This week for the Model Year Wrestler, I will examine Ricky Steamboat for the year 1989. It was not a completely full year for the Dragon or one that made a ton of money for WCW, but it was certainly memorable and critically acclaimed. After losing the Intercontinental title to the Honky Tonk Man in mid-1987, Steamboat gradually faded away in the WWF zeitgeist. He had matches with Rick Rude, including one to kick off the first Royal Rumble, but it was not as good as their later WCW series. His loss to Greg Valentine in the Wrestlemania 4 world title tourney was his last WWF match until 1991.
The Dragon took time off in 1988 to manage his gym in North Carolina but by the end of the year, Atlanta would come calling with Ric Flair pushing to bring in Steamboat possibly for a match at Starrcade. This didn’t happen then because Dusty Rhodes was still booking, and Steamboat and Dusty had heat with each other dating to 1984 when Steamboat was a top babyface in Jim Crockett Promotions about to be shunted aside for Dusty’s preferred choices like Magnum T.A.
Finally in January 1989, Steamboat came in as a mystery tag partner of Eddie Gilbert to face Ric Flair and Barry Windham. The Dragon scored the winning fall on the world champion Flair with a crossbody off the top rope. His quest to win his first world title was pushed on TV and the title match was set for the Chi-Town Rumble in late February. Always the family man, Ricky’s wife would often appear with him on the TV shows. The Dragon generally got the better of Flair in their confrontations, even tearing clothes off the Nature Boy.
At the Clash of Champions 5 in Cleveland on Feb. 15, Steamboat had a bizarre match against Bob Bradley which he won in about 7 minutes. It was strange because the crowd was not into the longtime babyface, and because Bradley was enhancement talent lasting that long with the #1 contender. The crowd even chanted for Flair. What probably didn’t help was that Steamboat looked like a guy who was totally whipped, with his wife there at every turn. He didn’t seem like his own man, someone people could really admire.
But he would win back that crowd at the Chi-Town Rumble, personally my favorite of the 1989 Flair-Steamboat “trilogy”. The crowd was pro-Flair at the start and gradually Ricky won them back through sheer will. It is a fantastic match and includes a memorable moment where Flair chops the hell out of Steamboat on the floor and Dave Meltzer going crazy in the front row. Steamboat won the match with an inside cradle to counter the figure four.
The biggest challenge a top babyface has is when he or she reaches the top of the mountain. There’s usually money in the chase for the title, but it is much harder to be that money guy as the defending champion. After a quick tour of Japan in early March, Steamboat faced Flair in rematches that he generally won when Flair would become distracted by other wrestlers fighting on the outside. They also had a match at the Cap Centre in Landover, MD that was featured on this blog last month with no commentary giving the feel that you are watching from a front row balcony seat. While the ratings for the weekly TV were strong, the attendance figures were disappointing. That show in Landover only drew 5,000 and fewer than that for the nightcap event in Philadelphia.
On April 2 at Clash of the Champions 6, Flair and Steamboat engaged in a two out of three falls match. Flair won the first fall with an inside cradle, and the Dragon scored a submission with a double chicken wing at about 35 minutes. With the match tied, it was expected to go to a 60 minute draw, but the match ended with a double pin spot with Flair in the double chicken wing again. Steamboat was given the victory, although the Nature Boy had his foot under the rope. This Clash is notable for going up against Wrestlemania 5 and also for only drawing slightly more than 5,000 in the cavernous Louisiana Superdome. This was partly because booker George Scott didn’t want to give away the house show main event on TV and thus did not promote the event to the fullest. He was shown the door for that idiocy.
The finale of the trilogy was at the WrestleWar ’89 PPV on May 7. Flair beat Steamboat for the title in a 31 minute masterpiece that is often referred to as their “greatest hits” album. By this point their rivalry has morphed into a mutual admiration society, with Flair calling the Dragon the greatest champion he has ever faced. The Nature Boy’s softening of his image led right into his de facto babyface turn after being assaulted by Terry Funk after the match.
With his feud with Flair over, Steamboat faced the Great Muta on house shows before facing Terry Funk at the next Clash in a revenge play for what he did to the injured Flair. Funk lost this match by DQ after beating Steamboat down with a microphone before a chair-swinging Lex Luger made the save. The U.S. champion had been upset that he was not given the same title consideration as Steamboat, so Luger attacked him right then, putting him in the Torture Rack and kicking off Lex Luger’s great 1989 heel run.
Steamboat would battle Luger for that summer’s Great American Bash tour, losing several house show matches in the leadup to the Bash PPV in July. The PPV match was billed as a no DQ match, but Luger threatened to walk out if that wasn’t changed. His demand was accepted and as it turned out, the fired up Dragon got DQ’d for shoving referee Tommy Young, who was trying to take a chair from Steamboat. Luger was chased backstage and it looked like the feud would continue in some form.
But the Dragon is his own man, so when his short term contract was up for renewal, he did not re-sign so he left the promotion. This was announced on Aug. 3 episode of the Power Hour. Steamboat went back to manage his gym and spend time with his family and would not be seen in WCW again for more than two years. It was probably a smart play since there was not much else for the Dragon to do during this run, with Sting about the be pushed as a bigger babyface. The matches he put on during this period will hold up until the end of time.