In terms of wrestling trilogies, one stands head and shoulders above the others: Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat versus “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair.
Despite being most famous for their trio of encounters, Flair and Steamboat’s rivalry stretches 20 years from the late-’70s to the mid-’90s. With nearly 300 matches between them – via both the World’s Largest Wrestling Database and Cagematch – the feud spanned the NWA and WCW. The following is a revisiting of the rivalry that captured the imagination of technical wrestling fans like no other feud could.
The first conflict between the two came during the closing segment of the May 25th 1977 edition of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. Steamboat, new to the promotion and just 18 months into his wrestling career, was getting interviewed by Bob Caudle before Television champion Ric Flair walked out and remarked:
Step aside kid, the people came to see me and Valentine, not some punk kid!”
The two exchanged some barbs, with Flair clearly positioning himself as the cocky, arrogant heel and Steamboat as the low confidence but defiant worker. This continued, with Flair interrupting Ricky the next week and the week after, with the third interruption triggering Steamboat to physically retaliate, knocking out Ric with a thrust chop.
The first major made the duo had against each other was aired on June 22nd, seeing the young Hawaiian winning Flair’s Television title belt. Hitting Flair with a diving axe handle, the win cemented the rookie, beating the proven veteran Flair. After the match, Flair’s partner Greg Valentine jumped the new titleholder but was saved by Wahoo McDaniel.
In an interview after the win, Steamboat prophetically commented:
To me, this is just the beginning…but I’m gonna tell you something Flair. Deep down inside, this is just the beginning between you and I. Anytime you want me just let the promoter know, and we’ll go.”
As David Chapelle of Mid-Atlantic Gateway best put it: “
One of the greatest feuds in wrestling history began just because Ric Flair would not let Ricky Steamboat finish several innocuous TV interviews! But thank goodness those interruptions happened, as we fans got to enjoy 17 years of a fantastic rivalry and great matches as a result!”
In Charleston, North Carolina in October, Ricky Steamboat won the United States belt off of Flair in a lesser-spoken-of part of their rivalry, with one reporting misspelling his name as “Rickey”. He put his hair on the line for a steel cage match. Steamboat went on to have some top matches with Flair in the last quarter of the year. He lost it on New Year’s Day the next year to Flair-affiliated Blackjack Mulligan.
A famous moment in the TV studio saw Flair scrapping Steamboat’s face across the floor. Leaving him with scars, he was successful in trying to de-pretty Ricky’s face. The next week Steamboat retaliated by ripping up one of Flair’s expensive suits, which he had a penchant for in terms of discussing their value.
From the late-’70s to the early-’80s, Steamboat and Flair lived a peaceful co-existence, as displayed at Starrcade 1983.
Both were face and challenged for title belts at Starrcade 1983, with the team of Steamboat and Jay Youngblood in solidarity with Flair, who had just come out of retirement for a world title match after having his neck broken. Both men won back their titles, the NWA World Heavyweight title for Flair and the NWA World Tag Team titles for Steamboat.
Both shared an interview at the event with Steamboat a prominent face in the post-match celebrations for “The Nature Boy”.
The duo shared some similarities during this era as, with a Steamboat ‘retirement’ a month after the title win, both were involved in 1983 retirement angles; both also won Wrestling Observer awards for best in their field (Wrestler Of The Year and Tag Team Of The Year).
The two would have two significant match-ups during this era, starting with MACW’s Boogie Jam 1984, in Steamboat’s first challenge for the NWA World Heavyweight title. In a 60-minute bout, Flair and Steamboat fought until the time limit elapsed, sharing a handshake afterward.
Next came The Night Of Champions event in May 1984, prior to the creation of the TV special of the card with the same name. The card itself was stacked with intriguing bouts pitting Ronnie Garvin vs Jake Roberts, Stan Hansen against Wahoo McDaniel, and Tully Blanchard in opposition to Carlos Colon. In the main event, Flair retained – utilising a dirty tactic, perhaps unsurprisingly, holding the tights in an O’Connor roll – over Steamboat in just under 35 minutes.
Ricky may not have won either encounter but he proved himself, able to hang with Ric, himself the master of ‘going broadway’ (a wrestling term for a match ending in a time limit draw, without a conclusive result).
Having proven his worth, Steamboat would go to the WWF in 1985 and return a changed man with his status as a rising star converted to a top worker, with potential still to be unlocked.
Steamboat Return, Build To Chi-Town Rumble, And Title Win
In 1987, “The Dragon” famously beat Randy Savage for the Intercontinental title in one of the most lauded matches in WrestleMania history. After the regarded encounter, Ricky requested time off due to his wife recently giving birth but the WWF, wanting the IC belt to be a travelling title across live events, forced Steamboat to quickly drop his belt, which he did. Upon returning, Steamboat never quite returned to the same heights. He scored no eliminations at Survivor Series, rarely appeared on TV, and was booked surprisingly weakly including a first-round elimination at WrestleMania IV’s WWF title tournament.
