For decades now, the feud between Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat has been the yardstick for iconic rivalries. Any wrestling fan worth his salt knows how good this trilogy was. These matches set a standard that very few wrestlers have been able to reach, much less surpass. A long time has passed since this trilogy took place and the wrestling landscape has changed as well. And yet, despite those many changes, two of the three matches in this trilogy have held up incredibly well and are still better than most of the matches that have come after them. Now it’s time to see if the same can be said of their third match.
Today we look back at the third singles match in the 1989 trilogy between Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
A month earlier, Flair and Steamboat fought in a godly, epic two-out-of-three falls match that Steamboat won. But he won by a sliver. He had Flair in a submission hold but Flair’s foot was under the ropes. So even though Flair submitted (which was a huge deal in itself), he had good reason to demand yet another rematch. His request was granted, thus leading to this third and final match in the trilogy. (My review of the Chi-Town Rumble 1989 match that was the first part of the series is right here in case you want to read it.)
This match originally took place on May 7th, 1989 at WrestleWar 1989. They do ring introductions and mention something important as well. In the event of a draw, a panel of three judges will decide a winner. Those three judges are Lou Thesz, Pat O’Connor and Terry Funk. You couldn’t ask for a more legit trio at the time. Their mere presence ringside for this match gave this contest an enormous boost in legitimacy and prestige.
They lock-up and Flair gets a clean break on the ropes. A second lock-up ends in an armdrag from Steamboat but Flair struts out of it like it’s nothing. The third lock-up ends in a shoulder tackle from Flair but Steamboat pops back up and lands a hiptoss. He lands another armdrag and starts working the arm but Flair reaches the safety of the ropes. They slap each other hard and the ref holds Steamboat back. They lock-up again and Flair lands some big chops in the corner that get a big reaction (because, duh, it’s RIC FLAIR). Suddenly Steamboat fires up and literally chops Flair around the ring. Each time Flair lands a chop of his own, Steamboat answers back with a barrage of knife-edge chops. Big back body drop by Steamboat. Flair escapes to ringside.
Flair eventually returns to the ring and applies a headlock but Steamboat quickly escapes with a wristlock. They do the overhead wristlock test of strength and Steamboat wins and goes back to working Flair’s arm. Flair screams out in pain as Steamboat targets that arm with laser focus. He eventually makes it to his feet and shoots Steamboat into the ropes but Steamboat shoulder tackles him down. Another armdrag and it’s back to the armwork. Flair escapes with a drop toehold but Steamboat wrestles back into a hammerlock and into a pin for a one-count. Flair escapes the hammerlock with chops and whips Steamboat but Steamboat ducks and double-legs Flair and reapplies the hammerlock. Flair pulls Steamboat’s hair and gets him into a corner, breaking the hold.
Flair lands some hard elbows to the head but Steamboat retaliates with chops. Flair tries to maintain control with some forearms but Steamboat keeps chopping him until he foes the Flair flop. Once again Steamboat goes back to the hammerlock, and this time bridges over to apply more pressure to Flair’s arm. Flair counters by carrying Steamboat to the top corner and breaks, only to then charge on a cheap-shot. But Steamboat has him scouted and dodges, lands another hiptoss and dropkicks Flair out of the ring.
Flair takes his time recovering and lands some kicks but Steamboat counters an Irish whip with yet another arm drag and attacks Flair’s left arm once more. Flair tries to escape again but gets shoulder tackled, but then takes Steamboat down with a hiptoss. Flair goes for an elbow drop but Steamboat dodges, which allows him to go back to attacking Flair’s weakened arm. Flair gets Steamboat into a corner and drives his shoulder into Steamboat’s gut. The match turns into a brawl as they go back and forth with a chop/forearm exchange. Flair lands a sudden shoulder tackle and throws Steamboat out of the ring, but Steamboat charges back in and unloads with punches and chops on Flair in the corner. Steamboat whips Flair so hard that he flips into a corner and ends up hung upside down. Steamboat lands his own running shoulder tackle, but before he can capitalize Flair counters and sends him flying over the top and out of the ring.
Flair gets onto the apron and stomps on Steamboat’s head, then chops him so hard he goes over the barricade. Steamboat wins a big chop exchange which causes Flair to flee but Steamboat chases after him. Steamboat lands a flying chop that drops Flair in the ring. Steamboat whips Flair into a corner. Flair flips over and goes running to the nearest corner. But this time, Steamboat cuts him off with a perfectly-timed clothesline. Snapmare by Steamboat into another armlock. They go for another Irish whip and shoulder tackle and then Steamboat goes for a crossbody. But Flair ducks and Steamboat hits the ropes and flies out of the ring again.
Flair elbows Steamboat between the eyes and catapults him into the ring. He lands a knee drop and follows with a rope-hung slam. Flair lands more chops and Steamboat grabs Flair’s ankle out of desperation leading to a foot choke from Flair. Flair lands a back suplex for a two-count and then fights to keep Steamboat’s shoulders on the mat but only manages multiple two-counts. Flair lands a knee drop and a double-arm suplex for another two-count. Elbow drop by Flair. Steamboat kicks out. Flair whips Steamboat, Steamboat ducks a chop and goes for a crossbody, but Flair slingshots Steamboat into the ropes. Flair goes for a pin but the ref doesn’t count because Steamboat is at the ropes. So Flair gets in the ref’s face and uses that obstruction to choke Steamboat with his knee.
Flair tries to maintain control but gets dropped by a big knife edge chop from Steamboat. Flair answers by dragging Steamboat out of the ring and suplexes him onto the ringside mats. Flair goes to suplex Steamboat over the ropes and into the ring but Steamboat lands on his feet behind Flair. Steamboat rolls Flair up. One, two, no, Flair escapes. Irish whip by Steamboat. Flair ducks and charges at Steamboat. They both fly over the top rope and out of the ring in a heap.
