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Cue Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (Theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey”)

July 22nd, 2009 1 comment

 lancedave

“Yellooww again, everybody, Lance Russell and Dave Brown, right along ringside, ready for another BIG day of Championship Wrestling.” And so began nearly Saturday morning of my youth from 1977 to 1989, as the hosts of Memphis wrestling welcomed hundreds of thousands viewers across the area to another broadcast featuring the stars of Jerry Jarrett’s territory.

As part of the 2009 NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest weekend, which will be held in Charlotte, Aug. 6–9, I will relive some of those Memphis memories with Lance, Dave and Jerry as moderator of a roundtable discussion about the territory that was home to such stars as Jerry “the King” Lawler, Bill “Superstar” Dundee, “The Fabulous” Jackie Fargo, Sputnik Monroe, Tojo Yamamoto, “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant and so many others. The Memphis roundtable is scheduled for 90 minutes on Saturday morning (August 8th) on the main stage —how appropriate, given the running time of the Championship Wrestling show, which aired live for so many years from the WMC-TV 5 studio on Union Avenue. Working for Jarrett with Lance and Dave in the mid-’90s was a dream come true for me, and I am honored to speak with them as part of our Memphis discussion in Charlotte, which is scheduled for 9:15 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.

For any Memphis-area fans who in the past have been on the fence about attending the annual NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest Weekend—this is the year to come. Lance will be honored as part of the Hall of Heroes Banquet Friday night, and Jarrett, Lance and Dave will all be available for autographs and photo opportunities over the weekend. Jim Cornette will be hosting a Q&A session Thursday night, while Jackie Fargo, “Fabulous One” Steve Keirn, Jimmy Hart and Tommy “Wildfire” Rich will also be available for photos and autographs at various times over the weekend. Also recently announced: “The Universal Heartthrob” Austin Idol, who be making a rare appearance Friday at the Highspots.com booth.

For the complete tentative lineup of Fanfest activities, click here. As Lance used to often say when plugging the upcoming Monday night card at the Mid-South Coliseum, “Friend, don’t you dare miss it.”

Worth its weight in gold: New book examines history of NWA World title belt

July 22nd, 2009 1 comment

On Saturday, August 15, 1982, teenaged wrestling fan Dave Millican was watching the 90-minute live Memphis wrestling show when NWA World champion Ric Flair appeared, unannounced in advance, alongside Lance Russell in the WMC-TV studio. Wearing sunglasses, a perfectly pressed double-breasted, navy-blue blazer and white button-down and khakis, Flair almost appeared as if he had steered his yacht down the Mississippi River to arrive in Memphis. In Flair’s hands, the famous “10 pounds of gold”—the championship belt of the National Wrestling Alliance.

King without a crown: Lawler never won the NWA belt for Memphis, so Dave Millican created his own cardboard replica of the title.

King without a crown: Lawler never won the NWA belt for Memphis (but did pose with it following a 1976 bout with Funk), so Dave Millican created his own cardboard replica of the title.

 

Millican had originally seen photos of the belt in the Stanley Weston newsstand publications (a.k.a., “the Apter mags”) years ago, and it had been love at first sight. Sure, Nick Bockwinkel, the AWA World champ, played the role so well that most Memphis fans believed him to be the champion, but Apter-reading marks like Millican and me knew that the NWA strap was considered the big one by the wrestling press. Most important, we had seen Flair all over Mid-Atlantic and World Class TV stylin’ and profilin’ and turning back challenge after challenge against the biggest names in the sport. We knew Flair was the real World heavyweight champion.

 

“Even at a young age, I appreciated the prestige of the NWA World title,” recalls Millican. “From the syndicated shows, I could see that Flair was making the rounds as World champion—he wasn’t just the champion of a single territory. By the time Flair had made it to Memphis, I had been in enough scrapes and scuffles to know that wrestling wasn’t on the up and up, but the wrestlers in those days made it much easier to suspend disbelief. I was watching Flair and Jerry Lawler go at it, and I remember thinking, ‘This is a studio match and it probably won’t happen—but, man, it would be cool to see Lawler get his hands on that NWA belt.’”

 

Flair escaped Memphis with the belt that day, so Millican did the next best thing—he created his own replica of the 10 pounds of gold.

