Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat – The Story Behind The Magic

1989 was a special year that saw Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat put on a trilogy of matches for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.

You had Flair, one of the most iconic figures in professional wrestling history, the poster boy of the NWA (and WCW later on) whose promos and heartfelt passion for the world title was always evident. Opposite him was Steamboat, a true master of his craft, the ultimate good guy who became a star after his classic bout with “Macho Man” Randy Savage two years before at WrestleMania III. Together, they created what has been lauded as the greatest series of matches of all time.

This is the story behind the magic.

Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair lock-up at Chi-Town Rumble, February 20, 1989.
Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair lock-up at Chi-Town Rumble, February 20, 1989. [Photo: WWE]

Background

From February through to May 7th, 1989, Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat clashed over the coveted NWA title.

At Chicago’s Chi-Town Rumble on February 20th, Steamboat defeated Flair to capture his first-ever NWA world title. The two would meet again at Clash of the Champions VI on April 2nd, which ran opposite of Hogan/Savage at WrestleMania V, in a two-out-of-three-falls match where Steamboat won the 55-minute encounter two falls to one.

The final bout between the two took place just a month later on May 7th at WrestleWar: Music City Showdown in Nashville, Tennesse. It was there where Flair regained the belt with pro wrestling legends Lou Thesz, Pat O’Connor, and Terry Funk looking on as official judges from ringside.

Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat Open Up about Their Legendary Feud

Here, Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat share why they have nothing but reverence for one another.

RICKY STEAMBOAT (via WrestlingPerspective.com, H/T: Wrestling’s Glory Days for the full quote):

“I learned so much from Ric Flair.

He had been in the business maybe a year-and-a-half longer than me, coming out of Verne Gagne’s camp. He had come in and got real hot as a heel. He just really stood out. I came in and he wanted to take me in under his wing. He went to Jim Crockett and said, ‘I want to work with Rick Steamboat.’

The two of us together, we were like two peas in a pod. We just gelled. I think one of the biggest attributes that helped me and other guys, too, during that era was the fact that we wrestled nearly every night back then. Monday night we’d be in Greenville and the next night we’d be in Columbia, which is only 90 miles away.

What it made Flair and I do was to change our match.

Flair and I would work with one another sometimes seven nights a week, and with four weeks in a month, we had to keep changing up the matches with fans following the circuit every night. It would always test me and Ric to do something different.

Through that, you would learn. We did so much stuff on the fly.

There was so much main-event talent – guys like Paul Jones, Wahoo McDaniel, Blackjack Mulligan, Greg Valentine. And even some of the mid-card guys that we used on television to get us over were great talent. They were the third or fourth match on the card each night. By today’s standards, those guys could be main-eventers.

Out of the hundreds of matches we had, did we ever have a bad one?

I’m going to say no. There were matches that were better than others. But we always gave it our best in the ring.

When the promoter came to us and said we were going to Broadway – we were going the hour – most of the time we wouldn’t even talk about the match.

We’d look at each other in the locker room and he’d say, ‘Ok, see you in the ring…’

We’d go out there and just wing it. When we did that two-out-of-three falls match in New Orleans, we had our three finishes and that was it – the rest we called in the ring. We’d listen to crowd responses and if something came up in the course of a match and we got a good response from it, then ok – we’ve got a little fork in the road here and we’re gonna take a right and it changes.

That’s old school.

We pushed each other to extreme limits. We were out there hangin’ and bangin’ for 40 minutes, 50 minutes every night. Who could blow up who? We did that without anything being said. It was just an ongoing thing where I’d look across the ring at Ric, he would look at me, and here we go. And we would just push and push and push.

Fifty minutes into the match, the guys backstage watching would go, ‘How in the world are you guys able to go at the speed you’re going?’ and we’ve already put in 50 minutes. It was pride, ego, male testosterone. Anything you want to say. That was an ongoing thing between us over a number of years.

We never had any kind of locker room disputes or anything outside the ring. We were very respectful of each other. We grew to enjoy each other in the ring only because of the respect we gave each other and our respect for the business … and for the match that particular night.

It didn’t matter if it was 200 fans in Columbia or if there were 15,000 fans in Greensboro. We would go out there and take them on a ride.”

RIC FLAIR (via Mike Mooneyham of The Post and Courier):

“One of my greatest blessings was the day Ricky Steamboat walked into the office of Jimmy Crockett in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Ricky Steamboat had everything – charisma, work rate, intensity and one of the best bodies in our business.

I don’t think I ever had a bad match with Steamboat. He was the best I ever wrestled against.

A phenomenal performer. We had great chemistry and a lot of respect for each other…that good guy/ bad guy thing worked really well. It was awesome.”

Jim Ross on the Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat Feud and Where It Ranks Today

A more recent photo of Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair emotionally embracing.
Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair embrace. [Photo: WWE]
There was one common denominator in all three matches: Jim Ross.

