A Thanksgiving Tradition Revisited – Ric Flair Returns To Greensboro

Bruce Mitchell from the Pro Wrestling Torch and takes us back to one of the great Thanksgiving Traditions at the Greensboro Coliseum and he tells us how Ric Flair will try and bring a slice of that nostalgia back to the Gate City on December 5.

Maybe you know that twenty-five years ago this Thanksgiving evening Ric Flair beat Harley Race in steel cage at the historic first Starrcade in 1983 at the Greensboro Coliseum. It was the match that ended, for the very first time, a top babyface’s multi-year long quest for the top title in the sport, the NWA heavyweight title, in the challenger’s home territory. Maybe you know that this, not the first Wrestlemania, was the first of the mega-show concept whose appeal cut across state lines and received national attention.

Maybe you know that first Starrcade, also propelled by Roddy Piper vs. Greg Valentine in a dog collar match and Jack & Jerry Brisco defending the NWA world tag team titles against Ricky Steamboat & Jay Youngblood. (It was the enormous sell-out plus 5,000 fans crowd that Steamboat & Youngblood drew against Sgt. Slaughter the March before that inspired Jim Crockett Promotions to build for Starrcade in the years before pay-per-view technology with closed circuit locations across the states in the Mid Atlantic territory.) The first Starrcade show was the model that Vince McMahon followed and expanded on with Wrestlemania.

In many ways, though, that huge Starrcade crowd was just another Thanksgiving for Ric Flair and Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling at the Greensboro Coliseum. The show was just one in a series in a remarkable streak of Flair headlining six out of seven Thanksgiving sell-out or near sell-out shows at the Greensboro Coliseum from 1978 to 1984, the traditional biggest show of the year that ended the biggest feuds, usually (in the fans’ eyes) with happy endings.

As it happens, I work with someone who was employed at the Coliseum at the time. She told me, “You could take any day off of the year at the Coliseum, except one: Thanksgiving. We were told if you missed working the wrestling show at the Coliseum not bother showing up for work anymore. We used to just watch the crowd at the shows. Those fans were wild.”

(Flair was one of the top heels in the Mid-Atlantic and was a major part of the annual battle royal, a money drawing gimmick in that era, on the Greensboro Coliseum Thanksgiving show in 1977. The winner of the battle royal was decided when the last two surviving entrants, Blackjack Mulligan and Wahoo McDaniel, faced off in a singles match and McDaniel won. Flair was the top babyface in the thriving territory in 1979, but did not appear on the Thanksgiving Coliseum show that year.)

Ric Flair headlined Thanksgiving at the Coliseum in 1978. It was a pivotal night in his career, the steel cage showdown that settled the famous Hat and Robe program with Blackjack Mulligan. His clean win over Mulligan shocked the fans and cemented his status as the top act in the burgeoning territory, and one of the top heels in the entire business.

In 1980 he won another steel-cage match at the Coliseum against his old partner in one of the great tag teams of the era, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, in the top match on the show. This time he was the top babyface. The next Thanksgiving, in 1981, he beat booker Ole Anderson in another steel cage match. Blackjack Mulligan, Jr. (Barry Windham) was stationed at ringside to ward off interference from Gene Anderson.

In 1982 Flair defended as a heel his first NWA championship, winning by disqualification against Roddy Piper. 1983 was, of course, the first Starrcade. Thanksgiving 1984, the second Starrcade, was Ric Flair defending the NWA title again, this time against booker Dusty Rhodes, in the Million Dollar challenge, where Flair won one million imaginary dollars when special referee Smokin’ Joe Frazier stopped the match because Rhodes had a small cut over his eye.

The streak ended in 1985, not because Flair’s drawing power had dissipated, or the Greensboro wasn’t still a major venue for Jim Crockett Promotion, The tradition died a victim of its own success. JCP split that Thanksgiving show between Greensboro and Atlanta, again using closed circuit technology, and Flair again defended against Dusty Rhodes, this time in Atlanta.

Now, it’s almost a quarter of a century later, and Ric Flair is recognized not just in Greensboro but around the world as the best wrestler in the history of the sport. Flair returns to Greensboro December 5 with a show celebrating the Starrcade anniversary, as close as the sponsoring could get to Thanksgiving, at the new Proehlific Park Youth Sports Complex, as close as Highspots could get to the Greensboro Coliseum.

(Proehlific Park is the brainchild of owner Ricky Proehl, the Wake Forest alumnus and sixteen-year NFL wide receiver.)

The Rock’n’Roll Express face the Bobby Eaton & Stan Lane (Page High School) version of the Midnight Express and the son of Flair’s greatest in-ring rival, Ricky Steamboat Jr. also wrestles on the show.

Ric Flair hasn’t been forgotten in Greensboro, and it’s going to be interesting to see how (and how many) area fans react to the first chance to get this close to Flair on his successful autograph/photo tour. Flair cleans up as well as any wrestling this side of Dewayne Johnson, and can be very impressive in these types of appearances.

Time, and the pro wrestling business, moves on, but sometimes the echoes can be awakened. One way or the other, Friday night, December 5 will be one of those times.

And then there’s the next night, December 6, Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan in a high school in Charlotte, N.C. for Highspots.

Whatta world.