Forgotten Classics: Ric Flair in Japan

In the same way that cinema has a canon, or literature has, wrestling also has its canon; unofficial, as these things always are, but unconsciously agreed to through much online discussion and the publication of magazines and books.

There are the canonical ‘great’ pay per views; Great American Bash 89, WrestleMania 17, Spring Stampede 94, just to name a few. There are the canonical great stars and wrestlers (not always mutual); the likes of Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold, Eddie Guerrero, and Dynamite Kid. Then there are the canonical ‘great’ matches; the original Hell in a Cell, Steamboat vs. Savage at WrestleMania 3, Eddy vs. Rey Mysterio Jr. at Halloween Havoc ’97, Austin vs. Dude Love at Over the Edge, Omega vs. Okada at Dominion.

But what of the ‘Forgotten Classics’? The great matches lost to time and untouched by word of mouth apart from in the most hushed corners of the wrestling community? It’s time for us to shine a light on these underappreciated gems…

If anybody has got a catalog of great, canonized wrestling matches, it’s Ric Flair. He is on many people’s lists of the greatest wrestlers of all time. While it could be argued that he slipped into self-parody in the mid-to-late nineties, his work between the ropes during the eighties is quite rightly revered as some of the greatest grappling ever.

But this opinion tends to be predominantly led by his American work. With the legends of his feuds with the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Barry Windham, Ricky Steamboat, and Sting, and his place at the helm of the iconic Four Horsemen, plus the relative availability of his work for the NWA, WCW, WWF/E, and TNA online, it’s easy to understand how this is the case. But what is less discussed amongst the wrestling community is the amount of outstanding encounters the ‘Nature Boy’ had in Japan. As defending NWA World Heavyweight Champion, Flair would tour the Orient often, and he would have many wonderful, exciting encounters there that just don’t seem to come into conversation when people debate the gems in Flair’s back catalog.

Let me attempt to put that right…

All matches here can be found on YouTube

Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat (AJPW, June 4th, 1982)

Now, I know the title of this column is ‘Forgotten Classics’, but I’m not going to do the unthinkable and try to convince you that this match is secretly better than their ’89 classic trilogy. But this is a good match and one worth seeking out – did Steamboat and Flair ever have a bad match? Not that I know of.

Flair was in the middle of his first reign as NWA World Heavyweight Champion here. Steamboat and Flair already had history, having feuded over and traded the Mid-Atlantic TV and United States titles during ’77 and ’78. So, they knew each other well going into this title match.

Steamboat upsets and aggravates Flair from the off, continually flustering him with his high-speed offense before returning to a side headlock, wearing the champ down. Flair retaliates with chops and shows his athleticism (he was in good shape here), but he cannot get a proper handle on Steamboat, who throws Flair over the turnbuckles to the floor and smashes him into a row of chairs in the crowd. Later he slams Flair’s head onto a ringside table in an uncharacteristic fit of aggression.

Flair takes over with a back elbow, a gut wrench suplex, and, after being chopped out of the ring, he wraps Steamboat’s knee around the ring post with authority. Flair starts to work over Steamboat’s leg with precision, until Steamboat surprises Flair by blocking his knee on an attempted knee drop, then locking Flair in his own hold, the Figure Four! Great spot. It’s not enough to take Flair out, though, as he luckily grabs the ropes.

Nor can a Steamboat cross body or suplex do the trick. Flair fights back with chops, punches, and elbows, but Steamboat’s gaining momentum. He punishes Flair with a suplex, a flying forearm, and two press slams that leave Flair writhing in agony (the plane crash would still have been in relatively recent memory). A flying crossbody from the top rope gives Flair the chance to roll through and take the very lucky pinfall victory.

This is a solid match but was surprising in that Flair was on the back foot throughout and only took the victory over the dominant Steamboat by using his ring knowledge alongside a little bit of luck. By 1989, though, both men would be equals and would make history together.

