Over the course of decades in wrestling history, we’ve seen a crop of superstars that truly stood out among the rest, creating a legacy for themselves. They had specific qualities about them that made them rise to the top and reach the levels of popularity that they did. More often than not, we’ve seen two of the highest-level competitors on the planet go at it against each other and produce something that was nothing short of wrestling magic.
Perhaps no superstars had better chemistry and a better story and a better trilogy than Ric Flair and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. The two had a career-defining trilogy that would set the standard for top quality wrestling for years to come. But what many people don’t know is that Flair and Steamboat had gotten started many years before their epic trilogy in 1989.
In fact, we have to go back over 12 years prior, all the way to the Mid-Atlantic days of 1977. The first time they met, Steamboat was still green as can be. However, he would feud with Flair over the Mid-Atlantic TV title and they would instantly realize the chemistry that they have. Steamboat credited Flair for guiding him in his early days and helping him become a natural. He told WWE.com:
He had great ears for listening to the crowd and knowing what would work and what wouldn’t. He knew how to work the crowd. It’s a lost art today, knowing how to acknowledge, but picking your moments. He was an expert
Flair, despite being more experienced at the time, had nothing but praise for Steamboat. In the same interview with WWE.com, he said that despite being guided by legends like Blackjack Mulligan, Wahoo McDaniel, Paul Jones, Rufus R. Jones, etc. nobody could really match up to the talent of Steamboat. In a way , he represented the evolution of wrestling in the next major stage.
It also should be noted that this was a full four years before Flair won the first of his 16 world championships. He too, in a way, was still learning at the time. Their first major encounter before the trilogy was five years prior in 1984, in an event called Boogie Jam ’84. This was when they had a one-hour time limit draw when competing for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
This was just one of many one-hour draws that they had, because they wrestled each other so many times, including non-televised events. Steamboat stated that Jim Crockett just needed to advertise Flair vs Steamboat, and people would come flocking.
Getting to their first match of the trilogy, it was in February 1989 in what was known as the Chi-Town Rumble. It had been a while since Steamboat had left WWF. He had taken a hiatus and said that when he would wrestle for the company, it was “balls to the walls” every night, claiming that after his legendary WrestleMania III match against Randy Savage, he reached near-Hulk Hogan status in terms of ticket sales. Whether you believe that or not is up to you.
Either way, when he had taken a hiatus, Flair convinced NWA producer George Scott to offer Steamboat a lucrative deal for the three shows and television. In a way, he was brought back for that legendary trilogy. But they didn’t know exactly how it was all going to pan out.
The dynamic between them itself was what made the match-up so interesting. Flair was the rich man wearing fancy suits and surrounded by beautiful women, essentially being the antithesis of Steamboat, a full-fledged family man.
Steamboat has drawn parallels of their first match to his legendary bout against Savage. He said that it was as fast-paced (and the most fast-paced in the trilogy), with tons of false finishes and similar roll-up finish. He felt that a lot of the energy from the Savage match carried on to this one.
He would end up beating Flair to become NWA World Heavyweight Champion. Their second clash happened to be two months later at Clash Of The Champions VI. This was a match that would end up going 55 minutes in a 2-out-of-3 falls war. Steamboat has stated that this is personally his favorite match of the trilogy.
Interestingly enough, they were going head-to-head against WrestleMania V, so they knew that they had to put on the best match possible. Either way, Flair wasn’t as big a fan of this match, but what’s notable is that the crowd was brutal towards Steamboat despite being the babyface. This was the second major sign that Flair was being heavily cheered. It’s just one of those cases where a superstar is just too good to boo.
Steamboat walked out of this with a very narrow 2-1 victory. The stage would be set for over a month later at WrestleWar. This time, things were different. There was respect between the two and the judges of the contest were three legends – Lou Thesz, Pat O’Connor and Terry Funk.
Flair would win this epic contest, regaining the NWA World title. Right after this, an angle began with Flair (who had just turned babyface) and Funk. Though Steamboat didn’t know about that angle, he said he was regretful that they couldn’t have a fourth match.
Either way, this match stood the test of time and with good reason. If you ask Flair and Steamboat, they’ll tell you that these three weren’t even close to the best matches that they had. They wrestled each other night in and night out for nearly 7 years between 1977 and 1984. It just goes to show their level of professionalism and just how high of a level they were on.
It still remains arguably the greatest wrestling trilogy ever, and it’s a status that won’t be knocked down anytime soon. Ric Flair firmly believes that Ricky Steamboat was his greatest opponent ever.