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.
Ric Flair vs. Kerry Von Erich
December 25, 1982
It is the strength of booking, whether it be an angle or a storyline or a match, that is the difference between success and failure. Get the right type of wrestlers in the right place at the right time and you give yourself a license to print money. If any of these individual moving parts isn’t quite right, you could be left with something good, but not great; something engaging, but not territory-defining. In many ways, the strength of the booking usurps even the quality of the matches themselves, though it often helps if the workers can get it done in the ring as well.
There is an argument to be had that the Ric Flair versus Kerry Von Erich match, December 25, 1982, was the best-booked match of all time.
When you factor in everything that had come before it, in terms of World Class as a territory and the Von Erichs as a wrestling family, coupled with the immediate storyline of Flair, Kerry and the Freebirds, before factoring in the ability to run with this feud in the aftermath of the match for over a year and a half, it stands up amongst the greats of this business. Debatably, it worked too well. Jack Adkisson, Fritz Von Erich to the wrestling world, didn’t know how to transition away from the feud, with each iteration after the first one being evidence of the law of diminishing returns.
Though it is often hard to ignore the bleakness of the eventual Von Erich narrative, this was the territory at its greatest. By proxy, it was the family at its greatest also, their lives so tangled up within the wrestling business and the success of their operation out of downtown Dallas. The proliferation of footage that ended up on the WWE Network in the past few years has allowed fans to chart their successes and failures. You look a year or so either side of this event, and the landscape was very different. The plodding action offered in 1981 was replaced by something more exciting, something that made good use of money from syndication and their positioning on the Christian Broadcast Network when it came to production and technology. Go to 1984, and David’s death was around the corner, the catalyst for a seemingly unending sequence of tragedy.
Christmas 1982 and the year that followed, the lights shone the brightest and the Von Erichs felt like they could take on the world.
Like all feuds, it was only ever going to be as good as the antagonist in the situation, and there were few in wrestling at this time that were a better heel than Michael Hayes. Between runs in Memphis, Georgia and Mid-South, his arrogant swagger and fire on the microphone had people lining up to buy tickets to see him get his face punched in. Though a natural heel, Hayes’ biggest exposure up until this point – Georgia on TBS – saw him positioned as a babyface for a long stretch, even teaming alongside Kevin Von Erich in 1981. This was also his last big run before heading up to Texas, making his arrival as a friend of the Von Erichs an easier sell for any doubting fans.
The story as retold by those involved saw Michael Hayes booked in Dallas initially as a singles wrestler. However, having seen the fervor of the fans when it came to the Von Erich boys on one night in Dallas, Hayes got on the phone to Terry Gordy, suggesting that there was a chance to make a whole lot of money. Michael may have been impressed already by the type of excitement provided by the Texan crowds – this was merely the tip of the iceberg as to the reactions they were getting come 1983.
What they needed was a catalyst.
Though the Von Erichs had storylines with a number of heels who had come through Texas in recent years, the overarching narrative of the territory was the quest for the NWA World Heavyweight Title. It usurped everything, and was front and central to the booking of the promotion. Whenever Fritz could get his hands on the champion for a tour date or two, one of his boys not only would challenge for the title, but more often than not come up short only due to the nefarious actions of a Harley Race or Ric Flair. The suggestion to the fans was simple: when things were on a level playing field, a Von Erich was going to become the next NWA World Heavyweight champion.
At different times, either David, Kevin or Kerry had been in the position to challenge for the gold. For the second half of 1982, it was the youngest of the three – ‘The Modern Day Warrior’ as Kerry became known – who was in pole position. Probably the lesser of the three when it came to in-ring action (though that is up for debate), he was definitely the one with the most natural charisma. Between the chiseled physique and the flowing hair, he was a young lady’s dream if the noise from the crowds were anything to go by. It was this larger-than-life aura that he exuded that made him the perfect challenger given the way things were about to be booked.
