Friday, October 16, 2020

Trial Run: The Origins of Ric Flair's First Babyface Turn (1979)

by Dick Bourne
Mid-Atlantic Gateway

 
Featuring exclusive vintage audio of Ric Flair
and Rich Landrum from 1979!

This is a look at an interesting point in wrestling history, something that never would - - or never could - - happen today.

In 1979, Jim Crockett Promotions booker George Scott finally pulled the trigger on something he had known he would eventually do for the last year or so - - turn Ric Flair babyface.

Photo by Peggy Lathan
Looking back, it's curious how Scott went about it. I'm not sure he completely trusted his decision. The most effective turns in wrestling were always taking a babyface or heel who was hot, but close to perhaps running out of steam in that role, and making the turn before the heat started to cool. You could argue there was no cooling down Flair even if you wanted to, but in reality, had been the top heel for three years and had long protracted feuds with Wahoo McDaniel, Ricky Steamboat, and Blackjack Mulligan, and there wasn't another top level babyface to marry Flair to that would have the impact those programs had. And a lot of fans loved him regardless.

But Flair had been so generally hated as a heel, that Scott seemed unsure if the fans would readily accept or trust Flair as a "good guy." Plus, he would be losing his number one heel if it flopped.

So George Scott made the decision to drag it out over a couple of months, beginning with what in hindsight looks like almost a trial run in Greensboro to see what the reaction would be. 

Indeed the fans in person at the Greensboro Coliseum and those watching on Greensboro television were the only fans who saw the initial phase of Flair's historic first turn take place.
 

THE CARD IN GREENSBORO
The April 22, 1979 card at the Greensboro Coliseum was the place it first started with no early indication going into it that something like this was getting ready to happen.  

The Greensboro cards were usually pretty loaded, and this was no different with four big main events featuring two Mid-Atlantic-territory title matches and two world title matches featuring both the NWA  and AWA World Heavyweight champions. 

  • AWA champ Nick Bockwinkel was in the middle of a tour of the Mid-Atlantic area defending his AWA title during an odd period where he was making more title defenses here than Race, although none of them had an angle or story with them. But it was a treat to get to see a technician like Bockwinkel on our cards. He defended the title that night against Paul Orndorf, one half of the current NWA World Tag Team Champions.
  • Paul Jones and Ricky Steamboat were continuing their 5-month feud over the NWA TV title that had begun when Jones turned on Steamboat (although that's not the way Jones remembered it) the previous December in a memorable angle that took place during a huge two-ring battle royal.  Jones had held the TV during all of that time, Steamboat trying again and again to take it from him, being frustrated at every turn. This match was to be the culmination of the feud for awhile, the two settling things in a Texas Death Match!
  • Ric Flair was defending the U.S. title that night against the popular "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka, the other half of the current NWA World Tag Team champions with Orndorf. This was of course before roles were reversed five months later and Snuka would win the U.S. title in a tournament as a new heel managed by Buddy Rogers, and Flair would be the challenger.
  • In the main event, Harley Race defended the NWA title against Dino Bravo, who had just recently lost his Canadian Heavyweight Championship, but remained a top contender both in Canada and the U.S. for Race's title. He had recently been the top contender for Ric Flair's U.S. title as well.
  • Wrestlers on the undercard included former WWWF champion Pedro Morales, Big John Studd, Don Kernodle, Abe Jacobs, Leo Burke, and others.


THE ANGLE: PART ONE
Flair later claimed that Paul Jones had approached him about "holding his hand" in his title defense against Steamboat, Flair saying Jones was paranoid that Steamboat was getting close to beating him. None of this happened on the main TV programs, and if it happened at all, it perhaps was mentioned in the local Greensboro promos leading up to the April 22 card. 

The match was a Texas Death match, but as was the case in those days, Jones' TV championship was only up for grabs in the first fifteen minutes of the match.

Flair did indeed show up during the match, sitting in a folding steel chair at ringside. When the wild action spilled out of the ring onto the floor and Steamboat was getting the better of Jones, Ric went to Jones’ aid and attempted to hit Steamboat with a chair. But Ricky ducked, and Flair instead nailed Jones with the chair, knocking him out cold. Steamboat won the match because Jones was unable to answer the 10-count after the Flair chair shot. While he had won the Texas Death match,he didn't win the TV title, which was only on the line for the first 15 minutes of the match (TV title rules at the time) and the Texas Death match had gone 35 minutes and six falls!

Needless to say, even though Flair claimed it was all an accident (and it certainly appeared it was), Jones was plenty angry with the Nature Boy for costing him the match.

