There’s only one Ric Flair. Woooo!
Born Richard Morgan Fliehr on Feb. 25, 1949 in Memphis, Flair is widely considered the greatest pro wrestler in history, capturing the imagination of millions of fans with equal parts athleticism and showmanship. Flair made his wrestling debut in 1972 after being trained by former AWA world champions Verne Gagne. He went on to enjoy a glittering career well into the 21st century as the “Nature Boy” and multi-time world champion, renowned for his hypnotic and hip patter during interviews and his legendary battles inside the squared circle.
Ric Flair turns 70 on Monday, and Sportsnet can think of no better way to honour the “Nature Boy” than to present this list of his 10 greatest matches of all time.
WWE fans will notice that there is only one match from Flair’s time working for Vince McMahon on this list, and it was from back in 1992 during his first stint with the organization when it was still known as the World Wrestling Federation.
Let’s face it, Flair’s prime came when he worked in promoter Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic Wrestling outfit, and later when he toured all the old territories as the National Wrestling Alliance world champion. By the time Flair returned to the WWF in 2001, his best years were clearly behind him. Try as he might to turn back the clock in the ensuing years in the WWE, Flair never came close to equalling the quality of matches he had on a regular basis as NWA world champion.
With that disclaimer out of the way, on to the list…
10.) Royal Rumble – Jan. 19, 1992 (Albany, NY)
The WWF world heavyweight championship was vacant following a pair of controversial title matches between Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker. WWF president Jack Tunney ruled that the winner of the Royal Rumble would be crowned the new champion.
After an acrimonious split from WCW, Flair entered the WWF in September of 1991 and begun billing himself as the “real world champion” – he never lost the WCW world championship inside the ring before leaving, and touted around the WCW belt on WWF television upon his arrival. The Rumble, though, was his big chance to win the WWF title and eliminate any doubt as to who was the “real world champion.”
When Flair drew No. 3, his prospects looked pretty bleak. But the Nature Boy outlasted 29 other men in a command performance (he was in the ring for a then-record 59 minutes and 27 seconds), last eliminating Sid Justice to win his first of two WWF world titles.
Afterwards, while being interviewed by “Mean” Gene Okerlund and being flanked by Bobby Heenan and Mr. Perfect, he delivered a direct shot at former employer WCW, declaring: “This is the only title in the wrestling world that makes you No. 1. When you are the king of the WWF, you rule the world. Think about it like that. Woooo!”
9.) vs. Harley Race – Nov. 24, 1983 (Greensboro, NC)
Before there was WrestleMania, there was Starrcade, wrestling’s original, annual super show. Dubbed “A Flare for the Gold,” the first Starrcade marked the changing of a guard in pro wrestling, with Flair firmly supplanting Harley Race (who Flair has cited as the toughest wrestler he’s ever faced) as the long-term NWA world champion.
Flair dropped the NWA strap to Race in June in St. Louis, setting up a series of rematches around the horn in the Mid-Atlantic territory. After months of buildup with plenty of twists and turns in the storyline, Flair, who was a baby face at the time, was scheduled to face Race in a steel cage on Thanksgiving night with former NWA world champion Gene Kiniski as the special referee.
Before a sold-out crowd at Greensboro Coliseum (and tens of thousands more watching on closed circuit TV at venues around the Mid-Atlantic territory), a bloodied Flair pinned Race to gain revenge and capture the NWA world title for a second time.
To be honest, Flair and Race had much better matches than this one. But in terms of Flair’s career and the future of the wrestling industry, none were as significant as the Starrcade ’83 main event.
8.) vs. Kerry Von Erich – Dec. 25, 1982 (Dallas)
During his first NWA world title reign, Flair became embroiled in a heated feud with Kerry Von Erich, a chiseled star of the Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling promotion. Nicknamed the “Modern Day Warrior,” Von Erich had come close to winning the belt from Flair whenever he ventured to Texas, but always fell short.
Feeling the pressure, Flair paid a bounty to manager Gary Hart and Japanese wrestler the Great Kabuki to put Von Erich out of commission. Eventually, the NWA booked a cage match for Christmas night at Reunion Arena, with Michael Hayes assigned as special referee, working alongside regular ref David Manning.