As was the way of the NWA Champion, Ric Flair had a punishing schedule and would frequent many different territories to put over local talent by making them seem like they could hang with the best man in the business. During that year alone, Flair wrestled a veritable Hall of Fame of wrestlers, seeing off Sergeant Slaughter, Buddy Rose, Ricky Steamboat and Butch Reed, to name but a few. Along the way, he was also challenged by lesser names like Terry Gibbs and Brett Sawyer, but no matter who he worked, he always came out on top or kept his belt. Indeed, in this first reign as NWA Champion, Ric Flair had managed to fend off all-comers for over fifteen months.
During this time, he had already retained the title against Kerry Von Erich two times. The first time came on the 25th of January 1982, where Flair defended the NWA World Heavyweight Title in Kerry’s backyard, the Sportatorium in Texas. More famously, Von Erich got a second shot on the 15th of August following a victory over Harley Race the previous month. This time it was thought under the two out of three falls rules that would often apply to NWA title matches. In a period of time where the champion needed to be seen to be the best, but the challengers needed to draw money the following day, week and month within their territory, these rules allowed a way to book both these outcomes – a fall each, then a non-finish, or a pinfall for the champion, yet the loss of a fall signaling the inherent value of the challenger.
To sell this match in that way, as a formulaic piece of booking, would do it a disservice. For close to forty minutes, the two men beat each other to a bloody mess over the right to proclaim themselves arguably the best wrestler in the world. A mistimed punch saw Kerry lose the first fall by disqualification when he inadvertently struck the ref, but the Iron Claw was enough for Kerry to pin the champ and even the match. By this time, the anger each man felt for each other spilled over, the ref sent flying on several occasions as fists flew down on the mat. A double DQ was the only reasonable course of action and enough for the belt to remain with the champion; Ric Flair’s shrill cries of ‘Raise my hand’ feeling like a desperate plea to superficially prove that he truly was the man.
As was usual, the Texas faithful had a gripe to be raised. Not only did Flair live up to his name as the dirty player in the game, but the referee’s inability to control things had ultimately cost Kerry dear. Flair hadn’t been able to make Kerry submit or to hold his shoulders to the canvas for a three count, whilst the Iron Claw had legitimately subdued the champion. Though the two met one other time – Flair defeating Kerry in September – the televised narrative was that Kerry would get his rematch for the title on Christmas Day. Having been sold the concept that an even-strength situation could only be to the benefit of a Von Erich, the fans must have been sensing a title change as Flair and Kerry were booked to meet inside of a steel cage on Christmas Night.
To add to the feeling that things were finally going the Von Erich’s way, a special referee that had been voted for by the fans was also going to be involved. Whilst David Manning could be pushed around by Flair, a more robust option would be there to ensure that the right decision was made. The fans were given a choice between a variety of names, including Duke Keomuka, Wild Bull Curry, Ken Mantell and Michael Hayes. Though luminaries of the Texas wrestling scene in their own right, Keomuka, Curry and Mantell were either long retired or had transitioned into roles behind the scenes. Hayes was current, fresh and exciting, whilst also being positioned on television as a friend of David Von Erich. He ticked every conceivable box for a fan looking to lend a helping hand to Kerry in his quest for the NWA World Heavyweight Title. Unsurprisingly, Hayes was the people’s choice, either by genuine vote or rigged choice (though the deck had been stacked so far in his favour that a legitimate ballot couldn’t conceivably be won by anyone else).
The Christmas Night show in Reunion Arena, Dallas, was a masterclass of booking. Fritz could have relied solely on the passion of the Texas faithful and their desire for a Von Erich world champion to carry the feud that would become the centerpiece of the promotion going forward. However, an earlier match on the card afforded the potential to strengthen the perceived friendship of the Von Erichs and the Freebirds before the dagger blow finish. More importantly, it was an opportunity to introduce the World Six-Man Tag Team Championship, an accolade solely created in anticipation of the fallout from Christmas Night.
