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MATCH REVIEW: Ric Flair vs Ricky Morton (07-05-86)


Loss

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Ric Flair and Ricky Morton -- two of the most symbolic figures in wrestling -- voluntarily toss reputations aside to prove their mettle.

Jim Crockett Promotions
NWA Great American Bash
July 5, 1986
Charlotte, North Carolina
NWA World Heavyweight Title
Cage Match

9.5

I don't know if I'd go as far as to say he's taken a beating among hardcore wrestling fans over the last decade, but it's fair to say that a lot of wrestling fans no longer see Ric Flair as infallible. Based on years of debates and discussion at Pro Wrestling Only, I've probably written more and thought more about my own views on Flair than just about anyone alive. I've been pretty convinced that he is the greatest wrestler I've ever seen for a long time, but believe me, I have tripped over the holes in his work as much as anyone. Like anything else, some of the general points used to critique him probably have merit and some are probably off the mark.

For years, Flair was regarded as the Greatest Wrestler Ever. (He was surprisingly voted as such a couple of years ago by PWO members.)  It only becomes harder for anyone to maintain that type of reputation over time no matter who they are or what they've done. We saw it in wrestling before Flair, when Lou Thesz presumably transformed from professional wrestler to black-and-white museum painting, even while still alive. For Flair, that process has been slowed by continued relevance -- both in and out of wrestling -- as his best wrestling days became a smaller part of the rearview mirror. However, if you are someone whose prime was three decades ago and most fans started watching when you were already -- at a minimum -- in your 40s, it's a battle that is destined to end in loss. 

For at least a generation, Ric Flair was the wrestler nearly everyone in the business talked about both in out of WWE canon as the guy against whom they had their greatest matches. He was the consummate champion; in fact, I think it's arguable that the simple gesture of allies and announcers calling him "champ" regardless of his title status went a long way in preserving his legacy. He became memorialized as the greatest world champion ever -- the model heel, the greatest at portraying greatness in others, and the guy who had unrivaled stamina. Like being champion of two companies at the same, it's difficult to be considered the greatest both in myth and in actual personal discoveries, which hits on the difference between being the greatest and being the best. Still, being the guy who had the greatest body of in-ring work, the best interviews, and the most charisma meant Flair owned every superlative in wrestling folklore. Watch his classics with Ricky Steamboat and Terry Funk, we'd both say and hear, to see wrestling at its finest.

Much of what can be said about Flair can also be said about Ricky Morton, although on a smaller scale. Morton has had tenured standing as the greatest tag team wrestler of all time. Poke around long enough and it's unlikely that you won't see Morton called the greatest tag team wrestler of all time, the greatest babyface of all time, the most sympathetic wrestler of all time, and plenty of other labels. When wrestlers are isolated in tag team matches to build to a hot tag, they're "playing Ricky Morton". 

Ric Flair fans found Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, Jumbo Tsuruta, Kenta Kobashi, Jushin Liger, Toshiaki Kawada, El Hijo del Santo, Negro Casas, and Mitsuharu Misawa (and in more recent years, Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi) and Flair wasn't as peerless anymore. It became easier to point to criticisms of how he wrestled. He was overly reliant on a formula. He didn't have the range of offense of Kobashi. He didn't work his signature spots into the match as logically as Bret. He didn't age as gracefully or adapt to new opponents as well as Jumbo. Likewise, Morton fans found Tommy Rogers and Tsuyoshi Kikuchi. They sold extremely well too, and they had cooler looking moves to boot. In my mind, those were valid reasons Flair shouldn't be regarded as the best wrestler -- meaning on the merits, the best at the mechanics, actions, and reactions of being a pro wrestler -- than they are that he shouldn't be the greatest wrestler -- meaning, the people who add excellence in skill and style to importance in wrestling and go on to carry the torch -- but those distinctions have only faded with time. This blurred distinction was never more the case than when there was even an argument with brief momentum that the whole idea of Ricky Morton being attacked to build to a hot tag was a facade, based on skewed footage samplings that circulated in the pre-YouTube days where Robert Gibson happened to be playing Ricky Morton for a night. If Flair became a name on a list of other great wrestlers -- ironically, the same way he portrayed his predecessors like Harley Race, Gene Kiniski, and Jack Brisco in interviews -- Morton became something worse: he became someone who didn't actually have the run we thought he did. We just imagined that he did. 

One of the biggest problems with high praise is that at a certain point, there's nowhere to go but down. Flair's untouchable matches with Steamboat from their '89 series could suddenly not only be touched, but also be poked and prodded. In some circles, people would watch those matches and be underwhelmed, think based on praise that's out there that the match has to be the best American wrestling has to offer because of how it's been talked about, and start seeking out matches from Japan and Mexico that they hope will prove a little more exciting. Most of the time, they would fulfill the prophecy they set for themselves, and hey, in the days when wrestling bootlegs cost $20 a pop, can you blame them? 