After his ‘Mania loss, Gorilla described him as “disillusioned”, a statement supported by Steamboat deciding to up sticks and leave the WWF, with the ‘Mania match being his final match in the promotion – not returning until three years later in 1991.
In a segment aired on the January 21st 1989 edition of WCW Saturday Night, Ric Flair and Barry Windham challenged rival “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert and a mystery opponent. This turned out to be a returning Steamboat, to the chagrin of the ex-Horsemen. In the match, Steamboat got the win for his team by pinning world champion Flair with his flying crossbody.
Finding his match, Flair had an in-ring contract signing for their match at Chi-Town Rumble, set to take place a few days later. In the signing, Flair ended up in his underwear, stripped down by “The Dragon”.
The feud also called back to the crux of Flair’s old feud with Dusty Rhodes. Flair was the playboy, “kiss-stealing” and accompanied by a gaggle of young girls whilst Steamboat was the married, faithful family man with a child and wife in a clash of the lifestyles rivalry. Whilst Flair was accompanied to the ring by the devious, untrustworthy Hiro Matsuda whilst Ricky bought his one-year-old son. The dichotomy between the characters drew a clear line between the face and heel characters, with an engaging angle for the audience to invest in.
The introduction to Steamboat was a greatly beneficial one for NWA/WCW. Not only did it end the relatively tepid run Flair was on at the time but it also got the title off of Flair, something bookers had been wanting to do for a while.
So it was that on February 20th at Chi-Town Rumble in front of a crowd featuring Dave Meltzer that Steamboat encountered Ric Flair, ending the 452-day reign of Flair as NWA champion. The match had fans on the edge of their seat, with technical brilliance and unbelievable stamina underpinning a grueling match in which neither man accepted loss, with a flurry of near falls and submission maneuvers. It was after the referee was accidentally taken out that Flair, dressed in red – a commonly cited premonition of an upcoming defeat – tried his figure-four leglock only to be countered into a small package that sealed the deal, getting the one, two, three.
After having been there to celebrate with Flair after Starrcade ‘83, it was now Steamboat who received a champagne showering from fellow babyfaces after defeating that man. In Flair’s own words: “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man” and Steamboat did just that.
This was seen as not just the match of the year but one of the greatest bouts in NWA history – and it had only just begun.
Chasing “The Dragon”
Even on house shows when they really didn’t need to, Flair and Steamboat worked tremendous touring matches.
On March 18th 1989, Flair and Steamboat wrestled two matches that have attained somewhat cult status, one in Landover, Maryland and the other in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the afternoon Maryland match, Dave Meltzer remarked:
5½ to 6 stars as a fair grade.”
The other match too was highly rated in spite of a questionable decision (technically all finishes were not decisive, part of the feud ensuring both men felt on the same level but this was a particularly screwy finish). Dave gave both a combined star rating of 10.25, which is not bad for one day!
The second official match of the series following on from Chi-Town Rumble was at Clash Of The Champions VI: Ragin’ Cajun. The match topped a card that counterprogrammed WrestleMania V. Set with a 60-minute time limit, the two-out-of-three falls match occurred on this one-match card and would be better than anything the WWF put on. Flair scored the first fall with an inside cradle – the same move Ricky used to win the belt – putting his reign into jeopardy. Luckily for Steamboat, he forced a submission with his double-arm chicken wing submission, a move put over as Steamboat working smartly and soundly to work on the back Flair injured in an infamous plane crash in 1975. The match went down to the wire as just a few minutes remained before Ricky tried again to apply his chicken wing but fell back out of exhaustion and injury. In a finish with a lot of moving parts, both men’s shoulders were down but Steamboat just managed to lift a shoulder whilst Ric had a foot under the bottom rope. The match was originally supposed to go to a draw but a certain new member of the booking committee argued against this: Ric Flair. Still with a dodgy finish, however, a match was rearranged for WrestleWar.
The WrestleWar bout, seen by many as their finest encounter, saw a finer flow with Flair, in particular, targetting Ricky’s leg. Extra legitimacy was added to the match with guest judges in the form of legendary athletes such as Terry Funk, Lou Thesz, and Pat O’Connor residing in case of a draw. Evenly matched, Flair did not use the figure-four but rather a roll-up, taking advantage of Steamboat’s injured knee and giving Ric his sixth world title reign. The match won Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s Match Of The Year award. After the match in a post-match interview, Flair called Ricky
the greatest world champion I have ever faced.”