 

“I had already been making cardboard belt when I was a kid—a cardboard box wasn’t safe around me growing up,” he says. “The first one I made was in the style of what we in the business call the old ‘Levy-style’ belt, with the red, white and blue, similar to the old National title [Georgia territory, circa 1983] and our area’s AWA Southern tag belts [1980-81]. The first belt that really caught my eye was the AWA Southern title that was introduced in Memphis in 1981, with the oval chrome-ring side plates that I’m so fond of. My first memory of the NWA World title was when Terry Funk came to Memphis to defend the title and seeing how excited my older brother and his friends were. And Lance Russell had always done such a good job getting over the importance of Nick Bockwinkel’s AWA title that I also held that belt in high regard. I probably tried my best to copy those two World title belts.”

 

Also known as the “domed globe” because of the dented globe affixed to the gold buckle, the strap was retired after about 16 years of service to make way for the Big Gold championship belt, which Jim Crockett Jr. purchased for titleholder Ric Flair in 1986. As the final holder of the original 10 pounds of gold from the territory days, Flair kept the championship belt, storing it in a custom-made case for display at the Queen’s Gallery in Charlotte.

 

Since that time, Millican has become one of the best-known belt-makers in the wrestling business, with his clients including his childhood hero Lawler as well as TNA and UFC. Countless fellow belt marks have secured Dave’s services, often purchasing several high-quality, ring-worthy replicas of NWA, AWA and WWF belts, many of which were originally made by the “King of Belts,” Reggie Parks.

Living the belt-mark dream: Millican shows off some of his collection.

Living the belt-mark dream: Millican shows off some of his collection.

 

In fact, it was Parks who gave Millican his big break in the belt business. In his late teens, Dave had graduated from cardboard construction of his belts, with help from an uncle who had access to huge sheets of steel at work. Millican began making belts made of stainless steel and trophy metal for wrestlers on the outlaw circuit—small, local promotions not affiliated with wrestling’s major organizations, which often ran in towns where an established promotion like’s Jarrett’s Memphis group was already operating. Most of the outlaw guys either had no belts or ones that resembled Millican’s early work on cardboard, so they greatly appreciated Dave’s advancing handiwork.

 

Millican was aware that Parks was the belt-maker to the stars; however, because wrestling’s inside information was more closely guarded in the days before the Internet, he had no way of contacting him. An outlaw wrestler showed up one night with a belt in a black velvet bag, a trademark of Parks. Dave got Parks’ number from the guy and contacted him to order a replica of the AWA World title belt worn by Curt Hennig and Lawler. Nervously, he mentioned to Parks that he also made belts, which piqued Reggie’s curiosity. He sent pictures of his work to Parks, who admitted the young man had potential but asked him, “Why don’t you make belts like I make ‘em?” Millican answered, “I’d love to, sir, but I don’t know how.”

 

Parks took Dave under his winged eagle (a little belt humor there), offering to make the plates for a belt once Millican had his next order, so he could he evaluate his new apprentice’s leather work with real plates.

 

While Reggie is usually lighthearted and easygoing, he sternly asked Millican, “You wouldn’t put the Mona Lisa in a shitty frame, would you, son? If I see these plates on a shitty-looking strap, then maybe you’ll go back to doing them the way you used to do them. Because if I don’t like what I see, I’ll cut you loose. Deal?”

 

After Millican agreed to those terms, Lawler let him releather the USWA tag belts that the King and Bill Dundee held at the time. Just one problem: “As soon as I got those belts from Lawler, I went over to Tandy Leather in Memphis, and they didn’t have any good tooling hides in the store—which is kinda like KFC running out of chicken. They only had this really, really thick leather that I had to beat the crap out of to get any kind of impressions. But when I put them in Bill and Jerry’s hands, they loved them. And I breathed a big sigh of relief. I mean, I was thrilled just to be around Bill and Jerry, but you don’t want to come off like the mark that you are when you start off in the business. Everyone knows you’re a mark but you can’t act like it—just one of those weird dynamics of the business.”

 

Under Parks’ watchful eye, Millican honed his craft until his work was on par with the master belt-maker. Now known as the “Ace of Belts,” Millican is grateful for his break in the business.

 

“I once asked Reggie, ‘Why me?’ He said that he knew he couldn’t do this forever, so he wanted to make sure someone picked up the slack and made belts the right way after he was gone.”  

He wears it well: Flair displays the 10 pounds of gold before his Mid-Atlantic fans.

He wears it well: Flair displays the 10 pounds of gold before his Mid-Atlantic fans.

 

Much like Millican years later, Dick Bourne, who helps run the Mid-Atlantic Gateway site, became enamored of the NWA World title following a 1975 angle on Jim Crockett Promotions TV that was similar to the Flair/Lawler scenario in Memphis.

