Many people consider Ric Flair to be the greatest pro wrestler of all time. There’s plenty of evidence to support that: his insane workload during the 1970s and 1980s, the respect he earned from his peers, his reputation and legacy among fans young and old, and of course, his catalog of great matches. And that’s exactly what we look at today. We’re going to revisit one of the most iconic Flair matches of all time, the one that started his legendary series that put him in the conversation for best pro wrestler ever.
It’s the first match in the Flair vs. Steamboat series from NWA Chi-Town Rumble.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
The story here is straightforward. Flair was the champion that lived his gimmick to the fullest. He was the man: always impeccably dressed, partied like a rock star, had his pick of the ladies all night and every night, and in general lived like a king. Steamboat was his polar opposite: a guy that came from humble roots that worked hard but had always been seen as being at a level beneath Flair.
This created a sort of contrast among wrestling fans. Flair was the guy that most people wished they could be while Steamboat was a closer representation of how they really were as people. So when these two faced off, fans watching grappled (pun intended) with seeing their dreams facing off against their reality. That translated into a very animated crowd that gave this match a more emotionally-charged atmosphere.
This match took originally took place February 20th1989 and is for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
They lock up and Steamboat gets a quick tackle and an early two-count. A second lock-up occurs and Flair tries to whip Steamboat but Steamboat catches him in a grounded headlock. Flair gets up and attempts a back suplex but Steamboat rolls out of it, pushes Flair forward and tries a roll-up for another two-count as Flair escapes the ring.
After some stalling, a third lock-up ensues and ends with a clean break in the corner. Flair hits one chop in the corner and Steamboat fires back with many of his own. Steamboat whips Flair into the corner and hits a huge back body drop. Flair tries to crawl away, begging Steamboat to back off. Steamboat catches Flair’s leg on a kick but Flair grabs Steamboat’s hair. Flair hits another chop to Steamboat, but Steamboat hits an even harder chop that sends Flair down.
They get back up and Flair applies a headlock, then transitions into a hammer lock. Jim Ross does a tremendous job on commentary of selling how great both wrestlers are. Steamboat gets a quick takedown and goes back to the headlock. Flair whips Steamboat, but Steamboat ducks under Flair’s legs and hits a great dropkick out of nowhere. A headlock takeover gets a two-count for Steamboat as the crowd pops for the near-fall.
Flair rolls Steamboat over and gets two two-counts of his own in quick succession. With the headlock still cinched in, Steamboat runs to the corner and climbs the turnbuckles, but Flair reverses that into another cradle pin for another two-count, yet Steamboat kicks out, keeping the headlock cinched all the while. He’s not letting go no matter what. The headlock continues until both men get to their feet.
Both of them start a brutal back-and-forth chop exchange that gets the crowd riled up. Steamboat whips Flair again and hits a huge double chop that sends Flair down for a quick two-count. Flair escapes the ring again to regain his composure.
They lock up yet again back in the ring. Flair chops Steamboat but Steamboat whips Flair, only for Flair to shoulder tackle Steamboat down. A crisscross ensues and Steamboat hits another double chop that sends Flair back out of the ring. Flair teases a Greco-Roman knuckle lock but taunts Steamboat to come closer. They lock up yet again as some fans chant ‘Steamboat sucks’. Flair chops Steamboat again and whips him, but Steamboat jumps over Flair from the corner and hits a gorgeous hip toss. Steamboat continues his onslaught with a sort of headscissor takedcown and a standing dropkick. It’s back to the headlock again and Steamboat gets another two-count.
Flair gains control for a brief moment with a hair pull and some strikes, but Steamboat jumps right back into control with strikes of his own. Steamboat reverses an Irish whip with a shoulder tackle, but Flair reverses Steamboat’s charge with a big back elbow strike. Steamboat fights back yet again and chops Flair so hard he goes over the top rope and out of the ring.
