The three best matches ... ever: Flair and Steamboat on their famous trilogy
In February 1989, only four months removed from Ted Turner’s acquisition of WCW, Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat began a trilogy of matches that would come to define the organization. The three individual bouts — which spanned through May of that year — set a new standard for wrestling in North America. Nearly every “best matches” list on this website or any other will laud at least one — if not all three — as the greatest ever.
What is it about this particular trilogy that has stood the test of time for 25 years? How did the rivalry come together? And which one of the three really is the best? In exclusive conversations with both Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair, WWE.com spoke to the two men responsible for the three greatest matches of all time.
"Instant chemistry": Flair and Steamboat meet
WWE.COM: Do you remember the first time you met Ric Flair?
RICKY STEAMBOAT: The very first time that I met Ric Flair is when I went to the Carolinas for Mid-Atlantic Wrestling for [promoter] Jim Crockett in 1977. I met and shook hands with him in Greenville, S.C., down in the locker room. I did not know his status with the company at the time, but then I learned very quickly—probably by the end of that night—that he was a main event [bad guy] for Mid-Atlantic.
WWE.COM: That’s when the two of you had a rivalry over the Mid-Atlantic TV Title. Did you have instant chemistry?
STEAMBOAT: I was still very green, but from a physical aspect, it was great chemistry. He had the long, blond hair. I had the long, black hair. I was your consummate [good guy] and he was your consummate [bad guy]. Early on, I was all ears listening to him guide me and lead me. We wrestled each other so many times over the years that it just got to be very natural.
WWE.COM: What were Flair’s best attributes in the ring?
STEAMBOAT: He had great ears for listening to the crowd and knowing what would work and what wouldn’t. He knew how to work the crowd. It’s a lost art today, knowing how to acknowledge, but picking your moments. He was an expert.
WWE.COM: What sort of things did Flair teach you?
STEAMBOAT: I learned to listen as a good guy, how to fight back without throwing away the heat, and how to fight back while I was still hurting. That part would always keep you in the game and keep you in the match.
WWE.COM: You were the master of that.
STEAMBOAT: Well I went to [AWA owner] Verne Gagne’s camp to train in ’74 and started working in ’75. I learned after about a year of being in the business that was the thing I should really focus on — learning how to keep my fans even though I was getting my a** handed to me.
WWE.COM: So would you say you went to college with Verne Gagne and got your master’s degree with Ric Flair?
STEAMBOAT: Oh yeah, without a doubt. After Verne’s school, I moved to Florida, and that’s where I got the Ricky Steamboat name through Eddie Graham. He had Sammy Steamboat, this Hawaiian guy that became a main event guy in Florida Championship Wrestling. On the first day I walked through the office, Eddie looked at me and said “Rick Blood, wow what a great name for wrestling. But you’re a [good guy], and that’s a [bad guy] name. If you don’t mind, I’d like to call you Steamboat, Ricky Steamboat. I’ll advertise you as Sam Steamboat’s nephew.” I was just happy to have a job. You can call me “Tons of Lard” for all I care, as long as I get to work.
RIC FLAIR: Steamboat had started under Verne Gagne, who had also been my coach, and I was already working for Jim Barnett at Georgia Championship Wrestling when I saw Steamboat. He looked like a million bucks. So I told Crockett, “Man, this kid is great. Let’s get him up here.”
WWE.COM: Did you feel an instant chemistry when you first started wrestling over the Mid-Atlantic TV Title?
FLAIR: Oh yes, it was unbelievable. At that point, I was still learning, too. It wasn’t like I was as [popular] as I ended up being in the business. That was the second title I’d ever won — the first being the Mid-Atlantic Tag Team Champions with Rip Hawk. I was still learning my craft as well, with guys like [Blackjack] Mulligan, Wahoo McDaniel, Paul Jones, Rufus R. Jones, but you just didn’t have a guy who could even match up to Steamboat. He got a lot of heat in the locker room because nobody wanted the competition.
WWE.COM: What sort of stuff did Steamboat teach you back then?
