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5-Star Match Reviews: Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat II – NWA Clash Of The Champions VI – April 2nd, 1989, by Alex Podgorski

It has been called the great pro wrestling match to ever take place in North America. It has been praised by wrestling pundits both then and now, over thirty years later, as one of if not the best match of all time. It was the chef d’oeuvre for both Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat. Today we see if this match from over thirty years ago still holds strong today. We’re revisiting the second match in the famous Flair-Steamboat trilogy of televised wrestling matches. My review of the Chi-Town Rumble match from February 20, 1989 is here.

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

One month earlier, Steamboat beat Flair to win the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. That match had a bit of a screwy finish in Flair’s eyes, so he argued that he needed a clean, decisive match to determine who was really the champion. Thus, this two-out-of-three falls match was booked.

This match was rated five stars in Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter and was voted the 1989 Match of the Year by Wrestling Observer readers.

The match

This match originally took place on April 2nd, 1989 at NWA Clash of The Champions VI. It is for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.

They lockup in the corner and as Flair ‘wooos’, Steamboat slaps him. That’s followed by an amazing technical exchange and Flair gets to the ropes first. Steamboat lands another big slap then applies another headlock. Flair tries to grab Steamboat’s knee but can’t do anything with it, so he reverses the headlock into an armlock and steps on Steamboat’s leg to get him to his knees. Steamboat powers out and reverses the hold, but Flair reaches the ropes. Flair returns to the ring and they tease locking up. they eventually do and Flair gets a headlock but Steamboat reaches the ropes quickly.

Steamboat whips Flair, Flair lands a shoulderblock and charges, and Steamboat answers with a hip toss and a headlock takeover for a tow-count. Steamboat maintains a side headlock as Flair tries to roll him over into a pinning position, but can’t get more than a two-count. Flair gets to his feet and tries to counter Steamboat’s headlock but ends up getting shoulder-tackled to the floor. Flair does to the mat hoping to get Steamboat to jump, but Steamboat stops himself and applies another grounded headlock. Flair manages to push Steamboat into a corner, breaking the hold.

Flair gets a quick shoulder tackle to the gut and fires away with chops. But Steamboat fires back with chops of his own. They go back and forth until Steamboat hip tosses Flair across the ring. Steamboat lands a modified headscissor takedown and a dropkick, followed by another side headlock takeover into the grounded headlock for another two-count. Steamboat lands some crossface presses and a knee to the back of Flair’s head. He follows with a snapmare into a chinlock but Flair escapes to the safety of the corner. Flair lands more chops but Steamboat counters with an Irish whip and a back body drop. Another dropkick gets Steamboat another two-count. Flair backs off and begs Steamboat to show mercy, which gets the crowd really riled up. Flair asks the ref to come to him, and that distraction gives Flair the chance to kick Steamboat in the stomach. Flair whips Steamboat into the ropes but Steamboat ducks under flair’s legs on a punch attempt and goers for a roll-up, but Flair kicks out. Steamboat follows with a clothesline and a running headlock takedown for a 2.5-count. Great sequence of moves.

The crowd chants for Steamboat as he applies a front chancery, lifting and slamming his own body to apply more pressure to Flair’s neck. After hitting another knee drop, Steamboat hits some chops in the corner. This leads to another classic Flair flop for a two-count. Steamboat goes for another front facelock but Flair counters into an inverted atomic drop. That appears to hurt Steamboat a lot, but he still manages to land another chop to the chest for a two-count. Another headlock ends in two shoulder takedowns for Steamboat for two more two-counts, as does a double chop to the chest. Flair escapes to the ringside area and flops to the mat. Flair takes his sweet time recovering ringside, then begs off once he returns to the ring.

They lock up eventually and then trade hard strikes, which riles up the crowd. Steamboat wins the exchange and gets another two-count. Flair tries to escape but Steamboat catches him on the apron and suplexes him over it. He goes for a running splash but Flair gets his knees up. Flair lands more chops and snapmares Steamboat, then stomps on his stomach. Flair lands a double arm suplex and over the course of the next sixty seconds or so goes for the pin eleven times. And all those attempts end in two-counts. Flair transitions into a Greco-Roman knuckle lock for another pin but Steamboat doesn’t just kick out he kips up. They trade control back and forth until the strike battle resumes. Steamboat hip tosses Flair again and goes for a dropkick but Flair dodges it. Flair goes for the Figure-Four, but Steamboat counters into a small package. Then Flair counters into a small package of his own. One, two, three. Flair gets the first fall.

Winner of the first fall after 19:33: Ric Flair

After a staredown, they lock up to start the second fall. Flair answers a headlock with a shoulder tackle. Steamboat leapfrogs over a charging Flair and press slams him. A diving chop gets Steamboat a two-count. Steamboat goes for another headlock but Flair counters into a back suplex. Flair lands a knee drop and starts working the crowd. He goes for a second one but Steamboat avoids it. Sensing an opportunity, Steamboat attacks Flair’s left leg. He lands fifteen elbow drops to the leg and then applies the Figure-4. Steamboat applies Flair’s own hold on him. And Flair can’t stay on his shoulders lest he get pinned. And when he sits up Steamboat answers with punches. Flair manages to reach the ropes. Steamboat lands a double leg slam and goes for another Figure-4 but Flair kicks him away. Boston Crab by Steamboat. Flair reaches the ropes, forcing a ropebreak.

