Coming out of their highly successful set of matches at Starrcade, the Horsemen had reclaimed their status as the elite force in the NWA. Barry Windham had soundly defeated Bam Bam Bigelow in singles action (which indirectly led to Bigelow's jumping ship soon after), Ric Flair had knocked off the challenge of Lex Luger in as clean a fashion as we're likely to get from the Nature Boy, and the #1 threat since day one, Dusty Rhodes, had left the promotion for the greener pastures of the WWF. In 1989, the Horsemen faced a new challenge: with many of their toughest opponents long gone, who was left to defend against? The problem would solve itself in the early weeks of the year, as the youth of the NWA jumped at the opportunity before them.
Enter Eddie Gilbert. Much like Kidman or Eddy Guerrero today, Eddie was often overlooked in the NWA title hunt of the late 80's. Labeled a midcarder for life, nothing special was ever expected of Gilbert.. which only served to further motivate him. The Horsemen scoffed at the series of challenges he extended to Barry Windham for the US title and, expecting an easy defense, accepted without hesitation. Their initial encounter was far from the cake walk Windham had expected, as Gilbert outclassed and embarrassed the mighty Horseman from bell to bell. The US champ even found himself relying on outside interference to save him, with JJ Dillon's meddlings ending this one in a DQ.
Enraged, Gilbert confronted Windham, Flair and Dillon in an interview segment the next week. He called the three cowards and demanded a rematch for the belt, to which the Horsemen responded with a 3 on 1 beating. Gilbert wasn't deterred by the assault, and was soon granted the title shot he'd demanded. Again the challenger dominated the champion and Windham found himself backpedaling, as he looked to Ric Flair for the save and DQ this time. Gilbert made a game of it, challenging Flair himself to a match which also ended in a DQ, before a memorable late January interview set the tone for the year to come.
"hot stuff" eddie gilbert is clobbered by flair, windham, and dillon (back)
With the threat of another beating hung over his head, Gilbert stood with his head held high and challenged Flair and Windham to meet him in a tag match, along with a mystery partner of his own choosing. Dillon laughed it off and signed the match immediately, while his men smiled from the back. With such a depleted roster, the two couldn't imagine a mystery partner worth the time of day. In the days leading up to the match, the possibilities became more and more endless. Would Rick Steiner return alongside the man he'd been aligned with for many of the past months? Would the eve reveal another challenge from Lex Luger? What about Sting? The two hadn't seen eye to eye since their meeting in a 6-man tag at Starrcade '87.. could the threat of the Horsemen unite even these bitter enemies? The night of the match was upon us, and Flair and Windham stood in the ring, amused by their new "challenge". The fog machine started up, the music kicked in, and the lights came to life. From behind the curtains, out stepped Eddie Gilbert.. alongside his partner, Ricky "the Dragon" Steamboat!
Flair was no longer amused. His history with Steamboat was already the stuff of legends, and the last thing the Nature Boy wanted at this stage was a serious contender to his coveted World Title. The dragon pinned Flair for his first World Title back in 1978, and Flair had never forgiven him for it. While the hatred the two shared for one another was obvious, it was amplified by their mutual respect, earned from years upon years of combat. Steamboat pinned Flair in that tag team match after a half hour's worth of solid action, and suddenly the NWA didn't seem quite as empty anymore.
Following their loss in the tag match, Flair turned his anger on JJ Dillon, who had officially signed the match for the two. Without his anchor, Tully Blanchard, Dillon feared another wrong move could cost him his precious association with the Horsemen, and went on a personal quest to win back their favor. He gave Flair the night off and signed himself alongside Barry Windham in a tag team bullrope match against Gilbert and an unnamed member of the Texas Broncos (Dustin Rhodes and Kendall Windham). It turned out to be Windham and Dillon against Gilbert and.. Windham. If you couldn't see this one coming, I've got some lovely property in the everglades I'd be interested in selling you. The match hadn't officially started, but Kendall had already turned on Gilbert. Together, the three bloodied "Hot Stuff" with the bullrope and attatched cowbell. Flair, though, remained unconvinced, and instead of inducting a second Windham brother to the Horsemen, he officially fired JJ Dillon from the group. Dillon wasted no time in making the big jump to the WWF, where he worked with talent backstage.
