When sitting down to write this intro, it was very easy to just want to call this “The Flair/Steamboat” section. Ric Flair’s 1989 is legendary. It features possibly the greatest wrestling trilogy of all time and was followed by an equally legendary feud with Terry Funk. It was also the culmination of 80s wrestling as a whole. Wrestlers were working faster and more athletically. A few years earlier, Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask revolutionized the way smaller wrestlers work, their impact still felt on every wrestling show you see now. Ricky Steamboat showed a similar style at the most famous wrestling show of all time, WrestleMania 3.
This section compiles five legendary matches that both showcase the 80s style of wrestling at its best and changed the metrics for which wrestling is judged. Some paved the way for the next generation, while others raised the bar for what is considered great. They are referenced daily in the wrestling lexicon and have become canonized. Not only are these matches part of Wrestling 101, but they are also first-day viewing. – Kevin Hare
Dynamite Kid vs. Tiger Mask
NJPW Summer Fight Series II 1982
Before the internet made the exploration of wrestling from far and wide easier than ever to engage with, it was down to knowledgeable fans on forums and in chatrooms to pass on touchstone matches and workers to new, impressionable converts. Depending on when you decided to dig deeper into your fandom, you’d have different recommendations as the thing du jour wouldn’t necessarily stay the same. During my early years watching the sport, a desirable match for many was Cactus Jack versus Terry Funk from the IWA Kawasaki Dream – primarily due to scarcity arguably driving up demand. However, it would be less likely to be something a 2022 fan has recommended their way. It has been usurped, displaced by the tidal wave of wrestling that has followed, both new and previously unearthed.
The Dynamite Kid versus Tiger Mask series has maintained a special place within the wrestling pantheon as some of these fleeting touchstones have faded over time. Debatably it is because of the discourse that is often attached to it more than the work itself: is the series overrated? Is the proliferation of new footage out there from earlier and the same era enough to diminish the importance of this series? Wherever you stand on the feud, it does what all engaging wrestling should do – it provokes a reaction.
The two men met seven times on tape, with their strike rate of quality holding strong. This match won the Observer Match of the Year; Jeff Bowdren had three of their series in his best 100 matches from the 80s list. With six of their contests on New Japan World, it isn’t hard to follow the evolution of their work, and it is a worthy way to spend your time.
What the August 5 match provides that made it stand out compared to those matches that had come before was the two workers connecting the dots in a way that took the good and made it spectacular. It also provided the first really decisive victory in the series as a tombstone and a moonsault press by Mask was enough to keep Kid’s shoulders down on the mat for the three count. The animosity between the two had continued to grow over the course of the first few encounters and now Kid had a genuine need to gain some measure of revenge over the coming years.
It is worth noting that it isn’t even the highest rated of the series, at least in terms of Meltzer’s star ratings: their final match in April 1983 was the second match to achieve five stars. It would also be my choice for their best match as they threw everything into their final meeting, perhaps a little bit too much when it came down to it. Both men ended up over the guardrail – usually enough for a double countout – but the match restarted in search of a winner. There was enough time for Kid to smash a beer bottle against the ringpost, headbutt the referee and then trade duelling tombstones at ringside before the match officially finished with a double countout that this time stood. Even though Mask had largely been dominant in their series of matches, it felt right that the last time they met neither man was proclaimed the winner.
Not that you have to choose. The internet provides an opportunity to see all seven matches between the two and it is time well spent. Even today. Treat yourself.
- The whole Tiger Mask vs. Dynamite Kid series – The above match won Match of the Year, but you should really watch them all
- Tiger Mask vs. Eddie Gilbert – Sayama versus the World!
- Koji Kanemoto vs. Prince Devitt – The New Japan junior well is a deep one. Here’s another big match between a (former) Tiger Mask and a native of the British Isles
Ricky Steamboat vs. Randy Savage
WWF WrestleMania III
There is an incongruousness to Randy Savage versus Ricky Steamboat that makes it stand out – it just wasn’t the way in which things were seemingly done at that time. Well, at least not in the WWF. This fanbase had been fed a diet of musclebound superstars who were more about the sizzle than the steak, especially in the years since Hulk Hogan beat the Iron Sheik and HulkaMania became the word. It would be wrong to say that the focus wasn’t on the wrestling; that would be damning to a number of great talents who passed through the promotion in the 80s. It was just a different style of wrestling than many territorial fans had witnessed, one that seemed to have an eye on the merchandise table as much as the squared circle.
