Monday, December 11, 2017

Best of the Gateway: Flair vs. Steamboat - How It All Began

by David Chappell
Mid-Atlantic Gateway
Originally published February 8, 2016

When I attended a spot show card at the Colonial Heights, Virginia High School gym on March 4, 1977, little did I know that I was witnessing the professional birth of one of the greatest stars in wrestling history, Ricky Steamboat. Ricky defeated the always dangerous Sgt. Jacques Goulet that night in Colonial Heights, Steamboat’s second match in the Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling area. The young Steamboat continued his slow ascension up the proverbial ladder over the next three months, with flashes of promise popping up with each succeeding match. But nobody could have foreseen what the late spring of 1977 would bring for the up-and-coming Steamboat.

On the Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling television taping date of May 25, 1977, Steamboat closed the show by being interviewed by announcer Bob Caudle. Discussing the tough competition in the Mid-Atlantic area, Ricky commented, “With what I know, I feel I have some confidence within myself. I’ve spent a lot of years and years and years…” But Steamboat couldn’t finish, as he was interrupted by none other than the flamboyant Ric Flair! At this juncture, Flair was a Mid-Atlantic veteran compared to Steamboat, having been wrestling in the territory for three years and Ric was the current holder of the Mid-Atlantic Television Championship belt.

The “Nature Boy” dismissively scolded Steamboat, saying, “Step aside kid, the people came to see me and Valentine, not some punk kid! Step aside kid!” Ricky, somewhat taken aback replied, “I’m sorry, I thought this was my interview time.”  Flair, knowing he was effectively pushing Steamboat’s buttons commented, “Don’t make the mistake again…take off kid, take off. And don’t make the mistake of coming in again.” Gaining some confidence, Steamboat counterattacked, saying, “Flair, let me tell you something. I’ve been in this area now for about three months. I’ve been watching you; I’ve been studying you. And let me tell you something; let me tell you something. I can beat you any time of the week, any time of the day, you name it…we’ll go. Don’t YOU make that mistake.” This first confrontation between Flair and Steamboat ended with Flair again trashing the new star from Hawaii, saying, “ Get out of here; get that kid out of here. We got more important things to talk about, get lost kid, we’ve got men to talk about, get lost kid.”

The next week on Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling TV, Steamboat and Flair had their second incident.  Steamboat and Bob Caudle were talking about Ricky’s victory over Lanny Poffo earlier in the show, when Flair showed up again unannounced. Steamboat exclaimed, “What’s going on, what’s going on?!?” Ric countered, “Here I am, $500 suit, looking as only I could look! Step back punk, every time I got something to say, this punk kid is in my way.” Steamboat, incredulous that he was being interrupted yet again, said, “They told me this was MY interview time!” Flair laughingly retorted, “You’re gonna have to learn like everybody else has had to learn, nothin’ goes unless the Nature Boy says so, you  understand that boy, now just step back.”

At this juncture, the youngster from Hawaii had about enough of Ric’s mouth, explaining, “Hey, Flair, let me say something now partner…I do a little bit of talking out here to the fans and everything, but I do my business in the ring. I don’t want to do it right here in front of TV and the interviewer here…I don’t want to get him involved. So let me say something…if you want to go right now we’ll climb in there…” Ric rudely interrupted, “I don’t want to hurt you…get lost punk! I’m dressed up and I’ve got the girls out there screaming! I don’t want to wrestle a punk like you, hurt you and put you in the hospital, how does that make me look? I don’t want to wrestle someone underprivileged like you!” When Steamboat then hesitated, Flair said, “You got something to say? Speak up boy!” A now fuming Steamboat snarled, “This is the second time you’ve done this, the second time. Don’t push your luck too far, you understand? Don’t push your luck too far.” Ric, a little caught off guard by Steamboat’s retort, incredulously asked, “Who does this punk think he’s talking to? You hear all the girls screaming, the guys are in fear, and the mightiest man of them all is standing right here. Take a walk kid!”

The following week on the TV taping of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, taped on June 8, 1977, Steamboat and Flair confronted each other once again on the set. Flair screamed at Steamboat, “I want the whole world to see you and I have this out. You’re trying to tell me and tell all the fans that there is someone greater than the Nature Boy, someone younger someone more beautiful …me with the $5,000.00 robe! Look at it boy!” Ric then proceeded to slap Steamboat in the face and then said, “That’s what I think of him…he’s just a punk and he’s gone. I’m the greatest…you get that through your head!”

An incensed Steamboat fired back, “Mr. [Jim] Crockett, I’m sorry for what is about to happen here. This is the third week now…the third straight week. I have been trying to be as gentleman as I can be…” Ricky then landed a thrust to Flair’s head and knocked the Nature Boy out into dream-land!  Steamboat said, “I’m sorry” as David Crockett, Jim Crockett along with Blackjack Mulligan looked on in amazement as the prone Flair was not moving. After being knocked out with one punch, Flair had to be helped out of the studio as David Crockett exclaimed, “He pushed him too far…he just pushed him too far!”