FLAIR: Let’s get this straight, he didn’t teach me anything [laughs]. I was still in my infancy and I’d been fortunate enough to be broken in under Dick Murdoch, Harley Race, Nick Bockwinkel, Ray Stevens and Dusty Rhodes. I had the best teachers in the world. I didn’t win the World Title until ’81, so I was still getting on top of my game. But Ricky and I were both on the same wavelength. He was an aggressive guy and wanted to do well.
WWE.COM: What were some of his best attributes?
FLAIR: It’s hard to pick one, but Steamboat was in phenomenal shape. He just never stopped, he was the Energizer Bunny. Steamboat was 230 all day long. He could bench press 450. He was just a gifted guy. We had a Mr. Charlotte bodybuilding contest; it was him against [Jimmy] Snuka. The whole territory went; it was great. Steamboat looked like Frank Zane in the old days — he’s so symmetrical. When I was wrestling Steamboat in the ’70s for an hour every night, you know what he was eating? He would drink three Miller Lites and eat three Chicken McNuggets. I was living with him for a while, and he would open up a container of Cool Whip and eat the whole thing. Then he would get up the next day, go to the gym, work out and wrestle me for an hour that night. That’s a special kind of dude right there. I didn’t have that shape because I’d drink 12 beers and eat 40 Chicken McNuggets with barbecue sauce on ’em. I never quite looked like Steamboat.
Match No. 1: Chi-Town Rumble, Chicago, Feb. 20, 1989
WWE.COM: Ricky, before we talk about the trilogy in 1989, I wanted to ask you about 1984. I know you and Flair had a 60-minute draw over the NWA World Title in Greensboro, N.C., at an event called Boogie Jam ’84. Do you think an epic match like that helped to set up the big trilogy five years later?
STEAMBOAT: No. We did have that one-hour [draw], but we had done a number of [draws] and a number of long matches since we hooked up in the late ’70s. Flair and I were on and off with each other for almost seven years. Jim Crockett could just advertise Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair, and we would do great numbers just off of the two names being hooked up for the evening. Fans knew we’d go out there and give them a hell of a match, win, lose or draw.
WWE.COM: What led to you leaving WWE after WrestleMania IV in ’88 and returning to the NWA?
STEAMBOAT: When I went to WWE, the level of work I put out every night was just balls to the wall. After the [WrestleMania III] match with [Randy] Savage, it took me to a level where I was very close or comparable to [Hulk] Hogan’s status when it came to selling tickets for the company. To this day, I don’t know if Hogan felt that I was a threat, but I did know that after having such a great match with Savage, my run with the [Intercontinental Title] was very short-lived and I lost it to Honky Tonk Man. I took a six-month hiatus, because my attitude about the business wasn’t the attitude that had carried me forward for so many years. I said to myself, “Ricky, you’ve got to take a sabbatical. You’ve got to get out for a while and regroup.” When I came back and had that match in Chicago, I was full of fire.
WWE.COM: So were you brought in specifically to wrestle Flair for the World Title?
STEAMBOAT: No, I do not remember that conversation ever taking place to help persuade me to come back. I was never told I was going to main event with Flair right from the get-go, but I was just happy to work for a couple guys who would look after me.
WWE.COM: Ric, were you keeping up with the stuff Steamboat was doing in WWE during that time?
FLAIR: We’d talk on the phone, but we never did a lot together socially. He didn’t like partying on the road. He’s a little more conservative.
WWE.COM: He couldn’t keep up with you?
FLAIR: I don’t think he wanted to try [laughs].
WWE.COM: Did you play a role in getting him to come back to the NWA?
FLAIR: I requested to [NWA producer] George Scott, and they gave him a very lucrative deal for the three big shows and TV tapings in-between. I said, “Let’s go get him.” George knew how good he was, because he was there in the infancy of the relationship. Who wouldn’t want to have him, right?
WWE.COM: Ricky, what are your memories of beating Flair for the title in Chicago?
STEAMBOAT: I think the end of the match shocked everybody, it was the same ending that Randy Savage and I had.
WWE.COM: That match is by far the most fast-paced of the trilogy. Was that by design?