 

Jack Brisco wrestled on Mid-Atlantic Wrestling television in 1975 in a non-title match against Wahoo McDaniel,” Bourne says. “Wahoo pinned him to set up title matches around the territory. The title was treated with the utmost importance from the moment I saw Jack Brisco with it on television, and Bob Caudle and Ed Capral, our main announcers then, put it over big each week on TV. It was always special when the champion was in to defend the title. The NWA champions then–Brisco, Funk, Race–always made it clear how much they wanted to keep the title, and our guys made it clear how much they wanted to win it.”

 

Of course, Bourne and fans throughout the Carolinas were pleased when the local boy—the Nature Boy, Ric Flair that is—captured the belt from Dusty Rhodes in Kansas City in 1981.

 

“The belt had been defended in our area for eight years before Flair got it,” he says. “Flair holding the title certainly had special meaning to Mid-Atlantic Wrestling fans. We were glad to see our guy get the sport’s top prize.”

 

Through the highspots.com Web site, Bourne was able to arrange a deal with Flair to photograph the 10 pounds of gold on October 28, 2008, at the Queen’s Gallery. Along with Millican, Bourne took approximately 400 shots of the belt, including pictures of the championship with the blue-and-silver robe worn by Flair when he won the title for the second time at Starrcade ’83.

 

Millican also brought items from his personal collection of wrestling belts and memorabilia to shoot with the NWA title: the Parks-made U.S. title belt (a.k.a., sometimes referred to as “the 10 pounds of silver”) worn by champions like Magnum T.A. and Tully Blanchard in JCP in the early ’80s, and Kerry Von Erich’s actual ring jacket emblazoned with the words “In Memory of David,” which he wore the day he defeated Flair for the championship in front of 32,000 fans at Texas Stadium on May 6, 1984. In all, Bourne and Millican spent about five hours with the one belt that arguably best represents a bygone era in professional wrestling.

 

“It’s not a stretch to say that about two of those hours were spent with just Dave and I sitting there talking about it,” Bourne says. “When you hold the belt and think of the guys who held it—and all the guys who stood across the ring challenging for it, and all the places it was defended and the miles it travelled—it’s just a special feeling. It would be no different to me than if we were sitting there holding the Lombardi Trophy or the Stanley Cup – that belt is that special.”

 

Millican agrees, saying that he can feel the history of the NWA belt any time he’s even near it.

 

What is that...velvet?: Race dropped the new NWA belt to Brisco shortly after Muchnick made the presentation in Houston.

What is that...velvet?: Race dropped the new NWA belt to Brisco shortly after Muchnick made the presentation in Houston.

“I’ve spent a fortune collecting as many historical belts as I can get my hands on,” says the Ace, who also owns the ring-used NWA Southern title (Florida) and the ’80s-era World Class tag belt. “I’m in the business because I’m the ultimate belt mark. To get to hold that NWA World title belt—it might sound corny, but…it’s a different experience than any other belt I’ve ever held in my hands.”

 

Bourne says he was planning to produce a photo book documenting their visit for their own personal use, but then decided to self-publish it as Ten Pounds of Gold: A Close Look at the NWA World Championship Belt.

 

 “With Dave’s knowledge about the history and construction of the belt, it suddenly dawned on me that with the unique photos we had taken and the insights we could put together, it might make an interesting book, for belt aficionados at least, and, hopefully, for fans in general. “

 

The end result is a gorgeous 80-page historical record of wrestling’s greatest title belt, complete with photos provided by eight-time NWA titlist Race and his wife BJ that show the champ receiving the new gold belt from NWA president Sam Muchnick on July 20, 1973, in Houston.. Race, of course, went on to drop his new trophy to challenger Brisco that same night. Also included are brief profiles of the eight men who wore the championship: Race, Brisco, Shohei “Giant” Baba, Funk, Dusty Rhodes, Tommy Rich, Flair and Von Erich. (Nope, no profile of Jack Veneno.)

 

Most fascinating are the details of the belt’s construction and subtle changes over the years. For example, the wide-cut leather strap on the belt was originally encased in red velvet. For years, I was under the impression that Race had been presented with a black-leather strap that night in Houston, as most of the photos I’d seen were in black-and-white. About seven years ago, I saw color pictures of Brisco defending the title against Baba in Japan and was surprised to see the red belt. While the red velvet looked nice and rather regal, it wasn’t durable for the long haul and sweat stains began to tarnish its appearance. Brisco had the belt re-leathered with a brand-new black-leather strap, with a tighter cut around the buckle—which, in my opinion, enhanced the appearance of the NWA belt. Another interesting tidbit is that shortly after winning the belt, Brisco was honored with a nameplate under the word “WRESTLING” on the buckle, similar to the nameplate on the Big Gold strap made famous by Flair years later. The first nameplate read “Jack Brisco,” while the second version simply read “BRISCO” in all caps. When Funk won the title, the intended “tradition” was disregarded. Even Race was unaware of this aspect of the belt’s history.