Steamboat’s chomping at the bit to keep going but the referee holds him back until Flair sits up. Steamboat lands some elbows in the corner and then they start brawling again. Flair wins this exchange and, in a mirror of the first fall, lands his own headlock takeover. Flair gets another quick two-count but Steamboat counters into a headscissor. Flair counters that into a bridge hold and gets more two-counts, until Steamboat counters into the classic roll-through backslide attempt. They both fight with all their strength until Steamboat succeeds with the backslide, which get him a two-count. Flair rolls out of the ring and pulls Steamboat out by the legs, then throws him into the steel ring barricade. He scoop slams Steamboat onto the ringside mats and tosses him into the barricade once more.

Flair returns to the ring and soon after so does Steamboat. Flair drops him throat-first on the top rope. Flair suplexes Steamboat over the rope and gets another two-count and then applies an abdominal stretch. Flair quickly transitions into a pining position, getting multiple two-counts in quick succession. He gets about seven of those before transitioning into a slightly different pining position, this time using the ropes for leverage. Steamboat kicks out of all of those, so Flair goes for a back suplex. But Steamboat lands on his feet and goes for a roll-up. Flair kicks out hard and sends Steamboat out of the ring. Flair trips a leg and gets rolled up for another two-count. Flair lands more chops for a two-count, then ascends the top turnbuckle. But Steamboat cuts him off. Superplex. Flair yells out in pain. Steamboat follows with forearms to the lower back, then he puts Flair in an elevated double Chickenwing submission hold. Flair submits. There’s the second fall. The crowd erupts in cheers for Steamboat.

Winner of the second fall after 34:14: Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat

The third fall starts with Flair escaping an abdominal stretch by raking Steamboat’s eyes. Flair goes for a knee clips but Steamboat holds onto the ropes and answers with a chop to the head. Flair falls again and Steamboat gets another two-count. Flair begs off again but Steamboat’s having none of that. He whips Flair into a corner and lands another back body drop. Steamboat tries to answer a chop with a side headlock but Flair counters into a knee breaker. Figure-4 leglock. Steamboat quickly reaches the ropes. Then Flair gets in the referee’s face then goes back to kicking Steamboat’s leg. They trade chops back and forth for a bit and Steamboat whips Flair into the opposite corner. But Flair does the corner flip and runs to another corner but Steamboat cuts him off with a clothesline.

Flair gets up slowly then goes back to begging for mercy. But Steamboat gets too close and Flair double legs him down. Flair pins with his feet on the ropes, but all four of his pins end in two-counts. Flair lands more chops and whips Steamboat into a corner, but Steamboat flies out of the corner overtop of Flair, only to walk into a kick to the face. Flair double ax handles Steamboat’s lower back and drops a knee to Steamboat’s. Steamboat reverses an Irish whip into the corner and charges, but Flair dodges and Steamboat crotches himself on the top rope, trapping his knee in the process. Flair takes advantage boy working over the knee. Figure-4 once again. This time in the middle of the ring. Steamboat has nowhere to go. Flair slaps him in the face at any chance he can get. Steamboat tries to rally the crowd to get behind him. After almost three minutes in the hold, Steamboat rolls to the ropes.

Flair’s in full control as he smashes both of Steamboat’s legs into the side of the ring. Steamboat stays in one corner and has another chop duel with Flair. He manages to whip Flair into a corner but Flair flips over and runs to another corner. Crossbody press by Flair. Steamboat kicks out at two. Steamboat hits some punches and goes for a scoop slam. But his legs give out and Flair lands on top of him. Flair pins but only gets two. Flair whips Steamboat but Steamboat ducks an elbow and lands a forearm smash. Steamboat musters all his strength and climbs the top turnbuckle. Flying crossbody by Steamboat. Flair kicks out at two. Steamboat goes for a running elbow drop, but Flair rolls out of the way. Flair whips Steamboat but he counters into a swinging neckbreaker for another two-count. Flair tosses Steamboat out of the ring and gets precious time to recover.

Flair goes to attack Steamboat on the apron but Steamboat blocks and goes for a sunset flip. Flair fights but Steamboat’s too strong and gets Flair in the pinning position. One, two, no, Flair kicks out. Steamboat shoulder tackles Flair but walks into a sleeperhold from Flair. The referee checks Steamboat’s arm. It drops one….twice…thri—No, Steamboat still has energy left. Steamboat’s regaining strength. Steamboat gets to his feet, and runs into a corner, sending Flair face-first into a turnbuckle and falls out of the ring. Steamboat recovers slightly, but Flair clips his knee. Flair pulls Steamboat by the leg but Steamboat counters with an enzuigiri for a two-count. Steamboat goes for a diving splash but Flair dodges. Both men are down. Flair gets up first and lands a knee smasher. Steamboat gets to his feet and wobbles around the ring as Flair continues his onslaught with chops to the chest and knees and kicks to the leg.

