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Zen Arcade Reviews: Every Match Dave Meltzer Gave 5+ Stars To (1989-1990)

February 6, 2019 | Posted by Jake St-Pierre
Ric Flair Ricky Steamboat Wrestle War
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Zen Arcade Reviews: Every Match Dave Meltzer Gave 5+ Stars To (1989-1990)  

NWA World Title: Ric Flair © vs. Ricky Steamboat
WCW Chi-Town Rumble.

An early shoulderblock scores for Steamboat, getting an early nearfall off of a flustered Nature Boy. More Steamboat speed gives Ric Flair some trouble, and the champion dips out to regain a little bit of steam. Flair backs him up against the corner and just BLISTERS Steamboat with a chop, but The Dragon eats it right up and throws a barrage of chops back at him, putting an exclamation point on it with a backdrop. Flair tries chopping at Steamboat some more, but a Dragon receipt puts him on his ass. Steamboat baseball slides under Flair’s legs and floors him with a dropkick on the rebound, and he nearly is able to steal a pin with a headlock of all things. Steamboat ricochets off the turnbuckles to flip his way into a better headlock, but nearly finds his shoulders pinned to the mat in a fast Ric Flair counter. Flair just massacres the poor bastard with another chop, but again, Ricky hammers him with some of his own and gets a close nearfall off a big double chop. That forces Flair again to roll to the floor and regain his bearings. Flair lets off another chop, but once more he runs into a double chop from Steamboat that actually stumbles Flair to the point where he tumbles outside. Steamboat dodges a Flair attack by hopping up on the top rope and coming down with a hiptoss, followed by a beautiful headscissor and finally a smooth headlock takeover. Steamboat eats another chop and attempts to run roughshod, but Flair cracks him with a back elbow to put him down… that is until Steamboat cracks him with another chop, and another one sends Ric Flair over the top rope to the floor. Flair drags Steamboat down to the floor with him, and just cheapshots him with punches and guardrail-assisted attacks. Flair is finally able to keep Steamboat down for more than a couple seconds as he rolls The Dragon into the ring and works him over. Flair flips over the top rope as he does and tries to come off the top rope with a high cross, but STEAMBOAT ROLLS INTO A PIN! FLAIR KICKS OUT! FIGURE FOUR! That was an awesome sequence. Flair uses the ropes behind Tommy Young’s back to put the pressure, but Steamboat is relentless in his defense and tries to rally the crowd behind him. The referee catches him going to the well one too many times though, and Tommy Young forces him to break. Flair now starts going after Steamboat’s knee and runs after him with a high cross, sending both men tumbling over the top rope to the floor. Steamboat throws a few chops, but Flair slips out of a headlock and posts the challenger. Flair brings him back into the ring for a suplex, but Steamboat kicks out. A back suplex scores, but suffers the same fate as Steamboat kicks out at 2. He tries to stare Tommy Young down, but Young ain’t havin’ it. Flair goes for another cover and this time puts his feet on the rope, but Steamboat still powers out. Steamboat takes advantage of Flair’s posturing to the fans and nearly gets the pin off a Schoolboy, but the flying axe-handle misses for the challenger as he crashes and burns to the mat. Flair reverses out of a headscissor, but Steamboat counters THAT into a Butterfly Suplex! Flair is able to kick out. BACKSLIDE! FLAIR KICKS OUT! Flair whips Steamboat, who fires out of the corner with a big Clothesline! A flying shoulderblock scores for Steamboat, who goes to the top rope for a FLYING JUDO CHOP~! FLYING CROSSBODY HITS TOMMY YOUNG! No one is available to count the sure pin for Steamboat, and FLAIR CRADLES HIM! No ref for that either so Flair tries chucking Steamboat over the top rope, but Steamboat stays up and MISSES THE HIGH CROSS! FIGURE FOUR… COUNTERED INTO A SMALL PACKAGE! STEAMBOAT WINS! ***** This one doesn’t really need much explanation, I’d guess. Most wrestling fans worth their salt are pretty up to snuff on the whole Ric Flair/Ricky Steamboat series so any exposition on my part is just an exercise in time-wasting. I will admit though, I was always under the impression that their Nashville outing was the superior Flair/Steamboat contest… and I think I might have been wrong. All the “overbooking” at the end here created a sense of urgency that a simple technical match didn’t quite foster, and that’s too unique to pass up here. It’s more unique even, because of the fact that it shouldn’t work as well as it did. I think it was such a different take on the cliched ref bump that it gave the viewer something to sink their teeth into, rather than groan at. We got to see Ricky Steamboat work through adversity, alongside Ric Flair’s sheer existence as a bastard heel champion. The ref bump was handled with care, logic, and excitement rather than as a crutch. I think a lot of wrestling fans see such booking as Vince Russo specials, i.e. when a booker is too unintelligent to make a star or make a win mean nothing. Steamboat overcome the ref going down, making his win mean even more because he had to work past JUST Ric Flair to capture the title. And even though it was a clean win, it also makes way for rematches because Ric Flair has a logical out. It serves all masters and elevates an already virtuosic technical match to even more legendary stature. We’re not done with these two, as I’m sure you know.

Two out of Three Falls for NWA World Title: Ricky Steamboat (c) vs. Ric Flair
NWA Clash of the Champions VI.