With Flair finally getting a win over Steamboat, the feud drew to a conclusion with both starting new rivalries.
Steamboat faced Lex Luger, with Lex turning heel after seeing Ricky being crowned the number one contender to Flair’s belt over himself. The rematch would never come. More famously, straight after the win, Flair was challenged and assaulted by “Middle-Aged And Crazy” Terry Funk, including a piledriver on a table. The rivalry also included Funk choking Flair with a plastic bag, an electrified Thunderdome cage match, and a historic “I Quit” match.
Unfortunately, Steamboat and Flair just missed each other in the WWF. Due to the error of both the NWA and the WWF, after WrestleWar, the match did not take place again in either promotion. By 1993 however, both found themselves in WCW. The first match the two had was on July 30th at a house show where Flair retained his world title in a 45-minute encounter. The difference at this point was that both men were face. This meant the duo tagged together on the house show circuit and even on some episodes of Saturday Night.
Steamboat beat future rival Steve Austin for the number one contendership. Shortly after, when fending off an attack from “Stunning” Steve and Colonel Robert Parker, Steamboat inadvertently attacked ally Flair.
For the feud, Flair took a stance more towards a tweener role, with Ricky Steamboat never portraying a heel in his career. The feud was going to be a short feud, with even some of the build dedicated to the soon-to-be-arriving Hulk Hogan – an eventual debut that would move WCW away from the southern tradition style, which the company was already deviating from slowly, to a more entertainment commercial bit of programming.
At Spring Stampede, the match finally occurred. The match was very, very good but with less heat of the previous feud and slightly weaker. That said, it would never be anything but a great match. The guys hit their greatest hits and really got the audience on their side before a controversial finish, as is custom. Steamboat hit the chicken wing but fell backward and seemed to win. That was until referees emerged and Bockwinkel announced that Flair retained as both men’s shoulders were down, with the champion’s advantage meaning title retention for Ric Flair.
Although on the PPV, Flair retained the belt, it was held up and vacated. Not officially recognized as a vacancy, the duo had a Saturday Night match to determine the world champion. The match saw a traditional face-versus-face finish. In this, an accidental collision to a leapfrogging wrestler leading to the rebounding wrestler hitting a shot below the belt. Flair covered after a slight hesitation to win his belt back.
The two continued wrestling on house shows amidst Flair’s slow heel turn. Although wrestling from the very last time on August 21st, their last televised match was taped on August 16 for Main Event. In this, Sting and Steamboat defeated Flair and Austin although at the time Steamboat was feuding more so with Austin, whose United States title he was vying for.
Unfortunately, after gaining the US title belt, Steamboat was forced to retire after a back injury, closing the chapter of the Flair/Steamboat rivalry as well as Ricky’s in-ring career as a whole.
In the decades since, the matches have been discovered more and more, ballooning in popularity and coming to acclaim from the wrestling masses. Both were inducted into the 1996 Wrestling Observer Hall Of Fame. In 2006, in a cancelled WrestleMania match, Steamboat proposed a match with Flair but was rejected with Ric instead working the Money In The Bank bout.
At WrestleMania XXV, the Hawaiian native was one of three legends who went on to face Chris Jericho. Chris was supposed to wrestle Mickey Rourke but later pitched to face three legends, one of whom was Steamboat, with the legend contingent managed by Ric Flair.
Even in Ric Flair’s final match, one of the early match rumors that circulated pitted “Naitch” against Ricky Steamboat. This would have been a six-man affair in which Flair and FTR wrestled Steamboat and The Rock’n’Roll Express. Yet “The Dragon” turned this down, saying he “
I don’t want to tarnish the memory that the fans have of me”
happy with retiring after a short foray with Chris Jericho.
This is not to mention how Ricky would pop up at significant Flair-based events, exchanging gratitude and emotion at Ric Flair’s retirement ceremony in 2008 and at Flair’s 70th birthday celebrations in 2019, showing just how integral both men are to each other’s careers.
Both men are unquestionable two of the greatest workers of all time but of the two, Flair has had a more successful career. So whilst Flair is obviously associated with Steamboat, it shows the greatness of the rivalry that Steamboat is also seen as one of Flair’s greatest opponents.
Perhaps the greatest rivalry in WCW history, both men have shown that sometimes wrestling is best in its simplest: two men trying to prove they are the better man.
The men hold each other in high esteem to this day with Flair stating:
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.”
Meanwhile, Steamboat has gone on to praise the feud, saying:
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.”
With four Dave Meltzer stars, awards for Match Of The Year, and only the highest regard from those in the industry, this rivalry will be one fans can and will never forget. So much so that many have tried to replicate it since but to quote the late, great Oscar Wilde “Imitation is the homage mediocrity pays to greatness.”