Flair tosses Steamboat back into the ring and showboats, but Steamboat recovers enough to cut him off and press slam him from the top rope. Steamboat fires up and the crowd erupts in cheers as Flair begs off. Steamboat lands corner punches and a back body drop. Flair begs for mercy and lands a sudden stomach kick. He goes for a back suplex. Steamboat lands on his feet again. Roll-up. Flair kicks out. Flair pokes Steamboat in the eye and goes for a suplex. Steamboat counters and puts Flair on the top rope. Superplex by Steamboat. He goes for the chickenwing submission hold. Flair gets to the ropes right away. Steamboat rams Flair’s head into the turnbuckle and goes to the top rope. Diving chop to the head. He goes back to the top rope. A seemingly-out-of-it Flair hits the ropes which causes Steamboat to fall to the floor.
Steamboat struggles to get up and appears to have hurt his knee. As soon as Steamboat reaches the apron, Flair attacks his weakened knee. Figure-4 leglock applied. Steamboat screams in pain as he has nowhere to go. Flair wrenches the hold as hard as he can. But somehow, Steamboat gets to the ropes.
Flair continues to assault Steamboat’s leg in the corner. Flair drags Steamboat out of the corner by his foot but Steamboat chops at Flair defiantly. Flair looks to be in control until Steamboat lands a desperation enzuigiri. Steamboat goes for a scoop slam. Flair rolls over into a cradle. One, two, three! There’s the match. Flair beats Steamboat!
Winner and NEW NWA World Heavyweight Champion after 31:37: Ric Flair
This was a terrific way to close a legendary trilogy. The Flair-Steamboat rivalry is still the measuring stick for legendary feuds in pro-wrestling. As such, a lot has already been said about why all three matches are still so epic. But if you’re looking for a retread onto those same grounds, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place.
This is probably going to come across as sacrilegious, but I didn’t really like this match as much as its predecessors. Much of what Flair and Steamboat did here felt rudderless and without a larger purpose. Steamboat showed tremendous psychology and smart wrestling by going back to Flair’s arm for much of the first half of the match. But the problem is that it didn’t lead to anything. Flair never parlayed that armwork into a deeper struggle to survive and Steamboat’s only attempt at an arm-focused submission hold was the double chickenwing hold. But he only applied it once and never went back to it. That just didn’t make sense. Everyone hyped Steamboat up as being the first guy to submit Flair in a very long time. Yet Flair escaped the chickenwing hold once and Steamboat never bothered to go back to it or try a different hold that targeted that same weakened limb. This was such a huge lapse in storytelling and wrestling logic that it seemed to taint the rest of the match. There was no payoff to Steamboat’s work and everything he did after that hold seemed to be random and unfocused.
Luckily, the end of the match was saved by Flair’s greatness. Even though Flair had a notorious penchant for wrestling similar matches night after night, he had good reason to do so. He had a devilish simplicity to his wrestling here. After failing to goad Steamboat into a false sense of security, Flair took advantage of what looked like a freak accident and destroyed Steamboat’s knee with the Figure-4. It came out of nowhere but at the opportune moment. And when he locked it in the fans jumped out of their seats. Everything Flair did, no matter how small, was built up and given this aura of gravitas. He really carried Steamboat throughout the match and also sold like a boss for him.
And best of all, Flair showed his wrestling mastery with a perfect display of misdirection. He was the king of pulling off unpredictable wins that made sense. He brawled with Steamboat in a callback to both of their previous two matches. The multiple chop exchanges that gradually got more sluggish and brutal underscored how deep their rivalry had become. And when Steamboat escaped Flair’s figure-4, Flair pulled off a random cradle that took advantage of Steamboat’s own adrenaline and momentum and used them against him. It was a clean win without shenanigans, so there was no way that Steamboat could do what Flair did and use some minute detail to demand a rematch. It was the kind of finish that made Flair, well, Flair. He was the unquestioned king in North America of keeping people guessing until the very end.
But as much as I liked that unpredictable yet logical ending, the journey to that point was both meandering and repetitive. Outside the intense brawls and solid armwork, there was a lot of repetition of the same spots, especially the repeated shoulder tackles, hiptosses and body drops. And towards the end they kept dumping each other out of the ring for seemingly no reason but to stall for time. It was weird. I watched this match waiting for something different to happen or for some sort of twist to take place. Instead, very little happened when Steamboat wasn’t working Flair’s arm. I’m not saying they should’ve gone to the deep end with a thousand moves one after another. But they should’ve done a bit more than what they actually did here. I understand that sometimes there’s a need for simplicity in pro-wrestling. But there were some moments in this match that were a bit too simple.
Final Rating: ****1/2
On one hand, these old Flair matches have a certain classic aesthetic to them that helps them hold up incredibly well to time. On the other hand, it boggles my mind how anyone could claim that this match was the best of the trilogy. It’s nowhere near as tense or exciting as their first encounter and far beneath the mythical epic that was their second match. And while both Flair and Steamboat displayed great wrestling skill and built a dramatic and tense match, there was too much dead time throughout it that is more apparent looking back at the match now.
This match might’ve been tremendous back in 1989, but it hasn’t aged as well as the first two matches in the series. In fact, not only is this match very much overshadowed by the two matches that took place before it, but it’s also inferior to another big Flair match from later in the same year, which was an awesome I Quit match against Terry Funk.
If you’re a fan of classic wrestling matches, this is a good one to look out for. Unfortunately, it’s very much the Return of the Jedi to the first two matches’ A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, respectively. It has its moments, but has some notable flaws that make it harder for it to stand the test of time as successfully as its superior brethren.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.