They tussle a bit early in a tie-up until Steamboat cracks Flair with a chop in the corner. Flair stays diplomatic though and tries to wrestle with him, but Steamboat downs him there too. Flair tries working a headlock instead of tying together in the ropes, but Steamboat has his number and even scouts a drop-down to put a headlock on. Flair is forced to back Steamboat into the corner rather than reverse him, and upon the break, he cracks him with some chops. Steamboat fights fire with fire and throws even more chops in return, before grounding him with a spinning headscissor takedown and a continued headlock. Flair is soon deduced to begging off and trying to get a rest, but he suckers in Steamboat with a boot to the liver. Steamboat doesn’t let that faze him, firing off the ropes with a clothesline and continuing with the headlock and soon a front facelock. Flair keeps getting his bell rung, and he strolls out to the floor for another rest. Flair gets in another firefight with Steamboat, and he ends up on the wrong side of it soon enough, later on falling to a suplex. Steamboat attempts a big spash though, and that eats knees. Flair uses his capitalization on the momentum to finally build up some offense, hitting a Butterfly Suplex. Steamboat catches a spinning toehold for a small package, but Flair turns it over to win the first fall in 19 minutes.

Steamboat begins the second fall with a head of steam, diving off the top rope with a judo chop for a close nearfall. Flair soon turns the tide, dropping the knee on Steamboat as he tries tos low down the pace. He tries dropping it again, but Steamboat dodges him and works on the leg with TWENTY ELBOWS to the leg before locking on the Figure Four. Flair is able to scoot himself to the ropes, forcing Tommy Young to break the hold. Flair tries kicking Steamboat off of another Figure Four attempt, but Steamboat locks in a Boston Crab instead and continues the punishment. Flair nearly gets caught with a Backslide, so he takes Steamboat outside and dirties up the fight a little bit by whipping the champion into the guardrails. Flair finally starts to get some extended offense, suplexing and chopping poor Steamboat to his heart’s content. Steamboat makes his comeback though, hitting Flair with a Superplex and going to work on his bad back. Steamboat uses that to pick Flair up in the Double Chickenwing, and Ric Flair submits to lose the second fall in 34 minutes.

We’re back from break, and we’re already starting the action for the third fall. Flair rakes the eye to get out of an abdominal stretch before chop blocking Steamboat’s legs, but Steamboat chops him back to the mat. Flair flips over the ropes as he does, but Steamboat catches him with a cross chop as he runs to the adjacent turnbuckle. Flair tries the Dirty Pin, but Steamboat keeps his shoulders up. Steamboat tries to stick and move now to avoid Flair, but the champion keeps one step ahead and continues working the leg. Flair now works himself into the Figure Four, and Steamboat has trouble keeping his shoulders up as he struggles. Steamboat can’t find the ropes himself, so he just rolls to the apron and breaks the hold that way. Flair actually heads up top and finds success with a Crossbody, but Steamboat barely kicks out. Steamboat’s leg buckles on a body slam, but he’s perseverent and hits Flair with a flying judo chop. Steamboat now heads up top for a CROSSBODY! FLAIR KICKS OUT! Steamboat follows with a jumping elbow, but Flair dodges. Flair tries a backdrop, but Steamboat counters into a neckbreaker. Flair doesn’t like that, so he chucks Steamboat to the floor to try to burn time. Steamboat battles himself back in and GETS A SUNSET FLIP! FLAIR KICKS OUT! SLEEPER FROM FLAIR! STEAMBOAT’S ARM COMES UP! Steamboat runs Flair’s face into the turnbuckle to counter, and Flair maneuvers himself out of the ring to burn more time. Steamboat doesn’t see where Flair went, so Ric blindsides him with a chop block… only for Steamboat to hit an Enzuigiri for 2. FLYING SPLASH MISSES! Flair continues to work on the leg, but Steamboat won’t stop fighting back. DOUBLE CHOP FROM STEAMBOAT! LARIAT FROM STEAMBOAT! Flair barely gets the rope. Flair heads up top, but Steamboat intercepts him and chucks him down to the mat. DOUBLE CHICKENWING! HIS LEG GIVES OUT! STEAMBOAT PINS HIM! Ricky Steamboat retains his title in 55 minutes. ***** While I am of the opinion that these two work better with a little less time, it’s a testament to their obviously legendary ability that they switched it up so wonderfully here. And one of the best parts of this match was how well they weaved in and out of their different story threads. Whether it was Steamboat eating Flair’s lunch in the early fall, scouting his every move, or Flair starting to go after the leg and reduce Steamboat’s momentum. All of these different ideas were worked into the match so naturally and organically that even with the bloated runtime, the realism it brought made every second worth it. I also appreciated the fact that despite Flair being the clear heel, his technical prowess was still shown to be on Steamboat’s level. He adapted well to the long duration of the match and worked in some very successful strategies that flustered Steamboat, which makes Flair look like a worthy challenger despite throwing in cheapshots here and there. It serves several different purposes and when those purposes all further the match in some way, there’s no doubting the success of said match or said purposes. I also loved how all three falls felt like completely separate matches, while all still having something to do with each other. It provided enough difference to keep the hour interesting, but enough continuity to tie everything together and not make it feel disjointed. I don’t need to tell you how much it improves the experience, nor do I need to gush anymore on these two’s talents considering we still have their next match to watch and talk about. And besides, any self respecting fan of wrestling (that didn’t grow up in like, 1999 RAW or something) has probably seen this, so why tell you what you already know?