Ric Flair & Dick Slater vs. Giant Baba & Atsushi Onita (AJPW, June 6th, 1982)

This is a curious match. Flair was the NWA champion, of course, whilst Slater would ultimately turn on Flair around a year later in the build-up to Starrcade ’83. Giant Baba, meanwhile, was a co-founder of All Japan as well as one of their biggest stars. Onita, most curiously of all, was the wrestler All Japan built its junior division around. Of course, this was years before Onita would scar himself repeatedly in ‘exploding barbed wire, piranha-filled swimming pool, let’s kill poor Terry Funk’ deathmatches. Seeing Onita wrestle feels like I’m hallucinating.

This is a charming little gem of a match. Slater is great as the unpredictable heel, making it his mission to annoy and to pick a fight with Onita, while Flair is perfect as the disdainful, arrogant champion, refusing to shake Onita’s hand and looking at him like he was dirt.

Giant Baba was the Andre the Giant of All Japan: he was a huge figure, physically imposing, and he wasn’t very mobile. But on the flip side, when he cracked people with those big hands, like in this match, they knew about it. Onita, meanwhile, has some great chemistry with Flair, taking it to the mat. And while Onita is more athletic than I expected, Flair goes the other way and ramps up the aggression, cornering Onita and hammering with the kind of stiff fists I’m not used to seeing from Flair. He also slammed Onita headfirst into a table, sending Onita toppling over it. All of this suits Flair’s disdainful character here very much. Onita throws Flair out of the ring at one point and throws himself between the middle ropes – in 1982!! Impressive.

I must mention Slater trying to protect Ric’s neck on an Irish whip to the corner by throwing himself across the top rope to cushion the blow. There’s a first! Now, that’s how you do a crazy character willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. People mention Terry Funk and Brian Pillman when they try to find a template for Jon Moxley, but they might want to take a closer look at Slater.

Flair took the win with a suplex on Onita but decided to pick a fight with Baba after the bell, pushing him whilst mouthing off. Big mistake. Baba chopped the holy hell out of Flair, while Slater, rather than fighting, calmed Baba down then shook both his and Onita’s hands. Flair, less than impressed by Slater’s change in tune, disdainfully slapped his outstretched hand away. The arrogant swine.

With great character work on the parts of Flair and Slater, and with some spirited ring work, this is something I would call a hidden gem and is well worth your time.

Ric Flair vs. Jumbo Tsuruta (AJPW, August 6th, 1982)

This is a great match, plain and simple. A bit similar to Flair’s matches with Genichiro Tenryu, this match is a lot closer to the ‘pure’ pro-wrestling style, but Jumbo is capable of a much brisker pace than Tenryu, which gives this encounter an exciting, vital feel.

This is a tale of two men who are approaching, if not quite at, their peak, of similar excellent ability, trying to outdo the other and prove that they are the best. As such, the advantage swaps between the two at quite an even frequency, each man using the mat, power moves, and some stiff striking. Jumbo has some dangerous jumping feet, catching Flair with leaping kicks and top-rope dropkicks, while Flair punches harder than he was known for, mounting Jumbo at one point and dropping a flurry of potatoes on the defenseless challenger. I’d love to have seen more aggression from Flair like that over his career.

One thing this match has made me realize is that I miss that piledrivers were considered lethal finishers. I mean, they still are lethal moves to me – you’re dropping someone on the top of their head! Jumbo nails Flair with a great one here, which Flair sells like he’s just had an electric shock (whereas he randomly doesn’t seem to sell the one he later takes on the floor – he must have a selective head).

If you only watch one match on this list, make it this one. The ending isn’t the most satisfying, but the action very much is. If you’re reasonably new to Flair, got fed up with Flair the cartoon character, and wondered where the hell the legendary NWA champion was, look no further. Or maybe watch the Harley Race one. Or maybe…never mind.

Ric Flair vs. Harley Race (AJPW, May 22nd, 1984)

This match found Flair in an interesting position. He was wrestling the man he had won his last heavyweight title from, but he was no longer champion. He had lost the NWA title to Kerry Von Erich in an emotional encounter at the ‘David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions’ show on May 6th and would win the title back from Von Erich only two days after this match with Race.