A baby face at the time, Hayes was hardly partial during the match, as he physically interjected himself on Von Erich’s behalf on a number of occasions. Eventually, Hayes floored Flair with a punch and implored Von Erich to pin him. But Von Erich didn’t want win the title that way, and refused to cover Flair.
A frustrated Hayes decided to leave the ring, and Von Erich walked over to talk to him, only to have Hayes’ Freebird tag team partner Terry Gordy violently slam the cage door into the challenger’s head. Hayes walked back into the ring, tossed aside Manning and counted a bogus three count for Flair. Manning kicked Hayes out of the cage and let the match continue, but then called for the ball, determining a glassy-eyed Von Erich couldn’t continue.
Flair was declared the winner after 28 minutes, and the hometown Dallas fans were ready to riot. Gordy’s slamming of the cage door into Von Erich might seem tame by today’s standards. But this was one of the landmark angles of the 1980s, and was the birth of the legendary Von Erich family vs. Freebirds feud that set Dallas on fire for the next three years, and turned World Class into one of the hottest territories in the NWA.
7.) vs. Bruiser Brody – Feb. 11, 1983 (St. Louis)
Flair embarked on a barnstorming schedule during his first NWA world title reign, travelling to every major territory in the United States and Canada to defend his belt.
St. Louis was considered the wrestling capital of the world at the time, thanks to the work of long-time promoter Sam Muchnick, who brought in wrestling’s top stars from around the world for his regular shows at the old Kiel Auditorium.
Muchnick retired in 1982, but the tradition of big shows in St. Louis continued. Bruiser Brody was considered wrestling’s wildest brawler at the time, and he was one of the top foreign stars in All Japan Pro Wrestling. Brody was also a crowd favourite in St. Louis, and anticipation for this two-out-of-three falls title match was so hot that the event – which also aired on Japanese television – was moved from Kiel Auditorium to the larger Checkerdome arena.
Flair and Brody battled and brawled, mixing in some scientific wrestling, that brought the sold-out crowd to its feet. Brody won the first fall, pinning Flair after nailing him with his trademark flying knee drop. Brody was on the cusp of ending Flair’s first title reign, but the “Nature Boy” took the second fall via count-out, and retained his title when the 60-minute time limit expired during the third fall.
6.) vs. Sting – March 27, 1988 (Greensboro, NC)
One of Flair’s greatest attributes was his ability to elevate his opponent. The long-running joke during Flair’s career was that he was so good that he could go into the ring with a broom and have a great match. Never was this more on display than during the main event of the first Clash of the Champions, that aired live on cable TV in the United States, the same day as WrestleMania IV.
With his bulging muscles and face paint, Sting was a promising prospect, and gaining popularity with the fans. But he was raw, and not polished. He had wrestled Flair before, but this was something different – this was on national television before a massive viewing audience.
Flair, of course, was an experienced veteran, and knew what his job was on the night – to carry Sting, and turn the youngster who was on the cusp of stardom into a genuine headliner. Flair lead the dance in the ring, making Sting look like a million bucks as the two battled to a thrilling 45-minute draw. Flair retained the NWA world title, but more important, he made a star out of Sting.
5.) vs. Terry Funk – November 15, 1989 (Troy, NY)
Flair was known for his technical proficiency and as a master of several holds, including the figure four. But he could also mix it up with the best of them in a wild and bloody brawl.
Flair’s classic feud with Terry Funk, a former NWA world champion, climaxed at this Clash of the Champions event that aired live on national television in the U.S. Funk put Flair out of commission with a piledriver on a ringside table in the spring, leading to a series of bloody battles between the two veterans over the course the summer and fall.
Flair and Funk hooked up for the final time in this epic, 19-minute “I Quit” match. The action often poured out of the ring and down the aisle, before Flair slapped on the figure four, and Funk screamed into the house microphone, “My leg, it’s breaking…. Yes, I quit!”
4.) vs. Ricky Steamboat – Feb. 20, 1989 (Chicago)
Flair and Steamboat first hooked up in the late 1970s during the heydays of Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, run by promoter Jim Crockett, as the pair set the Charlotte-based territory on fire while feuding over the U.S. heavyweight title for several years.
