Following what was and still is considered by many to be the best three-match series ever wrestled on American soil, Ric Flair and Terry Funk answered the age-old question: how do you top that? Well, you can piledrive your opponent onto a table and almost get your neck broken for a start! Relive 1989’s “Feud of the Year,” a rivalry that almost became too much to handle for Ric Flair.
“Terry Funk is attacking ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair! This is totally uncalled for! Terry Funk is a man enraged. I cannot believe what we are witnessing here! Noooo! Flair’s neck just jammed out of his spine! Funk has gone crazy! He piledrived him right on the table!”
– Jim Ross
The Unforgettable Feud of Ric Flair and Terry Funk
"The best three-match series ever wrestled in an American ring was Flair and Steamboat in 1989," proclaims Mark Madden, who is a former WCW color commentator and editor of Ric Flair’s book, To Be The Man. "Anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Unlike many matches from ‘back in the day,’ these stand the test of time."
WCW had a monumental task on their hands. Instead of trying to match the wrestling artistry of a Flair versus Steamboat, they decided to pit Flair against someone who would draw so much heat that the fans would almost have no choice but to root for him.
On May 7th, 1989, what began as a glorious encore celebration of Ric Flair’s triumph over Ricky Steamboat to capture his sixth NWA World Championship turned into a heinous assault masterminded by Terry Funk. Funk described himself as “meaner than a rattlesnake but crazy like a fox,” while Flair called him “maybe the only S.O.B. crazy enough to turn me good."
No stranger to angering fans and foes, Funk has called Dusty Rhodes “an egg-sucking dog” and often tried to use his hot branding iron on opponents. He’s slathered motor oil all over his body and covered himself in dirt and sand, trying to see how it felt to be a “dirty, stinky, greasy, Florida cracker." A deranged sumbitch like no other, only he could put Flair over as a babyface.
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Watch: Terry Funk douses himself in motor oil in an insane promo
After being declared the winner of the nearly 40-minute grueling match against Steamboat, in a sportsmanlike gesture, Flair raised his fallen opponent’s arm as the crowd showered them both with cheers. Flair, known as the perennial heel most of his career, was seen differently as both warriors showed each other respect. The self-proclaimed "Dirtiest Player in the Game" didn’t seem like such a villain anymore. With Steamboat now out of the picture after exiting the ring, Jim Ross congratulated Flair, who held the prestigious "Big Gold Belt" over his right shoulder. With the spotlight now shining solely upon him, at that moment in time, he truly embodied all the qualities hoped for in an NWA Champion.
But alas, the festivities were abruptly interrupted (it’s wrestling after all!), and happy times would become a thing of the past. A seemingly starstruck, tuxedo-clad Terry Funk approached Flair, almost like a fan would at a convention. Funk that evening had been one of three former NWA World Champions (Pat O’ Connor and Lou Thesz are the other two) invited to be judges for the final Flair versus Steamboat match if there wasn’t a winner after regulation time.
After congratulating Flair and stroking his ego by calling him “the greatest wrestler in the world today,” with an anxious-looking Jim Ross looking on, Funk announced that he wanted to be the first to challenge Flair for his newly obtained world title.
The NWA tried to portray the image of a more sports-oriented promotion compared to their competitor, the then-WWF, who skewed a little more on the entertainment side. The now more subdued and humble Flair tried explaining to the semi-retired outlaw from Amarillo, Texas, that he’d been away from wrestling too long, claiming that Funk had been with Sylvester Stallone in Hollywood, and he wasn’t a top ten contender.
Funk took what Flair said wrongly, and that’s when it all went to heck for The Nature Boy, who would hardly have the energy to defend himself against The Funker after the fatiguing match he just had against Steamboat.
Trivia: Terry Funk had done stunt work for Rambo III, starring Sylvester Stallone. He would later land a role in Roadhouse alongside Patrick Swayze.
“Wait a minute,” Terry said in a quavering voice. “Are you really saying that I’m not a contender? You’re saying that I’m not good enough, aren’t you, Ric?”
"I’m not saying that at all…"
“Yes, you are.” Funk was seemingly on the verge of tears. “Please, let me say one more thing. I was just kidding you about going ahead and wanting to challenge you. I didn’t really want to challenge you. I was just kidding you. So let’s go ahead and…”
"Terry extended his hand in friendship, and-as the unsuspecting good guy-I shook it, recounts Ric Flair in his book.