The match starts with the face Flair jawing at Race, so Race pushes him away in a temper. It’s cool that they remembered to play off of the heat from their excellent feud the previous year.

Flair starts fast, hitting a shoulder block and running the ropes, but Race soon has Flair in the corner and takes control with some seriously nasty swinging forearms. Everything Race does is so methodical and crisply executed. It’s fascinating to watch when you think of the hectic pace of modern wrestling.

There’s a couple of cool reversal/counter moments early on: Flair feigns an elbow drop as Race rolls out of the way, hitting it when Race thinks he’s safe; and Race working his way to a standing position whilst in a front face lock and cradling Flair into a roll-up. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the latter move before, it looked pretty neat!

Midway through the match, Flair sends Harley to the outside, where Race attempts to piledrive Flair on the arena floor. It would take Terry Funk five more years and a table to achieve the same. Flair luckily backdrops Race on the floor and sends him into the primitive guard rail there. Race pulls Flair back outside after and posts him, before hitting a killer standing headbutt back in the ring. I love Japan, a country more reserved in manners than America, allowed wrestlers to just go for it like this.

The pace, already sprightly, picks up for a wonderful home stretch; Flair counters a knee drop with an ankle grab and Figure Four; Harley hits a sunset flip from outside the ring; Harley socks Flair with a brutal left hand that just drops the ‘Nature Boy’; Flair is flipped over the turnbuckles, only to run along with the apron and surprise Race with a flying crossbody from the top rope for a very near-fall; and finally, Race countered a Figure Four by kicking Flair into the ring post, then smashed him with a diving head butt from the top for the 1-2-3.

The ending is a little surprising, considering Flair would take the NWA title again only two days after this, but I’m not complaining. Their Starrcade ’83 classic might have more historical pedigree, but I think this is the better match. The action balances nicely between the mat and the fist, the pace is a lot brisker (in a positive way) and Flair and Race demonstrate great chemistry here. A must-watch.

2 Out of 3 Falls: Ric Flair vs. Genichiro Tenryu (AJPW, September 12th, 1984)

A lot of people point to a later match in 1992 between these two, fought under the SWS banner (with the WWF’s support), as the one to watch, but I picked this one because I think there’s still a lot to recommend this match, and, well, ‘Forgotten Classics’ is all about shining a spotlight on those less-celebrated great matches…

If you’re after character work, shenanigans, bells, and whistles, forget about it. This is no-frills, straight-ahead wrestling, and very good it is too. If you find yourself excited about the ROH Pure title style of matches, this might appeal to you, albeit this is very much of its time.

Both men work wear-down holds to begin with, whilst throwing in stiff strikes and chops for good measure. Flair is all business, which is a characteristic that differentiates a lot of his 80s Japanese work from his ‘styling and profiling’ on American soil.

The first fall is a little slower than the second, as both men build-up from the feeling-out process to getting that first win under their belt. Tenryu takes the first fall eventually, with two jumping kicks to the back of the head, which Flair sells like he’s been shot, and a piledriver. Flair picks up the pace thereafter, desperate to even the score, and he takes the second fall with a dramatic Figure Four that Tenryu struggles and fails to get out of, eventually having to submit.

The decisive fall is quick and ultimately lets the match down. I’m not sure if Flair gets disqualified for not backing off at the ref’s instruction, as he relentlessly goes after Tenryu’s damaged leg, or if the ref stops the match because Tenryu is too hurt. This does deflate the match a little, but if you’re aware of this coming in, then there’s still plenty to enjoy here. It’s just two guys trying to outwrestle the other – sometimes that’s all that you need.

Ric Flair vs. Riki Choshu (AJPW, April 23rd, 1985)

This match was surely a big deal at the time. Riki Choshu was one of Japanese wrestling’s biggest stars of the time, having formed the villainous Ishin-Gundan stable in NJPW to feud with top face Tatsumi Fujinami, before invading’ All Japan in 1984 for more box office super-success.