Almost immediately, Flair and Windham introduced their new manager.. Hiro Matsuda, who led a large, powerful Japanese organization named The Yamazuki Corporation. Matsuda stuck out from the group like a sore thumb. Where Flair and Windham were outspoken, homegrown boys that settled things through complex strategies and gang beatings, Hiro was a quiet, weasel of a man that seemed to cling to Flair and Windham rather than lead them. While the management of the group crumbled, Flair began making bold decisions himself. He signed a World Title match with Rick Steamboat for a PPV in February, and a US Title match for Barry against the defector, Lex Luger. Matsuda introduced the threesome to Butch Reed, a decent enough worker that slid right into the vacant 'enforcer' role emptied by Arn Anderson. His proving grounds would come at the PPV against Sting, who never seemed to go away. In the days before the big card, Flair and Steamboat began jabbing at each other through their interview segments, with it all coming to a head in a heated verbal exchange at the televised Clash of the Champions only days before the PPV event. Flair and Steamboat were becoming absorbed with their feud, and the lack of attention was having a negative effect on the Horsemen. They were headed for a big fall if just one match went down the wrong way at the coming event.
Sting and Reed opened the card up in less than desirable fashion for the elite stable. While the Stinger was riding a huge wave of popularity both behind the curtains and in the crowd, Reed... wasn't. Sting dominated the match, and eventually pinned the hopeful with a sunset flip from the apron back inside. So it goes...
Barry Windham started his match in a completely different manner, taking command early on and basically having his way with Luger throughout the early goings. Luger delivered a power move where he could, and both men wore down relatively early on. Windham sent Luger outside and continued the process of wearing his former comrade down, sending him into the ringpost. Windham propped his opponent against the post and went for a solid jab to the face, but Luger got out of the way and Barry's hand hit solid steel. As the wound began to bleed, the two climbed back into the ring.. but the momentum had changed and when Windham couldn't continue his punishment, Luger's recovery was a quick one. The injury was clearly having its effect on the champion, but you couldn't blame him for trying. He went up top for a superplex but couldn't support Luger's weight with his crumpled right hand. A clawhold was useless without the appendage. In desperation, Windham hit a side suplex and then bridged it into a pinning combination. With both men's shoulders on the mat, the ref went down for the count.. and watched Luger's shoulder rise just before the three count was registered. When it was explained to Windham, his temper exploded and he pounded away at his opponent. He eventually left the ring with some prodding, but not before hitting a piledriver on the belt. It was actually one of Luger's best matches, and the swan song for the worker that was Barry Windham.
As the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey rang through the arena, Flair's face was surprisingly unconcerned. Though his cohorts had gone through hell in the matches prior, The Nature Boy's concentration was on Steamboat and Steamboat only. In a match that's gone down in history, Flair and Steamboat carried each other to the brink of insanity.. if you've never been lucky enough to take one of these in, I'd urge you to enjoy any opportunity to do so in the future. It's pure history, and no amount of words can do it honor. Flair fell into his role as the rulebreaker, while Steamboat played the crowd as the favorite. Speaking personally, I'd rate Steamboat's skills in the ring a nip higher than Flair's, but in terms of personality and entertainment value.. Flair's got it hands down. Apart, both men were superb at this time, but together.. well, they tore the damn house down. Steamboat fought through an early figure four before building some offense of his own. A wild cross body block sent the ref sailing, and gave Ric the opportunity he needed. Within moments, Flair had tossed Steamboat over the top rope (which would've netted him a DQ at this stage in NWA history) and began to celebrate. What the Nature Boy didn't notice however, was Steamboat's recovery. The Dragon hadn't gone all the way to the floor after all, and had climbed his way to the top rope. Flair turned in time to see Ricky taking flight as a new ref climbed into the ring. Ric sidestepped the danger and immediately applied the figure four once again, but Steamboat was waiting for it and reversed the finisher into a schoolboy rollup. Referee Teddy Long counted to three, and Steamboat walked away with the World Championship. As superb as this clash was, they managed to top it before the year could close. This had been the worst night of the Horsemen's long legacy, and things were about to get even worse.
In the footsteps of JJ Dillon, new manager Matsuda had failed under pressure.. and, also like Dillon, he tried to make it up to his employers by introducing a new prospect within the next few weeks.
A televised tag match was aired, featuring the team of Lex Luger and Michael "P.S." Hayes against the Windhams, Barry and Kendall. Kendall had never been accepted as a full-fledged Horsemen, which was an oversight Matsuda hoped to correct. When Luger opened the match by destroying both Texans, it would appear Hiro's plan had backfired. The moment the Package looked for a tag, though, Hayes proved we'd all been played for fools. The former Freebird turned on the United States champion, and after the three had thoroughly trounced the odd man out he grabbed a mic. With Matsuda welcoming him to the corporation, Hayes told all; "Me, Flair and the Windhams.. we rule wrestling."
