LMTYS Presents: The Meltzer Five-Star Project – Week #3

Greetings grapple fans. After two weeks of Japanese action, we’re in North America for the three matches covered in this entry.

#007 – NWA World Heavyweight Championship: Ric Flair (c) vs. Barry Windham (CWF Battle of the Belts, 14-02-1986)

Our first U.S. match appropriately involves Ric Flair, a man I’m sure Meltzer would seriously consider if asked to pick the greatest wrestler of all time. This is the first of three matches between Flair and Barry Windham that he gave the full five out of five rating. What makes this match stand out compared to the other two, and most of the other Flair matches in this list, is that it’s an example of Ric Flair as the touring champion from the first few years of his reigns, rather than the classic heel Flair champ that the majority of people will know him for during his runs in WCW and the WWF. By that I mean, this was the Flair that travelled around the world taking on the local territory’s top star and his job was to make them look good whilst leaving as the World champion, usually working as a subtle heel.

Flair’s pre-match promo is not a full-on shout fest and ostentatious display of wealth, rather it’s a gracious acceptance of his interviewer’s compliment in his introduction and a subdued promise to win the match against a top challenger, whilst projecting the confidence that he’s the best wrestler in the world. His heel tactics are more subdued and picked at the right moment (such as grabbing the ropes when he’s got the figure-four locked in, arguing with the ref Bill Alfonso as a means of intimidating him and to show his frustration at not being able to put away Windham). Flair controls longer portions of the match than you’re used to, and not just in the heel heat segment.

The action is back-and-forth and the pace is slower than you may be used to with a much longer portion of mat-based wrestling. They’re clearly wrestling long, and this is the sort of Flair match that he was doing all the time where the finish was often a time limit draw. You get most of the usual spots, but they are spaced out because of the match length. Flair’s more realistic bumping means that whilst we see the Flair flip and the press slam off the ropes, the Flair flop is nowhere to be seen. Most unsettling of all, instead of entering to Thus Spoke Zarathusa, his entrance music is Phil Collins & Philip Bailey’s ‘Easy Lover’!

Windham is recently out of the WWF, and whilst he’s not got as great a star presence as Flair, the raw abilities and the natural second-generation ring awareness is evident. His tall frame has yet to add much weight to it, and it’s interesting how Windham never really used his height as a major part of his wrestling style. A modern-day equivalent would probably be recent NXT addition Donovan Dijakovic, a man who is so agile for his height that he would much rather hit a top rope dropkick (which he does perform in this match) than try to do a Road Warriors power move like a press slam or some other move that emphasises his size advantage, such as a big boot or the majority of Baron Corbin’s offense.

Would I give it five stars? No. The occasionally too-slow pace and unsatisfying finish are too much for me to ignore to give a perfect score.

 

#008 – 1986 Crockett Cup Tournament Quarter Final: The Fantastics vs. The Sheepherders (JCP, 19-04-1986)

I think if you were to ask people to provide a list of who they’d guess would be in a match that Dave Meltzer awarded five stars or higher, the Bushwhackers would not be a frequent addition. Indeed, if you were asked to guess the wrestlers that may have been involved in a minus-five-star match then their names are far more likely to be included. But here we are, and whilst The Bushwhackers did achieve the far rarer achievement of a perfectly awful match against The Iron Sheik & Nikolai Volkoff at the infamously awful Heroes of Wrestling show, they did previously impress Meltzer to the point that he gave a full five out of five rating for their tournament clash with The Fantastics.

This match tells a story that I’ve always enjoyed in wrestling, and it was something that Mick Foley excelled at throughout his career with the likes of Sting, Triple H, Randy Orton, and Edge. A white-meat babyface/cocky pretty-boy heel is taken out of their comfort zone by a wild brawler and finds previously untapped viciousness within themselves that they have to bring out in order to stop the onslaught of their wild opponent. In this instance, the pretty boy tag team of The Fantastics find themselves trading weapon blows and biting open wounds in order to play the ugly New Zealand brawlers at their own game. It ends in a double-DQ, the most frequent finish in Meltzer’s early five-star matches, which feels like a disqualifying reason nowadays.

Unfortunately, no full version of the match was ever released commercially, and it was only those like Meltzer who saw it live that will be able to say with any real authority how good a match it truly was.

Would I give it five stars? N/A since I haven’t watched the full match, but what I saw I greatly enjoyed. I doubt it would have got a perfect score from me (or Meltzer today), but it looks like it was a whole lot of fun to witness live.

 

#009 – NWA World Heavyweight Championship: Ric Flair (c) vs. Barry Windham (JCP, 02-01-1987)

Probably the first match I’m confident a fair number of Blog of Doom frequenters will have seen as it is the Flair-Windham match that was included in the Ultimate Ric Flair Collection DVD box set that was one of the early instances of the WWE taking advantage of the WCW tape library they essentially purchased for a song back in 2001.