NWA World Title: Ricky Steamboat © vs. Ric Flair
WCW WrestleWar 1989.

Steamboat fires off an early armdrag on Flair, who struts it off and regroups. Flair tries to up the pace, but doing that with Steamboat is a bad idea, especially considering the situation Flair finds himself in as a result. Flair tries a cornered slap, but Steamboat fires in kind and puts Flair on his ass. Flair cheapshots Steamboat in lieu of a clean break, and he uses that to light poor Steamboat up with a pair of chops. Steamboat retaliates with some chops of his own and it’s a SLUGFEST OF CHOPS as both men tear into each other. Flair runs right into a backdrop though, and he rolls out of the ring to try and regroup. Flair makes it back in at 4 and soon finds himself fighting desperately with Steamboat over a wristlock, but the champion gets the upperhand and goes to work on Flair’s arm. Flair tries to shoo the Dragon away, but he runs right into an armdrag again. Steamboat now begins working a hammerlock, and again Flair tries to wrestle himself out of harm’s way only for Steamboat to continue the onslaught. Flair gets Steamboat in the corner and breaks the hold again, this time mounting up a little more success after some slightly cheap forearms. Flair clubbers away at Steamboat’s head and body trying to wear him down, but Steamboat responds with a big barrage of chops that end in a Flair Flop… and we’re back to the armbar. Steamboat builds upon the hammerlock now by somersaulting and bridging on the arm. Flair heaves the champion up and sets him on the top rope in anticipation of a fake-out, but Steamboat has it scouted and dropkicks The Nature Boy out of the ring. Flair regroups and tries his hand at going after Steamboat again, but The Dragon is laser focused on working that arm. Flair’s strategy eventually works as he shoots Steamboat for a hiptoss. Flair isn’t quick enough to follow up though as he’s prone for another Dragon armdrag. Flair uses his subtly dirty tactics in the corner to drive the air out of Steamboat’s body, following that with an illegal punch out of the referee’s line of sight. Flair tries just chucking Steamboat to the floor in lieu of actually fighting, but Steamboat jumps right back in and goes wild on Flair with 10 Punches. Steamboat builds up some steam, but Flair uses his speed against him and sends the Dragon soaring over the top rope. Flair follows Steamboat to the floor and chops him into the front row, working him over with an elbow to the throat afterwards. Steamboat is still fresh enough to fight back after a momentary break from the challenger, to the point where Steamboat follows Flair into the ring with a flying chop and a big clothesline on the apron. Steamboat slows down the pace and goes right back to Flair’s arm. Flair tries shooting Steamboat off again, but he’s able to telegraph Steamboat’s high cross and moves, causing the champ to sail over the top rope again. Steamboat is on the defensive again, fighting back and getting up after everything Ric tries. Flair hits a Back Suplex and gets a razor close nearfall out of it, and it frustrates him to the point where he tries to get pins out of the same position over and over, to no avail. Butterfly Suplex scores for Flair, but Steamboat gets a shoulder up again. An elbow drop gets another nearfall, which frustrates Flair to the point where he gets in Tommy Young’s face. Steamboat attempts to take advantage of this with another high cross attempt, but Flair rolls with it and uses it to hit a Stun Gun on the champion! Flair baits Steamboat to the floor, where he suplexes the champion and strolls back in the ring to wait it out. Flair drags him up to the apron to try and suplex him into the ring, but Steamboat counters into an O’Connor Roll for a flash nearfall. Steamboat picks up the pace and a Ric Flair high cross sends them TUMBLING TO THE FLOOR! Flair heads up top, but we know how that ends, allowing Steamboat to really start rallying. Flair tries begging off to fake out for a Back Suplex, but he nearly gets pinned with a Schoolboy for his troubles. Steamboat sets Flair on the top rope for a SUPERPLEX! DOUBLE CHICKENWING FROM STEAMBOAT… BUT FLAIR GETS THE ROPES! Steamboat heads up top for the diving chop, but he goes to the well too many times, and Flair runs into the ropes and sends the champion flying to the floor. Steamboat is favoring his leg and limps onto the apron, but Flair zeroes in on it immediately and brings Steamboat back in the ring for a stalling suplex. Flair works the leg some more and twists RIGHT INTO THE FIGURE FOUR! Steamboat struggles and struggles, and he’s eventually able to find the ropes. Flair tries again to work over the leg, but Steamboat chops his way into a BIG ENZUIGIRI! Body slam… COUNTERED INTO A CRADLE! Ric Flair wins his title back in 31 minutes. ***** Ric Flair matches are always trouble for me to do analysis for, because they’re all so similar. Mind you, that’s not a slight against them. This Steamboat series is legendary for a reason. But after a while, you run out of things to say that you haven’t heard from the millions of other people who have watched these matches too. I’ve already watched two of their matches on this edition of the review so far, and I’m just at a loss. Ric Flair might be the most special all-around talent in the history of North American wrestling. The way he is able to be this consistently good is astounding. While I’m not of the opinion that this match is the best of the trilogy, it has many elements that make it a damn good candidate. First off, with this being the third match and whatnot, there were some tremendous – if subtle – callbacks to their previous two encounters. The Double Chickenwing. The ongoing war of chops. How the action slowly but surely got a little more rugged, with the war of chops becoming even more spirited as they fought over their hotly contested prize. Both men got frustrated at points that they may not have in previous matches, and that sort of grittiness ended up getting Flair his title back. It’s very difficult to cap off this trilogy with anything that could possibly justify its quality because I feel like so much has been said by so many more reputable and smart sources. And we’ve already reviewed two of their matches and the idea of being a broken record isn’t as appealing as it sounds. So just watch this stuff and be happy about it, because it’s legendary for a reason.