They trade chops once more as Steamboat barely holds himself up on basically one leg. Steamboat lands more chops and a clothesline. Flair backs into the corner and Steamboat punches him. Flair tries another inverted atomic drop but Steamboat answers with a clothesline. Steamboat pins but Flair gets his foot on the rope. He whips Flair and goes for a back body drop but Flair answers with an elbow to the neck. Back suplex by Flair. He goes to the top rope but Steamboat cuts him off and press slams him down to the canvas. Steamboat goes for the double Chickenwing hold. His legs give out. Yet he manages to get Flair on his shoulders (basically landing a Tiger Suplex). The referee counts one, two, three! The ref count’s three! Flair has his foot under the ropes. By the referee’s decision, Steamboat wins!

Winner and STILL NWA World Heavyweight Champion after 55:49: Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat

Review

It’s kind of hard to come up with something to say about this match that hasn’t been said already, but here goes.

When I first watched this match in its entirety, I felt a bit ripped off. I had seen this sort of stuff thousands of time before and thought this match didn’t really deliver as a historic, 5-star epic. Then it dawned on me: the reason I had seen this sort of stuff so much was because everyone was copying this match. It was so good that it demanded to be copied and ripped off until the end of time.

Almost every element of this match has been copied by later wrestlers: the headlock into the quick pin, the emphasis on hard chops to the chest as offensive weapons, and most importantly, the cowardly and underhanded heel. Flair was at his best here, and did such an amazing job in that role that he basically made countless wrestlers after him try (and fail) to replicate him.

This match had an odd, classical charm to it that made it stand out. At no point was there a real lull in the action. Everything moved with a distinct pacing that kept the (loud) audience fully engaged. The action was paced perfectly. It was smooth and consistent. It didn’t have the typical peaks and valleys that look ugly when compared side by side; instead, it went through as one perfect, seamless sequence.

And in terms of in-ring action, this match really did define the term ‘wrestling classic’. This was almost one hour of pure pro wrestling with straightforward psychology and storytelling. There weren’t any major high-spots in this match. Instead, everything was grounded in a simplistic contest in which the tiniest of details made a huge difference. For example, Steamboat lost the first fall shortly after making what would normally be dismissed as an easy mistake: Flair dodged his dropkick. And soon afterwards, Flair parlayed that tiny mistake into a clever roll-up counter into a roll-up of his own. Suddenly, that one small mistake cost Steamboat the first fall, which put him at a disadvantage.

And from there, literally anything could happen. Any roll-up, and quick reversal, any submission hold, could’ve credibly ended the match. There was no five-move superstar comeback that led to the same sequence. There wasn’t any sequence that led to things being telegraphed by the audience. The match felt completely unpredictable, even with each wrestler having their own signature moves. Because of that, you couldn’t help but watch carefully and tensely as quite literally anything could’ve happened. Each fall felt like its own standalone match, yet elements from each meshed into each other. In putting this match together in this manner, Flair and Steamboat were able to balance making things different with a larger narrative that stayed in play throughout the entire match.

Final Rating: *****

At first I thought this match wouldn’t survive the test of time, but it did. This match is a rare treat. With the modern wrestling landscape, most of us are used to fast-paced sprints filled with high-spots and an emphasis on adrenaline-fueled action over non-verbal story. This match is the opposite. Like the first one, it’s slower but well-paced, and combines great technical wrestling with a simple good-versus-evil narrative. Flair demonstrated why being a wrestling villain is so much better than being a hero. Flair was the one that created the roadblocks for Steamboat and made them harder for Steamboat to overcome. Flair was deceptive, cocky, underhanded, opportunistic and seemingly unstoppable.

But Steamboat’s will to win was stronger, and that desire carried him to a narrow victory. And I say narrow because it ended with a sudden pin and Flair had his foot under the rope. So not only did these two wrestlers put on a mesmerizing wrestling match that never got dull at any point during its near-one-hour runtime, but Flair once again found a way to justify a rematch. Little things matter in big matches like this, and they play a big part in taking the story in one direction or another. With this ending, Steamboat got the fall but Flair got the last laugh, as he’d have another big title match against Steamboat, proving that his underhandedness was the perfect way to frustrate even the staunchest hero that faced him.

This match has a certain quality to it that makes it not only on the same level as so-called ‘modern’ wrestling classics, but better than them in some ways as well. This isn’t a death-defying display of aerial acrobatics with ten-thousand finisher-level moves being hit in the span of twenty minutes. Nor it is a strong-style war in which both combatants try to literally kill each other with the most unnecessarily-dangerous maneuvers they can come up with it. This is a professional wrestling match, plain and simple. If you were to walk up to someone and try to explain to them what professional wrestling is and looks like, you’d have this match in mind. It has both the simplicity of classic NWA-style dramatic grappling coupled with a deep inner story. They did so little yet each small move was utilized to the maximum without any element ever overstaying its welcome.

To call this a five-star classic may not be the most unique opinion, but this match more than deserves that honor. Flair and Steamboat put on a classic that showed exactly how to keep things simple while making it as tense and dramatic as possible. It really is that great.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.