The crowd is rabid for this one. The lifting of the belt by the referee Tommy Young receives wild cheers (suggesting the crowd saw a title change as a real possibility in this match). The people go nuts when Windham reverses a hammerlock. You miss crowds like that these days. They even love a simple almost comedy spot where, instead of stepping over Flair for a drop down run of the ropes, Windham simply drops to the mat and grabs Flair in a headlock.

The structure and story of this match is a lot closer to what is commonly thought of in a Flair match this time. He is an out-and-out heel cheating at every available opportunity, begging off all the time, and bumping like a madman to make Windham look great, with Flair flops and flips all over the place. Windham dominates the early portions of the match, having an answer for everything Flair gives him, and it’s only when Flair is able to take it outside of the ring and utilise his “dirtiest player in the game” tricks (which in later years degenerated into frequent low blows) to gain control.

Windham definitely has more of a star aura at this point, and his physique, whilst still not some bodybuilder perfect specimen, seems a little bit more defined and bulkier without causing him to lose any of his quickness and agility displayed in the first five-star match from a year earlier. The presentation is helped by superior production values compared to the Battle of the Belts show. This was on the weekly World Wide Wrestling show, which Dusty Rhodes on commentary was at pains to frequently remind the 1987 viewer that they were live and in colour.

Whilst the first match was essentially two top wrestlers fighting to a stalemate in a very evenly matched contest, this is match is very much about making Windham look as great as possible, and as a future world title holder, almost at the expense of Flair. They essentially pack the same amount of moves as the first match into another one that’s around ten minutes or so shorter, so the pace is quicker and the crowd is rarely subdued.

This is the first match to be refereed by Tommy Young, Flair’s go-to ref for this period of time. I’m torn as to how I feel about him as a presence. If a referee is supposed to not be noticed then he fails spectacularly at that job. He’s a constant presence, he imposes himself on the match at various point (grabbing and unclenching Windham’s closed fists, going out of the ring to check for submissions or count Windham when he’s doing the classic corner punches spot, interacting with Flair throughout the match). However, if Flair didn’t like what Young was doing then he wouldn’t referee his matches, and Young is very good at missing what he needs to miss and seeing what he needs to see. For now, I fall on the side of thinking he did a good job.

The match ends with a TV time limit draw, Windham having hit his flying lariat (a fantastic looking finisher that starts and ends with both men on opposite sides of the ring) but the three-count is interrupted (but not quite when it should be) by the time limit bell. Windham leaves the match the moral victor, cutting a short post-match promo whilst holding the belt pledging to win the title soon, resting it on the prone body of Flair and making a sarcastic “your champion” gesture before exiting. Flair feebly moves his arm to cover the belt, and everyone gets what they wanted out of this match.

This was the start of Flair facing off against a series of new rivals with the new role of grizzled veteran. Before Windham, Flair’s great rivals had either been more experienced wrestlers (Harley Race, Blackjack Mulligan, Buddy Rogers) or Flair’s contemporaries (Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper, Ricky Steamboat). Magnum TA was probably the first rival to still be rising in the ranks to try to meet Flair at the summit, but there aren’t really that many great matches between Flair and Magnum, and the rivalry is really one of the great “could have been” stories rather than one we can actually point to with a clear list of matches outside of Magnum’s impromptu challenge on an episode of World Championship Wrestling and some great interview angles.

The series of Windham matches were really the first ones where Flair took the role that Race had once held against him. The experienced veteran trying to quell the young upstart. Whilst his matches with Sting and Lex Luger are better remembered, I don’t think either of them at their best could match Windham at his. For what it’s worth, no Flair-Sting or Flair-Luger matches gained a full five stars from Meltzer (whether you agree with that or not it’s an interesting statistic). Windham is probably the greatest Flair rival that the majority of modern wrestling fans don’t know. Hopefully some of them will discover this lost treasure trove of matches over the years.

Would I give it five stars? Not quite. There are a few blown spots here and there (Windham clearly misses a cue to do the cradle out of a figure-four, a stun gun is messed up) but otherwise it’s a fantastic match that you should check out if you haven’t already. If you have checked it out already, but that already was a fair few years ago, then you should also check it out. If you saw this match only a few days ago it wouldn’t really hurt you to check it out either. What I’m saying, basically, is check it out.

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Next time: The previously promised clash between tag team partners that may have the loudest and longest sustained crowd reaction of all time, another battle of wrestling philosophies in Japan in a sort-of inter-promotional conflict and, having reached over ten matches, I will provide my first ranking of my favourite matches covered so far.