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A Starrcade is born…and remembered

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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.)

  1. Bruce Simmons
    July 16th, 2009 at 06:54 | #1

    Scott, you”re writing about people and places that I knew (from TV), and it”s good to realize I wasn”t the only one revelling in what now seems, as you point out, simple moves, simple stories.

    I have the impression that the cheers on RAW, etc., are recorded and then used as needed. Try as I might, I don”t see anyone in the audience cheering. You”ve made the remark that American audiences are tough to get going; I don”t see anyone cheering, except when a camera pans them.

    Edgar Allen Poe said that if something”s written from the heart, then it can”t help but connect with the heart of the reader (words to that effect). I think the Memphis-Nashville wrestling of Once Upon a Time was just that, done with heart, thus that much more of an impact than anything seen today.

  2. July 16th, 2009 at 14:03 | #2

    Supposedly the “three time” deal isn”t entirely a miscue – it”s just that Solie is coming from the Florida perspective which includes an exchange with the Midnight Rider (where Rider had to vacate the title for refusing to unmask).

  3. Cal
    July 16th, 2009 at 18:26 | #3

    From what I”ve seen in going to events, most people cheering are in the high rises. The people on the floor don”t seem to care that much, except during entrances and finishes, almost as if they”d been programed.

    I miss the old days when simple things worked so well.

    I also wish I had the money to go to the fanfest… Then I could hope to bump into the great Scott Bowden 😛

  4. admin
    July 17th, 2009 at 08:28 | #4

    Ha, I think you”re reaching there, John.

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