The Freebirds versus Tom Steele (Gene Petit/Cousin Luke), Mike Sharpe and Ben Sharpe (Kelly Kiniski) wasn’t exactly a match that felt in doubt when it came to crowning the inaugural Six-Man Tag Team Champions. It served a higher purpose though; a chance to add a little more sizzle to the steak that was the main event and the match-ending angle. With the Freebirds a man short due to “airplane trouble” for Buddy Roberts, it was the gallant David Von Erich who saved the day by joining with his friends in order for them to win the title. In a move that showed the type of people the Von Erichs were, David then immediately relinquished his right to one-third of the crowd, passing it directly to Roberts.
It was supposed to serve as a sign of the closeness between the two units. Not only was David willing to fight alongside Hayes and Gordy, but he stepped aside to allow the Freebirds – presented often as friends who were so close they were like family – their moment of celebration. For the fans in attendance, the joy was twofold. They were happy to see the Birds take the title, whilst this also felt like a precursor to great things in the main event. A favor for a favor was surely the order of the day; Hayes was going to call things down the middle and Kerry would be the new NWA World Heavyweight Champion.
Having spent years pushing the ‘Von Erich as champion’ storyline, months suggesting that Kerry had Flair’s number, and the show thus far building the strong, supportive link with the Freebird boys, Fritz had things exactly where he wanted them to light a spark under the territory with one of the greatest heel turns of all time.
With his partner as special referee, Terry Gordy was always likely to be involved in some manner. Indeed, a brief pre-match promo saw Hayes bestow the key to the cage to Gordy as he would act as the enforcer at ringside. Though the match was officially no-disqualification, David Manning tried his best to uphold some of the rules, such as rope breaks. When Manning’s words had little impact, Hayes was happy to step in with a push or a shove to break things up as he maintained an even-handed physicality towards both men that paid off as the battle wore on.
Having raised the ire of both Flair and Von Erich with some of his decisions, Hayes finally crossed the line, dropping the NWA World Heavyweight Champion with a right hand and leaving him down on the canvas. The Freebird was joined by thousands of Texas fans in imploring Kerry to make the pin, take advantage of the situation, bring the gold home. However, ever the good southern boy, Kerry refused to take the easy route to the title. Having had no success even when dragging Von Erich by the hair to place him on top of Flair, Hayes washed his hands of the situation and chose to walk out of the cage. A scuffle with Kerry ensued.
The best feuds are always the ones where the heel can feel justifiably angry with the face’s actions. You can clearly see their point of view and their reasoning; the manner in which they try and gain revenge is what becomes questionable.
As Kerry and Hayes clashed near the cage door, Flair kneed the two men into each other, sending the special referee crashing to the ringside. Hayes and Von Erich had largely blocked off Gordy’s view, so rather than see Flair’s blindside attack, all he could see was Kerry seemingly attacking his loyal friend. Grabbing the first thing that came to hand, Gordy swung the cage door shut, crushing Kerry’s skull between two unforgiving pieces of steel. The blue touch paper had been lit.
In the years that followed, the cage door assault had – in my experience – often been conflated with the finish of the match, somewhat akin to how Shawn Michaels apparently superkicked Marty Jannetty through the Barber Shop window. However, rather than lead immediately to a finish, The Modern Day Warrior gamely fought on, Mercer on commentary selling the glassy-eyed look on the challenger’s face. Eventually, Manning was left with little choice but to call the match off. Once again, Flair had walked out of Texas with the belt around his waist, yet the focus was not on The Nature Boy. It was on the Freebirds: Hayes, Gordy and Roberts – a trio that was about to help make World Class famous.
It was a shame that the Freebirds versus Von Erichs feud returned multiple times to diminishing returns. Coupled with the various tragedies that befell the Von Erich family, it casts a shadow over the success of the initial run opposite each other. Week in, week out, the Texas faithful flocked to see any number of different combinations of the six men – alongside a number of other associates such as Jimmy Garvin, Iceman King Parsons, Chris Adams – battle it out for close to two years. Few, if any, angles can claim to be the catalyst for months, let alone years, of feuding; few, if any, angles can claim to have been booked so brilliantly.
The Freebirds versus Von Erich feud took flight that Christmas Eve, a snapshot of the fervor wrestling could create and the drama good characters and storyline could evoke. Taken as a moment in time, devoid of all that followed good and bad, it is perfection.