In the 1989 Wrestling Observer Yearbook, Jeff Bowdren staked his claim as to the 100 greatest matches of the 80s. Over thirty years down the line and with the benefit of the internet and streaming services, Liam Byrne aims to take a look back at each match (where available) that made the list. With a focus on the context in which these contests took place, take a walk back through time as we look at The Wrestling Classic.

Bruiser Brody and Stan Hansen vs Dory and Terry Funk
December 13, 1982

There was a consistency about Japanese wrestling in the 80s and the 90s that afforded the promotions and the wrestlers to develop long term storytelling in a manner not always possible in the United States. Though wrestlers did occasionally make the jump between All and New Japan, and not all gaijin were successful enough for a repeat journey, the same workers could reliably be found booked on cards from year to year. This allowed for not only familiarity to be formed, but for stories to slowly unfurl across a period of time, each match affording something new, an additional wrinkle or two to enjoy. When looking at one of the most lauded eras of a promotion in wrestling—90s All Japan—a narrative could be followed from the first matches between wrestlers like Misawa, Kobashi, Kawada and Taue even as far as the battles that took place beyond that decade; fans, effectively rewarded for their loyalty to the wrestlers and their work.

The reverence for the annual tournament also afforded opportunities to tell stories that ran beyond the confines of one solitary competition. As had been seen in the first four Real World Tag Leagues, victories had been split evenly between The Funk Brothers and the team of Giant Baba and Jumbo Tsuruta. However, the arrival of the monster gaijin team of Jimmy Snuka and Bruiser Brody had upset the chain of being that had existed within the promotion for almost half a decade. Though Snuka had since left the promotion for fame, fortune and run-ins with the feds up in New York, Stan Hansen’s acquisition from New Japan saw him primed to fill the gap by the time the tournament came around again.

The nature of the booking before the Real World Tag League in November and December 1982 meant that Hansen and Brody had only teamed three times before the men set out to win and regain the winner’s trophy respectively. A four day stretch in April saw them defeat Baba and Genichiro Tenryu; team with Snuka in a no-contest against Terry Funk, Jumbo Tsuruta and Ted Dibiase; and fail to win the NWA International Tag Team Titles in another no contest, this time against Baba and Tsuruta.

Having returned to nine teams in 1981 for the first time since the inception of the Real World Tag League, the 1982 offering was a smaller affair as seven teams gathered to contest the tournament. Alongside aforementioned duos such as the Funk Brothers, Brody and Hansen, and Baba and Tsuruta, the entries included Harley Race and Dick Slater, Ashura Hara and Gen’ichiro Tenryu, Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood, and Super Destroyer and Umanosuke Ueda. Notable by their absence were the team – or a team including either member – of Abdullah the Butcher and the Sheik. Usually good for a win or two to put the cat amongst the pigeons, another team would need to play ‘spoiler’ on the road to the finals.

Considering their eventual role propping up the table, it was the team of Destroyer (Scott Irwin) and Ueda on the first night who gave the native favorites, Baba and Tsuruta, an early mountain to climb. Though a double countout was the best outcome for Destroyer and Ueda as they succumbed to five losses in a row, it didn’t see them awarded any points. However, in the process, it also meant that Baba and Tsuruta had to wait until the ninth show to score their first victory (over Hara and Tenryu) and make their mark on the league table.

By this time, The Funks had already won three matches, whilst Brody and Hansen had come through their first two unscathed. With seven teams in the tournament and a long tour covering seventeen shows, the booking became somewhat lopsided as some saw their matches come in quick succession, whereas others were left with big gaps between contests. In this instance, all this served to do was to heap the pressure on Baba and Tsuruta. Already having lost points, all they could do was watch their biggest rivals defeat everyone that stood in their way.

It was in the final week – Show 12 to be exact – that the first real clash of the titans took place. Baba and Tsuruta faced the de facto first place team, the Funks, leading due to having completed more matches than Brody and Hansen. Since the inception of the tournament, the native duo had never gone more than one year without winning the event. On the other hand, the Funks needed to beat a team that had proved unbeatable for them in this event, whether by way of time limit draws or countout losses.

With this the definition of a ‘must win’ for Baba and Tsuruta, they came good, defeating the Funks by countout in just under twenty-seven minutes.

Things were looking even better the following day as semi-main saw the Funks unable to defeat Dick Slater and Harley Race within the forty-five-minute time limit. Though this may have gained them a point, it was another blot on their copybook and a debilitating one at that. With all of their matches now complete except for Brody and Hansen on the last night, the Funks and the fans could only wait to see what the stakes for that final match would end up being.

They didn’t have long to wait. In the main event, the team of Baba and Tsuruta met Hansen and Brody. Though the native duo had one more match before the final event – versus Steamboat and Youngblood – nothing short of a victory was going to be enough to keep them in with a chance of winning it all. If Brody and Hansen won, they would step in the ring against the Funks on the final night as the current leaders with a point advantage. That was potentially massive: a draw, no-contest, double countout or disqualification would be enough for them to win the tournament. For the Funks, it would be win or bust.

Having snaffled Hansen from New Japan the previous year, All Japan clearly had big things in mind when it came to how the big Texan was booked. Going unsurprisingly  to a double countout with Tsuruta two nights earlier, Hansen’s power offense made all the difference when it mattered. After saving his partner multiple times from pinfall attempts, Hansen took advantage of the chaos that had begun to unfold to drill Baba with the lariat. One King Kong Kneedrop later and the gaijin giants had won. 