The second problem with overwhelming praise comes when people praise the wrong matches. The Flair-Steamboat matches are awesome in my mind and fully deserving of their status, but for someone trying to find wrestling they really enjoy who's still discovering new styles, it's not the most daring recommendation one could make. There's a time for watching epic matches, and I love epic matches myself. I think this is true for most wrestling fans. However, I think we would all get bored if all matches attempted to be epics. It again goes back to that distinction between best matches, the matches that most effectively combine performance elements to create something enjoyable to watch, and the greatest matches, those that do a serviceably great job of this but do it with great storyline development, over performers, and strong card positioning. Imagine the best matches as cars that start at 10mph or 20mph and go to 70mph, while the greatest matches start at 60mph and go to 90mph. Flair and Steamboat probably didn't have the best matches of time, even if they're in the conversation, but it's a more convincing argument that as respected NWA champs working at a really high level, they had the greatest matches of all time.

There's really no reason for anyone to see Flair-Steamboat from Wrestle War '89 if they haven't seen the video set to Europe's "The Final Countdown" that preceded it. There's really no reason for anyone to see a Ric Flair-Terry Funk match if they haven't seen Flair swing a branding iron and put Funk in the hospital, or Funk suffocate Flair with a plastic bag and bring out a jobber dressed like him in a cheap robe with a yellow stripe down his back. If you don't feel it and see it, these matches will be a bit hollow, which should go without saying, but based on the length of time I'm taking just to set up this review, doesn't.

This match and the Barry Windham match from Worldwide that was on the first Flair DVD set back in 2000 are probably the two matches I'm most proud of WWE for putting out there. It shows that there is more than Flair-Steamboat and Flair-Funk and that it is worth digging a little deeper to find them. I'd go as far to say that Flair looks as good as or better than I've ever seen him here. This is a world title match that is about revenge, as opposed to being a stoic encounter between two respected legends. Ric Flair rubbed Ricky Morton's face into a concrete floor until blood was smearing all over the floor, and he broke his nose. Morton was wearing a face guard here. He came in full of piss and vinegar, attempting to give Flair a dose of his own medicine. He tried to break Flair's nose and smear his face on the mat as a form of retribution. He leveled him with some tremendous punches. He had Flair begging off. Yes, Ricky Morton came into the match so angry and possessed that he managed to scare Ric Flair. Flair begs off a lot, because he always tries to bring his opponent to his level. Sadly, sometimes instead of his opponent coming up a notch, he falls down a notch. That didn't happen with Morton. When he begged off, it felt more organic because it was believable. He wasn't working with a Sting or Lex Luger that he had to get over before they could even really take the rivalry anywhere. Morton was already a red hot challenger.

When Flair takes control of the match, we see him at his most brash and violent. He's talking trash constantly, rubbing Morton's face into the cage in front of the Apter mag photographers, screaming "So you wanna be the world champ?" at him. Flair rips off Morton's face gear and throws it out of the cage so Morton can't even put it back on. He then starts punching him Ricky squarely in the nose as hard as he can. The crowd winces, because they feel Morton's pain. He convincingly beats the shit out of poor Ricky for a long time without giving him any openings at all.

Morton finally has enough and tears into Flair yet again. Flair is now scared yet again, and is now getting exactly what he deserves. He's now bleeding just like Morton and he's now on the defensive. With a flying bodypress from the top rope, Morton comes about a half a second away from winning the world title, and the fans appeared to be convinced. The best thing about this nearfall -- and nearfalls of this generation, really -- is that they didn't have to cheapen a finishing move to get the reaction. Nearfalls based on the split-second timing of the kickout are far more compelling than nearfalls based on what move a wrestler has kicked out of. Morton tries covering Flair again, but this time, Morton ends up falling on the ref during Flair's kickout. Sensing that it's now or never and that there's no referee present to tell him he can't, Flair crotches Mortons on the top rope and pins him with his feet on the ropes to escape by the skin of his teeth with the world title. (I'm convinced that he gave him such a strong out with that finish because of the respect he had for him as an opponent.)

Ric Flair was rarely about somber gatherings, clean wrestling matches, and handshakes. His usual routine was to enrage fans who were dying to see someone take him down a notch because he wasn't modest and loved to play on class resentment in his promos, pointing to himself as the guy you'd run into from your past only to find that he had more life success, more money, and a bigger house. Flair had dual-layer heat -- beating him was fine, but lots of guys did that so Flair could get them over as worthy challengers. Put him on TV to gloat in a Hugo Boss sports coat the next day and it was like he won. The real heat was in taking the title from him, which the best moments of this match made clear were the source of real intrigue. That they pulled that off with an undersized tag team wrestler, even a great one, explains why they had the reputations they had in the first place. What makes this particular outing so noteworthy is not that they continued to expand on their reputations as the greatest, even if they did; but rather, that they made a case for being the best.

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