Triple Crown: Jumbo Tsuruta (c) vs. Genichiro Tenryu
AJPW June 5, 1989.

Stan Hansen is at ringside for some reason, looking as Stan Hansen does. He pops a squat to watch the match, of which starts fast with a Tenryu German Suplex that flusters the champion. Tsuruta doesn’t like that pace, so works a headlock as he recovers to slow things down. Tenryu wants to throw hands, so Tsuruta wacks him back and hits a Bulldog for an early two count of his own. Jumbo is in firm control in the proceeding minutes, and he cuts off a Tenryu comeback with a nasty big boot. They have John Cena levels of subtlety talking during a resthold, but unfortunately Maffew is nowhere to be found. Something tells me he’s not a Japanese speaker. Although he’s consistent advertiser for ICW and I don’t have a much better time understanding the Scots there than the wrestlers here in Japan. Speaking of the wrestlers in Japan, Tenryu finds an outing to fight back, chucking Tsuruta to the floor for a diving shoulderblock off the apron. Tenryu takes it back into the ring and starts working on Jumbo’s leg, and the commentators sound like they’re talking about it taking away the jumping knee, or maybe I’m just incredibly racist and interpret slightly English words in Japanese completely wrong. Tenryu ups the aggression, a noticeable difference to Tsuruta’s lowkey style, and it turns on the challenger as Tsuruta catches him with a Belly-to-Belly. Tsuruta hits his jumping knee, as the legwork didn’t seem to be extensive enough to make a lasting impression. Jumbo measures for a Powerbomb, but Tenryu is able to muscle out of it with a Backdrop. Tsuruta jumps right back on him though, the fresher man, locking in an Abdominal Stretch to noticeable BOOS from the crowd. Tenryu reverses out of it in due time though and headbutts Tsuruta to the floor, only to welcome him back with more strikes and a lariat. Tsuruta fights back with elbows, and one catches Tenryu behind the ear and kills his equilibrium, knocking the challenger for a loop and allowing Tsuruta to continue his methodical beatdown. Tsuruta starts bracing for the end with a Backdrop Driver, but Tenryu walks up the turnbuckles and turns Jumbo’s weight against him. Tsuruta is still the fresher man though, knocking Tenryu batty with a lariat. A Sling Blade (without the twist, albeit) scores for Tsuruta too, but Tenryu won’t stay down. Same goes for a Bulldog, so Jumbo drops a knee off of the second rope that is only saved by a lucky foot on the rope from Tenryu. Jumbo drops two more knees for good measure, but again Tenryu is too close to the ropes to be pinned. Tsuruta fires off a Thesz Press now, but Tenryu is relentless as he kicks out again. Tsuruta is finally able to hoist Tenryu up for a Backdrop Driver, but can’t follow up immediately, so Tenryu kicks out again. JUMPING KNEE COUNTERED INTO A STUN GUN BY TENRYU! TSURUTA KICKS OUT! DROPKICK FROM TSURUTA! TENRYU KICKS OUT! Tsuruta is at a loss so he heads up top for a flying knee, and he pulls down the kneepad… only for Tenryu to move! ENZUIGIRI! SMALL PACKAGE! TSURUTA KICKS OUT! POWERBOMB FROM TENRYU… COUNTERED INTO A BACKDROP! FOR 2! LARIAT FROM TSURUTA! TENRYU DOESN’T GO DOWN! BELLY TO BELLY COUNTERED BY TENRYU! TENRYU WITH A DIVING BACK ELBOW! TSURUTA MOVES! Tsuruta clubbers away trying to finish it, but TENRYU HITS A LARIATOO! ENZUIGIRI! TSURUTA STAYS UP! POWERBOMB! TSURUTA KICKS OUT!! POWERBOMB AGAIN!!! Genichiro Tenryu wins the Triple Crown in 24 minutes. **** This is a tricky match to analyze, because it was absolutely a great bout. But it’s a little difficult for me – fairly or unfairly – to buy this as a five star classic when guys like Kobashi, Misawa, and Kawada so heavily improved on this All Japan main event formula in the years to come. I say “fairly or unfairly” because this is undoubtedly one of those times when hindsight bites a match in the ass, to no fault of the promotion or the men in the ring. It’s like the Jr. Heavyweight matches I’ve come across so far. They were absolute belters in their day, but the style they presented was built upon so exquisitely in the decades to come that it’s difficult to grade it after taking in so many years of its evolution. This match falls under that category, but in a somewhat different way. This style of smashmouth, heavyweight main event wrestling was made into legend by the King’s Road style of the 90’s and while there are certainly hints of that brilliance within this match, I don’t think Tsuruta and Tenryu quite tightened it up to find comparable favor alongside its later peers. Of course that’s a silly thing to actually penalize a match for, but them’s the brakes when you watch 30 year old wrestling. It’s not the participant’s fault that wrestling got even better than this already awesome piece of the pie, ya know? And make no mistake, this match had a lot of tremendous moving parts to it. It was simple as heck to get into and watch, and that simple psychology did a lot to carry what was really a slow-paced affair. Genichiro Tenryu desperately wanted to bring the fight to Tsuruta, but the wily champion wouldn’t let him get out of the gates. Jumbo slowed him down with holds and matwork, to the point where the fans started to get restless. But something told me that it wasn’t out of legitimate distaste for the match; the Budokan audience just desperately wanted to see Tenryu get out of Tsuruta’s laborious grasp and let his gameplan come to pass. And once Tenryu waited out the storm, he began piecing together the blueprint to stick and move, using Tsuruta’s lack of speed against him and sneaking past him for simple signatures like enzuigiris and lariats to wear the bigger man down. Once Tenryu was able to use that correctly, the win came in due time for him. It’s not rocket appliances but even with slightly sloppy and disjointed matches like this, psychology can create an aura and signifcance around the participants to circumvent any potential flaws. That’s the mark of a great worker, and these two men were about as great as it got in that regard.