Yet, with one of the biggest audiences in the promotion’s history to this day, they booked a classic, technical tussle between two of the greatest workers of all time. Sure, there were still always liable to be some moments that were more about the entertainment than the wrestling (George Steele’s involvement, for starters). Still, there was a speed and a flair to what was on show that blew away every other match on the WrestleMania III card. Whilst matches that pitted Hogan against Andre the Giant and Roddy Piper against Adrian Adonis definitely put some eyes on the event, Savage versus Steamboat was one for the purist – a match that could fit in any promotion, any era, any context, and work.
It is worth noting that this was near the tail-end of Savage’s great almost two-year run as a heel, a run that offered numerous great matches on the house show circuit against Hogan, Tito Santana and Steamboat in the lead-up to WrestleMania. Savage was a heel unlike any who had stepped foot in the ring for the company, a man at once seemingly crazy yet coupled with pace and athleticism that was hard to match. Though he was mired in a feud with the aforementioned Steele for a prolonged period, Savage perhaps offered up some of his most inspired work during this time.
Considering the nature of the feud – Savage almost “ending Steamboat’s career” with a ringbell attack – there could be some argument that to have a pretty straight-down-the-middle athletic contest perhaps undersold the severity of what had come before. However, I always felt that this was all about promoting the type of wrestler Steamboat was. Having overcome the adversity of injury, it was now Steamboat’s desire to rise above the nefarious ways of Savage and ultimately prove who was the better man inside the ring. Arguably, this gets somewhat negated by Steele pushing Savage off of the top turnbuckle to lead directly into the finish, yet it was the Macho Man who had tried to introduce the ring bell into his offense once more. Maybe, just this once, turnabout was indeed fair play.
That this title victory for Steamboat didn’t lead to anything of note is the biggest shame coming out of this match. Steamboat asked for some time off to be with his newborn son, and Vince McMahon got him to drop the belt to the Honky Tonk Man. This not only killed Steamboat as a WWF act – he was never as good during his returns to the promotion – but it ushered in a very different time for the WWF Intercontinental Title. The belt that had been for the “workers” in the promotion, one that had been with Greg Valentine, Santana, Savage and Steamboat in recent years, was now around the waist of Honky. Though fun and games were to be had in the following months, there was nothing of the quality of what those four men had to offer.
I’ve seen some narrative that suggests this match is overrated. Whilst I can understand why people might reach that conclusion, taken within its context, it is a five-star classic for a reason. It is still easy to watch and enjoy through modern eyes, even if it has largely been usurped in terms of quality over the past three decades. Still, it was a high watermark for what the WWF could offer and it would be number of years before it was truly surpassed.
- Randy Savage vs. Tito Santana – Randy tearing it up in another match for the Intercontinental championship.
- Greg Valentine vs. Tito Santana – One of the many matches that made the Intercontinental title of the period the favourite of wrestling nerds.
- Chris Jericho vs. Shawn Michaels – A later addition to the catalogue of midcard Mania bangers.
Ricky Steamboat vs. Ric Flair
WCW Chi-Town Rumble
When considering the impact of this match and its place in the pantheon of professional wrestling, I think it is important to view its place as part of what, I consider, to be the best trilogy of matches in the history of the sport. The subsequent matches had all the high drama and excellent pacing of this match and also had the advantage of being broadcast on free television to a much wider audience. The original showdown holds up to the reputation so many have given it as one of the greatest matches in professional wrestling history and the match that has long sat atop my mental list of top matches ever.
Many of the things we hold in high reverence from our youth may not stand the test of time. Exodus’ second album, “Pleasures of the Flesh” is not the seminal thrash metal recording I believed it to be at fourteen when it is compared to “Fabulous Disaster” or “Bonded By Blood” today. As our brains mature and horizons expand, much of what we believe to be great turns out to be disappointingly underwhelming. When the WWE Network launched in 2014, I could not wait to go back and watch all the great WWF wrestling I remembered from my youth. Within days of sampling the classic content, I had outgrown much of what I held so dear. But I have always been able to rely on late 80s NWA/WCW to give me the high-quality nostalgia I am looking for. The pinnacle of that greatness is exemplified with this match; NWA/WCW’s uneven history reaches a creative and match-quality peak in 1989. Two of the most talented workers in the pro wrestling industry, Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat, use the wrestling canvas to paint a masterpiece in just under 25 minutes.