"That’s when he pulled me forward and slugged me with his left hand, before hurling me out of the ring and over the guardrail. Terry pulled off his tuxedo jacket and slammed my head into a ringside table. Then, he dragged me onto the table, lifted me upside down, and delivered a piledriver. He almost killed me. It’s pretty hard to protect a guy when you’re both crashing through a table. I couldn’t turn my head for weeks."
Flair’s head hit the table, and his neck bent at an awkward angle before he tumbled onto the floor.
While an immobile Flair laid in a heap under the table wreckage, an elated yet despondent Funk yelled, “He said that I wasn’t good enough. I’m not a contender? Look at him! Look at the horse-toothed, banana-nosed jerk!”
Watch: Terry Funk attacks Ric Flair, setting their feud in motion
The attack led to Ric Flair contemplating retirement while nursing a severe neck injury (in storyline) for several weeks. Meanwhile, Terry Funk lambasted The Nature Boy at every opportunity. He’d question his manhood in scathing promos, and he even brought out a scrawny, pathetic-looking Ric Flair imposter with a yellow stripe painted on his backside, a prelude of Edge ridiculing Flair in the WWE years later.
Did you know? This was not the first time somebody had been piledrived onto a table, even though both Ric Flair and Terry Funk would claim otherwise in shoot interviews. Randy Savage did the same to Ricky Morton of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1984. On that occasion, time seemed to stand still as Savage worked the crowd of 10,000 fans into a frenzy after doing a leaping piledriver that cracked the table with Morton violently crashing through. He tried to do it a second time right afterward, but Robert Gibson stopped him.
Were the Promos from Terry Funk a Bit “Too Much” for Ric Flair?
Ric Flair legitimately resented these promos, so Terry Funk was asked to tone them down. Funk couldn’t understand what the problem was. After all, he was the heel, right? In his book, Terry Funk: More Than Just Hardcore by Scott E. Williams, Funk theorizes that it might have had something to do with the internal power struggle unbeknownst to him before arriving that was going on within the promotion.
Terry Funk became part of the booking committee and Ric Flair, Jim Ross, Jim Cornette, Kevin Sullivan, and a few others. Then you had Jim Herd, a former St. Louis TV station manager and executive with Pizza Hut who knew little to nothing about the wrestling business.
"A station manager is about as qualified to run a wrestling company as I am to work at the Pentagon," Ric Flair once asserted. "Jim Herd was an idiot. This is not defamation. I’m just telling you history."
“Jim Barnett was also on the committee and the acknowledged wrestling expert,” says Jim Cornette. “Everyone knew he didn’t need the money ($300 extra a week), but he liked to gossip and keep his hands in the business. With his influence, [Barnett] could’ve gone over Herd’s head, but rather than be confrontational, he sat back and watched.”
"I don’t know if Flair was upset because he was insecure or because he wasn’t there," states Funk. "You see, he was at home, selling the injury angle, and all he knew about what I was doing was what he saw on TV. All he saw was me blasting him every week. With all the divisions in WCW at that time, I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought I was working on behalf of someone else there to make him look bad."
The committee saw Herd as the enemy. He wasn’t in agreeance with the amount of money Flair was getting paid, adding to The Nature Boy’s paranoia. Funk relates that he’d have to tone down promos a few times before, especially when things got too heated, like in Puerto Rico, but never over another worker’s alleged hurt feelings.
"Regardless of how he felt personally about my promos, Flair was a pleasure to work with," Funk would comment. "I truly enjoyed every one of our matches, and we had some solid encounters. How could I not love a match when I was in there with one of the best performers in the world?"
Watch: Terry Funk’s backward running piledriver and his beautiful dream
The Return of Ric Flair
Ric Flair returned for revenge five weeks after recuperating from "his injury." The sagacious Gary Hart was widely known as one of the most brilliant minds in the business and was brought in to manage Terry Funk. "When I became Terry’s manager, I made things as easy as possible for him," says Hart in his now out-of-print book, My Life in Wrestling: With a Little Help From My Friends. "The only thing he had to concern himself with was the match itself. Everything else I would handle: His positioning on TV, his interview content, angles, finishes, and things like that."
