Poetry in Motion: The Perfect Construction of a Long-term Feud
The year is 1977. The NWA Mid-Atlantic Television Champion is a brash, bold, cocky, outspoken, bleached-blond heel named Ric Flair. He is essentially a top dog in Jim Crockett Promotions, having come in three years prior and taken the Southern promotion by storm with his larger-than-life persona. After surviving a plane crash that nearly cost him a career, Flair had come back stronger than ever. He had been an NWA Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Champion, and one-half of the NWA Mid-Atlantic and NWA World Tag Team Champions. As the Mid-Atlantic TV Champion, fans were accustomed to seeing Flair regularly on weekly Crockett programming. Flair was looking for a new opponent, one with whom he could tell a compelling story. His feuds with Wahoo McDaniel and Blackjack Mulligan were hard-hitting and legendary, but he needed to go in a different direction this time.
Enter “The Dragon.” Jim Crockett Promotions had just orchestrated an exchange of talent with Georgia Championship Wrestling, another prominent NWA territory, that saw The One Man Gang go to Georgia and young Ricky Steamboatbrought to the Carolinas. Steamboat had begun his career a year or so earlier, after having been trained by Verne Gagne (who also trained Flair). Steamboat had an All-American gimmick: a chiseled physique, boyish good looks, a “tropical” tan (he is actually Japanese-American, but was booked as a Hawaiian), and a humble nature that was perfect for fans to latch onto. Steamboat quickly became a popular staple in JCP, especially among females. Flair fancied himself a “ladies man,” so he was irked that someone had come to town and had gotten more attention from the women folk than he did. In actuality, Flair had gone to booker George Scott and requested to be placed into a feud with Steamboat, as he saw great money-making potential in the angle.
What happened was gold. Flair, on a weekly broadcast, issued an impromptu challenge for the young “punk” to meet him in the ring for his first main event. Flair, in his haste, even agreed to put the title on the line. Steamboat was goaded into the match by Flair and his tag team partner Greg Valentine, who stayed on for commentary during the encounter, running down the upstart Steamboat and giving him no chance to win. Much to everyone’s surprise, a star was born that day, as Steamboat upset Flair and took the TV Title.
The feud was on! Flair, embarrassed by his loss, escalated the heat by grinding Steamboat’s face across the concrete floor at WRAL studios in Raleigh, NC. To further the injury angle, Harley Race sandpapered Steamboat’s face in the locker room to give it the proper effect. That wound actually took several months to heal, giving fans–and Steamboat–a constant reminder of what the dastardly Flair had done to their newfound hero. Flair went on to win the NWA United States Title during this time, as he was being groomed as JCP’s top star. Steamboat got a measure of revenge for the face-scrubbing incident, dragging Flair into the ring and ripping his expensive suit to threads as the two lovely ladies accompanying Flair looked on in disbelief.
Flair and Steamboat traded the US Title three times between 1978 and 1979. They continued to tear up the house show circuit off and on into early 1983. The two had immense chemistry in the ring. It was a natural fit. Both men were technical wizards, and their personas couldn’t be more different. It made for a great battle and put Steamboat on the map as a major player for years to come. Flair’s stock only skyrocked as a result of these skirmishes.
Fast foward to late 1983. Jim Crockett Promotions put on pro wrestling’s very first supercard, Starrcade ’83, which was a critical success for JCP in its attempt to become the number one territory in the NWA. Steamboat and partner Jay Youngblood captured their record fifth NWA World Tag Team Title, while Flair defeated vaunted legend Harley Race to regain the NWA World Heavyweight Title (at the time the most prestigious championship in all of pro wrestling). During the build-up for Starrcade, Steamboat was instrumental in helping Flair train for the main event match. After Flair took the title, Steamboat could be seen on camera letting him know that “You owe me one.” Little did fans know what that would mean.