 

Ross, who is currently a commentator, analyst, and senior advisor for All Elite Wrestling, called all three matches between Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat. In a recent interview with SportingNews.com, he gave his thoughts on the Flair-Steamboat feud and how it stacks up against feuds of today.

“I felt like they killed it. All those matches are different. The effort was intense. The professionalism was A-plus. I knew when we did them; they were special.”

Despite this, there were two criticisms Ross had, but they had nothing to do with the competitors themselves.

“The Superdome [in New Orleans] was a lousy site for the second match between those guys. That stadium seated at the time around 65,000 fans and we only had around 5-6,000 fans. That does affect your perception and magnitude of everything that night. I loved the match, but the surroundings were a little different.”

As for the second critique, Ross shared how disappointed he was to have had the finish of the first Flair-Steamboat match in Chicago ruined moments before it began.

“I was walking down to the ring in Chicago and Magnum (TA) was ahead of me, and it took him a little bit longer to get out there than me because of his physical situation.

“There was no hurry. I was trailing a little bit, and George Scott was the booker at the time. He grabbed me and mind you I didn’t know what the finish was going to be and I didn’t want to know what it was. I was adamant not to know like I would on most nights. He said to me, ‘You know we are taking the belt off of Ric tonight, right? I said, ‘I didn’t know George. Why did you tell me that?’ He told me, ‘I thought you needed to know.’ It pissed me off a little bit, to be honest with you. I wanted it to be spontaneous. I didn’t want to know anything. But the good news is the match was so good, and the crowd was absolutely amazing that the information George provided was forgotten. I found myself immersed in what Ricky and ‘Naitch’ were doing. It all worked out well. They’re classics.”

Ric Flair puts Ricky Steamboat in a sleeper hold with about seven minutes left in their match on April 2, 1989, at The Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Ric Flair puts Ricky Steamboat in a sleeper hold with about seven minutes left in their match on April 2, 1989, at The Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. [Photo: Pro Wrestling Illustrated, via WWE.com]
The beauty of the trilogy was that Flair and Steamboat were able to tell a different story for each of their matches.

 

“The intensity in Chicago was unbelievable for the first one that I [called] with Magnum T.A. and the second one I did with Terry Funk and the last one I did with Bob Geigel,” Ross said. “All three different trips. All three different rides. All three different journeys and destinations. That’s a compliment to Ricky and ‘Naitch’ because they changed their matches up to continue the storyline and added new wrinkles that added new elements to the matches. The trilogy ends with Flair regaining the title and afterward starting the angle with Terry Funk which started a new series of matches over time. I thought it was really well done.

“I was blessed to be at the right place at the right time to call those three classic matches and be able to add a little music to the dance they led everyone on. It’s a great memory for me. I never broadcast in person or elsewhere, three better trilogies.”

“You had two artists out there. They raised everybody’s game.”

In comparing this feud with other classic trilogies such as Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada, or The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Ross shared, “I did the three Okada-Omega matches. Unfortunately, those are all on voiceover on a slight tape delay, which loses a little bit of its P&V for anybody. It’s not as good being ringside and feeling the crowd, their energy, and noise. I never called three more memorable and historically significant matches in my career. The only three matches that come to mind, but they were far apart, were the three WrestleMania matches between The Rock and ‘Stone Cold’ at WrestleMania 15, 17 and 19.”

Ross continued, “I’m a fan of wrestling, first and foremost. For any broadcaster, to call a Flair-Steamboat match, I don’t have to do much to build up their performance. I just have to be motivated to call a great match or as great as they are wrestling. It helped tremendously that they were unique, and they were always changing it up. They not only changed it up for the fans, but they changed it up for the broadcasters. Even though I was the common denominator in those three matches, they all had different feels to them. But you had two artists out there who painted like Picasso, so you knew you were going to get something great. I knew what we could potentially have but Ricky and ‘Naitch’ over-delivered in my opinion, in my view. And that raised everybody’s game. It was an amazing experience and opportunity to do it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If you are a wrestling fan, it is more than worth your time to go and watch these matches.”

As for something fans may not know, Ross reveals, “I had to go to the bathroom during the long show [in New Orleans]. There was nobody around, so I hunkered down and peed in the seats around me. I had to go somewhere. I had to do that or urinate on myself. There was nobody there so I looked around and knew I could do it. I felt like a farm boy outside by a tree! That’s how empty it was. There wasn’t a soul in sight where we were at. Terry (Funk) laughed and thought it was funny, but he told me you got to do what you got to do. So I had two options. I could do number one right here, or I could soil my pants!”

WATCH: Ric Flair vs Ricky Steamboat (2-out-of-3 Falls) at Clash of the Champions VI

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JP Zarka
JP Zarka is a teacher, singer/songwriter, producer, former co-host of The Genius Cast with Lanny Poffo podcast, current executive producer of The Pro Wrestling Stories Podcast, and editor-in-chief of ProWrestlingStories.com. Originally from Chicago, he has called London home since 2008. He can be reached on Twitter @jpzarka or @pws_official.