The two standouts amongst the many wrestlers Hart guided throughout his career are Bruiser Brody and The Great Muta (Keiji Muto). Along with Funk, Brody and Muta became the leading players of Hart’s new heel stable called the J-Tex Corporation. Buzz Sawyer, Dick Slater, and The Dragonmaster (Kazuo Sakurada) also joined. It was sold to the fans as supposedly a big corporation comprised of Japanese and Texans invading WCW.
While Flair was recuperating, Funk slowly but surely defeated numerous opponents to become ranked among the top ten contenders for the NWA title. He then requested Jim Herd for a shot at Flair’s title, which Herd authorized on July 1st, 1989.
Both Ric Flair and Terry Funk had incredible promos leading up to the showdown, convincing fans that the upcoming grudge match was a must-watch affair. While stylin’ and profilin’, Flair promised that he was going to kick Funk’s Texas ass on July 23rd and said that Funk took his best shot but was unable to keep him out of wrestling.
Funk, in turn, responds in another promo that Flair is gutless and afraid of him. He then promises that he’s going to stain the mat blood-red when they finally meet.
Watch the incredible promos between Ric Flair and Terry Funk leading up to The Great American Bash in ‘89
The Great American Bash ’89 became the first big stage of their rivalry, which saw them face off in a bloody brawl where they both beat up on each other like there was no tomorrow. The match’s seriousness comes across during the pre-match interview conducted by the iconic announcer, Gordon Solie. He had the knack of selling even the most pedestrian match as an event of paramount importance.
Flair’s neck’s condition became the prevalent theme and the concern over how much punishment it could take before he became paralyzed. The coveted NWA World Championship was on the line, but Funk, with his “crazy old man act,” could not fulfill his dream of becoming a two-time holder of the coveted belt. The Great Muta involved himself in the end, and Sting ran in to rescue Flair from possible permanent injury.
Big Money, Big Injuries, and Dangerous Fans
Ric Flair and Terry Funk drew big money. In total, they faced each other at least 25 times with the majority of their encounters, not on pay-per-view or TV, and all won by Flair except for one No Contest.
From July 23rd through November 15th, 1989, Flair and Funk tore into each other wherever they met. Most of them were one-on-one encounters, including two Steel Cage bouts and three Texas Death matches- all very physical punishing affairs for both wrestlers. Funk remembers a bad injury when he was teaming with Muta against Flair and Sting.
“One night, I went over the top rope in a match with Sting and hit the rail outside, cracking my sacrum (the sacral region is at the bottom of the spine). I ended up riding around on a plane every day going from town to town, and I couldn’t sit on the plane, except for takeoff and landing. The only way I could stand the pain was to kneel on my seat, facing the person behind me.”
Funk remembers having a lot of heat with the NWA fans wherever he went. In Marietta, Georgia, a woman went after him with a butcher’s knife, which had Funk wondering, "Now, why would she defend a banana-nose instead of a good-looking Funker?" If you search for matches, you will see people getting in Funk’s face and cursing at him. The Funker was not one to back down but understood that fighting with fans wasn’t ideal for business.
Amarillo, Texas, was the only place where no matter how hard Funk tried, Ric Flair was the one that got the jeers from the crowd and booed out of the building. It was similar to when Flair was in the Carolinas; the fans never accepted him as a heel in his hometown.
In their Thunderdome match for the Halloween Havoc pay-per-view at the Philadelphia Civic Center, Funk and Muta teamed up to face Flair and Sting with Bruno Sammartino as the guest referee.
The electrified cage had Halloween decorations around it. Before the match, someone turned on the electricity, and way up top, one of the ornaments caught fire. In a surprisingly heroic moment, The Great Muta climbed up the cage and blew it out with his oriental mist! You can read more about this story in our article entitled, The Best and Worst of WCW Halloween Havoc.
Funk doesn’t consider the match a highlight of his career because they ended up doing an unplanned finish where Ole Anderson, in Flair’s corner, decked Gary Hart, where he then threw in the towel. “It ended up being one of the most ridiculous damn things I ever participated in, and that covers a lot of ground,” laments Funk. “Fortunately, sometimes, fans accept things better than you think they will.”
