For many fans, Ric Flair is pro wrestling. He’s the most iconic wrestler and the most famous personality possibly ever. His career has been filled with some amazing matches and outstanding moments. And now that his career truly comes to a decisive end, it makes sense to revisit some of those fabled best moments of his.
To that end, today we revisit one of Flair’s many 5-Star matches. It’s his big title match against Barry Windham from NWA Battle of the Belts II in 1986.
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.
There’s not much of a story here. Flair’s the champion and Windham’s the challenger. Windham worked his way up to Flair after winning pretty much every title there was in CWF in the 1980s. He was a multi-time singles and tag champion and had achieved considerable success for a guy that was still under thirty years old by a distance. But now he faced his biggest challenge yet: NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair.
At the time, Flair was the unquestioned god of classical ‘southern’ style wrestling and the one and only ‘real’ world champion. To hammer that point home, Flair debuted one of the most iconic title belts ever on this show: the fabled ‘Big Gold Belt’. With Jim Crockett Promotions controlling most of the remaining territories of the NWA and attempting to follow WWF/E and go national, their world champion needed a belt that truly symbolized the grandeur and prestige of the championship that Flair carried. And so it was that Flair introduced a belt worth (at least) $US25, 000. He wore that belt with pride and vowed to defend it against anyone, including Windham, whom Flair put over like a million dollars in a pre-match promo.
This match originally took place on February 14th, 1986. It was rated five stars by Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
This is for Flair’s NWA World Heavyweight Championship/Big Gold Belt. The bell rings and both wrestlers shake hands. Windham headlocks Flair and then shoulder tackles him to the mat. They crisscross a bit until Windham lands a hiptoss and a big slam. Windham’s fired up but Flair escapes to ringside to catch his breath. Flair returns and soon finds himself in another headlock. Flair tries to counter with a knee breaker but Windham grinds the headlock to stop Flair’s counter. Simple but effective. Flair counters the headlock into an overhead wristlock but Windham overpowers him and takes him to the mat. Windham starts working Flair’s arm until Flair forces them both to the ropes. After a stalemate, they have a great chain grappling sequence that ends with Windham in control of Flair’s arm again. Windham drops some knees on Flair’s hammerlocked arm but Flair still manages to fight to his feet and get another ropebreak. Flair drop toeholds Windham again but Windham out-grapples him again and goes back to the same arm. Flair gets to his feet again but Windham lands an arm wringer and takes Flair down. Flair makes it to the ropes again, leading to another stalemate.
Flair tries to go for Windham’s leg again to escape another headlock but Windham uses the same strategy as before. Flair headlocks Windham but Windham shoots him into the ropes and he hits them hard. Talk about a nasty case of whiplash. Windham goes the sportsmanlike thing and gives Flair a moment to recover before going back to the arm but this time Flair flips him over. Windham gets mad over Flair’s underhandedness but Flair maintains control with a headlock into a shoulderblock of his own. He crisscrosses Windham again but Windham counters with a roll-up off the ropes for a two-count.
After yet another standoff and some arguing with the referee, Flair takes Windham to the mat but Windham counters with a headscissor. Flair grapples out and into a leglock and forced Windham into a pinning predicament but Windham gets a rope break. Flair powers Windham into a corner and lands chops but Windham fights back with punches to Flair’s head. Windham drops Flair, hits more punches, and locks in a Boston crab. Windham wrenches the hold as much as he can but Flair manages to reach the ropes nonetheless.
Flair struggles to get to his feet so Windham targets his weakened torso with body blows and a vertical suplex. Windham pins but Flair gets his foot on the ropes so Windham applies an abdominal stretch. Windham wrenches this hold also but Flair counters with a hiptoss. Windham sends Flair into a corner and charges but Flair lands a hard kick to Windham’s gut. Flair tries a scoop slam but Windham counters into a midair press and covers but Flair kicks out at two and throws Windham to the floor. Flair smashes Windham into the barricade and uses those precious seconds to recover. Windham makes it to the apron and Flair drapes his neck across the top rope. Windham’s bleeding as Flair lands a snapmare followed by a kneedrop for another two-count. Flair lands some punches and goes for the same combo as before but this time Windham dodges the kneedrop. Windham puts Flair in the Figure-4. Figure-4 leglock on Flair! Flair can’t go to his back to ease the pressure else he get pinned. Flair spends almost a full minute in the figure-4 before getting a ropebreak.