Fast forward to the end of this TV program, and an agitated Ric Flair comes back on the set where Bob Caudle is talking to Ricky Steamboat. Caudle said to Flair, “I thought you would have had enough.”  Ric responded angrily, “I HAVEN’T HAD ENOUGH OF ANYTHING…THINGS HAVE JUST STARTED!” Flair continued, “Step back kid and hear what I got to say. I want you. You see this robe right here…$5,000.00 and I got bent feathers and feathers missing because of you! Not to mention the humiliation of what you did to me on TV! I know you had something in your hand!” A furious Ricky Steamboat replied, “What you’ve been doing to me the last 3 weeks…every time I’ve been getting out here you’ve been butting in and taking up my time, saying it’s your time all the time!”

Flair scolded Steamboat, “You hear what I got to say and you hear it good. Nobody has ever knocked me out with one punch in their entire life. You took something out of your trunks and had it in your hand…I want you. You see this [Mid-Atlantic TV Championship belt] right there?  Next week…you and me…I want you so bad!” Steamboat jumped in immediately and said, “I ACCEPT; I’LL ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE!” A perplexed Flair said, “You’re pretty anxious aren’t you?  You think you can handle me in that ring??” Steamboat confidently said, “I told you I’ve been watching you for 3 months, I told you I can beat you! Next week brother, it’s gonna happen!”

As Steamboat left the TV studio, Ric told Bob Caudle that Steamboat didn’t know who he was dealing with. Caudle countered, “Did you realize that you may have been suckered into putting that belt on the line…it may be YOU that’s in for trouble Ric.” Flair, not surprisingly, disagreed saying, “I’m going to bring it down to earth for a minute. I know I get a little high once in a while, and sometimes I get real spaced out. But I’m going to tell you something right now…I know what I want. This guy is hording in on all aspects of my life. They even tell me that when I have my back turned, this kid is moving in on my private stock!  Well, Steamboat, like every other punk that’s come around and thought he had something going on…I’m going to teach you the same lesson! You ask Wahoo and you ask Paul Jones what it is to pay the price to get in there with the Nature Boy!! WOOOO!!”

The anticipation was palpable when Flair and Steamboat met for the first time in a singles match on June 15, 1977at the studio taping in Raleigh, NC of the Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling TV show. And Flair’s prestigious Mid-Atlantic Television Title was on the line! Ric’s close friend and tag team partner Greg Valentine joined Bob Caudle and David Crockett in announcing the match. This bout had a true big match feel to it!

Steamboat showed early on in the match that he belonged on the big stage with Flair. Ricky’s athleticism and hard chops kept the Nature Boy off balance early. Valentine countered that Steamboat did not have the stamina or experience to keep it up much longer. After a period of even battling, it appeared that Flair had the win locked up when he dropped Ricky to the mat with a vicious suplex. To the surprise of everyone, particularly Greg Valentine, who was rendered nearly speechless, Steamboat kicked out of the pin attempt before the count of three! Soon after, Ric flung Steamboat out on the concrete floor and it appeared unlikely Ricky would make it back in the ring before the 10 count…but Steamboat persevered and made it back into the ring!

Flair was never the same after Steamboat made it off of the floor. After several more minutes, a disoriented Flair was wobbling around while Steamboat climbed to the top turnbuckle, Ricky leaped off the top rope with a double-chop that disabled Flair, enabling “Steamer” to capture a three count, and the Mid-Atlantic Television Championship! Valentine ran in from his announce position, and joined an embarrassed Flair to double-team an unsuspecting Steamboat. The “bad guys” were beating Ricky senseless until Wahoo McDaniel joined the fray after a couple of minutes, and pandemonium ensued! Luckily for Steamboat, he was able to leave the ring and not be seriously injured.

As the program was about to go off the air, Bob Caudle got a few words with the new Mid-Atlantic TV Champion. Ricky said, “I’m very fortunate to have won that match; he’s a very tough competitor…but I never knew that Flair was the type of individual to have something going on with his partner. To me, this is just the beginning…but I’m gonna tell you something Flair. Deep down inside, this is just the beginning between you and I. Anytime you want me just let the promoter know, and we’ll go.”

Everything has to start somewhere…including famous wrestling feuds. Even on that Wednesday night way back in June of 1977, Ricky Steamboat seemed to sense that his first singles match with Ric Flair was the start of something big. Really big. But nobody could have known at that time just HOW big! One of the greatest feuds in wrestling history began just because Ric Flair would not let Ricky Steamboat finish several innocuous TV interviews! But thank goodness those interruptions happened, as we fans got to enjoy 17 years of a fantastic rivalry and great matches as a result!

- David Chappell