Friday, May 7, 2021

The Great Wrestling Champions: Ric Flair (1989-1990)

Welcome to a new feature, The Great Wrestling Champions, where I examine a particularly noteworthy championship reign in the annals of wrestling history - one that made a difference in elevating said championship and the company it represents.

Today's entry is the 1989-90 reign of NWA World Champion Ric Flair.

Flair's sixth title run was in my estimation the greatest of his sixteen famed world championships, showcasing a bona fide in-ring artist and showman at the top of his arguably unparalleled career, and marking his final run as THE star of the NWA.  Flair had legitimately ruled the 80s as far as the NWA/WCW was concerned, enjoying a decade-long run as the promotion's undisputed top draw.  While he considered his first NWA Title reign as something of a tryout (In those days the NWA Board of Directors had to vote on whether to crown a new champion and Flair got a narrow 5-4 vote of confidence), by the end of 1983 he was clearly the man to whom the torch was passed, from former top NWA draws Harley Race and Dusty Rhodes.  His star power was so great that he'd travel around to the various NWA territories and feud with the local top star, in order to make that guy look like a bigger deal.  Flair would keep the title for a year or two, lose it to a babyface challenger to garner a big box office, and win it back shortly thereafter.  This was the pattern from his second reign on.  He briefly lost the title to Kerry Von Erich, Dusty Rhodes, Ronnie Garvin and finally, in a match that set the tone for the NWA's banner year 1989, Ricky Steamboat.

Flair's feud with Steamboat instantly became the stuff of legend, as the two perfectly paired adversaries traded wins over a three month period, scoring three staggering Match of the Year candidates and assembling one of the greatest wrestling feuds of all time.  Flair would win the title back at WrestleWar '89 and immediately follow up one stellar feud with another; the returning former champion Terry Funk attacked him post-match to set up six months of brutally contested enmity.  The inciting incident involved Funk piledriving Flair on a table and putting him out of action for two months due to a kayfabe neck injury.  This allowed the NWA to build to their first match at The Great American Bash, and marked Flair's first babyface turn since 1983.  The hotly anticipated Flair-Funk bout on July 23rd was a wild powderkeg of a match, spilling all over the ringside area and showing off Flair's brawling versatility after the graceful, scientific trilogy with Steamboat.

From there Flair formed an alliance with erstwhile rival Sting (whom Flair had helped elevate a year earlier as the NWA's next big babyface), against Gary Hart's J-Tex Corporation of Funk and Japanese sensation/NWA newcomer The Great Muta.  The four men feuded for months, capping off their rivalry at the NWA's newest PPV offering, Halloween Havoc.  Havoc's centerpiece was a new gimmick match called Thunderdome, a no-holds-barred tag team match surrounded by a massive steel cage (Like Hell in a Cell it encapsulated the entire ringside area) filled with various weapons and electrified along the top to prevent escape.  The match could only be ended by one team's corner man throwing in the towel for his team.  Flair, Sting, Funk and Muta had an unruly, high-energy, outrageously entertaining war that featured loads of high spots and innovative use of the cage.  Once again Flair showed that he could adapt to Funk's chaotic style, but the trilogy of high-profile Flair-Funk bouts would reach a fever pitch two weeks later at the ninth Clash of the Champions TV special.

Dubbed "New York Knockout," Clash IX was a stacked, Starrcade-esque lineup that paid off multiple feuds and culminated in the Ric Flair-Terry Funk blowoff match, contested under "I Quit" rules.  Flair and Funk topped their previous two bouts with a frenzied, violent performance that ranged all over the arena and incorporated tables and chairs, before Flair finally locked in the Figure Four to end both the battle and the war.  This match would've easily been worthy to headline the 1989 edition of Starrcade (More on that HERE); it was as fantastic a match of its type as the three Flair-Steamboat encounters had been, and capped off an astounding nine-month stretch for the NWA's star player.  But Flair's sixth title run would include two more high-profile feuds before it was over.

Starrcade 1989 boasted an experimental 12-match format, as four singles stars and four tag teams were selected for parallel round-robin tournaments, the singles half featuring Flair, Sting, Lex Luger and The Great Muta.  The show was met with a lukewarm reaction and had mixed results (Flair vs. Muta for example was a two-minute wasted opportunity), but Flair showed his incredible in-ring prowess once again, delivering two very strong bouts against his two biggest rivals of 1988.  Flair-Luger was noteworthy for having the babyface-heel roles reversed, while the Flair-Sting main event shook the NWA to its foundation when Flair's closest ally defeated him cleanly to win the entire tournament.  After the show Flair and recently returned friends Ole and Arn Anderson inducted Sting into the Four Horsemen, seemingly to set the group up as the controlling babyface faction of 1990.

But things changed abruptly at the tenth Clash of the Champions when, after Sting's Starrcade win catapulted him to the #1 Contender spot, Flair and the Andersons turned on him and became the ruthless heels of old.  Sting was set to challenge Flair at WrestleWar '90, but during a pull-apart brawl later in the Clash show, Sting suffered a knee injury that would keep him on the shelf for five months.  Thus US Champion Lex Luger was named as Flair's new challenger, and the two heel champions and longtime foes would do battle instead.

The WrestleWar match was an epic 39-minute encounter that rivaled the quality of their Starrcade '88 main event until the Andersons and Sting got into an altercation at ringside, and Lex Luger turned babyface again by saving Sting and unintentionally getting counted out.  While the booking here was disappointing and fairly nonsensical (Why would referee Nick Patrick count Luger out as he's watching the Andersons keep him from re-entering the ring?), Flair had delivered yet another grueling performance that echoed his previous five-year heel run.  A steel cage rematch at the newest PPV Capitol Combat was equally strong but equally marred by Horsemen interference, as this time Barry Windham returned to the group to get Flair disqualified and save his championship.  Flair had turned back the challenge of Lex Luger for the fourth time on PPV, but now Sting was returning from injury with revenge on his mind.

The long-awaited Flair-Sting rematch would take place at The Great American Bash, and Sting's allies (Luger, The Steiners, Paul Orndorff, El Gigante and the Junkyard Dog) would be stationed at ringside to prevent Horsemen interference.  The sixteen-minute main event was somewhat underwhelming from an in-ring standpoint but had major significance for the company, as Sting dethroned Flair to end his incredible sixth World Title reign and become the new face of the NWA.  For the first time since 1983 the promotion had a true passing of the torch, as the top dog of the 1980s had put over the NWA's intended ace of the 90s.  Flair would regain the strap in early 1991, but Sting became the first non-transitional NWA Champion since Harley Race and would be the company's top babyface for the next four years, ending Flair's seldom-interrupted stranglehold on the title.  Flair's tenure with the company would end amid controversy, as a dispute with management led to his firing, and his jumping ship to the WWF.

Ric Flair's 1989-1990 title reign was his last as the company's unquestioned top draw, and while he'd win and lose the title several more times over the next decade, this 18-month period would, for me at least, prove his most artistically successful, demonstrating his ability to deliver hugely varied but consistently excellent main event matches against divergent opponents.  From his balletic Steamboat bouts to his unhinged wars with Funk, to his epic, athletic showdowns with Luger and Sting, Flair had strung together an exemplary streak which, for any other star, would be in and of itself career-making.  For me Ric Flair's sixth reign (including the preceding three-month gap between championships) was undeniably his career climax and also the NWA's creative apex.

Thanks for reading - hope you enjoyed this retrospective on one of the all-time great championship runs.  Comment below with your thoughts, and join us on Facebook, Twitter, MeWe and YouTube!

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