I Quit Match for the NWA Title: Ric Flair (c) vs. Terry Funk
NWA Clash of the Champions IX

Funk gives Flair the chance to quit before the match even starts, but Naitch doesn’t budge. They tie up until Flair chops Funk out to the floor, and Terry takes a swing at a fan in frustration. Terry Funk was the BEST. Flair continues to light Funk up with chops, but the second time he follows him to the floor to try and overwhelm him. Funk starts coming back though, taking advantage of the uncommo Flair aggression and working him over on the apron near the announce table, where Funk piledrove him after the Wrestle War match with Steamboat. Funk continues to slug away at Flair, but Flair takes advantage of Funk’s cockiness as the Texan heads for the mic. Funk battles right back, at home with the brawling, and soon finds his way back in control. Funk grabs the mic and yells at him to quit, but Flair ain’t having it. The only wrestler who can make that goofy mic gimmick for I Quit matches work is Terry Funk, because he’s the BEST. God, that man was so good. Funk starts slapping Flair around, so Ric GRABS HIM BY THE THROAT and chops him right back to the floor. Flair grabs the mic himself and strangles Terry into potential submission, but Funk won’t do it. Gary Hart distracts Flair at ringside long enough for Funk to recover and slug Flair in the back of the head and hit him with a Neckbreaker. Funk threatens to Piledrive Flair unless he quits, wanting to break his neck again, but Flair won’t have it… so Funk makes good and PILEDRIVES HIM! Flair won’t quit after that either, so Funk PILEDRIVES HIM ON THE FLOOR! Funk is having his way with the champion right now, slamming him on the timekeeper’s table before setting it up vertically against the apron. Flair uses that against him though, fighting back with chops before running his head into said table. Flair runs Funk across the table into the guardrail, and throws around Gary Hart too for good measure. Flair crotches Funk on the guardrail, and drops the knee inside the ring, forcing Funk to scurry to the floor for some kind of rest. Flair hits a Manhattan Drop and finally starts working on Funk’s leg for the Figure Four. Jim Ross’ reaction to him finally doing it is amazing. Flair keeps bringing the pain, but Funk STAYS UP until Flair goes at his knee again. Funk tries running away, but Flair chases him down and gives him a Kneebreaker. Flair brings him back into the ring for a suplex and tries the Figure Four, so Funk goes at his eyes to break it. No matter for Flair though, who suplexes him to the apron and keeps at the leg and PUTS IN THE FIGURE FOUR! FUNK WON’T QUIT! NEVER! MY LEG!!! IT’S BREAKING! FUNK QUITS! Ric Flair makes Terry Funk quit in 18 minutes. ***** This match is everything that’s perfect about pro wrestling in one 20 minute package, and every person who ever wants to be a wrestler should take notes on Terry Funk’s heel performance. Terry Funk in this match is the personification of everything that makes pro wrestling great. He was wacky. He was brutal. He was intense. He was credible. He sold like a million bucks. He covered every single facet of being a miserable, sadistic bastard that you could ever want, and he did it in such a virtuosic manner that I cannot believe this man isn’t even more loved than he is today. When I watch this man work it astounds me that someone could be that good at a job, but I continue to be wowed. It makes me feel like less of a man that I work a far less physically taxing occupation and can’t even dream to excel at it as Terry Funk does professional wrestling. But one reason he was so darn effective as a bad guy was because he had Ric Flair – perhaps the best to ever do it – as his dancing partner. Ric Flair may be better known as a heel, but that man could take a shit-kicking like no one’s business. He was taken out of his formula and comfort zone here and not only did he thrive, but he may have pulled out one of his greatest performances ever. He was so damn meticulous, even in this wild brawl, that he literally built to working the knee. He didn’t start working the knee. The entire match was built towards the SET-UP for his finish, and it was incredible. You were waiting and waiting with baited breath for him to start working for that Figure Four, and when he did, you knew Terry Funk was screwed. Funk was a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, and soon enough, the dastardly Funk had to quit because of Ric Flair’s ring generalship. This match was beautiful. Just a masterclass of psychology, intensity, and match structure that everyone who dares to call themselves a wrestling fan should watch. This is a legendary match for a reason.

IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title: Naoki Sano (c) vs. Jushin Liger
NJPW January 31, 1990

There’s something hilarious about the referee checking Liger’s horns for weapons. Speaking Liger, he bitchslaps Sano before the bell and it’s on. Spinning heel kick sends the champ to the floor, and Liger comes off of the apron with a seated senton to follow up. Liger keeps slapping him as Sano makes his way back into the ring, but Sano tackles him and throws punches back at him. Sano brings Liger to the floor now, and piledrives on the mat for good measure. A jumping Tombstone scores in the ring, and he rips at Liger’s mask directly after. Sano takes him out to the floor for more of a beating, finding himself in firm control despite the slow start. A jumping Piledriver scores in the ring for Sano, and Liger is totally knackered as he lays in a heap in the center of the ring. Liger appears to be bleeding, with his mask hanging off of his head. Maybe he shouldn’t have packed those weapons in his horns. Sano tosses Liger back with a Superplex, but Liger kicks out. The commentary seems to outright name Jushin Liger as Keichi Yamada so it sounds like they weren’t super anal about keeping his identity a secret. Kinda hard to when 3/4 of his mask is hanging on by a thread, but still. He’s taking a shit kicking from Sano here too, taking a Suplex for two and a no-armed Pedigree for the same result. Liger is able to use his speed to find an opening, dropkicking Sano to the floor for a GORGEOUS TOPE CON HILO! He kinda wacked his back on the guardrail there but appears to be fine. He seems to have used a bit too much energy doing that as he can’t follow up immediately, but he’s able to hit Sano with a Tilt-a-Whirl Backbreaker in the ring followed by a Romero Special. Sano breaks it by raking the eyes and putting in a variant of Zack Sabre’s finisher, establishing control once more. Liger’s face is outright shown by the cameras here. Sano hits a gorgeous Perfectplex but only gets 2 out of it. An equally nice German scores, but it also only gets 2 forcing Sano to put in a Boston Crab. Liger scrambles though and his arm under the rope to break the hold. Sano hits a DRAGON SUPLEX now, but Liger kicks out again. This dude’s suplexes are A E S T H E T I C in motion. Liger clotheslines Sano to the floor to try to catch his breath, but Sano is too fresh to let him follow up, as he catches him with a running clothesline for 2. Sano ducks a Capo Kick and spin kicks Liger to the mat, but Liger perseveres and headscissors him… only to get cut off and shitcanned for an Axehandle to the floor. An arm capture Suplex gets Sano another two, so he sets Liger up top for a Superplex… that Liger counters with a Crossbody! LIGERBOMB… COUNTERED INTO A HURRICANRANA! LIGER BARELY KICKS OUT! TIGER SUPLEX FROM SANO! LIGER GETS HIS FOOT ON THE SECOND ROPE! BACKDROP DRIVER COUNTERED! GERMAN BY LIGER! SANO KICKS OUT! POP UP LIGERBOMB! SANO KICKS OUT! TOMBSTONE! SHOOTING STAR PRESS! Jushin Liger is the new champion in 20 minutes. **** I’m not sure I buy this as a five star classic in today’s age, but I think it’s a little more difficult for Jr. Heavyweight wrestling to really hold up over the years compared to their heavyweight counterparts. They largely relied on athleticism to get their matches over, which is totally fine since they were obviously not working for some wrestling dork 20 years later, but the level of athleticism in wrestling has evolved to such an outrageous extent that I think older junior matches have more trouble surviving the generational gap. It’s unfair to judge them based on pure quality however, given the aforementioned fact they they were working in front of a 1990 crowd. So when someone like me says it “doesn’t hold up”, it’s a little disingenuous not to at least explain why rather than let you assume it’s because their talent somehow waned in the proceeding years. That’s not to imply that this match wasn’t great in my eyes though, and it’s largely because I thought this was actually quite unique for a Japanese match. It felt like an odd (but good) amalgamation of Western psychology with the more advanced Japanese movesets, and while the match did feel one-sided at times, I thought it worked far better than it would have seemed on paper. Liger’s blade job wasn’t particularly gruesome, but that and his shredded mask added a sense of intensity and gravity to the match that gave it an extra layer of substance. Sano was an athletic marvel at times and the way he tore apart the gutsy Liger at times was nothing short of beautiful. I know I talked earlier about the evolution of athleticism and whatnot, but this guy’s suplexes were just art and I can’t name a single wrestler today that can pull the maneuvers off with a similar level of skill. Not a Kenny Omega, Zack Sabre Jr, or anything. Naoki Sano looked like a million bucks doing basically everything here, but I have to keep gushing over his suplexes. I’m a slut for a good bridge, I suppose. He was so unbelievably smooth with everything he did, making Liger’s beating look more realistic while also adding an incredible amount of quickness and smoothness to give it a Jr. Heavyweight vibe. Liger’s selling and comebacks were a little less explosive than I’d have liked – especially to counteract such a prolonged beating from his opponent – but the timing of the comebacks and hope spots largely helped keep them afloat and make you want to see Liger put juuuust a few more moves together to get the upperhand. And at the end of the match, he was able to, getting the win and proving to be the tougher man at the end of the night. So while this wasn’t as exciting as a Hiromu Takahashi or Will Ospreay match, this was still psychologically airtight and intense enough to carry through into a quite satisfying conclusion.

Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Mitsuharu Misawa
AJPW June 6, 1990.

