For many, Sting vs. Ric Flair at the first Clash of the Champions 1 was the coming out party for a new superstar. Over 45 minutes, Sting had gone toe to toe with the NWA World Champion and proved that he was a wrestler the company could invest in further down the line. Main events, title reigns, heated feuds – all of these were in Sting’s future following that one night in North Carolina. However, this had not always appeared to be the case. It took a run at the tail end of a dying promotion to showcase the potential that Sting had to be one of the greatest.

Rewind back to Sting’s formative days in Memphis (as part of the Freedom Fighters with Jim Hellwig) and his initial months in Mid-South/UWF (still with Hellwig as the Blade Runners) and you may have struggled to see such a lucrative future for the face painted muscleman. With the gimmick of the Blade Runners pretty much the definition of a “Road Warriors rip-off” and both men having had literal weeks to prepare before their debut, they appeared to be little more than any dime-a-dozen muscular heel team that would draw a few houses off looks alone yet wilt under any true scrutiny from more discerning fans.

Having come to wrestling from the world of bodybuilding, it was entirely possible that a lesser man would have coasted on his looks. Positioned as Eddie Gilbert’s heavies, the Blade Runners had a sweet spot in some ways – guaranteed to be in and around the main event picture, with a lot of heavy lifting in and out of the ring being done by Hot Stuff himself.  As long as they both looked physically imposing and could offer up some basic wrestling moves, they would fulfil their role.

This wasn’t enough for Sting.

It would be easy to throw Jim Hellwig under the bus at this point and talk about how little he improved – as a worker – from his early days. What isn’t up for debate is how much Sting improved in comparison to his tag team partner. He was already beginning to show an aptitude for the mat game by the time Hellwig walked out of the promotion in mid-1986, and more importantly, the fans were beginning to get behind him as the year ticked on.

By 1987, the time was right for a face turn, ultimately creating the foundation for the Sting that would go on to superstardom in 1988 and beyond.

That this all occurred during the waning days of UWF made it all the more impressive. With JCP taking ownership in 1987, things could have easily drifted to a mundane end for the promotion. However, the elevation of Sting was a bright spot in a territory that was effectively dying around him. Not only did it showcase to JCP what a potential star they had, it gave Steve Borden his first real push as a singles wrestler.

Around the time of the JCP/UWF buyout, a storyline that positioned Sting as the number one contender to Eddie Gilbert’s Television Title could have been used to sow some seeds of doubt about their ongoing partnership. Little came to pass from this initial tease – Sting walked out to give Gilbert a countout victory – but it presaged a time where the two men would not entirely be singing from the same hymn sheet.

In a match that took up almost all of the June 6 episode of UWF, Sting and Rick Steiner defended their tag team gold against the Lightning Express team of Brad Armstrong and Tim Horner. The match was back and forth, with neither team establishing clear dominance. With things so close, the involvement of Eddie Gilbert at ringside seemed inevitable. Unfortunately for the champions, an errant cowboy boot shot behind the referee took out Sting rather than an opponent, leaving him out cold for the three count.

The following week, Sting was booked to meet Terry Taylor in what was dubbed as “UWF Title Contention” match. For some unknown reason, Eddie Gilbert was scheduled to be the guest referee, but not if Sting was going to have his way. Blaming Hot Stuff for the title loss the previous week, Sting didn’t want any more mistakes and requested another official for the match. He got his way, but it was ultimately to his own cost when Gilbert returned to the ring and aided Taylor by handing him the cowboy boot to put down his now-former protégé. What had started off as a miscommunication had escalated quickly into a full-scale war.

You know that something is special in wrestling when it earns itself a nickname. Whilst it was UWF/JCP who promoted the battle that saw Sting and Shane Douglas pitted against Eddie Gilbert and Terry Taylor as “The Battle of New Orleans,” it was a name that endured as it signified the last great moment of the promotion. The Mid-South region had always been known for promoting excellent wrestling, and this was no exception.

Coming off of the back of multiple twists and turns surrounding the aforementioned Television Title, this served to be the peak of the animosity between all four men. The match, understandably, built around a Sting hot tag and he was far and away the most heated worker of the four. A ringside brawl between Sting and Gilbert left Douglas isolated for a spike piledriver with Rick Steiner getting involved on behalf of the First Family, but the result was of little interest by the time things were through.

Returning to ringside, Sting and Gilbert brawled their way back towards the bleachers. In action that would be just as at home in Tupelo as it was in New Orleans, they worked their way back to the concession stand and incorporated a range of weapons in their brawl. Gilbert, to his credit, bled quite heavily, selling the brutality of Sting’s assault. Chris Adams, in lieu of Douglas selling the spike piledriver, and Taylor also ended up in the concessions, with a mass of fans trying their best to get a look at what had turned into much more than just a wrestling match. Though in some ways less violent than the Tupelo Concession Stand brawls of yesteryear, it also felt less gimmicky and more gritty – this was four men who hated each other to the point where no ring was going to contain them for too long.

In terms of UWF television, Sting would only wrestle a few more times, though there was some more action on the house show circuit as the feud with Gilbert continued. Four days after this show was broadcast (September 10– match taped: August 9), Sting defeated Gladiator #1 in his first match officially taped for JCP, signaling the closing of one chapter in his career and the start of a new one.

Very few people benefitted from the UWF/JCP merger, a transition leading to booking that only served to put over the JCP talent and squash the UWF wrestlers. The one big success of the talent acquisition was Sting, and by the time he was showcased in the opening match of Starrcade, it was clear that the company had plans for him going forward. Less than a year later, he would be opposite Ric Flair in a match for the NWA World Heavyweight Title, a match that was trusted to go head to head against Survivor Series on PPV, a match that would change his life forever.

From won’t hit to can’t miss, Sting’s first few years in the business set him up for the Hall of Fame career that many of us have witnessed in real-time. A wrestling world without Sting will be a different, less interesting place in some ways, but if ever there was a man who had earned the right to walk away on his own terms, it is Sting.

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