All Japan Pro Wrestling had become a member of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) in 1973 and would remain so until 1986, one year after this match. The NWA World Heavyweight title, as recently confirmed by Tim Storm, is still very much respected in Japan, and the respect is clear here, as Jim Crockett Jr. is there to represent the company during the introductions and to watch the match at ringside. This helps to give this match a big fight feel.

This is an interesting match, in that both men have leg submission finishers and, from a slow, mat-based build-up, they go to the legs, Choshu trying to lock in his signature Indian Death Lock, whilst Flair, of course, aims for the Figure Four. Initially, Choshu out-wrestles Flair on the mat, forcing Flair to bring out a striking game based around those vicious chops of his and a series of fists and knee drops. After a while, Choshu just decides to fight fire with fire and stops Flair dead with a killer lariat. He also throws Flair over the turnbuckles to the floor, and it’s refreshing not to see Flair do his Flair flop on the apron.

Flair can get the Figure Four on Choshu, but it’s broken by the ropes. So Flair hits a belly-to-back suplex and goes right back to the Figure Four, showing how relentless he is in pursuing victory. There’s another rope break and Flair twists Choshu’s ankle in a way that ankles aren’t meant to turn. Choshu comes back, though, and locks in the Indian Death Lock, which racks Flair with pain but Choshu seems to just drop it. I think the implication was that Choshu’s legs were too damaged to keep the hold on for long, but it wasn’t clear.

Flair gets another Figure Four but Choshu manages to reverse it. Flair sends Choshu to the floor but gets pulled under the bottom rope and sent to the post. In the ensuing brawl, both men forget the referee and slip back in the ring a second too late to avoid the double count-out.

It’s a slightly disappointing finish – I guess neither company was willing to let their biggest star lose – but as a story of a relentless pursuit of victory via their leg submission specialisms, this match is a success. Check it out.

Ric Flair vs. Rick Martel (AJPW, October 21st, 1985)

This was promoted as a unification match for the NWA & AWA Heavyweight titles, so you know there’s going to be some sort of swerve at the end, as indeed there is. It’s a shame when it comes to that, but I can imagine there was a lot of pressure from both companies to not come out looking like a loser.

Flair is pretty respectful of Martel, which makes it feel like he is a worthy opponent and not a lesser champion. Martel was a really good wrestler, and if all you know of him is his tenure as ‘The Model’ in the WWF, then I recommend checking out his AWA stuff. He’s a former world champion that’s unfairly not remembered as one.

There’s some beautiful, fast-paced chain wrestling to start. Martel has a slight edge over Flair, to begin with, as his speed seems a little overwhelming to Flair, like when Martel hits him with two flying headscissors in a row. Martel also seems to be stronger, winning a test of strength, and hungrier too, aggressively wrenching at Flair’s head during a headlock. Flair did his part here in helping Martel look spectacular.

Flair was being overwhelmed by Martel, so he played to one of his strengths – being the dirtiest player in the game. He threw Martel to the outside and then into the ring post. He then keeps control of a hammerlock by pulling Martel’s hair. This is the first reel heelish behavior I’ve seen from Flair during these matches, outside of perhaps the tag match with Dick Slater. Another hair pull, though, and Martel loses his temper, decimating Flair with a fearsome flurry of fists that look pretty damn tough to me. There’s an exchange of abdominal stretches and suplexes, but Flair, threatened with defeat, throws Martel to the outside once more.

After a battle of the lower limbs, with both men working the legs and trading Figure Fours, Flair throws Martel outside again, only for Martel to take advantage and throw Flair into the ring post, cutting him open.

Therein lies the story of the match: Flair finds himself overwhelmed by the more energetic, powerful Martel and has to resort to a subtle heel trick to re-establish his dominance. Then Martel comes back, as he did at the end, trading some heated punches and big impact moves with the ‘Nature Boy’. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, even when you know there’s not going to be a clean finish.

And the swerve to avoid the title unification? I won’t spoil that for you, dear reader, but spoil yourself and watch this excellent, underrated encounter.

What do you think? Do you agree with my picks? Are there any ‘Nature Boy’ forgotten classics from the orient, or even elsewhere, that you think I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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