STEAMBOAT: If you watch the match that Randy Savage and I had, it was also a very fast-paced match. We had 22 false finishes in a match that, bell-to-bell, only went about 17 minutes. That’s very high-paced. I was coming after Randy’s championship, and the only way to beat him was to cover him. That thought process that I was coming for the title carried through to the Flair match.
WWE.COM: Ric, how did you feel about that match in Chicago?
WWE.COM: Steamboat was the traditional family man and you were living the high life with the girls on your arms.
FLAIR: And if you’re an 18-year-old kid watching that, who do you want to be? Hell yeah, you want to be Ric Flair. A 16-year-old kid or a 40-year-old dad wants to be Ric Flair. It was such a hard sell, man. I kept saying to Steamboat, “Leave ’em at home.” I didn’t mean it personally, but it was what it was.
WWE.COM: How did you feel about Hiro Matsuda accompanying you to the ring for that match in Chicago?
FLAIR: That was a joke, too. He was a great guy, don’t misunderstand me. I liked Hiro, but let’s get serious. People back then were asking the same question you are right now. How does Hiro Matsuda end up with Ric Flair? He doesn’t talk, so what’s he doing?
WWE.COM: Chicago is known as a great wrestling town. Do you think the crowd that night contributed to the atmosphere of the match?
STEAMBOAT: Yes. Flair had a ton of fans in Chicago. A lot of guys in Chicago loved the bad guys. His transition to being completely loved by the fans might have started as early as then. They loved Ric Flair, as flamboyant as he was.
WWE.COM: What was going through your mind when you finally locked Flair in the small package and got the three-count to beat him and win the World Title?
STEAMBOAT: That was a special moment in my life and in my career. To win that championship from him after so many years of trying, without a doubt, I was very emotional. I’m an emotional guy. I don’t hold my feelings back. People could relate with me in that moment.
WWE.COM: Did winning the title help you forget all those Ric Flair chops to your chest?
STEAMBOAT: Oh, wow. I mean, he’d bring it, and I’d bring it. Sometimes we’d chop each other so many times in the chest that our skin was splitting and our chests were bleeding. He’s got a great chop, but he only started chopping after he hooked up with me. I never asked him about it, but that’s my memory.
FLAIR: No, I was throwing chops. I started that long before I met him. Nobody’s got a chop like mine. I got the “Woo.” You tell me.
Match No. 2: Clash of the Champions VI: Ragin' Cajun, New Orleans, April 2, 1989
WWE.COM: Let’s talk about the second match of the trilogy, a 2-out-of-3 Falls Match in New Orleans. This match was on cable television directly head-to-head with WWE’s WrestleMania V on pay-per-view. Were you both aware of the stakes of this situation?
STEAMBOAT: We knew we were going up against WrestleMania. With that in mind, we wanted to put on a good show. Having something like that, going up head to head, if you’re a pro you’re going to want to step your game up.
FLAIR: You know, I don’t remember that, isn’t that funny? I didn’t live my life to compete against WWE. I just do my own thing. I was very comfortable, especially at that point, with who I was in the business and my level of ability, so I didn’t care if they’re making money.
WWE.COM: The match went nearly a full hour, by far the longest of the three matches in the trilogy. How do you look back on that match in particular?
STEAMBOAT: That was my favorite.
WWE.COM: Why’s that?
STEAMBOAT: Because we put in 55 minutes. The one in Chicago was thrilling because I won the championship, but now I had to back it up in New Orleans. Walking away at the end of the night, I felt that we did. That was by far my favorite of the three.
WWE.COM: Do you think the match influenced longer matches like the WWE Iron Man Match between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels?
FLAIR: It’s funny, because I didn’t think the New Orleans match was that good. I thought it was OK, but the crowd was just brutal. They were cheering me, and sometimes you’re fighting uphill. In Chicago, they cheered for Steamboat, but then in New Orleans, they were back for me again.
WWE.COM: Ricky, what did it mean for you to have your son out there with you in the little dragon costume that night?