Steamboat approaches Flair at the ropes, but the referee pulls him back. This gives Flair an opening, and he grabs Steamboat by the leg and pulls him down. He smashes Steamboat over the steel guardrail and punishes Steamboat with chops and other strikes. Back in the ring, Flair bends Steamboat over the top rope and elbows him hard in the head. Flair snapmares Steamboat and hits a running knee drop after taking off his kneepad. Flair pins Steamboat thrice but Steamboat kicks out each time. He hits a butterfly duplex but Steamboat kicks out at one this time.
Flair hits more hard strikes and chops as he taunts the crowd. The two of them start exchanging strikes once more until Steamboat wins this exchange. Steamboat whips Flair hard, but Flair flips over the top rope, and gets a sudden burst of energy, enough to run to another corner and hit a diving crossbody off the top. Where did that come from? Flair tries to cover but Steamboat reverses it. One…two…no, Flair kicks out.
Steamboat prepares for the ten punches in the corner but Flair reverses that with an atomic drop. Suddenly, Flair locks in the Figure-4 leglock in the middle of the ring. Flair grabs the rope to put more pressure on Steamboat as Steamboat writhes in pain. The crowd’s chanting for Steamboat. The ref counts Steamboat each time he goes flat on his back. Steamboat starts hitting the ring mat with his hand, trying to get the crowd behind him. He succeeds, and the crowd is firmly behind him. Finally, after almost two full minutes of being in the Figure-4, the ref catches Flair using the ropes and forces him to break the hold. That gives Steamboat a critical opportunity to recover.
Flair kicks Steamboat in the leg as he gets up. Steamboat shows incredible heart as he keeps fighting back with chops. They both continue to exchange strikes with no sign of relenting. Steamboat whips Flair, who ducks a double chop, and Flair hits a flying crossbody that sends both of them over the top rope and out of the ring. Great move.
Steamboat tries to mount a comeback ringside but Flair launches him into the steel ringpost. Flair gets into the ring first and suplexes Steamboat over the top rope. There’s another great move from Flair. Flair goes for a pin but only gets a 2.5-count. He goes for another pin but Steamboat picks out again. He tries a third time, but Steamboat refuses to stay down. Flair hits a back suplex for another two-count. That doesn’t sit well with Flair, because he motions to the ref and gets in his face to count caster. But the ref is having none of Flair’s shit and pushes back. The crowd loves that.
Flair continues with a single-knee backbreaker. He goes for a pin and puts his feet on the ropes for extra leverage but Steamboat still kicks out. Flair keeps the pressure on by pinning three more times, but Steamboat still kicks out, even with Flair’s body forcing him down with more force than normal. The fans are taunting Flair, who tells them to shut up. Steamboat takes advantage with a school boy roll-up, but Flair kicks out at two. Flair whips Steamboat, but Steamboat tries the diving crossbody again but Flair does this time. Steamboat lands hard on the canvas. Flair hits a headlock takeover, but Steamboat tries to reverse that into a headscissor. But Flair reverses that into a jackknife cover, but Steamboat bridges out. Wow, what strength. Steamboat hits a butterfly suplex of his own and pins, but Flair gets his foot on the rope. Great ring awareness by Flair.
Flair tries another Irish whip and goes for a hip toss, but Steamboat reverses and clasps both arms. They struggle for control. Steamboat with a backslide. The ref counts one…two…no, Flair kicks out again. Flair fights again with hard strikes and whips Steamboat into another corner…but Steamboat explodes out of it with a big clothesline. Steamboat hits a big chop to Fiair’s head. Another shoulder tackle by Steamboat sends Flair down again. He ascends the top rope and hits a diving judo chop. The crowd’s going nuts.