I believe Misawa had been unmasked like, three weeks before this or something crazy and the crowd is already IN LOVE with him. Kind of reminds me of Okada’s ascent a little bit except Okada WISHES the New Japan crowd loved him like this. Jumbo opens with a big shoulderblock and bodyslam combo, but Misawa dodges a jumping knee and dropkicks him back… only to run into a big boot. Lariato from Tsuruta gets 2 on the followup, and he’s not a happy man. Misawa gets him to the floor though, and dives off of the apron with a missile dropkick. Misawa follows that with a big running pescado, and he’s firmly in control for the first time thus far. Misawa brings it back to the ring and slows the pace down, working simple stretches and hammerlocks to wear the big man down. That is until Misawa bitchslaps him off of the break just for giggles. He does it again against the ropes, so Tsuruta runs him off the ropes for a jumping knee followed by an abdominal stretch. Tsuruta breaks for a Butterfly Suplex for two, followed by a Sleeper. Tsuruta tries popping Misawa up, but Misawa dropkicks him down and hits a missile dropkick for 2. He heads back up top, this time for a Frog Splash that gets another nearfall. Misawa tries following up with a high cross but Tsuruta uses his weight against him to reverse into a nasty looking Stun Gun. Piledriver scores for Tsuruta, but Misawa kicks out at 2 himself. Tsuruta hits a Thesz Press, but again Misawa kicks out. That earns Misawa a dropkick, but Misawa doesn’t stay down. Tsuruta heads up top, but Misawa intercepts him and tries a Superplex, only for Jumbo to elbow him down and hit a flying knee for a close nearfall. Tsuruta hoists him up for a Powerbomb, but still Misawa kicks out! Misawa gets two off of a quick Backslide, and create separation with an elbow that knocks Tsuruta loopy, sending Jumbo to the floor. Misawa heads to the top rope and dives out on top of Tsuruta with a big crossbody. Misawa tries a German Suplex in the ring, but can’t get it, so he catches Tsuruta running, using his momentum for a close bridging O’Connor Roll. Elbow hits for Misawa, and he heads up top for another Frog Splash that EATS KNEES! MISAWA KICKS OUT! Tsuruta rolls into a Boston Crab now, but he’s too close to the ropes and Misawa saves himself. LARIATO! MISAWA KICKS OUT! ANOTHER ONE! MISAWA KICKS OUT AGAIN! Misawa uses his feet against the ropes to shift the weight of a Jumbo Backdrop Driver, and HITS A GERMAN! TSURUTA KICKS OUT! Tiger Driver is countered into a bridging pin from Tsuruta, but only for 2. Tsuruta fires off another Jumping Knee, and he swats Misawa out of the air with an elbow. Tsuruta throws a running knee, but MISAWA MOVES! BACKDROP DRIVER… COUNTERED INTO A TSURUTA PIN! MISAWA ROLLS HIM OVER! ONE, TWO, THREE! Misawa does the impossible in 24 minutes. ***** I don’t necessarily find this to be the best action match of all time, and its structure lends itself to direct comparisons to some of the complaints I levied towards the earlier Tsuruta/Tenryu bout… but it’s impossible to overstate how important this was for Japanese wrestling, so much so that five star rating is an obligation. Sometimes it ain’t all about the finishing stretch. It’s a passing of the torch moment done perfectly, without any BS grandstanding from the veteran. It was the next huge superstar rising to the occasion, and before your eyes, officially starting his ascension of what would become one of the most legendary careers in pro wrestling history. But with all that being said, this was still a tremendous effort. It was foolproof, as simple as it gets, and the bout was made all the better for it. Misawa was the rugged, defiant young star who was there to usurp Jumbo Tsuruta and make his name at the veteran’s expense. Jumbo Tsuruta grew increasingly angry and frustrated at that, as well as Misawa’s perseverance at working from underneath. No matter what Jumbo threw at him, there was nothing anyone could do to prevent him from taking his place atop the mountain. This frustration grew so much for Tsuruta that he made a crucial mistake by getting himself caught in the ropes, leading directly to the sequence that saw him pinned cleaner than a sheet in the center of the ring. Misawa did it. Three weeks earlier he’d taken off the Tiger Mask and challenged Jumbo Tsuruta, and not only matched him, but came into his house and proved to be the better athlete. That’s how you make a star, and there aren’t many wrestling matches that so clearly did that in such a small timeframe. Misawa was the plucky new face coming in, and came out a superstar. That’s why this is one of the most memorable matches in Japan’s history, and if you’re a self-respecting fan of the country’s lore, you should have already seen this. It’s really that significant, and an incredibly fascinating match to boot. Wrestling rarely comes together like this.

Jumbo Tsuruta, Akira Taue, & Masanobu Fuchi vs. Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada, & Kenta Kobashi
AJPW October 19, 1990.

Akira Taue looks like a large red baby and it’s distracting to a personally embarrassing degree. He starts with Kenta Kobashi, who fires off an early forearm in the corner. Taue boots Kawada off of the apron, but walks into a Kobashi armdrag for taking his eye off the ball. Kobashi ends up tagging Kawada in, who looks like a terrifying 14 year old as he stumbles Taue with some hard leg kicks. It seems as though Akira Taue’s admirable resistance to working out his arms stretched back to 1990, and he largely gets his ass beat by Misawa as he tags in for the first time. Taue tags in Tsuruta to an enormous pop from Korakuen Hall, and they go even crazier the first time Misawa wacks him with an elbow. Tsuruta doesn’t take kindly to that and hits a running knee before going after Misawa’s midsection with elbows of his own. Masa Fuchi makes his presence known, continuing the beating on Misawa as he tags in. Quick tags for Jumbo’s team here, isolating Misawa as much as they can until Kawada roundhoues poor Taue in the back as a receipt. Taue regains control as Kobashi tags back in, and Jumbo re-enters for a Kitchen Sink knee to the gut. The sound goes out for a moment as Fuchi tags in, which is usually something I expect to organically happen in a Randy Orton match. Kawada tags in and goes to work on Taue, taking him into the crowd only to get bodyslammed on the Korakuen Hall floor. Taue’s team uses that to begin working on Kawada’s back, Tsuruta taking the lead as the action spills back into the ring. Kawada gets a desperation tag to Misawa, who takes out Taue with a shoulderblock and spinning leg lariat. Taue rolls to the floor, so Kawada drops down and suplexes him on the floor in return. Love that psychology, especially since he grabs his bad back walking back to the ring. Kawada and co. start working over Taue’s back now, with simple things like Single Leg Crabs and backdrops. Taue hits a bent-over Kobashi with a running DDT though, and tags in Tsuruta for a lariatoooo that gets 2. Tsuruta takes him to the floor, where he wacks Kobashi in the face with the head of a chair and somehow doesn’t get disqualified. I guess Japan really hasn’t ever been worried about making their refs look competent. Tsuruta just STARCHES Kobashi with another lariat, but Kobashi manages to kick out to the crowd’s delight. Kobashi starts trying to make a comeback, but Tsuruta ain’t having it and drags his orange ass back into enemy territory. Kobashi hits Taue with a Backdrop Driver and gets the hot tag to Kawada, who BRINGS THE PAIN on Taue. Taue uses his aggression against him and hits a lariat, but Kawada jumps Jumbo when he tags in, knocking him into the corner so Misawa can come in and continue the work! DIVING ELBOW FROM MISAWA! Tsuruta kicks out, and knocks Misawa on his butt with a knee. Taue tags in, but Misawa keeps fighting Tsuruta despite this and spills to the floor. That proves foolish, as Taue blindsides him with a Tope Suicida. Taue hits Kobashi with a Powerslam in the ring, and Fuchi tags himself in just in time to be the victim of a very close rolling cradle. Kobashi heads up top for a MOONSAULT! TAUE BREAKS IT UP! IT’S BONZO GONZO! KOBASHI GERMAN! FUCHI KICKS OUT! ENZUIGIRI FROM FUCHI! LARIATOOO FROM JUMBO! POWERBOMB… BROKEN UP BY MISAWA! TSURUTA ELBOWS MISAWA! POWERBOMB ON KOBASHI! KOBASHI KICKS OUT~! KOBASHI CROSSBODIES OUT OF A BACKDROP DRIVER! TSURUTA KICKS OUT! LEG DROPS FROM KOBASHI! MOONSAULT… BROKEN UP BY FUCHI! BACK SUPLEX FROM THE SECOND ROPE BY TSURUTA! KOBASHI KICKS OUT! BACKDROP DRIVER! Jumbo pins Kobashi in 26 minutes. ****1/4 I’ll readily admit that I’m actually quite spoiled as this is definitely not the best trios match that came from these six men, but that doesn’t make this any less fun. The most fun parts of these All Japan tags is that the wrestlers involved are so damn great at weaving in different story threads that it’s difficult to find a slow spot. All six men in this match had a pronounced purpose that differed enough from the other that there were interesting psychological happenings going on at all times. Kawada’s spat with Akira Taue was probably the most fun, as it started from the opening bell with Taue jumping him on the apron and always popped up at the most random times to keep you guessing. It culminated in an awesome Kawada hot tag that saw him go hell-for-leather after holding in his pent-up aggression, and it really kicked itself into higher gear off of that sequence as well. Taue in general was phenomenal as the shit-stirrer the whole way through, antagonizing every one of his opponents and making for a great natural antagonist. Jumbo Tsuruta looked spectacular too, bringing his no-nonsense veteran poise to tighten up the match’s psychology in a way that I don’t think a lesser worker could have. He was the authority in there and created major turning points for the structure of the match, and his exchanges with Kobashi during the finishing stretch did a great job of serving two masters. It made Kobashi look like a badass for withstanding the punishment, but also made Jumbo Tsuruta look like the terrifying giant he was. The 26 minutes here flew by with an astonishing ease and that alone earns this match a favorable rating, but the thing that puts this bout over the top is its airtight psychology and expert pacing. I can’t wait to watch some of their more fleshed-out trios matches because this was one hell of an appetizer.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
Undoubtedly the best batch of matches I've been treated to thus far, featuring the most legendary trilogy of matches in US wrestling history and some equally legendary bouts farther east. There isn't much better in wrestling than matches that are both incredible in the ring and also historically significant. It's fun to look at in hindsight and find out exactly where the match's legends went and how they've evolved as the decades have changed. And honestly, any review with Terry Funk in it is something I can't help but recommend. I'll shout from the rooftops how great he was in that I-Quit match until the day I die. But yeah, get all of this as soon as possible and brace as these matches continue to get better.