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.

Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood vs. Sgt. Slaughter and Don Kernodle
March 12, 1983

This article is dedicated to the memory of Don Kernodle. He was always a wrestler that I thought was underrated having watched his work alongside Ivan Koloff in 1984, a feeling only furthered having finally dug into the full feud with Steamboat and Youngblood. Kernodle was a good wrestler and a really strong heel who skirted the line between tough guy who could back up his words and smarmy loudmouth so well. RIP.

Some stories in wrestling owe more than a smidgen to artistic license than others. When looking back through the annals of history when it comes to this great sport, there are so many tales and fables of events that saw people being turned away, traffic at a standstill for miles, tens of thousands of people pouring through the turnstiles, that it isn’t hard to be skeptical of some of those claims. Not every main event was capable of filling arenas, nor was every show as strong a draw when viewed through eyes unhindered by rose-colored glasses.

The Final Conflict, March 12, 1983, at least passes the optics test—the Greensboro Coliseum looks full to bursting when watching the card over twenty years down the line. Unlike many of the other shows that may or may not have been turning people away at the door, it also passes the legacy test – the success of the show would directly lead to Starrcade as the NWA moved into the world of closed-circuit television and eventual pay-per-view. A 16,000 strong crowd, anywhere from three to six thousand turned away at the door, and some of the worst reported traffic in Greensboro history will leave you wanting more.

Whilst many a big NWA show would hinge upon the arrival of the World Champion and their title challenger, this wasn’t the only highlight that Final Conflict had to offer. Though a Ric Flair title defense against Greg Valentine – one that went to an hour draw and appears, for the moment to be lost to time – would have appealed to many, the main event and selling point of the show was the battle for the NWA World Tag Team Titles. Having trailed the reigning champions, Sergeant Slaughter and Don Kernodle, for months, Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood had finally got their nemeses inside of a steel cage. This was not only the (apparent) Final Conflict that afforded the show its name, but a chance for retribution in a tale of disrespect, injuries and sabotage.

This is where the stories about the show pass the ultimate test: it is still a great feud today, one that you can conceivably imagine queuing up around the block to get a ticket to witness what was sold as the denouement of all that had come before. In Steamboat and Youngblood, the fans had two plucky sympathetic babyfaces to get behind, whilst in Slaughter and Kernodle most fans would have been able to find a proxy for their hatred. Slaughter represented the man in power who used it to abuse and belittle others, whilst a freshly turned heel Kernodle was the loud-mouthed braggart who had lucked into success, arguably riding Slaughter’s coattails to the top. 

Having beaten Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba for the titles (the definition of artistic license), Slaughter and Kernodle took every opportunity to bemoan the lack of opposition in Mid-Atlantic, even as teams such as Steamboat and Youngblood defeated a range of different, if unspectacular, teams on the same program. Having initially congratulated the incumbent champions, Steamboat and Youngblood’s ire was first raised when gifts of a ceremonial headdress and a Hawaiian lei, set aside as a present to a fan who had drawn a picture of the ‘uncrowned champions’, were destroyed by Slaughter and Kernodle as a cackling Valentine watched on.

Disrespect soon turned to destruction. 

In a match between the two teams, a referee bump allowed Slaughter and Kernodle to attack Youngblood without sanction. A top rope clothesline/back suplex combination – soon dubbed ‘The Atomic Bomb’ – dropped Youngblood hard on his neck. Forever sold as an unbreakable maneuver, the Cobra Clutch followed. In a clever piece of booking, the moment when Kernodle grabbed Youngblood by the leg saw the footage cut to a ‘censored’ screen, leaving the television viewers to imagine the punishment meted out to their hero. Even better was the decision to air the footage several times across the next few weeks, building interest in Youngblood’s return and his quest for vengeance.

When Youngblood returned to television – a pre-squash match brawl with the tag champions that saw Steamboat launch himself over the ringside podium in order to get at his nemeses – the focus began to turn to mind games as the feud provided excellent television week in, week out. From Slaughter bragging about Kernodle providing information to him gathered during Don’s time as a face to Youngblood breaking Jim Nelson’s version of the Cobra Clutch, each episode of wrestling television provided a new element to the feud.

Most importantly, the segments seemed to show Steamboat and Youngblood were in the heads of their opponents. A sequence of events saw Kernodle rip up his own $300 coat after Steamboat stole it and wore it into the ring; Slaughter’s campaign hat went missing; the face duo were bragging about an insurgent in the heel camp teaching them the Cobra Clutch. Fans who were tuning in were watching the heel champions outfought and outthought, hinting that it was only a matter of time before Steamboat and Youngblood usurped the villains and held the gold.

