MILESTONES--FSM#105

Last month, I addressed the annual Spring ritual known as Wrestlemania, which makes the month of April the biggest of the year for fans of wrestling and/or sports entertainment. The month of May, however, brings milestone anniversaries of two more major occurrences in the history of wrestling, one majestic, the other tragic. Incredibly enough, they took place on the only two pay-per-view events in a nearly fifteen year period that I watched live as they happened from home, like a regular fan.

It was 25 years ago this month, May 1989, that the final bout in the "trilogy" of NWA World Championship matches between Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat took place. While these two titans tangled on literally hundreds of occasions in their two-decade-long rivalry, most fans remember the three wars of 1989 as their best work, due not only to the high profile nature of the contests but the sheer quality of them as well. While some favor the initial bout in Chicago in February, where Steamboat won the belt from Flair on pay-per-view, and others like the two out of three fall, 58 minute classic in the Superdome on the Clash of Champions that April, I've always been partial to the May matchup in Nashville as the best of the three, and I'm not alone.

That match had a little something for everyone--a "big fight" feel on the entrances, a title change at the end with the belt returning to Flair's waist, an incredible angle with Terry Funk (coming out of retirement when it still meant a lot) that no one saw coming and which remains one of the most memorable moments in the history of the NWA--but between the bells it was pure magic. I used to provide a tape of this match to the students training at Ohio Valley Wrestling, with notes on the details to watch for, as a learning experience for them as I believe that match provided not only the gold standard for what the art form of pro wrestling could be, but also became a milestone in wrestling in and of itself--it struck the perfect balance between pro wrestling and sports entertainment.

That match had equal appeal for fans of both genres. It was athletic enough, physical enough, and most importantly, realistic enough, that a pro wrestling fan could suspend any disbelief and view it as a legitimate contest between two athletes fighting for the "richest prize in our sport." Conversely, for a "sports entertainment" fan jaded by his knowledge of the inside of the business and a short attention span, it was fast-paced, exciting and filled with enough "high spots" that it kept everyone on the edge of their seats the whole way through, but with none of the buzz-killing moments that showed obvious cooperation between the two participants in even the intricate, complicated sequences that would have ruined the credibility of the match if executed by any two other grapplers in the industry.

Past being a tribute to both Flair and Steamboat's talents, it was an example of true chemistry between two opponents that was rarely seen even in those days, when top wrestlers had literally thousands of matches' worth of experience. Great wrestlers often had great matches, but even the best had a few stinkers in their body of work, no matter how talented they were. But every once in a while, a great wrestler would run across another individual that, when matched together, it was literally impossible for them to have a bad match, the only question was how superb it would be. That's why it was called "chemistry"--two individual ingredients blended together to create something even greater than the individual components. The Midnight and Rock & Roll Expresses had it in the tag team division. Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee had it in the Tennessee territory. Tiger Mask and Dynamite Kid had it in Japan. Flair and Steamboat took it to a different level, and that's why, despite all their accomplishments with other opponents, when a "great" match is being referred to by those inside the profession, their names are invoked together as a comparison.

When it came into fashion in the late 90's for wrestlers to actually set up their matches move for move before they got into the ring, which most talent from the previous generations found distasteful to say the least, I used to joke that I had watched Flair and Steamboat talk about their match for five minutes, then go an hour--now, I was watching guys talk about their match for an hour, and go five minutes. Sadly, it was true. Flair, as the heel, called the matches, but  the only things discussed in the locker room were the finish and a few spots that they had done before, had worked, and that they wanted to incorporate into the match the were about to have, all communicated in Flair's indecipherable verbal shorthand--"I'll give you the deal, you come back, boom boom boom, I go out, you milk, follow, I beg"--and accompanied by wild gestures and spins, with Steamboat interjecting things just as quickly and with nods, then they would go out and play off each other like the Allman Brothers jamming at the Beacon Theatre. It was astonishing to watch.

The Midnight Express and I had given our notice to WCW and finished up that April due to George Scott's rotten booking of us and the company in general, and we intended to take two months off before going elsewhere. Scott was fired before we worked out our notice, and we were scheduled to return in June, so I was at home watching that show, the only PPV I had not been present for from their inception until we finished with WCW for good in late 1990. At first, I was gutted, that I wasn't there for not only the greatest match of all time, but the big angle involving one of my wrestling heroes, Terry Funk. But then I realized it was better that way--I watched as a fan, on TV, with no prior knowledge of anything that would take place, and it remains the last time that would ever happen--and as such a fond memory I'll never forget.

The second is a memory that I, and every other fan and participant wish we could forget. It was ten years later, May 1999, that the WWE presented the "Over The Edge" PPV in Kansas City that resulted in the death of Owen Hart. This time, I was watching at home for a different reason. It was literally the only PPV event during my WWE tenure that I was not on site for. I was finishing up my WWE duties in Connecticut while preparing to move home to Louisville to establish the developmental program at Ohio Valley Wrestling, and to save my time and the company's money, I was not required to be in KC. I've never regretted that absence.

This is not the forum to debate the inane reasons why Owen, a great wrestler, a great promo, and a great human being was put into that ridiculous Blue Blazer gimmick and asked to do that ridiculous entrance, just to enhance his "entertainment value". I know who I blame, and it's not the rigging company or anyone named McMahon, but that's something he has to live with for the rest of his life, and he should. I instantly knew something was wrong, watching at home, when coming out of the pretape package I saw the odd, wide camera shot of the crowd and heard Jim Ross' voice, his tone conveying the information that something had gone drastically wrong even more than the actual words he used. I couldn't fathom it was as bad as it was, since nothing like that had EVER happened before, and even though the internet existed I sure as hell didn't know how to use it, so I had to wait until phone calls started coming in to know the severity of things, but seeing Jeff Jarrett in tears as he wished Owen well was not a good sign.

Owen Hart broke the long-held stereotype in the business that Canadians had dry senses of humor and were mostly bland. He was the locker room cutup, and with all due respect to Bret and the rest certainly the most fun member of the Hart family to be around. He loved wrestling, the activity AND the business, and he avoided all the pitfalls and bad habits that come with it and "stardom" in general--he was a genuinely nice family man with his feet firmly on the ground. Of course, he could be a terror if you were on the wrong side of his ribs, but none were destructive or mean-spirited, they were all done out of a sense of mischief and the desire to relieve tension and make others, even the victim, laugh--at least in the end.

Mick Foley recounts in his books matches with Owen that were literally all comedy between the two of them, while simultaneously tearing the house down with the fans, who never knew the difference--he was that good. He was the master of the phone rib, jacking other wrestlers out of bed at 3AM pretending to be the front desk clerk or some such nonsense. In fact, the highlight of my UK shows this year was recounting a time where Owen and his partner in crime, Davey Boy Smith, ribbed me by not ribbing me--a phone call from his father Stu Hart that I realized too late REALLY WAS Stu--but that was Owen's talent. He lightened up every long, dreary promo session in some fashion--my favorite was when he would surreptitiously squirt my crotch with a water bottle, to make it look like I had wet my pants on camera. But he was capable of great, serious, dramatic matches, especially his Wrestlemania classic with brother Bret, and his memorable high-flying bouts in Japan and Stampede Wrestling, where he became a prodigy just months after his pro debut. Owen could do it all, and it was a cruel twist of fate indeed that we didn't get to see what the next decade of his career would have brought.

Anniversaries can be joyous, sad or bittersweet, but the month of May brings all of that for fans of and participants in the pro wrestling industry. Looking back, maybe the best lesson we can learn is to enjoy what we have while we have it--because whether it's a person, a match, or a moment in time, nothing is forever except for the memory.