Falling In Love With Wrestling, Part 3: Two Tribes Go To War

In the late 80s and early 90s, cross-promotional mainstream wrestling captured our imagination – and we almost got a sample of it (kinda).

You can read the first two parts of Pradeep’s nostalgic series here.

In all of sport, there are dream matches that fans salivate and debate over, Ali vs Tyson, Brazil 1970 vs Barcelona 2011, Borg vs Federer. In wrestling it is no different. Every fan could compile a list, and in fact even if you google “dream matches in sport” the results are all wrestling based!

As a child in the late 80s and early 90s, I had only ever known of Ric Flair through the kayfabe magazines (see part one of this series for an explanation). From these pages I was able to learn of the wrestling world outside of the WWF. Such as the NWA, AWA, USWA and the associated acts that populated their rosters. Without doubt though, the biggest two organisations of all were the NWA/WCW and the WWF. 

Across the entire wrestling world, two men dominated and were the undisputed kings of their respective wrestling organisations. Hulk Hogan in the WWF, and Ric Flair in the NWA/WCW. Even as I began to collect wrestling magazines in the early 90s the debate would rage on as to who the winner would be. 

The possibility of these two men ever meeting was assigned to fantasy. Even though I knew this was the true dream wrestling match of my childhood, there would be no fathomable reason why either man would leave their company. 

However in 1991 it all changed. Bobby Heenan, for so long the thorn in Hogan’s side as a heel manager, had changed role to become an on screen commentator. In the early summer he began to mention that someone great was coming, a real world champion, Ric Flair. As soon as he said that name I remember instantly knowing what a huge event this could be. Flair was a 6 time NWA/WCW champion up to this point and truly in his prime. Famously Heenan said comparing Flair and Hogan was like “ice cream and horse manure”. A dream match for the ages was in the making…..

The entire premise was very unusual for WWF wrestling in the 80s and early 90s. They had a very strict policy of never discussing an incoming wrestler’s past accomplishments or history with rival federations. For example, when Curt Henning arrived in 1988, no reference was made to him being a former AWA World Champion, he was simply “Mr Perfect”. Think of Harley Race, an 8 time NWA World Champion. A true legend who upon arriving in the WWF he was given the “King” gimmick.  Similarly, when the Legion of Doom, who had won multiple world tag-team titles across various organisations, arrived in the WWF it took them a full year to win the WWF’s version of the belts.

But Flair’s entrance was different. Not only did he arrive with the NWA Heavyweight Title, (the “big gold belt” as it became known), he also straight away challenged the man at the very top, Hulk Hogan. Flair like no-one else before entered the WWF as a big deal, and even though specific mention of his NWA/WCW history was ever made, you didn’t have to read the magazines to know that he was a superstar. 

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I recall seeing the big gold belt and instantly recognising what it was. It was a truly stunning turn of events for Ric Flair to show up with an outside organisation’s belt. It was a feat that would be repeated when Madusa infamously threw the women’s title in the bin many years later. It was also a factor in the events leading to the Montreal Screwjob in 1997. Vince McMahon did not want to risk his champion Bret Hart, turning up to WCW with the WWF title, so he changed the ending of the match and took the title from an unknowing Hart. Make no mistake, Flair bringing the big gold belt to the WWF had huge historic consequences. 

It was fair to say that to the young viewer in the early 90s the WWF was very much a babyface federation, or one where the good guys, on the whole, held the titles. In 1991, the heel quota in the WWF was running low.

Perfect was injured and taking time off from in ring activities. Rick Rude had left and Savage had turned babyface after reuniting on screen with his real life wife Miss Elizabeth. Other heel staples, such as DiBiase was slowly sliding down the roster in terms of relevance and importance. Previous monsters such as Earthquake had also served their time playing the heel that Hogan had to overcome in 1990.