THE ANGLE: PART TWO
Later that evening, Flair was defending the U.S. title against Jimmy Snuka, and as in the earlier match, action spilled out of the ring and onto the floor. As Snuka and Flair brawled outside, Jones suddenly appeared with his own folding steel chair and whacked Flair with it from behind. Except in this case, it was clearly no accident. Jones was aiming for Flair and it was payback for what happened in his match with Steamboat. Flair was also knocked out, and Snuka won the match (but not the title) by count-out.  

Moments later, a revived but visibly angry Flair grabbed the house mic and screamed for Jones to return to the ring. Jones didn't return but the ring announcer announced that Flair and Jones would face each other one-on-one at the next Coliseum show on May 5.   


THE PRESENTATION

A specially-taped two-minute segment aired on the TV shows that aired in the Greensboro market the afternoon of May 5 card at the Coliseum. The segment aired in place of the normal mid-show interview in the Greensboro TV market. So only fans in that market saw it.  It featured World Wide Wrestling host Rich Landrum with Flair in the empty WRAL studio reviewing film from both of the matches outlined above, with Flair giving his perspective on both.

Flair pleaded his case to Landrum that it was an accident that he hit Jones with the chair and was furious that Jones had intentionally hit him with a chair in retaliation, which cost Flair his match with Jimmy Snuka. 


Listen to Ric Flair and Rich Landrum:

The local promos for the Flair/Jones battle featured Jones with the other heels as normal, which signaled to fans that Jones wasn't turning back babyface, in case some fans might have thought that. Flair did not appear on the babyface side (having had his earlier segment with Landrum) but Ricky Steamboat spoke in Flair's spot, mentioning that he didn't have love for either guy and hoped this match might eliminate both of them. 

The rest of the Mid-Atlantic territory knew nothing of this happening, and Flair continued as a heel for the next month or so with most people unaware of his sudden feud with fellow-heel Paul Jones. 

Flair won the match with Jones on 5/5 when Jones was disqualified for the interference of Baron Von Raschke. They gave Flair a vicious beating which started building sympathy for Flair. On the very next show in Greensboro 5/20/79, Flair solicited the aid of his old tag team partner Big John Studd to challenge Jones and Von Raschke for their NWA World tag team titles. Notice Flair was not asking for help from the babyface side of the roster.....yet. His teaming with Studd signaled he wasn't becoming an official fan-favorite anytime soon. 


THE AFTERMATH

The two films from Greensboro 4/22/79 that were shown to Greensboro fans on 5/5/79 were not shown to the rest of the territroy until later in May, and Flair faced Jones again for the first time since their 5/5 Greensboro match in Charlotte on 5/26. 

Throughout the month of May and into early June, Flair continued to team with the various heels including former tag partner Big John Studd and Ernie "The Big Cat" Ladd. He defended his U.S. title against most of the popular wrestlers in the territory during that time, including Dino Bravo, Ricky Steamboat, Tony Atlas,  Rufus R. Jones, and a visiting Dusty Rhodes. 

Things finally started to shift in June, as Flair began to solicit the "good guys" to be his partner, beginning with  Dusty Rhodes in Greensboro on 6/3 and Jim Brunzell in Asheville and Raleigh. He eventually persuaded a reluctant Ricky Steamboat into being his partner on 6/23 in Charlotte, and the turn weas complete. From that point forward, Flair was a card carrying member of the "good guy" brigade, and quickly became one of the fan's favorites. 

Flair would continue to battle Jones in singles matches throughout the summer, and take Steamboat as a partner in failed attempts to take the tag titles from Jones and Raschke. It wasn't until August that Flair finally took the tag titles when he reunited with former friend and foe Blackjack Mulligan and the pair took the titles from Kones and Raschke in dramatic fashion in Greensboro. 


THE BUDDY ROGERS EFFECT

Not only did the long war with Paul Jones set up Flair's eventual babyface turn, but happening a short time after in June was "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers' entry into the area as a special referee for a match between Flair and Dusty Rhodes for Flair's U.S. title. Rogers was involved in the finish which made it briefly appear that Rhodes had defeated Flair for the title. This created animosity between Flair and Rogers and fans sided with Flair in that conflict, too. The Rogers affair was all part of the larger story to turn Flair babyface.


Flair's slow-burn babyface turn would hardly be possible today. No one would have the patience to do it that way for any number of reasons we're all familiar with. The unique aspect to this, though, was the "trial run" George Scott booked in Greensboro. It was part of what made the year 1979 a special one in Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling.  

Special thanks to Mark Eastridge.