Unfortunately, the plan was doomed from the start, and Barry Windham had left the promotion for the WWF only weeks later. When the issue was pressed, Flair told Matsuda it was over and asked to be left alone. He'd engaged in a series of bloody, spectacular rematches with Ricky Steamboat, and his thirst for the World Title was stronger than his love for the Horsemen. Without Ric the stable would certainly fail. The crowds knew it, Flair knew it, and the bookers knew it. Flair tagged with Hayes on a couple occasions, but he'd meant what he said. For the first time since 1985, the NWA was without the Four Horsemen. Hayes was forced to finish what he'd started with Luger alone, and Matsuda wasn't really heard from again. Wait, scratch that. He took the time to introduce us to a young star before fleeing the public eye.. and in the months after his departure, the Great Muta would have a greater effect than any could have predicted.
As for Flair.. well, therein lies another story.
The additional concentration gave Ric the edge he needed in the final rematch with Steamboat, and after a classic, classic match that I can't hope to describe here, Flair pulled out a schoolboy for the necessary three count. (Seriously.. nobody's even touched this match in the decade since.. it's that good.) As fans cheered, Terry Funk climbed between the ropes. The "retired" future Hardcore Legend had been acting as a sanctioned judge for the rematch, and was taking the opportunity to congratulate Flair on a job well done. While raising the hand of the new champion in celebration, Funk nonchalantly throw out a challenge for the title and Flair gave him the cold shoulder. Terry seemed to take the dismissal well enough, but when the new champ turned his back to enjoy the applause, Funk jumped him. The fresh competitor simply destroyed the Nature Boy, adding an exclamation point with a brutal piledriver onto a ringside table. The fact that this spot looks as nasty as it does 11 years later, in an industry overflowing with table spots, is a testament to how ferocious it really was. Funk delivered it hardcore style, and the table (being.. well, a TABLE and not the pre-cut stuff we've got today) didn't budge. Flair's head hit the structure legit, and the whole thing came of extremely well. As Ross herniated, Funk told us he'd just taken our champion out of the mix.. and he was right.
funk, working the broadcast table at an earlier event with good ol' jr
While Flair sat out with a serious neck injury, Funk took a personal crusade to former champion Ricky Steamboat. The two met in a #1 contender's match, and through less than fair tactics Funk crawled away with a victory. While he had Steamboat's attention, the Texan decided to take advantage of it with a beating for old time's sake. After a couple minutes, Lex Luger made the save but decided it wasn't worth his time and took off again. Funk finished the job, and howled for Flair's blood.
It was months before we saw Ric Flair again, and when he did make his anticipated return it was in a limited capacity. Talk about Flair's "injured" neck was all over the place, and many believed he'd never be able to compete at the same level again. Though he was still the champion, Flair wasn't under any kind of pressure to defend the belt again after such a brutal attack. Still, the Nature Boy took it all in stride when he challenged Funk to a World Title match at the 1989 Great American Bash. All smiles, Funk accepted and promised us all a surprise at the event.
On the PPV that saw the introduction of the Steiner Brothers as a team, the still unbeaten Great Muta had gone to a shady decision against Sting for the TV title. The presence of the Japanese star's new manager, Gary Hart, wasn't easily overlooked, but the finish itself was genuine. Later in the evening, Hart made another appearance.. this time alongside Terry Funk in the main event. Announcers assured us this was Funk's big surprise, and that it gave the Texan a huge moral advantage. He and Flair fought up the ramp, back into the ring, and out onto the floor again in a bloody mess that went over half an hour. Funk's branding iron factored into the match heavily, as both men used it to bludgeon their opponent. An ungodly series closed this one out, as Funk set in with his spinning toehold finisher.. which Flair reversed into his figure four.. which Funk reversed to an inside cradle.. which Flair reversed into a cradle of his own for the win. Just.. go rent this. Now.
Post-match, Gary Hart revealed he hadn't come alone. In one of the coolest spots ever, the Great Muta sprinted into the ring and absolutely drilled Flair with his infamous "green mist" spit. The two deconstructed the champion until the loud "we want Sting" chants were answered. The two faces chased Funk and Muta away as the show went off the air.
Incidentally, Steamboat dropped his match on the card to Lex Luger, and was soon back in the WWF. So goes the feud of the century..
Funk and Muta took on Flair and Sting at Halloween Havoc months later, in a Thunderdome Cage match which aimed to blow off two feuds at once. This time, Gary Hart's presence was more a hindrance than a help. He accidentally threw in the towel for his team while Funk was thrashing about in a Flair figure four. Ticked as all get out, Funk laid down the gauntlet for an "I Quit" match against Flair at the very next Clash of the Champions TV event.