The crowd’s going nuts as Windham fires up and Flair begs off in a corner. Windham drags Flair to the middle of the ring by his right leg and starts working that limb over. Flair flops around as Windham peppers him with punches and head-butts yet he still kicks out at two. Windham hiptosses Flair out of a corner and goes for a dropkick but Flair avoids it by staying in a different corner. Flair hobbles over and attempts a suplex but Windham blocks and small packages Flair for another two-count. Flair does another snapmare but this time locks in a figure-4 neck lock. Windham’s forced to stay off his shoulders to avoid being pinned but that only serves to tighten the pressure on his neck. But Windham simply copies what Flair did earlier and grapples out and into a leglock. Windham switches to a headlock but Flair powers him into a corner and hits shoulder thrusts to Windham’s gut. Flair follows with some chops and a piledriver but only manages another two-count. Flair goes for another snapmare but Windham blocks and lands a backslide for a two-count of his own. Windham powers out of another piledriver, ducks a clothesline, and hits one of his own for another two-count as Flair gets another ropebreak. Windham hits different strikes to Flair’s face and does the corner punches spot and then whips Flair into the opposite corner. Flair does his trademark corner flip but instead of running the apron he falls to the floor this time. Windham goes after him and smashes him into the ringposts.
Back in the ring, Windham hits more corner strikes but flair carries him out and lands a Manhattan drop. Both men go down after a strike exchange and now Flair is bleeding as well. He tosses Windham to ringside and goes for his over-the-rope suplex but Windham blocks and lands a slingshot sunset flip. But Flair maintains his balance and punches Windham square in the forehead. Flair Irish whips Windham but Windham hits another shoulderblock. He charges again. Flair counters with a sleeper hold. Windham sinks to his knees. Windham’s arm drops one…twice…thr – no, Windham’s still in this. Windham rushes into a corner and drives Flair’s face into a turnbuckle to escape a sleeper hold.
Both men struggle to their feet and Flair hits a delayed vertical suplex. Flair drops his hips on Windham’s leg against the ropes to weaken it some more. He stretches that same leg some more and then locks in another figure-4 leglock! Flair uses the ropes behind the ref’s back to apply more pressure. Windham struggles and struggles but eventually manages to roll over and reverse the hold on Flair. Now Flair’s in trouble. Flair escapes and rolls onto the apron. He goes to the top rope but Windham cuts him off and press slams him to the canvas. Windham goes for a Flair-style snapmare/kneedrop combo but Flair dodges. Windham hurts his own knee as badly as Flair did to himself earlier. Flair hobbles over, hits some strikes, snapmares Windham, and stomps on Windham’s belly. A kneelift and a chop get Flair several one- and two-counts. Both guys fight to their feet and trade strikes once more. Windham shoots Flair off the ropes to escape a headlock but the ref gets knocked down in the process. Flair tosses Windham to ringside and tries to wake the referee. He turns around and walks into a top-rope missile dropkick from Windham. Windham covers Flair and gets a visual three-count and then some. The ref comes to and counts but Flair escapes after a one-count.
Flair powers Windham to the ropes and goes for a scoop slam but Windham lands behind him. Windham locks in a sleeper. Flair struggles to escape and tries to get a ropebreak. He’s fingertips away but Windham maintains the pressure until Flair sinks down. Flair’s arm sinks twice and the ref counts a pin but flair kicks out at two and then at one. Frustrated, Windham punches Flair and goes for a running splash but Flair gets his knees up. Flair snapmares Windham and goes for the Figure-4 but Windham counters with a cradle but gets too close to the ropes. More brawling ensues. Flair whips Windham into a corner but Windham bounces out and lands a clothesline. One, two, ropebreak for Flair. Windham lands a vertical suplex. Flair kicks out again. Flair dodges an elbow drop and lands more corner chops. Windham hits back with punches and whips Flair not the opposite corner. This time Flair hits his corner flip and runs the apron to another corner. Flair dives off but Windham punches his gut on the landing. Irish whip by Windham. Flair ducks a clothesline and crossbody presses into Windham. Both wrestlers tumble over the rope and to the floor. Windham gets up first and starts crawling into the ring. He gets halfway through but Flair grabs his leg. Flair chops him and tries re-entering the ring first. But Windham holds Flair back this time. The two wrestlers continue brawling as the ref reaches his count. The referee calls for the bell. The match is ruled a double count-out! The crowd boos vociferously as Flair is given his world title belt.
