rhodes.  Dusty had vowed to retire if he couldn't beat Luger, and insisted on a cage match to prevent Horsemen interference.  The match itself was a bit slow but still pretty dramatic.  After a ref bump, Luger's manager JJ Dillon threw a chair into the cage, and when Luger bent down to pick it up Dusty DDT'd him on it to win the US Title.  This is one of those matches that hasn't aged well, but at the time it felt like a big deal and a worthy semi-main event.

All in all I still consider Starrcade '87 one of the best of the series.  It featured a pretty stacked show with three really strong bouts and a few other decent ones.  I feel like this show gets a lot of undeserved flak just because of Garvin's involvement in the main event.  But the match was good enough to forgive such odd booking.

Best Match: Ronnie Garvin vs. Ric Flair
Worst Match: Steve Williams vs. Barry Windham
What I'd Change: I dunno why Windham couldn't have won the NWA Title and then defended it against Flair here, or just have him challenge Flair here with the stip that it would be his last chance.  Also, for fuck's sake how do you not give Hawk & Animal the straps in their hometown?
Most Disappointing Match: Williams vs. Windham
Most Pleasant Surprise: Nikita vs. Taylor
Overall Rating: 9/10

Starrcade '88 - Norfolk Scope - 12/26/88

The first Starrcade of the Turner Era was an unabashed classic.  Held the day after Christmas to avoid having to compete with Survivor Series, this show was the culmination of the year-long Ric Flair-Lex Luger feud, as well as the first Starrcade to not feature a single gimmick match (I was super pissed about this at the time - as a thirteen-year-old I thought gimmick matches ruled).

1988 saw a disturbing number of heel and face turns in the NWA.  It's pretty staggering when you think about it.  Lex Luger turned face, Barry Windham turned heel, Ronnie Garvin turned heel, The Midnight Express turned face, The Road Warriors turned heel, Ivan Koloff turned face, Rick Steiner turned face, Steve Williams turned heel.  That's gettin' to be a lot.  Anyway, the first match saw Williams team with his new manager Kevin Sullivan to challenge The Fantastics for the US Tag belts.  Tommy Rogers and Bobby Fulton had won a tournament for the vacant Titles due to The Midnight Express having given them up after winning the World Tag belts.  Sadly their World Tag Title reign was over well before new US Tag Champs were crowned.  What a gyp.  This opening contest was quite good, and the New Varsity Club captured the belts clean.

The second bout was one of my favorites, as The Midnight Express, Bobby Eaton and Stan Lane, faced The Original Midnight Express, Dennis Condrey and Randy Rose, managed by Paul E. Dangerously.  Prior to this feud I wasn't familiar with Dangerously, but I liked his heel manager antics right away.  These two teams gelled superbly and put on a tag team clinic, which Cornette's Midnight Express won with a Double Goozle after nearly 18 minutes.

The only throwaway match of the night was next, as Ivan Koloff teamed with NWA newcomer The Junkyard Dog, against former allies The Russian Assassins.  Not much going on in this one, and mercifully it was over in less than seven minutes, when one of the masked Assassins stuffed an object into his mask and headbutted Koloff.

The rest of this show was smooth sailin'.

The first singles match was for the TV Title, as Champion Mike Rotunda defended against former tag partner Rick Steiner, with Kevin Sullivan suspended above the ring in a cage.  This was a highly technical, very entertaining match that climaxed with Steve Williams prematurely ringing the time limit bell, freeing Sullivan, who promptly climbed to the ring apron only for Steiner to whip Rotunda into him and pin Rotunda for the belt.  The Scope went bonkers for this.  Steiner was insanely over once he turned babyface.  Very solid match.

Yeah I'm thinking the cage should've been moved off to the side

My favorite NWA wrestler in late 1988 was heel Barry Windham, who exuded such palpable badassery it was staggering.  I'm still disappointed he never got a real World Title run.  Anyway, Windham defended the US Title against Bam Bam Bigelow in a real power matchup.  These two had tremendous chemistry and after sixteen minutes Windham rammed Bigelow into the ring post and took a countout win.  Bigelow left the company almost right after this, which I found puzzling.  This was the only significant match of his NWA run.

Speaking of badassery, next up was NWA Tag Champs and mega-monster heels The Road Warriors defending against the two men they betrayed, Dusty Rhodes and Sting.  Dusty was on the outs with the company at this point after defying orders not to depict blood on the NWA's weekly TV show, and this would be his swan song before jumping to the WWF.  This feud was white-hot, and so while the action wasn't on the level of the Warriors' Starrcade '87 bout, this was a very good semi-main event.  At one point Sting performed a plancha from the top rope to the floor, which was very groundbreaking at the time.  The Warriors' eventually got disqualified to retain.

The main event was a rematch from that summer, between NWA Champ Ric Flair and his former protege Lex Luger.  Luger had been ousted from The Four Horsemen after refusing to lay down for JJ Dillon during the Bunkhouse Stampede series, making Luger (along with Sting) the hottest babyface in the company.  He had come up short in their Great American Bash bout, when referee Tommy Young stopped the match due to a cut on Luger's forehead (more of that shit).  In this rematch the DQ rule was waived, meaning Flair would lose the Title on a disqualification.  After nearly 31 minutes of splendid action, Luger snared Flair in the dreaded Torture Rack but his knee buckled after absorbing several minutes of Flair offense.  Flair fell on top of Luger and put his feet on the ropes for the win.  I always felt like this was a rather unsatisfying end to this feud.  The way Luger was built up as a top babyface, it seemed to me he should've beaten Flair for the gold.  Maybe give Luger the win in July and then have Flair regain the Title here?  Regardless this was a damn fine main event.

Jeezus that guy was ripped.

The 1988 edition of Starrcade ranks right up there with 1987.  I consider them the two best of the series and I'm hard-pressed to pick a favorite.  '87 probably had the best couple of matches but '88 was the better overall event.  This kicked off a full year of the NWA doing A LOT of things right, and 1989 proved to be the best year in the company's history.

Best Match: Ric Flair vs. Lex Luger
Worst Match: Ivan Koloff & JYD vs. Russian Assassins
What I'd Change: I'd have probably given Luger a six month run with the belt leading up to this and then have Flair regain it here.
Most Disappointing Match: Nothing really disappointing except at the time I was expecting Luger to win.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Nothing all that surprising, I expected to like most of this show and I did.
Overall Rating: 9/10

Stay tuned for Part 3!

Part 1                                                                                                                                                Part 3

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