Steamboat actually retired from the sport in late 1983. He was, however, lured back at the prospect of taking the World Title away from former foe Flair. Steamboat and Flair took part in a critically-acclaimed match at the inaugural “Night of the Champions” at Meadowlnads Arena in New Jersey. At the time, this was considered one of the finest matches anyone had ever seen. In 1987, it was called the greatest match of the “Pro Wrestling Illustrated” years (referring to the number one wrestling publication in the business).
Steamboat ventured to the WWF/E in ealry 1985, while “The Nature Boy” continued to reign supreme as the NWA kingpin, the last traveling champion in the NWA. Steamboat left the WWE and had not wrestled for a while, another presumed retirement. Many thought they would never see he and Flair lock up again. Fortunately, they were wrong. In early 1989, Eddie Gilbert was scheduled to face Flair and fellow “Four Horsemen” member Barry Windham in a tag team main event on “World Championship Wrestling.” To the shock of everyone in the studio (Flair included), Ricky Steamboat was Gilbert’s mystery partner. He dominated the match and pinned Flair with his signature “Flying Body Press.” The crowd was ecstatic and the NWA had what Flair later called a “million-dollar angle” on its hands.
Flair and Steamboat were once again at war over the NWA World Title. This time their personalities and lifestyles away from the sport were played-upon, with Steamboat, wife Bonnie, and new son Ricky, Jr., portrayed as the ultimate family unit and Steamboat’s motivation. Flair, on the other hand, was the flamboyant World Champion, living the “jet-flying, limousine riding, kiss-stealing, wheeling-dealing,” partying socialite existence that had become his calling card. This was the ultimate in booking genius. What the two athletes, both in their prime, embarked upon was the absolute greatest series of matches anyone has ever seen in wrestling history. All of the chemistry was there. All of the spots were dead on. It was absolute magic. They didn’t have to rehearse it. They didn’t have to plan it. They didn’t have to choreograph it. It was complete wrestling perfection, instantly classic, and the highest quality imaginable. The fans ate it up, split down the middle as to whom their favorite was. It worked on every level.
Steamboat won his only World Title against Flair at “Chi-town Rumble” in February 1989. The two had an epic 56-minute rematch at “Clash of the Champions” on 4/2/1989, which saw Steamboat retain amid controversy, setting up their final encounter at “Wrestle War ’89” in Nashville, TN.
Flair regained the title in what many consider the greatest match ever wrestled.
Dave Meltzer rated every pay-per-view match the two had with 5 stars (the highest possible ranking), and even gave a Landover, MD live event match 6 stars, which is off the scale for his normal rating system.
After this classic series, the feud would lie dormant for five years, as Flair and Steamboat traded tours in WWE at different times. In 1994, the rivalry would kick up for one last go around. Flair and Steamboat tangled in another classic for the WCW World Title at “Spring Stampede.” This match ended inconclusively, with both mens’ shoulders pinned to the mat. The World Title was held up, with these two gladiators set to settle the score on “WCW Saturday Night.” Flair won the match and regained the title in the last high-profile singles match ever between he and “The Dragon.”
The final time Flair and Steamboat squared off, it was a “WCW Saturday Night” tag team match that saw he and Sting pair up against Flair and “Stunning” Steve Austin. It was the end of an era seventeen years in the making. Flair and Steamboat shared one last poignant “Collar-and-elbow Tie-up” during Steamboat’s WWE Hall of Fame induction (Flair was the inductor, and the two locked up to a raucous ovation), a touching and symbolic moment for the two legendary performers.
Ric Flair has gone on record as saying that Steamboat is the greatest athlete and wrestler he was ever in the ring with–high praise for the greatest wrestler of all time. After literally hundreds of classic bouts with each other, there is no wonder that this rivarly stood the test of time and worked in three different decades. Feuds like this only come around once in a generation. Most storylines of today see their fruition within months. This storyline forged on for nearly two decades, producing the most awe-inspiring contests anyone before or since had seen.
It’s tough to top perfection, and no one has quite done it. At least, they haven’t done it to the level of “Naitch” and “The Dragon.” Any up-and-coming wrestler who wishes to look to the past for inspiration should look no further than “poetry in motion,” the enthralling pro wrestling clinic that was Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat…