Here’s the entire Bruce Mitchell release from www.pwtorch.com on Ric Flair. We thank Bruce Mitchell and the Pro Wrestling Torch for allowing us to use this special article which has many references to Greensboro and the Greensboro Coliseum.
“A spectacular card tonight at the Greensboro Coliseum… and in the cage match, the United States Title versus the hair of Ricky Steamboat, the ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat… no time limit, no disqualification! Ric Flair, pacing behind a steel fence, with a sense of urgency: ‘Tonight, the whole wrestling world knows it’s tonight! … Steamboat, you are the man I created and you are the boy I’m going to destroy! Bald, ugly, marked up face… you see, Steamboat, I just got out of one of these. Me! They put the Great One in with Jack Mulligan, the King of the Cagers, and who walked out with the gold? Me! I walked out, you understand that, I walked out! (more desperate) Steamboat, it’s your hair, it’s your face, it’s your body, it’s your life on the line against me! My, gold, my gold belt. Tonight Steamboat, you hear that (scrapes the U.S. Title belt against the cage), that’s your face, boy! You’re going to be mine, tonight, as God is my witness!'” –
Ric Flair on Worldwide Wrestling, promoting a card scheduled 29 years almost to the night before he made his final wrestling appearance in the Greensboro Coliseum.
“Greensboro Is Flair Country.”
– Ric Flair, Monday night on Raw
When Ricky Flair started wrestling in the Greensboro Coliseum, a single electric cord holding a simple light grid was all that lit up the wrestling action in the Greensboro Coliseum. Thirty-three years, five months and 16 days later, the sixteen time World Champion Ric Flair stepped into that same building, only this time what happened in the ring was supported by a traveling million dollar production set, using the finest in sound and pyrotechnical technology and featuring a three story high television screen that dwarfed the end zone of the Coliseum.
Not that the Nature Boy ever really needed it.
What Ric Flair accomplished in the sport and in that building in the all those days between, some of which the community remembered, some of which WWE acknowledged, is all a part of wrestling and Carolina history.
Ric Flair is the greatest professional wrestler in the history of the sport. His resume is simply too wide and too deep for any other wrestler seeking that distinction to match. The Nature Boy had more great matches, night after night after night, year after year after year, in a wider variety of places and against a longer list of great, near great, sometime great, and almost no-time great opponents over many more years than any other performer in the genre. Add to that what was, consistently, the best promo in the game and one of the most clearly defined, charismatic, and influential characters in wrestling history and you have a package that no other performer in all the genre’s history can match.
I mean, JBL wasn’t the first guy to say, “Anything I couldn’t go out and buy, I took” and The Rock wasn’t the first “Great One” in this business.
And while Ric Flair traveled the world in pursuit of his business and his craft, there was one venue where he made his name and where he returned time and again for some of the biggest matches of his career. No wrestler, with perhaps the exception of Bruno Sammartino in New York’s Madison Square Garden and Jerry Lawler in Memphis’s Mid-South Coliseum, has had as long, storied, and profitable connection with a venue as Ric Flair has had with the Greensboro Coliseum.
Stars had to align Saturday night for final night to happen at all. First, the holiday Raw taping had to, by accident, be scheduled for the Greensboro Coliseum at same time of the year as the traditional Holiday Spectaculars twenty years ago and back, where Ric Flair had many of the matches the old Mid-Atlantic territory still remembers. Then, the most politically powerful wrestler in the WWE had to realize that facing the greatest wrestler in the business’s history in his last match in his home arena in front of a hot crowd not only matched his own fantasy booking, but might help him to stay over. That alignment is what saved an angle, at least temporarily, that WWE head Vince McMahon and his creative team are clearly ambivalent about.
So what if the television show itself turned into more of “If the sixteen-time World Champion and future WWE Hall Of Famer guy who has wrestled forever thinks Triple H is great and his best friend – and he’s faced them all – then Triple H must really be great” and “Chapter 3.127 of Everyone’s Scared of Mr. McMahon” and if both live and on TV there was no getting around that awful banana-peel finish and if WWE didn’t even bother to air the tremendous Flair career retrospective? The kids in the crowd whose parents and grandparents told them of the greatness they missed when Mid-Atlantic Wrestling was the home team, just like the Greensboro Generals and the Carolina Cougars, those of us who knew what this was, Flair’s family at ringside – his wife Tiffany, his daughter Ashleigh, and his son Reid – and the emotion in Flair’s unguarded face tipped that night over to make it a fitting coda to a lifetime of Coliseum memories.
Those memories started on a Thursday night, back on May 16, 1974. Just a couple of months before the Coliseum had hosted what many still consider the single greatest college basketball game in history, the legendary Lose-And-Go-Home 1974 ACC Tournament Final between Coach Charles “Lefty” Driesell (who would have made one hell of a pro wrestling manager) and his Maryland Terrapins starring Lenny Elmore and John Lucas and Norman Sloan’s NC. State Wolfpack. (Actually, “Stormin” Norman wouldn’t have been too bad outside the ring himself.)
From author John Feinstein – “They dragged themselves onto the bus, drained emotionally, so exhausted they wondered how they could play again in five days. Coach Norm Sloan cried on his wife’s shoulder. Center Tommy Burleson, who had been the hero of the game, was so tired he remembers “feeling like a dishrag that’s been all wrung out. I had nothing left.” They sat there, joyous over their victory, yet too tired even to speak to one another. Suddenly, a figure appeared at the front door of the bus, climbing the steps slowly because he, too, had little energy left. “Men, I just wanted to tell you I thought you played one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen. I was proud of my team and I’m proud of you. You’re a great team. I hope you win the national championship. You deserve it.” That speaker was Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell. His team had just lost the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament final in overtime, 103-100, to Sloan’s North Carolina State Wolfpack team, which eventually did win the National Championship. “I don’t usually go for that going into the other locker room stuff because I think it’s phony,” Driesell said recently. “But that night, I did it because I really felt that way. I was disappointed we lost, but I wasn’t upset. My team played its heart out.”
The Wolfpack, with star player David Thompson, started a new era in college basketball by beating Coach John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins and ending their six year monopoly on the NCAA championship in a double overtime thriller in the Final Four, then went on to win the national championship. That Final Four, also played in the Coliseum, started the NCAA tournament on the road to where it is today – the biggest, most far reaching playoff in sports.
And if you’ve never heard of David Thompson, consider this: The Skywalker both inspired and was a better college basketball player than Michael Jordan – who won his own ACC title in the Greensboro Coliseum a decade later, the infamous 1984 Four Corners Stall Ball game between the UNC Tarheels and the Virginia Cavaliers – the game that featured a slew of future NBA stars yet still ended 47-45 and did more than any one game to bring the shot clock to college basketball. A game in the Greensboro Coliseum once again led to a boost in its most popular sport.
And if college basketball was the Coliseum’s and the area’s most beloved sport, and N.C. State’s 1974 championship was a once-in-a-lifetime on-site thrill, well, a chubby Dusty Rhodes imitator in goggle sunglasses working a tag match third from the top on a pro wrestling show wasn’t going to do much to change that. But here’s a dirty little secret: more fans and more money came to the Coliseum to see Ric Flair in his heyday than to see college basketball.
Anyway, the debuting Ricky Flair teamed with Chuck O’Connor (who later became Big John Studd) to wrestle veterans Abe Jacobs and Danny Miller. Flair and O’Connor won.
Ricky Flair arrived, though, at a sea change for the Mid-Atlantic territory. Promoter Jim Crockett Sr., who had built his Virginia and Carolinas around home-steading tag teams like George Becker & Johnny Weaver, Rip Hawk & Swede Hanson, and Gene & Ole Anderson had recently died. It had been ten years since the heel Bolos masked team had drawn big houses with the formula of putting their masks up (always successfully) for any team that could beat them two out of three falls; the territory needed to be shaken up.
Booker George Scott had been hired by Crockett’s son Jim Jr. to do just that. Scott did just that, bringing in new top talent to work the now singles main events. He brought in Don Jardine, The Super Destroyer, who later taught Mark Calloway (the Undertaker) how to do his signature spot, walking the ropes. He also brought in Indian and former NFL star Wahoo McDaniel, insisted Scott book his best opponent Johnny Valentine, telling him if he gave the realistic, slow-working Valentine time to get over his mastery of ring psychology, it would set the territory on fire. He was right.
This was the place and time a young Ric (the “y” was soon gone) Flair really learned his trade. He watched the veteran Valentine, with his exquisite timing, and learned what it took to be a Sixty Minute Man. He soon worked with McDaniel, and learned how tough those chop could be, and how that stinging slap could excite a crowd.
He got in trouble on his own just fine. His first championship partner, Rip Hawk, later complained about how hard it was to “baby-sit” Flair in the Virginia nightclubs. Hawk said he and Hanson had to use their connections with a certain element to keep Flair safe when he chased the wrong tail one night.
Flair won his first title with Hawk, the Mid-Atlantic tag team title, in the Greensboro Coliseum, beating Bob Bruggers and Paul Jones on June 27th of the same year. Hawk soon left the promotion, as Scott made a sweep of most of the area veterans in favor of his new main eventers.
Scott, though, was already eyeing Flair for bigger things. He gave him the Nature Boy gimmick, complete with the signature figure-four finisher, hoping he would follow in the golden footsteps of the great “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, wrestling’s top star of the ’50s. To help groom him further, Scott made Flair a “cousin” of the top area tag team, Gene Anderson & Ole Anderson (Alan Rogowski), which would lead later to a big money split among the family. He also started working single semi-main events in the Coliseum against McDaniel. Rufus R. Jones, Ken Patera, and the man he patterned his early promos on, and who would become one of his greatest rivals, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. His won his first singles belt, the Mid-Atlantic TV Title, using brass knucks to beat Paul Jones in the Charlotte Coliseum.
A year after he arrived in the Mid-Atlantic territory, Ric Flair was on his way to the main event in a territory that was beginning to take off. Over 10,000 fans had come to the Coliseum to see Johnny Valentine take the new U.S. Title in just under an hour from Harley Race, a match that I still hear older fans rave about. It was quite the crowd for a place that wasn’t even mid-market back then.
Harley Race: “Johnny Valentine was a man.”
And then, on Oct. 4, 1975 a plane crashed in Wilmington, N.C. Johnny Valentine’s career was over. Ric Flair’s back was broken and his career was in doubt.
George Scott called in one half of the WWE Tag Team Champions, Blackjack Mulligan (Bob Windham), to take Valentine’s place. Mulligan, a pro wrestling John Wayne, was nowhere near the in-ring worker Valentine was, but he was part of a trash-talking revolution in the business, along with Rhodes, Superstar Billy Graham, and Flair. Just as he arrived, Ric Flair made it back from rehabilitation, stronger, in better shape, and thirsting even more for the top of the Mid-Atlantic.
“We’ve been in so many places and the bad were there, and they said let’s get Flair. Somebody said no, he’s backed by the Jack.”
The two, separately and together, went on a rampage. They were neighbors, living next door to each other, and traveled in a van they bought together. Mulligan became a multi-time U.S. Champion. Flair used a table leg to “put 27 stitches in Wahoo McDaniel’s head” in the Coliseum the night he won the Mid-Atlantic Title. Flair was billed on the top of the Greensboro card for the very first time on June 20, 1976 when he and Mulligan faced Wahoo McDaniel & Dusty Rhodes in a “Lights Out! All Four In The Ring At The Same Time! This Bout Not Sanctioned By The NWA” match.
Scott was readying the veteran Blackjack for his first babyface run, and to clear the way for Ric Flair to become the biggest heel in the territory. The split came as Ric Flair upset Bobo Brazil for the U.S. Title, just as Mulligan was returning to the area to get his shot. Flair suggested on television that Mulligan was past it. Mulligan punched him. Flair got his revenge, tearing up Mulligan’s trademark leather hat, “given to him by Waylon Jennings.” Mulligan struck back by walking during a Flair TV match wearing one of Flair’s “$5,000” robes, which he proceed to tear to shreds in front of an enraged Flair.
The angle had its parallels in real life. They sold their van because Flair brought a Cadillac from the Embers, a famous beach music group of the time. (Mulligan’s teenage son Barry drove Flair in it, his first but hardly only exposure to the Flair life.) Mulligan really was passing the torch to Flair. He was older, and this babyface run was going to set him up to buy the Amarillo territory with Dick Murdoch from the Funks. Flair was breaking big, both in the Mid-Atlantic and nationally. He was beginning to make appearances in St. Louis, Georgia, Florida, and, for the first time, in New York’s Madison Square Garden, where he was surprised by how lame the wrestling was.
Flair also got his first NWA World Title shot in the Greensboro Coliseum, going to a double count-out against Harley Race in rare heel challenge on May 15, 1977.
The two fought over the U.S. Title for months, until a cage match Thanksgiving night at the Greensboro Coliseum settled the score once and for all. A crowd of 13,447 were shocked when Mulligan missed a knee off the top rope and Flair pinned him for the title. Mulligan was off on his ill-advised Texas promoting adventure and Ric Flair was now right in the middle of a box office and talent renaissance in the Mid-Atlantic.
This was also the time when he was working in the best tag team of his career along with Johnny Valentine’s son Greg. Flair was the more charismatic chicken-shit backstabber bump-taker, while Valentine was the mean crippler who would take three shots to give one. Flair’s choice of Valentine over his cousins The Andersons led to the biggest money Coliseum feud of his career to that point. Suddenly, it was as important in high school to choose between the younger anti-heroes Flair and Valentine and the toughest bullies on the block, Gene and Ole Anderson, as it was to pledge your allegiance to one of the Big Four ACC schools. Now, people were traveling across state borders to get to Greensboro to see the carnage, among them a kid from Roanoke, Virginia named Tony Schiavone.
Something had to give, and again fans in the Greensboro Coliseum were shocked at who and how that would happen. In another cage match showdown, Ric Flair & Greg Valentine not only beat the Andersons for the NWA World Tag Team Titles but crushed Gene up against the steel ringpost after the match, leading to rare-for-the-time stretcher jobs. I remember guys who thought they knew better swearing that one was real.
It got better.
Flair kept butting in on a young rookie’s interview time on the Mid-Atlantic TV studio show. The young rookie kept politely asking him to stop. Flair kept talking. The young rookie knocked him cold with a “karate thrust.”
Flair, also the TV champion, demanded the rookie face him in the ring. Ten minutes later, to the delight of the small crowd in he WRAL TV studio, that rookie, Ricky Steamboat, beat Ric Flair for his title.
The promotion clearly wasn’t sure about Steamboat at first, because he and Flair’s matches weren’t main events, giving other strong Mid-Atlantic acts of the time a chance at the top. That quickly changed. Steamboat was the best looking wrestler of the day, the John Cena of the time, and his Asian dark features were in clear contrast to the loud blonde Flair charisma.
The two pushed each other in the Greensboro Coliseum though the TV Title, to the Mid-Atlantic Title, to the main event U.S. Title, the true top title in the area and ultimately to the NWA World Title. More importantly they pushed each other beyond the standards of the wrestling work of the day. Ric Flair noted in the “Ultimate Ric Flair Collection DVD” that while he appreciated how people still raved about the series of matches in the ’80s with Steamboat, he wrestled hundreds of matches with him during this time that may have been better. Their ability to anticipate what the other was thinking and sell each other’s strong offense made each match a unique classic.
Not that everybody at the time was a fan. Some of the veterans grumbled that the youngsters “went too fast” in the ring. The new generation of fans flocking to the arena didn’t agree.
The matches Ric Flair had over a seventeen-year period with Ricky Steamboat stand over Dory Funk Jr. vs. Jack Brisco and Mitsuhara Misawa vs. Kenta Kobashi as the best wrestling feud in the sports history.
The time booker George Scott had been building years towards had finally come. He called in the man he patterned Flair’s “Nature Boy” gimmick after to turn the final trick. Rogers attacked Flair during a figure-four demonstration and then cost him the U.S. Title against Dusty Rhodes (of all people) as the special referee in the Coliseum. He then put over Flair cleanly, if bloodily, giving up to the figure-four in as clear a passing of the torch as pro wrestling ever gets.
Flair wrestled his first match as a babyface in the Greensboro Coliseum, in front of frantic fans who had been waiting to be given permission to cheer for him, against the simultaneously turning Paul Jones, who ironically had jealously jumped his own tag partner Steamboat.
Rogers managed an evil Jimmy Snuka against Flair, until he abruptly left, only to turn up as Andy Kaufman’s second on an early Saturday Night Live appearance.
From then on, like The Man said, Greensboro was Ric Flair country. He successfully chased the U.S. Title against Snuka and the returning Greg Valentine, who turned on him and broke his banana nose in the process before Flair got his revenge in the steel cage everything gets settled Thanksgiving night 1980. Flair’s chilling vow to get Valentine back for breaking his nose at the beginning of this program remains the single most effective promo I’ve ever seen. The only act to push Flair for the top spot in what was then considered to be the best wrestling territory in the country was the babyface tag team of Ricky Steamboat & Jay Youngblood, who had the first big show of the era when they faced Sgt. Slaughter & Don Kernodle in the then-famous Final Conflict on March 12, 1983.
Flair then main-evented big money sellouts or near sellouts on Thanksgiving night in the Greensboro Coliseum against Ole Anderson in 1981 (for all of Anderson’s strange assertions that he got Ric Flair his first NWA World Title because he had to get him out of the territory because he couldn’t draw, he booked himself against Flair on top as soon as he took over from Scott), and in 1982 against his greatest opponent on the mic, Roddy Piper in 1982.
Then, of course, came Starrcade in 1983. For the first time ever, the NWA allowed a promotion to not only build its top babyface to not only work a long program chasing the World Title, but to win the title outright in his home arena. Ric Flair did just that for Jim Crockett Promotions and booker Dory Funk in the Greensboro Coliseum, winning the NWA Title for the second time against Harley Race. They set a box office record for the time, between the 19,000 fans in the Coliseum and the next-door annex, plus various closed circuit venues.
The final scene that first Starrcade is the one that lasts to this day: Ric Flair, spent, standing in triumph and tears in front of the people who loved him first. Last Saturday night, incredibly, he did it all again. Greensboro still loves college basketball’s best, but the greatest wrestler of all time will forever be one of our own.
Bruce Mitchell, of Greensboro, N.C., has been a PWTorch columnist since September 1990. He thanks Mark Eastridge, midtatlanticgateway.com, and Dave Meltzer, for their help with this column, and Jim Cornette for saving that big reel of 8MM tape from the JCP office trash all those years ago.