However, they were still unable to defeat Slaughter and Kernodle, no matter the edge they seemed to have on television. Footage even aired of the February 5th Greensboro Coliseum main event, a match in which Youngblood showed that he was more than capable of effectively applying the Cobra Clutch on Kernodle. As it appeared the champion was down for the three, a last-millisecond elbowdrop from Slaughter broke the hold, saved the titles, and sparked a wild brawl which saw all four men pouring with blood by the time the locker room emptied to try and restore some semblance of sanity.

This wild brawl that also saw a number of officials wiped out as collateral damage earned both teams a reprimand and a fine – the biggest in NWA history –  from Sandy Scott. Just as Slaughter and Kernodle tried to brush off Steamboat and Youngblood as challengers, it was also Scott’s position to reveal that the two teams would meet one last time – inside the confines of a steel cage.

There was still time to up the ante on the road to the Final Conflict. A contract signing, with wrestlers and the room resplendent in beige, revealed that the champions had included a stipulation that Youngblood and Steamboat would be required to split up if they failed to win the gold. Having spoken for several weeks about an insurgent in the enemy ranks, it was Steamboat and Youngblood’s turn to one-up their rivals, revealing Private Jim Nelson to be the man who taught them the Cobra Clutch, turning on the Sarge in the process. From the distance of time, Jim Nelson/Boris Zhukov never really worked out, so it is easy to highlight this as a weaker link in the story. However, it was one clearly made with one eye on the post-feud landscape, as well as seemingly giving the face team a key advantage heading into the championship cage match.

The technical focus of the opening exchanges somewhat belied the animosity that had been presented between the two teams. Knowing the match was due to go over thirty minutes within the punishing confines of the steel, things began slowly with Steamboat and Youngblood establishing their clear wrestling dominance over the champions. This also allowed the foursome to milk every reaction out of the crowd as the challengers maintained control over Kernodle, laying into Slaughter with the odd strike or chop to keep him away from the action much to the joy of the fans in attendance.

It was twelve minutes into the action before Slaughter was tagged in, but that wasn’t the end of the Steamboat and Youngblood dominance. What felt like an obvious turning point in the contest instead saw Steamboat whip Sarge into the cage multiple times to usurp the expected dynamic of the heel versus face tag match, at least for a short while.

The surprising agility of Slaughter was what brought the champions back into the contest: two dropdowns and a leapfrog allowed him to take Youngblood’s momentum and ram him into the cage. As the blood began to pour down his face, the roughhousing began. Chokes, slams, and punches accompanied liberal double teams and use of the cage itself as the champions’ assault wrung every ounce of drama out of the situation. A muted hush fell over the Greensboro faithful, only sparked into life by valiant hope spots from the weakened challenger.

By the time Steamboat was tagged in, Youngblood kicking away from a Cobra Clutch attempt in the process, neither team was able to maintain control for long. All four men were wearing crimson masks, puddles and flecks of blood spreading across the canvas. A wild attempted splash from the top of the cage by the 300 pound Slaughter missed Steamboat by centimetres in the high spot of the whole match, before Sarge took a proverbial bullet as Steamboat slammed Youngblood onto him instead of his downed partner for what would have been a three count.

Like all good finishes, especially ones that end feuds, the disparate threads need to be pulled together to make a satisfying conclusion. As Youngblood applied the Clutch to Kernodle – taught by Jim Nelson – and Steamboat had Slaughter in the sleeperhold – a hold that Johnny Weaver had taught both faces – the challengers seemed in control. Using the cage as a weapon, Slaughter managed to break the sleeper, before absolutely nailing Youngblood with the Slaughter Cannon clothesline, a version of which had put Jay on the shelf several months earlier. Each layer of what had been established escalated the tension to its absolute highest before the ending.

The actual pin was somewhat anticlimactic in hindsight: Slaughter dragged the KO-ed Kernodle onto Youngblood, only for Steamboat to reverse the pin and win the titles. Perhaps sensing the opportunity to wring every last dollar out of this match, the booking of the finish looked to keep Slaughter and Kernodle strong. Indeed, though this was sold as The Final Conflict, the two teams were still fighting each other two months later, even returning to the Greensboro Coliseum for another steel cage match in May. Around the horn, some fans even got to see the version of the gimmick that saw Slaughter and Kernodle come out on top.

Ultimately, however, the fans had witnessed their team overcoming all of the obstacles of the past several months to overthrow the arrogant heel champions. A feud that was apparently written down by Slaughter and Kernodle whilst travelling between shows had done exactly what they had planned: find a way to make money.

Enough money and interest, in fact, to spark an idea on a grander scale from those in positions of authority. The Final Conflict was such a success, considering not only the number of fans in attendance but the number of people who were turned away, that it served as the inspiration for Starrcade ‘83, the event that largely popularised the use of closed-circuit television broadcasting. If only for its role in the furthering of wrestling as an entertainment medium, Steamboat and Youngblood versus Slaughter and Kernodle deserves recognition – but it is also a damn good feud and match, well worth a revisit in all its glory.