STEAMBOAT: I liked the fact that I had my son out there with me, only because I could look back and watch the match and see him out there at such a young age. He was like 2 years old. I don’t feel that the family man image worked the way they wanted it to be. Flair had all the girls and Ricky’s the family guy with the wife and the kids. At the time, I felt that wasn’t winning me any points. It was a little bit too “Howdy Doody.”
WWE.COM: Do you regret never having a solid run as a top bad guy?
STEAMBOAT: To answer your question, yes. But I’ll tell you a story. I was working with WWE, I think it was around 1991 when I came back to the company. I went to Pat Patterson and said, “I want to work [as a bad guy]. I’ve been in the business for almost 17 years and I’ve been a straight [good guy]. And before I bow out, I’d like to be able to work as a [bad guy].” I said, “Let me go out there in a full bodysuit and a mask. I’ll just do punches, no chops, no dives, no crossbodies. I won’t even do the classic Ricky Steamboat arm drags. Let me just go out there.” But Pat explained to me, if they sent me out there with a chainsaw to run in the ring and chop off one of Hogan’s python arms, the fans would gasp, they’d look at me, look at him, and look back at me. And then they would all stand up and point their fingers over at Hogan and say, “You know something, brother, you deserved it!” Pat said, “Ricky, you’re the consummate [good guy]. It would hurt your career.” That was the only time I ventured to it. Pat was so convincing that I did not want to chance it after that, even when I went to WCW.
Match No. 3: WrestleWar: Music City Showdown, Nashville, Tennessee, May 7, 1989
WWE.COM: Ric, let’s talk about the final match of the trilogy, where you regained the World Title in Nashville. Pro Wrestling Illustrated named it Match of the Year and three legendary competitors — Lou Thesz, Pat O’Connor and Terry Funk — sat at ringside as judges to make sure there was a clear winner. What do you remember about that night?
FLAIR: My best recollection of that match is I conceded with Steamboat that I would take those arm drags. I never liked arm drags. I liked working headlock series, but we wore the headlock out in Chicago and New Orleans, so in Nashville I went to the arm drags with him. He was the best. He gave me the best arm drag in the business. It was a war. I never really was nervous going into it, though. What are the odds I went to bed at midnight and rested up for a big match?
WWE.COM: Probably not good, Ric.
FLAIR: How about New Orleans?
WWE.COM: About the same.
FLAIR: Why would I rest up for a match? I lived every day of my life. I got a new robe made, made sure my hair was done, made sure I had a tan, never missed a workout no matter if I slept or not, but I certainly didn’t go to bed at midnight going, “God, I’m wrestling Steamboat tomorrow. Am I ready?”
WWE.COM: Ricky, what are your memories of the final match of the trilogy?
WWE.COM: And then have a fourth match to close out the series?
STEAMBOAT: Oh, I always thought there would be a fourth. I always thought that. I sort of took it for granted. I was the current champion, and if he won the championship back, then I’m going to try to get it back. But that never took place because of the outcome after my match. That was a very sincere letdown.
WWE.COM: Yeah, after Flair won the title from you, Terry Funk attacked him and they began a rivalry.
STEAMBOAT: I’ll go on record to say I didn’t know anything about that. I remember I was walking up the aisle, I turned around and all of a sudden Funk’s in the ring beating up Flair and there’s all this commotion.
WWE.COM: So you regret there was never a fourth match in ’89?
STEAMBOAT: Oh, very much. That should’ve been an automatic. It was a little bit of a sour moment. I felt okay about losing the championship back to Flair, because I always felt we’d have some great rematches. Taking a look over my shoulder at what’s going on with Funk, I said “What the ...” It was like a stab in the back.
WWE.COM: Did you ever talk with Flair about it?
STEAMBOAT: Just kind of in passing with some sarcasm behind it, such as, “Oh, I see, you’re working with Terry now.” We’ve never had any lengthy discussion about it. Maybe he didn’t want to say anything to me, because we had worked so much with each other and we grew the respect, he just didn’t want to let me down.
FLAIR: I wish I could’ve wrestled Steamboat forever. He was awesome.
