Ricky Steamboat & Eddie Gilbert vs. Ric Flair & Barry Windham
January 21, 1989
NWA World Championship Wrestling

The great thing about the enormity of pro wrestling is that with VOW Secret Santa, chances are you’ll never get the same kind of match twice. I’ve participated in a bunch of Secret Santa/Social Distance Santa exchanges over the years at Voices of Wrestling, and I’ve received everything from high-flying lucha libre to a WWF street fight to 1960s French catch wrestling to The Great Space War and beyond.

This year is the first time I’ve gotten a studio wrestling match from the 1980s, and there are a couple things that stand out to me. The first is how natural everything feels. Pro wrestling is by and large an unnatural activity given it’s predetermined and made up of people portraying characters (in other words, it’s a work, brother), but you can still present it in a way where it seems real. Here, the wrestlers talk and interact with each other like real people, the commentators sound like guys calling an athletic contest happening in the moment, the studio setting feels like a televised wrestling event rather than a show about wrestling. I can never get rid of the knowledge that wrestling is fake, I’ll always know that, but I can still watch something like this and put that knowledge to the side while I immerse myself in the product, just like any other well-crafted movie or TV show. It’s the opposite of WWE, where they seem to go out of their way to make the shows feel as unnatural as possible. Put on an episode of Monday Night Raw and look at the fans on the hard cam sitting on their hands stone-faced while canned crowd noise plays over the top. There’s nothing natural about that.

The other thing that stands out to me is the level of talent involved. It’s 1989 and we’ve got Ric Flair, Barry Windham, Ricky Steamboat, and Eddie Gilbert wrestling and cutting promos, J.J. Dillon is managing the Four Horsemen, a young Jim Ross and even younger, mustachioed Tony Schiavone are on commentary with nary a hint of grumpiness. Oh, and Teddy Long is the referee (how fitting since it’s a tag team match, playa). For classic TV wrestling, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Anyway, it’s January 1989 and the ink is still drying on Ted Turner’s purchase of Jim Crockett Promotions. The company, now known as World Championship Wrestling, is still affiliated with the NWA. Flair is NWA World Heavyweight Champion, while Windham is NWA United States Champion. The Horsemen are at the desk with Jim Ross, gloating up a storm after Windham’s recent victory over Eddie Gilbert, in which Flair helped attack Gilbert afterwards. Gilbert arrives and tells the Horsemen that he’s called somebody to even the odds, challenging Flair and Windham to a tag match. The Horsemen accept and the match is on. We go to the ring, where everyone is waiting to see who Gilbert’s partner is, when “Sirius” by The Alan Parson Project hits. No, it’s not the Chicago Bulls starting lineup, it’s Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, returning to the NWA after leaving for the WWF in 1985. The fans are going wild, JR and Tony are excited, and the Horsemen are shocked.

The goal of this match is simple: Reintroduce Steamboat to the NWA as a top babyface star and major threat to Flair’s title. It succeeds on both counts. The first five minutes is just Steamboat kicking the Horsemen’s ass. He is a house of white meat babyface fire, busting out his trademark arm drags and chops to the crowd’s delight. Flair and Windham do a great job making Steamboat look like a million bucks, bumping around the ring, at times backing off in cowardice from his snappy offense. Gilbert eventually tags in, and while he’s going to be the babyface in peril to build to the Steamboat hot tag, he doesn’t just spend the entire middle portion of the match getting beat down as this helpless schmuck. There are times where the Horsemen will get an advantage, but then Gilbert will get in a burst of offense to turn the tide back around, so he’s still able to get some shine against the bad guys amidst the larger story of Steamboat’s return. It’s only when Windham attacks Gilbert while he has Flair locked in a Figure Four that the Horsemen actually get things under their control. After a few minutes, Windham goes up top for a Diving Elbow Drop (an impressive feat for a man his size in 1989) but Gilbert moves out of the way and tags in Steamboat. The final portion of the match is basically a repeat of the first, with Steamboat utterly dominating the Horsemen. He hits Flair with the Diving Crossbody and gets the pin while Gilbert stops Windham from breaking it up. The fans jump out of their seats in rapturous celebration as Jim Ross yells “The Dragon has returned to the NWA!”

Afterwards, Steamboat and Gilbert return to the desk and go over the match with JR and Tony as highlights play. It reminds me of the UFC where Joe Rogan or Daniel Cormier will talk to the winner of a fight as they watch replays of key moments. If I was in charge of AEW Dark, I would absolutely do that for their studio tapings in Orlando. Steamboat says he went around the world, even to other federations, but he came back home. He’s got a new son (shout out to Richie Steamboat) and wants to secure his future by becoming the new NWA World Heavyweight Champion. The Horsemen show up guns blazing and complain that they weren’t prepared to fight Steamboat. Flair, in particular, is absolutely IRATE and he cuts an amazing promo. “I AM A MULTI-MILLIONAIRE! AND THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN TO MILLIONAIRES!” he screams. Flair, on the verge of an aneurysm, yells that if he’s gonna wrestle Ricky Steamboat, he wants to know ahead of time, and he doesn’t care if Ricky has a new kid, he’s never gonna get his belt. It’s a fantastic way to wrap things up.

This whole affair, from pre-match to post, takes place in an easily digestible 30 minutes. It’s a perfect example of great TV wrestling, with a hot angle, an energized crowd, some fiery promos, and a good match in the middle. It also has historical importance because it’s the start of the Flair-Steamboat feud of ’89, which gives us some of the greatest wrestling matches of all time. As for who gifted me this match, I guess it was Liam Jones because he’s recently taken an interest in 80s territory wrestling.