Eventually, Flair went on to become NWA world champion, while Steamboat became a key figure for the WWF. Crockett sold his promotion in 1988 to Ted Turner, and the company was rebranded WCW. Steamboat left the WWF and “came home” in early 1989, and was immediately put into a program with Flair, his old nemesis, over the NWA title.
The first of three, high-profile Flair-Steamboat matches from that year took place as the main event of the “Chi-Town Rumble” pay-per-view in Chicago. They hadn’t worked together in five years, but the chemistry returned in an instant, as they rekindled the old magic they once had during a thrilling and fast-paced 23-minute match. Steamboat hooked Flair as he attempted a figure four and pinned the “Nature Boy” to win the world title.
3.) vs. Barry Windham – Feb. 14, 1986 (Orlando)
Flair travelled down south to the Championship Wrestling from Florida promotion to take on Barry Windham, who was fresh off a high-profile run with the WWF – Windham and Mike Rotunda lost the world tag team titles to Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik at the first WrestleMania.
Though Flair and Windham wrestled each other in dozens of matches prior and after this match, the main event of the card that was billed as “Battle of the Belts II” and aired live on syndication TV across the Southeast U.S. was easily their best.
Instead of his trademark “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Flair made his way to the ring in Orlando to the strains of the Phil Collins hit “Easy Lover,” setting the stage for a memorable NWA world title defence. The two sweaty combatants pushed each other during a back-and-forth match that ended when Windham caught Flair in a body press attempt, and both fell over the top rope. They brawled on the concrete floor, and were both counted out after 41 minutes and 41 seconds.
2.) vs. Ricky Steamboat – April 2, 1989 (New Orleans)
After Steamboat beat Flair for the title in Chicago, the two battled on the house show circuit, before squaring off in the main event of the Clash of the Champions – the second match of the trilogy – that aired live on national TV on the same day as WrestleMania V.
Incredibly, they outdid themselves in the Superdome, proving that the “Chi-Town Rumble” match from February wasn’t just a one-off.
In an old-school, two-out-of-three falls match, Flair and Steamboat punished each other for close to an hour in a physical battle that featured countless near-falls and some incredible sequences. Flair reversed Steamboat’s inside cradle to garner a pin at the 19:33 mark and take the first fall. Steamboat evened the score by earning a surprising submission over Flair, using the double-arm chicken wing, at 34:14.
The two traded stiff chops for the next 20 plus minutes before Steamboat pinned Flair to win the third fall and retain the title. The total match time was a breathtaking 55:32. Steamboat’s win wasn’t without controversy, though, as Flair’s foot was under the rope when referee Tommy Young counted to three, setting up one final rematch between the two rivals.
1.) vs. Ricky Steamboat – May 7, 1989 (Nashville)
The finale of the trilogy of marquee contests between Flair and Steamboat stands as the greatest match in the career of the “Nature Boy.”
Flair had chased Steamboat around the country for several months in an attempt to regain the NWA world title. Steamboat continually turned back his challenge, and was starting to look to face other contenders. As such, the main event of the “Wrestle War ‘89” pay-per-view was billed as Flair’s last shot at winning the title from Steamboat. Former NWA world champions Terry Funk, Lou Thesz and Pat O’Connor sat ringside and served as judges – if the match went to the 60-minite time limit, they would decide the winner.
For over half an hour, Flair and Steamboat pushed each other to the physical limit in a hard-hitting match featuring a series of brutal chops, and some great counter wrestling.
Flair worked on Steamboat’s knee from the start, trying to soften him up to apply the figure four. But “The Dragon” fought through the pain and nearly pinned the “Nature Boy” on several occasions. Finally, after 31 minutes and 36 seconds of breathless action, Steamboat’s knee buckled under him as he attempted to slam Flair, and the “Nature Boy” scored the pin with an inside cradle.
Flair became the NWA world champion for the sixth time, but the celebrations were short-lived. Funk attacked Flair while he was being interviewed in the ring by commentator Jim Ross, setting off what turned out to be another legendary feud for the “Nature Boy.”
If one series of matches can be considered the wrestling equivalent of Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, then the Flair vs. Steamboat trilogy from 1989 is it, and the Nashville match was the best of them all.