Now...we go to school: The Ten Pounds of Gold has everything you always wanted to know about the NWA belt...but were too much of a mark to ask.

Now...we go to school: Ten Pounds of Gold has everything you always wanted to know about the NWA belt...but were too much of a mark to ask.

 

In the book, Millican also explains how the belt’s “domed globe,” from which the strap gets that common nickname, was replaced at some point in 1976 during Funk’s reign. The NWA letters were mounted straight across on the first version and arched downward on the replacement globe. Although the first globe was dented and the paint on the black front panels had begun to chip during Brisco’s reign, the belt’s appearance really took a turn for the worse midway through the Funk era as NWA kingpin. At that point, the black panels had completely chipped away (though Millican suspects Funk did this himself as opposed to carrying around a belt with partial panels) and the belt was eventually restored with a new globe (which ended up with a significant dent by the time Rich won the belt on April 27, 1981) and new black onyx panels that were a huge upgrade over the black paint used previously.

 

“They should have made those panels with onyx to begin with, because it was not only durable but shinier and almost looked like glass in the lights,” Millican says.

 

The book also reveals what is known about the Mexican jeweler who made the belt, what aspects of its construction surprised him, who he believes coined the term “10 pounds of gold” (the belt actually weighs about 7 pounds)  and why the previous belt held by champions like Dory Funk Jr. and Gene Kiniski was replaced to begin with.

 

The book’s close-up photos are beautiful, revealing minute details, including a clear look at the initials “KVE,” which apparently Kerry scratched onto the buckle before dropping the belt back to Flair in Japan. I was also amused to find that the depiction of the grappling scene to the right of “WRESTLING” on the buckle includes a heavyset wrestler who looks amazingly like Dusty Rhodes. (Millican agrees with me, but Bourne apparently doesn’t see the resemblance.)

 

All in all, Ten Pounds of Gold: A Close Look at the NWA World Championship Belt is a true labor of love that old-school fans will find fascinating. Pick it up today by clicking here.

A Starrcade is born…and remembered

July 15th, 2009 4 comments

More than 25 years have passed since Starrcade ’83, Jim Crockett Promotions’ wrestling extravaganza headlined by former NWA World champion Ric Flair challenging seven-time titleholder Harley Race for the 10 pounds of gold on Thanksgiving night.

The drama and psychology of the bout and the entire program itself are fondly remembered today by old-school fans of professional wrestling. To commemorate the bout, the upcoming NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest will kick off Thursday night, August 6, with a question-and answer session that will reunite former NWA World champions Race and Flair in a discussion certain to be as no-holds-barred as that legendary steel cage showdown more than a quarter-century ago. Afterward, Fanfest VIPs will have the opportunity to join the two legends on stage for a photo opportunity with the legendary 10 pounds of gold. For information on the NWA Legends Fanfest, which will be held Aug. 6–9, in Charlotte, click here.

Golden opportunity: The NWA Legends Fanfest offers VIPs the chance to be photographed with Flair, Race, and the classic NWA domed-globe belt.

Golden opportunity: The NWA Legends Fanfest offers VIPs the chance to be photographed with Flair, Race, and the classic NWA domed-globe belt.

A Flair for the Dramatic

By 1983, Ric Flair, who was raised in Minneapolis, had made the Charlotte area his adopted hometown. Prior to NWA title defenses around the world during his first reign, Flair was usually billed as appearing from Charlotte.

Although trained by Verne Gagne and working his early bouts in his teacher’s American Wrestling Association territory, Richard Morgan Fliehr cut his teeth (among other things) in Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic region. Billed as the nephew of veteran Rip Hawk, Ric Flair captured his first title, the Mid-Atlantic tag-team championship, with his “uncle” on July 4, 1974, defeating Bob Bruggers and Paul Jones at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Nearly two years later, Flair made his Madison Square Garden debut, defeating perennial preliminary wrestler Pete Sanchez with a vertical suplex. In this match, young announcer Vince McMahon Jr.’s commentary includes this gem: “Flair is breathing hard. I don’t think he’s as well-conditioned as Sanchez.” Even at this early stage of his career, Flair showed potential as a master of the NWA World titlist formula, as he had the New Yorkers on the edge of their seats rooting for and believing in a possible upset. (Back in those days, Vince McMahon Sr. still had a working relationship with other promoters nationwide. Because Sr. viewed the Garden as “special,” it wasn’t unusual for stars from other areas to work occasional guest shots at the Garden.)