The theme of this match was the wholesome blue-collar worker taking on the omnipresent threat of white-collar dominance. In the 80s, blue-collar, hardworking Americans were held in higher regard than their wealthy and entitled counterparts in the white-collar community. The rust belt had yet to show signs of oxidation, and the middle class was anchored by the men and women who worked in these industrial settings; most Americans did not worship the upper class. It was a different time, to be sure. Ric Flair’s charisma, style, and consistently excellent work inside the ring caused a crisis of consciousness for most fans. We were supposed to hate this son-of-a-bitch, but the way he jumped off the screen and the quality of his matches made it nearly impossible to do so. Ricky Steamboat was coming off a successful stint in the WWF followed by a subsequent short retirement. We learn that during his retirement, Steamboat kept busy by tending to his real-life gymnasium business and adjusting to becoming a new father. Steamboat is the antithesis of what Flair represented; blue-collar, monogamous, and probably guided by Biblical Law. There was absolutely no good reason not to cheer for him other than the inherent coolness of the fact that Flair had insulted the family-oriented Steamboat while being escorted everywhere by a gaggle of lovely ladies. Steamboat personified what was synonymous with the best of America at the time, no $5000 shoes were necessary. Still, young men couldn’t help but shower audible praise on Flair at every event he attended. The Chi-Town Rumble even features a faint “Steamboat sucks” chant during the match. Keeping it classy, Windy City.
Fan reaction aside, the work in this match leaves no doubt about who the babyface and heel are. If you have any experience with contemporary wrestling, you will see where many of the great workers of today draw some of their influence from these two. Flair’s influence on entertainment, in general, is undeniable. Still, it would be criminal not to pay homage to the clear inspiration Ricky Steamboat’s work has had on modern-day pro wrestling. Quick-fire pins are just one of the noticeable things you can see just about any Wednesday or Friday night. The brutality of their chops is undeniable. At one point, it seems the work is a little too stiff for Flair’s liking when an errant Steamboat chop makes contact with Flair’s throat instead of his chest. This becomes a noticeable occurrence throughout the trio of matches. From this point on, the match takes on a more fervent and intense feel. On display here are a veritable greatest-hits collection of creative spots. Submissions and their subsequent reversals are executed with exacting precision. The aforementioned quick pins by both men contribute to the drama. All this to say, regardless of the high level of competence in the ring, nothing here feels rehearsed. It all feels organic and incredibly authentic.
The trilogy as a whole is some of the finest wrestling ever put on tape. It influenced how fans of my age have felt about pro wrestling and what it should be. We had great matches before and after this, but few belong in the same category as these three masterpieces.
Voices of Wrestling helped my fandom evolve into what it is today. The term “notebook match” is a part of my vernacular because of VOW. The Moleskine notebook that is at my side during every match I watch is non-existent without them. In the back of that notebook, I have begun keeping a list of the greatest matches of my lifetime. Number One was always a no-brainer for me. The most meaningful and best match of my lifetime is when Ricky Steamboat pinned Ric Flair for the NWA Championship on February 20, 1989, and it is not even close. This match is visceral, violent, and beautiful. Most of all, this match is a work of ART.
- The other matches in their series – It’s one of the most famous trilogies in wrestling; you owe it to yourself to watch the others too. As a bonus, a famous house show fan-cam is floating out there, too, if that interests you.
- Ricky Steamboat vs. Rick Rude – A thirty-minute Iron Man Challenge. It’s more Steamboat WCW goodness.
- The Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk Trilogy – One of wrestling’s other most acclaimed trilogies. Be warned, they’re long.
Midnight Express vs. The Fantastics
JCP Clash of the Champions I
Every once in a while, you’ll have an opportunity to look into the future. Wrestling fans were granted that opportunity on March 27, 1988.
Clash of the Champions I ended up being one of the most famous shows of the late 1980s, with the famous Ric Flair-Sting 45-minute time limit establishing WCW’s homegrown babyface for the next decade. But on the undercard, fans had an opportunity to watch a match that would give them a glimpse of wrestling’s future.
On the undercard of the show, The Midnight Express had a match to defend the NWA United States Tag Team Championship against The Fantastics. The Midnight Express had replaced Bobby Eaton’s partner Dennis Condrey with Stan Lane a year prior. They were facing a new team in the territory, The Fantastics, who had come into Jim Crockett Promotions just weeks prior.
These two teams, alongside teams like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, the Fabulous Ones, and the Russians, were responsible for bringing to prominence and glory the “Southern style tag,” with a heavy emphasis on athletic action, escalating drama through extended face-in-peril segments and cut-offs, and explosively exhilarating hot-tags. The formula was so successful that it became ubiquitous, very much becoming the default for any tag match, particularly in the West. While most big tag matches in the present day don’t stick strictly to the formula, it is the basic set-up that they all build on top of. When you watch a Lucha Bros, an FTR, or a Young Bucks tag match, they stand on the shoulders of the giants in this match.