This was a huge victory, not only in terms of this tournament, but the Real World Tag League as a whole. It was the first loss via pinfall or submission for Baba and Tsuruta since their first match in the initial tournament in 1977; Brody and Hansen were a force to be reckoned with who could back up their brute force with the firepower to cut down a team double quick. The task facing the Funks seemed insurmountable.

The biggest potential danger to what felt like their obvious success in the tournament? Themselves.

Coming off the back of the victory over Baba and Tsuruta, the only reason that Brody and Hansen hadn’t already achieved an insurmountable lead was a disqualification loss earlier in the tour to Hara and Tenryu. Their inability to fight consistently within the rules from bell to bell had already cost them two points. If they were unable to tow the line on the final night of the tour, they would allow the Funks to sneak into first place. The odds were definitely in the favor of Brody and Hansen, but the seeds had been planted as to a means with which the Funks could be victorious.

Before the stakes for the final night had been set in stone, the eleventh show gave Terry Funk and Bruiser Brody a chance to relive their wild brawl from the previous year. With both teams likely to be at the top of the card come finals night, this was an opportunity presented itself for one of the men to establish their dominance, at least in a singles match setting. At least, that was the idea in theory. In practice, large swathes of the match saw Brody brutalize Funk, nailing him with a chair at ringside and causing the crimson to flow from his opponent’s ear after a whip into the ringpost. 

Funk, not averse to bending the rules himself, connected with a low blow before returning the favor and busting Brody open via the opposite ringpost. The arrival at ringside of Hansen not only sparked a revival for Bruiser, it also lead to the inevitable no-contest as the burly Texan began to take swings at Dory Funk Jr. When this brawl spilled into the ring, the referee was left with little option but to throw the match out. What followed were wild scenes as Terry decided the best strategy was to throw chairs into the ring rather than directly save his brother. It took a run-in from Tsuruta, swinging for the fences with his own chair, to drive the fight away from the ring.

Amongst all the carnage, a blueprint was established. Terry had managed to weather the early storm and fury from Brody, before coming on strong towards the finish. The longer the match went, the more it might favor the Funks. 

On a card that saw Jay Youngblood beat a young Mitsuharu Misawa, Ricky Steamboat battle to a twenty-minute draw with Atsushi Onita, and the team of Baba and Tsuruta close out their campaign with a victory over Slater and Race, the main event carried all of the stakes. Was Brody able to earn back to back victories in the Real World Tag League? Was Hansen a better partner than Snuka had been the previous year? Could The Funks win for the first time since 1979?

At the end of a seventeen show tour, the wrestlers could be forgiven for a performance that bordered on the lethargic, one that was by-the-numbers yet still gave the fans what they wanted in terms of the big characters and names. However, there was no sign of slowing down from the opening bell right through. With a vociferous crowd in the Kuramae Kokugikan that night, all four men delivered physical wrestling mixed with high tension narrative.

As was to be expected, Hansen and Brody came out firing bombs in an effort to cut the ring in half. Terry managed to initially avoid a prolonged attack in the heel corner, yet a telegraphed backdrop attempt several minutes later led to him not only eating a boot to the face, but suffering a no-frills beatdown to follow. Bleeding profusely once more, the claret almost seemed to revive Terry as he tried to go punch for punch with Hansen, but a missed elbowdrop moments afterward spoke to a dangerous exuberance that threatened to cost his team the match. Luckily, a tag to Dory saved him from any further pain.

Even having had more success on offense than his brother, Dory Funk was also soon covered in blood. The Funks were the two men who most looked like they had been in a fight, but more importantly, they were yet to be defeated. Each two count, whether a kickout of a Brody piledriver, or Terry saving Dory following a Hansen neckbreaker, pushed the match that little bit longer. With every additional minute, there was a chance of a mistake being made, a rule being broken, things falling apart.

They didn’t have to wait too long.

Echoes of last year’s final saw Hansen drop Terry at ringside with the lariat. Before, this had been the precursor to victory. This time, as Funk rolled around in the streamers to add a further element of restriction to his predicament, Hansen loaded up for the lariat on Dory. With the referee trying to stop such flagrant double teaming, Hansen bulldozed through both the official and Dory with the same move. Rather than dwelling on his mistake, Hansen then sought to manhandle the replacement referee, leaving little choice but to end the contest as a disqualification.

The Funks may have won the battle; they – and a number of the All Japan roster – lost the war.

With the match over, Hansen and Brody wailed on anything that moved, drilling any of the tracksuit wearing wrestlers at ringside. Before leaving, the Texan took one last swing, this time at the trophy in order to attempt to knock it over. It remained standing.

In an era where clean victories were rare, the booking of the final was perfect. The bullies got their comeuppance, their uncontrollable ways eventually coming back to cost them when it mattered the most, yet they still came out looking strong. Based on their historical presentation alone, Brody and Hansen weren’t likely to lose much sleep over their defeat, especially after the damage and destruction they caused. To the victor, the spoils. The Funks had shown that, if you were resilient enough and were largely able to match fire with fire, Brody and Hansen weren’t completely unbeatable.

As for that constancy we talked about at the start? Things were about to change in a pretty serious way. Before the 1983 version of the tournament, Terry Funk decided to hang up his boots and retire. I wonder what happened to him after that…

…he wrestled for another thirty-five years? Figures. Wrestlers do love a good retirement after all.