Flair was the heel with appeal, he was cool. Probably unlike any other heel that had arrived to challenge Hogan. My big brother was a huge fan, and even an avid Hulkamaniac like myself appreciated Flair’s ability to talk and perform to a very high level in the ring. In addition there was a real question as to the relative wrestling abilities of each superstar. The educated view was that Flair was so much better than Hogan he might actually make him look silly in the ring. 

This wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion, Hogan’s matches were basic 10-12 minute affairs with familiar spots throughout. Flair on the other hand was famed for his 60 minute marathon matches, elevating up and coming wrestlers such as Sting and Luger, while in 1989 had a series of legendary matches with Ricky Steamboat. 

The feud with Hogan and Flair started straight away and the dream of wrestling fans was on the verge of becoming a reality.  After calling out Hogan, he then assisted the Undertaker in defeating Hogan for the WWF title at the 1991 Survivor Series. Flair followed this by lasting over 60 minutes to win the WWF title at the 1992 Royal Rumble. It was one of, if not, the greatest Royal Rumble ever. 

In 1992 wining the WWF and NWA/WCW title was a remarkable achievement. It was rare for a WWF or NWA world champion to move organisations and win both versions of the world title. Only Buddy Rogers had managed this and even then the WWWF was more of a regional federation. Later many such as Nash, Hart, Goldberg, Savage, Benoit, The Big Show, Savage, Booker T and even Hogan would win both versions of the title. But Flair was the first to accomplish this feat. 

Surely the next step in concluding the feud was for Hogan, as he had done so many times before, to gain revenge and emerge triumphant at Wrestlemania 8? It was the biggest tease and an even bigger disappointment when, not only was the dream match initially announced, but then subsequently cancelled. For the first time in my memory, WWF wrestling had disappointed me. 

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As an aside, the press conference to announce the original Wrestlemania main event, hosted by the on screen authority figure and WWF President Jack Tunney, remains a childhood highlight for me and my brothers. Hogan’s almost childish reaction while Sid pulls a tantrum was hilarious even back then. 

It was all very odd, I remember my confusion at the lack of conclusion to a nine month story. While Savage versus Flair was an enjoyable feud and match, Hogan versus Sid certainly was not. The retirement tease in Hogan’s match and the surprise return of the Ultimate Warrior did little to compensate for what should have been. 

Many years on, there were a number of reasons given by various people who worked inside the WWF at the time, as to why the dream match never took place. Some claimed given Hogan was about to take a sabbatical, there would have been no way to follow on from the match. 

Alternatively it was pointed out that the matches Hogan and Flair had in 1991 didn’t generate the level of revenue as anticipated. 

Perhaps it was a clash of egos? Surprisingly, it seems that Hogan and Flair have actually had a good relationship over the years, so even the politics of wrestling wouldn’t seem to have been an issue as to why the match never happened. 

Of course the arrival of the WWE network means that one can view the 1991 matches that Hogan and Flair did have in the WWF, but is wasn’t the same as headlining the Hoosier Dome (see part 2 of this series for my love of any stadium containing a “dome” name) and 65,000 fans. 

Flair’s stint with the WWF proved to be short lived as even though he regained the title from Savage, he would leave the WWF in early 1993 after losing the WWF belt to Bret Hart. With a looming steroid scandal on the horizon, Hogan took some time off as he “retired” only to return briefly very disappointingly in 1993. 

Ironically the match did eventually happen when Hogan moved to WCW in 1994 at the Bash at the Beach. I recall watching it on the German sports channel DSF (with German commentary!). The match was good, but not great. It was slightly overdone with celebrity involvement from Mr T and Shaquille O Neal. Unfortunately WCW just didn’t have the production values and marketing that a WWF Wrestlemania would have had to make it feel so much more special.  

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I always found any explanation as to why this match was cancelled, difficult to believe. It would have been iconic and a true Wrestlemania moment for the ages. The WWF had a dream match that would culminate in the two biggest stars of the 80s ending a chapter and era in wrestling……and they chose to ignore it. Ultimately it was the start of the decline for the WWF and my 3 year initial interest had peaked.

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