Steamboat goes up again…diving crossbody! But he hits the ref as well. The ref is down. There’s no one to count the pin. Steamboat tries to wake the referee but Flair takes advantage and tries to pin Steamboat. He goes for a roll-up and grabs the tights for leverage. But the ref’s still out of it. A frustrated Flair starts fighting dirtier than before and rakes the eyes. He tries tossing Steamboat out of the ring…but Steamboat holds on. Flair has his back turned as he focuses on the ref. he doesn’t see Steamboat climbing the top turnbuckle. Steamboat flies through the air…but Flair dodges at the last possible second. Flair tries to take advantage with another figure 4…but Steamboat reverses! Steamboat cradles Flair! Another ref appears. The new ref counts one…two…three! That’s it! We have a new world champion.
Winner and New NWA World Champion after 23:18: Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat
The fans are going nuts! They’re roaring! They’re on their feet for the Dragon.
This is why Ric Flair is still revered so deeply in pro wrestling. The match was devilishly simple in terms of wrestling move execution. But that simplicity told an outstanding story that still holds up over thirty years later. If you ever wanted to see what the standard bearer for ‘classic’ good vs. evil in pro wrestling looks like, watch the Flair vs. Steamboat match series.
Everything they did had a purpose. They didn’t go overboard in creating a thousand pinfalls or repeating each big move more than once. Instead, they narrowed things down to a precise science and made sure each big move that landed helped move the story forward. That’s something that’s largely lost in the modern wrestling landscape, as wrestlers nowadays feel the need to show everything they can do in one match, even if doing so is detrimental to the story they’re telling.
Jim Ross was also on point during this match. He did an outstanding job explaining the contrast between Flair and Steamboat. Because of their similar physical builds and relative evenness throughout the contest, JR decided to focus on their personal backgrounds to help fans invest in their stories.
He highlighted how Flair was the privately-schooled champion that came from wealth and acted like he was better than everyone else. For Steamboat, he focused on Steamboat’s emphasis on family, humility and salt-of-the-earth background. When you took this and coupled it with the way Flair strutted about the ring haughtily, this turned into a sort of ‘rags-to-riches’ story, that of an underdog from ‘lower class’ reaching up into a level that was previously unattainable for him. That resonated with people across the country, and helped turn Steamboat into a fantastic hero and Flair into an iconic wrestling villain.
What was also great here was how they incorporated the ref bump into the match. Those things tend to be used as a crutch and often times harm a wrestling match. That wasn’t the case here. Steamboat was so passionate and determined to beat Flair that he inadvertently knocked the referee down, so it’s not like this was an obvious bump that made it look like the ref was made of glass. But that sequence really gave the audience something to invest their emotions into. Steamboat had the match won but the ref was needed for the decision. And without him, Flair got the opening he needed to be his typical underhanded self. But Steamboat would not be denied and used Flair’s own momentum against him to win the match and the title.
And the best part of this? The sequence was executed in such a way that it created a logical reason for Flair to demand a rematch. He had the match won and it was Steamboat that knocked the referee down. So in his mind, Flair was the rightful champion and his demands for a rematch made sense.
I only have one gripe with this match, but it’s small. Steamboat spent two full minutes in Flair’s terrifying Figure-4, and didn’t sell it as much as I would’ve hoped. Sure, it became obvious that he was fighting from underneath once that hold was broken. But he could’ve worked that damage into his movements or clasped his legs more to make the fans even more invested in his underdog performance. But this issue isn’t as glaring or serious here as it is in other epic matches I’ve seen. And that’s because Steamboat does such a masterful job of selling his overall pain and disadvantage against Flair that as a viewer, you’re already fully invested in his struggle anyway.
Final Rating: *****
It goes without saying that this is one of the few older matches that still deserves its original billing as a five-star epic. It’s such a fantastic match that tells an amazing story so simply yet so effectively. This match demonstrates why Flair-Steamboat as a rivalry and as a series is held with such high regard. They had such great chemistry with each other, had perfect timing, and made so much out of so little.
And the funny thing is that most people consider this match to be the WORST of the series. If that’s the case, then I can’t wait to see what sort of great work these two do in their next encounter.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.