STILL NWA World Champion due to Double Count-out after 41:45: Ric Flair
There’s something about Ric Flair in his prime that really makes him stand out so well. His mannerisms, style, actions, and reactions to his opponent’s actions all scream…wrestling. And not the Japanese strong style or combat-sport-influenced stiffness factory-style wrestling but classical American pro-wrestling. This was an excellent match that still holds up better than many matches that came after it.
This was a main-event-level Ric Flair match, so anyone familiar with Flair already knows what that means. But for those who don’t, let me break it down for you. Flair did some great grappling early on, got cocky, started working his opponent’s leg, set up and locked in the Figure-4, then found himself on the defensive, and then somehow bounced back to regain control, before culminating in an unclean finish. Yes, that can be used to describe many Flair matches, but the man had a winning strategy for decades and this match was no exception. Flair stayed in his comfort zone while he made Windham dance around him and do more heavy lifting to get the same sort of reaction that Flair was getting. And while Flair did wonders in putting Windham over before and during the match, Windham too deserves credit for keeping pace with Flair and in some cases out-grappling the legend and using his own weapons against him.
In terms of narrative, the match was awesome. Those forty minutes flew by thanks to excellent pacing and a strong sense of tension. Whenever Flair and Windham traded holds and control there was a sense of real concern on the part of the man now on the defensive and from the fans. Flair used a lot of tricks early on that Windham used later on in the match against Flair to show that he was adapting to the circumstances he found himself in. Windham’s youth and inexperience was a major disadvantage so it made sense in the context of the match’s story for him to use the very moves and strategies Flair used on him to try and win. Doing so made Windham come across as smart and it also put Flair in more danger than anything Windham did of his own. Combined together, these elements made this match come across as a genuine athletic contest with very high stakes. It was something you could easily sink your teeth into because the wrestlers spoke and acted seriously. There was nothing funny or corny here; it was all serious, which helped make viewers feel like this is something important and not ‘just a wrestling match’.
But the match wasn’t without its faults. One of the big ones here was the repetition. A lot of moves and sequences were repeated, which did nothing to add to the match beyond pad its length. There were lots of dead moments where nothing happened as well, and a lot of the stuff that took place during the first act didn’t lead to anything. It was as if both guys were just going through the motions early on and were putting moves on and stringing sequences together without having a reason to do so. Those things didn’t really harm the match in a major way, but they tarnish the match’s supposed classic quality.
Then there was the match’s marked lack of urgency. Even with the great atmosphere, strong wrestling, and vocal crowd, there was no real build here. Flair set up and applied his Figure-4 like he always did and then Windham did the same on Flair later on to get a big pop. But beyond those moments there was no escalation. There was never this sense that the wrestlers were going anywhere or that they really looked exhausted. And while that can be attributed to great pacing and conditioning, it also devalued all the big moves and big moments that took place throughout the match.
Lastly there was the finish, which was a cheap cop-out. It came across as lazy and shoehorned, even if it made sense from story and character perspectives. Flair realized he had nothing left that could put Windham away so he decided to keep his title via technicality. It was like getting cheap heat. Instead of proving why he was so good by winning decisively and giving Windham something to overcome, Flair went in the cheap route to win. That decision still gave Windham a reason for a rematch, but the motivation behind it was different (read: inferior). the match would’ve been much better had Flair won and put Windham over further to give him a reason to work even harder to earn a rematch the old-fashioned way.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This is still a classic match after over thirty-five years, but not really a cream-of-the-crop classic like it might’ve been once upon a time. Flair was awesome here. Windham did a great job keeping pace with the legend. They wrestled for forty minutes and looked like legitimate sports athletes competing for something prestigious and important. Their match was simplistic yet serious. This was and still is one of those great American wrestling matches that does largely still live up to the hype.
This is one of those ‘easy-going matches’ that doesn’t require much from the viewer. It doesn’t have the most intense peaks and valleys; instead, it’s a smooth ride that just flies by. If that doesn’t tell you how good Flair was in his prime, I don’t know what does.