Ric Flair, Terry Funk, and the Plastic Bag Incident
Much deliberation went into discussing the best way Terry Funk could make an impact when he returned from a hospital stay due to a nasty infection he received inside his arm. Gary Hart recounted, “For three weeks, his arm kept getting worse and worse. It was discolored, oozing puss, and sickening looking. It also had an aroma, and it didn’t smell healthy.” Hart claims he’d wrap the arm every night and tell him, “Terry, you’ve got to take time off.”
To this, Funk would answer, “I’m wrestling the Nature Boy on top in full buildings, making money, and you are too!”
"That’s true," Hart would concede. "However, your arm is really bad, and it’s beginning to smell."
Funk finally acquiesced when threatened that Hart would tell his wife if he didn’t go to the hospital. It seems that Terry Funk can intimidate anybody in the ring, but at home, it’s a different story!
“Dirty” Dick Slater took Funk’s place while he was recuperating from surgery.
In what became known as the infamous "bag angle," TBS executives and TV viewers were incensed after Funk made a run-in and attacked Flair after his match at The Clash of Champions in Columbia, South Carolina. He placed a plastic bag over his head, trying to smother him.
Due to overwhelming complaints, the incident wasn’t replayed anywhere for years. "That was so tame compared to the stuff they do today," says Funk. "If you did that same angle today, they’d laugh at you, but at the time, people were calling in and complaining so strongly, you’d thought I was really trying to murder Flair!"
Gary Hart claims that he took the heat for this controversial angle when Jim Herd began to ask whose idea it was to try and asphyxiate a person on national television. Hart further stated that in a Ric Flair DVD out at the time, the footage had to be removed before being sold in England.
Even when talking about Flair, who had more than a few 60-minute matches throughout his career, Hart was hesitant to do this after the match, risking that Flair might be winded. The team of Flair and Sting had won the arduous match by DQ after Muta used his green mist, and Slater struck Flair with his cast. Funk then came running in and jumped him from behind.
"If you see a tape of the angle," Hart says, "you’ll notice that before I leave, I walk around the pole and look right at Ric to make sure he hadn’t really suffocated before I leave."
Watch the previously banned footage: Terry Funk tries to choke Ric Flair with a plastic bag!
Ric Flair and Terry Funk “I Quit” Match
The culmination of the rivalry between Ric Flair and Terry Funk took place in a now-famous I Quit Match at WCW Clash of the Champions IX on November 15th, 1989, at the Houston Field House in Troy, New York.
In this final chapter, both wrestlers brawled all over the arena, beating each other to a pulp while dragging a microphone with a very long chord. As the fans were concerned, it was time for Funk’s comeuppance, and they sure didn’t disappoint. Both competitors mostly eschewed wrestling holds in favor of brawling. According to Terry Funk, this match became the most-watched wrestling match in the history of cable TV up to that point. And at its conclusion, both men seem to be barely able to stand.
When Terry Funk said, “I Quit,” he didn’t just quit the match. The booking committee, according to Gary Hart, “switched it at the last minute, and it was actually an ‘I Quit Wrestling’ match,” and so they retired Terry Funk.
Hart and the committee had thought about having Muta and Funk feud, but instead, Funk began doing commentary with Chris Cruise. Funk claims that it was because he wasn’t on the committee’s or Jim Herd’s side, but instead on the NWA’s side and thus didn’t mesh inside the promotion.
He believes that this "company first" mentality came from being the son of a promoter and understanding the importance of being able to continue writing checks to all the guys so that everyone could make a living.
Terry Funk, of course, did not retire. After a brief stint in Memphis and what was left of the territories, he traveled to Japan. He worked for Atsushi Onita in Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW) in some of the most violent and unforgettable matches in the sport’s history.
Ric Flair continued in chaotic WCW and began a program with Sting, before moving onto the then-WWF in August of 1991 under the auspices of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. In an unbelievable performance, The Nature Boy won the Royal Rumble after entering at number three and outlasting everyone to claim the vacant WWF World Championship on January 19th, 1992.
Watch the “I Quit” Match that ended the Ric Flair and Terry Funk Feud
These stories may also interest you:
- Ric Flair in WWF – Why He Shockingly Left WCW for Arch-Rival in 1991
- Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat – The Story Behind The Magic
- Ric Flair and Jack Veneno | The Title Change The NWA Won’t Accept
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