Flair and Funk made a run at the final Flair/Steamboat encounter in terms of sheer star power, and may have even topped it with this "I Quit" batch of goodness. The two went on for well over half an hour before Funk said the magic words to Flair's figure four leglock. The two stood post-match and stared each other down, while the crowd pissed itself. Just as it seemed they would come to blows once more, Funk extended his hand.. Flair took it.. and the Funker told the champ he'd earned the respect he was given. Gary Hart had seen enough, as he sent his now-larger J-Tex stable (including Muta, the Dragon Master and Buzz Sawyer) out to take out the both of them. Before the beating got too far out of hand, Sting again made the big save for the champ. It just doesn't get much better than this, kids.
In the middle of a brief feud with the Great Muta, Flair took the time to invite Gary Hart to the ring. He announced he'd put together a surprise for the evil manager, but before it could be revealed Hart had grabbed a mic of his own. He told Flair to "Suck it" (well.. no, he didn't. I've taken a little artistic license here), as his stable of goons slowly circled the ring and climbed inside. Just as the assault began, Arn and Ole Anderson came out of NOWHERE and cleaned house. The three celebrated together in one of the finest moments of pro wrestling history, and held high the four fingers. The boys were back in town.
For the first time ever, the Horsemen were solid babyfaces. Their change in tactics reflected the new attitude, and they went into Starrcade with their heads held high. Unfortunately, the NWA had dropped the ball by shooting the Funk / Flair load a month early and had to scramble for a Starrcade main event. What they came up with was the "Iron Man Competition". Flair, US Champ Luger, Sting and still unbeaten TV Champ Muta would compete. The rules got a bit complicated. Everybody would face each other once (which meant Flair would fight Luger, Sting and Muta, Luger would face Flair, Sting and Muta, etc..) in a 15 minute time limit encounter. Points were awarded as follows: 20 for a pin or submission, 15 for a countout, 10 for a DQ and 5 for a time limit draw. Whichever man held the most points at the end of the night would be our winner.. but, for one reason or another, wouldn't be the champion. It was a mess, and I'm sure I'm not the only one that would have rather seen Funk / Flair II a month later.
Luger and Sting stretched it to the limits in the first match of the night. A battle that saw Sting slip out of the Torture Rack ended when Luger solidified his teased heel turn with a dirty finish (He put his feet up on the ropes). Collect 20 pts, do not pass go, do not collect $200.
Flair completely disgraced Muta in what would serve as the blowoff to their otherwise stupendous month-long feud. He held most of the offense, and collected a pinfall within 2 minutes of the opening bell. 20 pts, go directly to jail.. do not pass go.. yadda, yadda.
Let's-Screw-Muta night continued, as the Japanese name took on Sting to kick off round two. Both hit their finishers early on, and both failed to register victories afterwards. Muta took the advantage a minute or two in, and sent Sting to the corner with judo chops. When the Stinger fell, Muta went for the Moonsault, his finisher, but missed. Sting sent him up top, landed a superplex, and took home the clean pin.
Luger and Flair pounded on each other for a solid 10 minutes before, with the clock ticking, Luger got frantic and collected several nearfalls but no decisive victory. Flair went up top, which meant Luger was contractually obliged to slam him back down again. Out of nowhere, Flair strapped on the figure four, but Luger managed to wait out the clock. Both collected 5 points and an "E" for their efforts.
Luger/Muta kicked off the final round, with Lex selling the knee Flair worked over not one hour before. Muta actually cleaned up here, giving Luger a run for his money before the Total Package blew through his offense and looked for the Torture Rack. Muta pulled out that sweet, sweet green mist, but the ref saw it and DQ'd him for his troubles
Heading into the last match, the scores read as follows; Luger: 35, Flair: 25, Sting: 20 and Muta: 0. The crowd's split in their allegiances between Flair and Sting, before Flair makes the choice an easy one by falling into his heel-esque personality. Flair takes his time in approaching the younger star, and the two finally lock horns a couple minutes in. The two trade blows, with Flair chopping the night's opponent down and Sting hitting strong clotheslines. Outside they go, and Ric suplexes the Stinger back in. Flair takes control and starts hitting his usual spots about 10 minutes in. Sting hulks up, and locks in the Scorpion Deathlock. Flair breaks it in the ropes, and comes right back with the Figure Four. Sting breaks that, and Flair looks for the win with a series of unsuccessful schoolboys and backslides. Flair continues to work on the leg as time runs down to less than a minute. Cocky as ever, Ric begins the process of hooking on the figure four when Sting rolls him up for the sudden 1- 2- 3.
Immediately, the Andersons dove into the ring and stared down the Stinger with eyes of fire. As the crowd erupted with anticipation, the Horsemen helped the winner to his feet, rose his arm, and held up four fingers! As a stellar year drew to a close, the Horsemen were complete at last. Sting, Arn, Ole and Ric celebrated the hard fought victory together in the ring as the credits rolled on by.