From the mid- to late ’70s, Crockett’s territory arguably had the greatest collection of talent in the country: Johnny Valentine, Greg Valentine, Wahoo McDaniel, Blackjack Mulligan, the Andersons, Tim Woods and the Masked Superstar. Crockett also had the clout to bring in top stars of the day, with NWA World champs Jack Brisco, Terry Funk and Race appearing often, along with guaranteed box-office gold like Andre the Giant and Dusty Rhodes.

A notable newcomer debuted in 1977, Ricky Steamboat, a babyface heartthrob with tremendous athletic ability. Steamboat was a natural rival for Flair, who today claims to have suggested their initial program to Mid-Atlantic booker George Scott.

By 1977, Flair was enjoying his first reign as United States champion, slowly building a rep as a very capable worker. Even one of the Apter mags, which usually provided very little legit insight of any kind, from 1979 touted him as a future NWA World champion.

On September 17, 1981, in Kansas City, Mo., Flair won the NWA title from Dusty Rhodes, who had completed a reign of about three months—a rarity for a babyface at the time to have such a “lengthy” tour as kingpin of the National Wrestling Alliance. Perennial NWA champ Harley Race, who had dropped the strap to Rhodes months earlier, in June 1981 at the Omni in Atlanta, had in years previous lost the belt to Rhodes and Tommy Rich for five-day reigns to prevent fans from becoming disinterested in the title chase and to help spark local attendance in Florida and Georgia, respectively.

A Race for the Gold was rejected after Jim Crockett Jr. outbid the St. Louis Wrestling Club for the rights to the title rematch.

A Race for the Gold was rejected after Jim Crockett Jr. outbid the St. Louis Wrestling Club for the rights to the title rematch.

Amazingly enough, Jim Crockett Jr. just happened to be in Kansas City for the title change—I guess he just had a feeling it was going to be Ric’s night. Actually, Crockett had pushed the NWA board heavily for Flair, his territory’s prodigy, to get a World championship run, while Texas promoter Fritz von Erich had been lobbying for son David. (Race at one point had supposedly promised Ted DiBiase a run with the 10 pounds of gold.)

The end of Flair’s first reign was carefully orchestrated. Race won the title in a best-of-three falls bout in St. Louis on June 10, 1983, for a record-breaking seventh title reign, eclipsing the legendary Lou Thesz, who had six runs with the most prestigious title in the business. Race had pushed hard for one last run as champion to help offset Vince Jr.’s WWF circus tent, which had expanded into his St. Louis Wrestling Club territory.

Over the next couple of months in a series of rematches between Race and Flair, the heat was turned up— Southern style. There was the incredible drama of the “local boy” going for the strap in his backyard, which was enhanced by fact that the Nature Boy had won the NWA belt the first time away from his home territory. To make matters more personal, Race put on a bounty on Flair’s bleached-blonde head, offering $25,000 to anyone who would eliminate his most persistent challenger. Race closed the offer growling, “Someone take the damn money!”

Watching from Memphis, I quickly became enamored of Flair’s title chase. Around this time, inexplicably, Mid-Atlantic TV began airing in Memphis on a local station prior to the Jarrett/Lawler show on channel 5. When the MACW show took breaks for tagged announcements of upcoming local Mid-Atlantic events, footage would instead air of babyfaces like Flair challenging Memphis-area heels, while MACW baddies like Dick Slater directed comments toward Lawler. Unlike the outlaw ICW’s promos years earlier, apparently there were plans for Jarrett and Crockett to co-promote years before the two partnered for events in 1985. Although it didn’t make me appreciate my Memphis wrestling any less, I remember thinking the Mid-Atlantic promotion seemed more serious, with guys who were more way athletic than say Kimala the Ugandan Giant, Plowboy Frazier and Apocalypse. Mid-Atlantic seemed like a major-league outfit to me, thanks in part to the frequent appearances of the NWA World title belt, which I understood to be the most prestigious championship in the sport. (And I was only 11 years old, so….) This was in contrast to my initial viewings of the WWF and Atlanta on cable, as I thought both shows were lame in comparison to Memphis. (Booker Ole Anderson had run Georgia into the ground at this point.)