WWE.COM: Do you have a favorite of the three matches?
FLAIR: I really don’t. I would just say to everyone who likes those matches, I think they were really good, but I can tell you we had a thousand that were better. I wrestled Steamboat from ’77 all the way until ’84 almost every night. An hour-long match every night, man.
"God, those are the best matches ever.": The trilogy in review
WWE.COM: Why has the 1989 trilogy of matches stood the test of time for fans?
FLAIR: You know, I don’t know the answer to that. It was 10 years after they happened that people started saying, “God, those are the best matches ever.”
WWE.COM: You think fans look back on those matches more fondly than you do?
FLAIR: I’m sure of it. I never watched me and Steamboat until 10 years later, when my kids started wanting to watch wrestling. I didn’t have time to go home and watch my match. Now you can go home and get on WWE Network and watch whatever you want. For me back then, I couldn’t wait to have some nice clothes on and head to a club. And if somebody wanted to tell me how cool the match was, let’s do it, but I don’t need a bunch of guys walking around telling me “Damn, that was a hell of a match.” I wanted to go have fun. I got to a point in my life, which I think is important for anybody in any sport, where I knew when it’s good, and I knew when it’s bad. I wasn’t worried about my level of performance, and certainly Steamboat’s was never anything but the best. I didn’t dwell on stuff like that. I knew I was good.
WWE.COM: You mentioned earlier that you were already 41 years old during the trilogy. Was your prime a little earlier than that?
FLAIR: No, I thought I was in my prime. There was nothing I couldn’t do when I was 41. I don’t think I really lost any momentum. The key to this business is you need to walk out that curtain and not be nervous because you’re in a big time event. If you walk out that curtain worrying about getting hurt or worrying about not being able to do something that you did one time, you’re [screwed].
WWE.COM: Ricky, do you think you were in your prime during that trilogy?
STEAMBOAT: In the ’80s, even up through ’89, I was in my prime. Flair was, too. But earlier when we were going around the territory, we just tore the place apart, blew the roof off.
WWE.COM: Ric, by the end of the trilogy, you were no longer a bad guy. It was almost as if wrestling those great matches had endeared you to the fans. What are your thoughts on that?
FLAIR: After a while people just say, “He’s just that good, how do you get [ticked] off at him?” I think Tom Brady is the man, but you ask the average guy, they all hate Tom Brady. You wanna know why? Because he’s that good. He’s good looking, he’s got Gisele. You think he cares what somebody thinks about him? After a while, you just gotta love him. People just had to finally concede to me. That doesn’t mean everyone liked me, but anybody that understood our business had to concede that I worked hard, and they’d never come away disappointed in the time they spent watching on TV or the money they spent watching in the live arena seeing me perform. The guys wanted to be Ric Flair and all the girls wanted to be with Ric Flair! Can’t leave that out. I’m not married anymore. I can say it all now. [Laughs]
WWE.COM: You both finally did have a rematch five years later at Spring Stampede 1994. What are your memories of that belated rematch?
STEAMBOAT: That match to me was very un-impactful. I didn’t have the good feeling. When Flair and I hooked up five years later, I had a negative attitude going back to the Nashville match. I sort of carried that sour taste in my mouth, even though I never said anything to Flair or anybody about it. I was just very ho-hum-ish. Like, “Oh well, we’ll go out there and give them a good match.” Even on our worst day, we could go out there and give them a good match.
WWE.COM: Ricky, what’s your relationship like with Flair now?
STEAMBOAT: I don’t see him that much, but whenever we do, it’s always good. It’s overwhelming how much he did for me early in my career and all the way up to help mature me, so it’s always good to see him. My initial feeling in my heart, it’s a lot of respect. I wish him well.
WWE.COM: Ric, when you retired in 2008, a ceremony was held for you on Raw. What was your reaction when you heard Ricky Steamboat’s music and saw him coming down the ramp?
FLAIR: That he helped define my career, and we’ve been great friends after all these years.
WWE.COM: Where does he rank all-time among your great opponents?
FLAIR: He’s No. 1 for sure.