In 1978, Gene Anderson helped Ric Flair keep the United States Championship from falling back into the hands of Ricky Steamboat. It wasn't a conspiracy; Flair never saw it coming. Gene Anderson did it for family.
by Dick Bourne
One of my favorite angles from 1970s Mid-Atlantic Wrestling is one of many great wrestling angles from the past that are largely forgotten today. It's part of why David Chappell and I publish this website; we intend on keeping these memories alive. This particular angle involved Ric Flair and the Andersons. The major component of that fondly remembered angle connected with me on a base level because it supported an important personal belief as well as an age old proverb - - blood is thicker than water.
Ric Flair was written into two different wrestling families when he entered the Mid-Atlantic territory in early 1974. It was first explained that he was the nephew of veteran Rip Hawk. Hawk had recently spilt with longtime tag team partner Swede Hanson, and booker George Scott decided it would be good if Flair could become his new tag team partner, and in the process get the rub from the legendary "Ripper." Together, the pair won the Mid-Atlantic tag team titles in the summer of 1974, giving Flair his very first championship wrestling championship.
But the family relationship between Flair and the Anderson was a tortuous one in the 1970s and early 1980s with various splits in the family over that 15 year period.
The first fissure took place in the fall of 1976 when Flair took recently-arrived Greg Valentine as his tag team partner and the two defeated Gene and Ole Anderson for the NWA world tag team championships. That break-up between Flair and his cousins captured the imagination of wrestling fans at the time and those two teams did big business in the territory in the year 1977 even though it was basically part-time business. The Anderson Brothers were full time in Georgia Championship Wrestling where Ole was now booking. Basically, their feud with Flair and Valentine was conducted with the Andersons making semi-regular weekend shots into the Mid-Atlantic territory to chase the titles.
Flair and Valentine had their share of supporters in the feud, mostly younger fans who identified with the two cocky, blond wrestlers. Most longtime fans, though, supported the Andersons and they actually became major fan favorites during that time period in the Mid-Atlantic area.
As the year 1977 rolled on, the Andersons would regain the world tag team titles, taking them to Georgia and trading the titles with Dusty Rhodes and Dick Slater in the Georgia area. In late October, Valentine and Flair regained the titles and brought them back to the Mid-Atlantic territory. In the process, they badly injured Gene Anderson, and although the injury was part of the ongoing story, Gene Anderson was in real-life need of neck surgery and was out of action for months. His surgery was written into the story as an injury from his cousin Ric Flair.
When Gene returned to full time action in the spring of 1978, he remained popular with the fans and even served as a special referee for several single matches between Wahoo McDaniel and Greg Valentine for the Mid-Atlantic tag team championship, as well as for a U.S. title matche between cousin Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat. It was thought that Gene would be totally impartial in these matches because of the animosity with cousin Flair and Greg Valentine, but also because he had no particular allegiance to the babyface dressing room, either.
|Gene Anderson and Ric Flair|
(Photo courtesy Brad Anderson)
On July 16, 1978 in Greensboro, NC, in the middle of the white hot feud between Flair and Steamboat that had been going on for well over a year, Gene Anderson was appointed special referee for a U.S. title match. Flair was the defending champion and was furious that Gene was named referee and felt the fix was in with Steamboat to steal the title from him.
For most of the match, Gene appeared to officiate the action right down the middle. Flair had the advantage early on, but as the match wore on Steamboat began to take control, with several near falls. Finally, Steamboat climbed to the top turnbuckle to deliver his signature flying body press. It appeared to everyone that Steamboat was moments away from regaining the coveted United States Championship belt.
But as Steamboat leapt from the top turnbuckle, Gene shoved Flair out of the way, causing Steamboat to crash to the mat, momentarily stunned from missing the big dive. Flair quickly covered him and Gene made a very fast count. Flair had retained the title.
As you can imagine, fans were furious over what they had just seen. But you could almost see on their faces that they were as angry at themselves as they were with Anderson and Flair. After all, fans told themselves, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We just knew we couldn't trust that dirty rotten bastard Gene Anderson. But we did, and he turned on us, and he tuned on Steamboat and cost him his shot to regain the title.
After the three-count, Flair looked up in disbelief. It was almost as if he couldn't believe what had just happened. That's what made this angle work for me: it wasn't a conspiracy between Flair and Gene Anderson. Flair had no idea Gene was going to interfere and help him retain the title. When it came down to brass tacks, and Gene saw Steamboat ready to take the title, Gene made the personal decision to help his family. When Flair fully realized what had just happened, he ran forward and leapt into the arms of his cousin, the two embracing for a moment in the ring.
Gene handed the U.S. title belt to Flair who triumphantly held it over his head and taunted Steamboat as well as the fans. Things were starting to get out of hand at ringside with angry fans pounding the mat, pointing and swearing at Anderson. Debris was being thrown in the ring.
The Greensboro Coliseum began to riot.
Back in those days, there was very little in the way of security, maybe just a couple of cops at ringside. There were no railways lining the aisle to the locker rooms. Heel wrestlers sometimes literally had to fight their way to the back. It looked like the two cousins, reunited at last, were getting ready to have to do just that.
The 16mm film of this whole thing was shown on "Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling." As a teenage fan watching this on television, I loved this angle. I had chosen sides with the Andersons in their feud with Flair and Valentine over the last years. Seeing family win out in this way - - that blood was truely thicker than water - - connected with me in a big way. For the first time as a wrestling fan, I became a bonafide fan of the heels. What Gene Anderson did was certainly a "bad guy" thing to do, and it had cost precious Ricky Steamboat his shot at regaining the U.S. title. But I could't help myself. Seeing the family reunite, seeing Flair literally leap into the arms of Gene Anderson (which is still my most vivid memory of the whole thing) after the deed was done, was just amazing to me.
And this wasn't the first time the family aspect had played out with the Andersons in a major Mid-Atlantic angle. The other great example of that was the angle that hooked me as a wrestling fan to begin with, when in 1975 Ole Anderson sacrificed his own brother Gene so that the two could regain the NWA world tag team titles from Wahoo McDaniel and Paul Jones. It was two brothers doing what was necessary to win championships. Admittedly, it was all sort of weird and sick and twisted as only wrestling can be, but still it was the story of family winning out in the end.
Even though Flair had reunited with his cousins in 1978, the family would be ripped apart again in 1981 when Flair and Ole Anderson had some of the most bloody battles of their careers. They would reunite again, this time with cousin Arn Anderson, during the early years of the Four Horsemen. It would be Ole's turn to fall out with the family in early 1987 as Flair and Arn kicked Ole out of the Horsemen in early 1987. They would all three reunite once again 1989.
Every detail of the Anderson family drama involving Flair and his cousins over those 25 years is laid out in great detail in the book "Minnesota Wrecking Crew", which is a timeline history of the Anderson family including all of the Andersons (Gene, Lars, Ole, and Arn) as well as Ric Flair anytime he was involved in the family story. You can buy the book for under $10 on Amazon.com. It is jam packed with rare photographs of the Anderson family and Flair throughout.
So if Ric Flair was the nephew of Rip Hawk, and also the cousin of the Andersons, then that must make Rip Hawk and the Andersons related in some way, correct? Makes perfect sense to me. Of course, that story was never officially told, but I've often day-dreamed how it actually might have been possible. I once even tried to diagram a family tree! That story, a bit of "fantasy Anderson family" booking is coming someday soon on the Gateway.