Bob Orton Jr., who up until that point had been a babyface, and Slater interfered in a televised return title match between Race and Flair, diabolically teaming to stuff-piledrive the challenger. It was a memorable scene: Flair is carried off with great care, as the stunned crowd sits in absolute silence. Weeks later, an emotional Flair, wearing a neckbrace, announces his retirement. Of course, this sets up Flair to return with a baseball bat in the studio during the same show to attack the heels in a televised bout, vowing revenge on Orton, Slater and Race.

This may not sound like much, but back then angles weren’t as commonplace since they were often more carefully orchestrated and executed, so most fans didn’t see this coming. And the piledriver was still considered a lethal maneuver—not to mention a damned stuff piledriver.

In a later interview, the still-seething Nature Boy shows months-old footage of then-babyface Orton playfully picking up Flair’s kids during a TV segment. As the tape ends, Flair screams, “You held my babies! You held my babies!” Great stuff.

Another rematch was ordered by the NWA—this time within the confines of a steel cage. Crockett showed his shrewdness by “outbidding” all the other NWA promoters around the world for the rights to the bout, which would take place on Thanksgiving night in Greensboro at Starrcade ’83. In a scripted segment that is funny in hindsight, Crockett is named the winning bidder, while other promoters like Eddie Graham shrug in disappointment.

Blood, sweat, tears: Following the win, Flair breaks down in a wonderful, unscripted moment.

Blood, sweat, tears: Following the win, Flair breaks down in a wonderful, unscripted moment.

 

Starrcade was an ambitious undertaking, with Crockett offering up closed-circuit TV throughout the Carolinas for the card, which quickly sold out the Greensboro Coliseum. The event was a star-studded lineup that included the Briscos defending the area’s so-called NWA World tag titles (the Alliance actually didn’t recognize tag champs) against Steamboat and Jay Youngblood and a dog-collar match between Roddy Piper and Greg Valentine. Hulk Hogan was originally scheduled to appear, teaming with Wahoo McDaniel against hot heels Orton and Slater; however, he had just finalized a deal with Vince McMahon Jr. that would change the business forever. (Years later, Race claimed that 24 hours before the match, Vince offered him hundreds of thousands of dollars to no-show the card and jump ship with the NWA title—which would have likely crippled the Alliance much sooner.)

 

Watching the Flair/Race showdown on DVD today, you can feel the anticipation in the air at the Greensboro Coliseum prior to the main event. Although, admittedly, the big entrance for Flair seems almost laughable now: the challenger stands there while a spotlight hits him, waiting for the “pyro” to spark his entrance—in this case, something along the lines of a Roman Candle left over from the Fourth of July. Nonetheless, the crowd erupts at the first sight of their hero, and you get chills watching it because they really love this guy.

In a slow, methodical match, Flair and Race do their best despite the bumbling antics of ref Gene Kiniski, who seems to think he’s the star of the show, stepping in constantly between both men and disrupting the early flow of the match . In his shoot interview years later, Race said the bout would have been better had Kiniski’s “big ass” not been in the way throughout. Flair sells like Race’s offense crazy, leading you to think just maybe even the home-mat advantage won’t be enough. The crowd erupts with every punch the challenger makes as Flair mounts his comeback. ( Man, do I miss how the crowd used to pop for simple moves like a suplex and a backdrop—the psychology of the biz truly was an art form back then, and Flair and Race had it down to a science. Hell, the Mid-Atlantic crowds usually went nuts when area referee Tommy Young would merely held up the NWA belt prior to a title defense.) 

Race regains control before Flair comes back again with a flying bodypress from the top rope to win the title as the crowd erupts. (See, no wonder the Nature Boy kept trying—usually with disastrous results—to leap from the top rope all those years.) The ring fills with well-wishers who hoist the two-time NWA World champ in the air. (Although announcer Gordon Solie, in a rare miscue, repeatedly claims it’s the third reign for Flair.) In a wonderful moment, a genuinely touched Flair thanks the fans for their support as tears trickle down, mixing with the blood on his face.

With the possible exception of Flair’s retirement and farewell address, the business has never seen another moment like it.

I’ll be in Charlotte on August 9 to listen as the Nature Boy and eight-time NWA champion Race relive the magic of their Thanksgiving clash for the 10 pounds of gold. (And yes, I’m so getting my photo taken with my favorite championship belt of all time.)