The throughline of professional wrestling and how what has happened in the past influences the future is readily apparent watching this match. This match in itself is a particularly chaotic version of a Southern-style tag, drawing parallels in my mind to the recent Falls Count Anywhere trios match between the Death Triangle and the Elite with the crazy action outside the ring and weapon usage. One of the best things about watching the history of wrestling is seeing these parallels between what’s happened before and what is happening now.
A month after this match, The Fantastics finally defeated The Midnight Express on an episode of World Wide Wrestling, winning the belts off their foes and holding them until July, when The Midnight Express won them back. Their feud won the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Feud of the Year and finished one-two in the Tag Team of the Year voting, with The Midnight Express taking the top spot. This match finished second in the Match of the Year voting, with their April rematch taking the third spot.
- Midnight Express vs. Rock ‘n’ Roll Express – One of the period’s most famous and enjoyable tags.
- The Russians vs. Rock ‘n’ Roll Express – Probably the best version of the Russian variation of the Southern Style tag, which incorporated far more heel-in-peril segments.
- FTR vs. Young Bucks – Their Dynamite edition was their most evolved southern-style-y match to date.
Terry Funk vs. Ric Flair
WCW Great American Bash 1989
“I was just kidding you.”
Those were Terry funk’s last words before he became unhinged and unglued for perhaps the most famous time. Minutes after Ric Flair beat Ricky Steamboat in the third match of their famous aforementioned trilogy, Funk, a judge for the match, was the first to congratulate and challenge Flair. Funk had previously been out of wrestling for a while, and Flair did not think Funk was worthy of being the first challenger. Funk cried, “Wait a minute, are you really saying I’m not a contender? You’re saying that I’m not good enough?” In that quick moment, he came to grips with how he was perceived and thought of, and he snapped. He told Flair he was just kidding, just joking. Then, donned in a tuxedo that quickly became ripped and disheveled, he piledrove Flair off the ring apron right through a wooden table. We’ve become numb to these spots, but it was unheard of at the time. Funk’s fragile ego tried to murder Ric Flair.
More than any others, Funk and Flair are what you think of when you think “professional wrestler.” They look it. They live it. They are each one of the best promos ever. Their personalities are burned into the very fabric of wrestling. But as similar as they are, they are also the antithesis of each other. Flair is the Southern (by way of Minnesota) aristocratic playboy. The extravagant lifestyle, the famous (and mostly infamous) stories. Funk is on the other side of the spectrum, a rancher from Texas who never really rose to quite the same heights. This was a fight between two of the best of all time, with legacy on the line.
Much has been said about Ric Flair’s 1989. It is one of the most famous wrestling years ever. The Steamboat series is possibly the most famous trilogy of matches ever. But one of the most impressive things about the year is how seamlessly Flair shifted roles. Against Steamboat, he’s classic Flair, Flair-flopping, arrogant, making babyface Ricky Steamboat look great. Here, the role is reversed. Funk is the psychotic madman that Flair must survive.
The match is dirty and gritty. Funk threw chairs, slapped Flair in the face, and attacked Flair’s compromised neck. Flair dropped Funk on his throat, then proceeded to hit his own piledriver as payback. He hit another. Finally, Funk retreated. For the first time, he realized that maybe he wasn’t up to Flair’s level. His desperation peaked when he sliced Flair’s head open with a branding iron. The crowd fell silent as Funk used his own piledriver. Referee Tommy Young tried to claw Funk off Flair, but it didn’t work.
This is just two of the greatest of all time at their absolute peak. The work, the selling, the charismas of both. Flair, pouring blood, getting revenge against Funk, using his own branding iron against him. Now, blood-soaked both. Now, desperately, each tried to pin and cover the other, ending in Funk getting rolled up and falling to Flair. The pretty boy, the people’s champion, won on this day. But Funk proved that he was good enough to be his worthy rival.
- Funk vs. Flair I Quit – Their critically acclaimed rematch from later in the year that only escalated the violence.
- Ric Flair vs. Big Van Vader – Another rare but excellent of prime Flair on the side of the angels.
- Kenny Omega vs. Jon Moxley – Their lights out hardcore PPV main event that had a similar taste to the great Bash match.
The Wrestling 101
- An Introduction to the Project & Match #1
- Unique Spectacles: Matches #2-6
- Multi-Man Magic: Matches #7-11
- What Could Have Been?: Matches #12-16
- Clashes of the 80s: Matches #17-21
The Wrestling 101 is a Voices of Wrestling group project headed up by Kevin Hare and Robin Reid. You can discuss the series with them on twitter @stan__hansen (Kevin) and @TheRDouble (Robin) or join the conversation over in the Voices of Wrestling Discord.