Great American Bash 1988: The Price For Freedom
NWA World Heavyweight Championship
July 10, 1988
In Japan, multi-year chases are fairly common, but that has never really translated to American audiences for whatever reason. Chalk it up to the reactionary tendencies of promoters when gates aren't at a certain level. Maybe it's a lack of conviction. Maybe it's even that pro wrestling has always been more of a fad-based interest than a long-term hobby for most casual viewers. Maybe it's even differences in culture, as it's much easier to plan that type of story in a company where it's almost unthinkable that a homegrown talent would leave and go to the competition (even if it did occasionally happen). Regardless, the idea of fans, promoters, and wrestlers sticking with a six-year chase to an undercard title win the way AJPW handled the Masa Fuchi vs Tsuyoshi Kikuchi feud from 1990-1996 are pretty unlikely on this side of the Pacific.
The Ric Flair-Lex Luger rivalry is interesting to think about in that context. Between 1988 and 1991, through changes in ownership, executive leadership, and even the name of the very company where the rivalry played out, the two wrestled each other five times on pay-per-view and once on a Clash of the Champions TV special. Flair turned twice during this time, Luger three times going on four -- they were even set to do a sixth pay-per-view match, the one that would finally pay off Luger's perpetual chase, before contract negotiations broke down and Flair bolted for the WWF. The rivalry sustained through all of that, and defiantly, it seemed to be a feud that just kept falling up. Despite the chaos that surrounded it, Flair-Luger always worked, even if it did play to diminishing returns.
It worked so well in the summer and fall of 1988 that it gave David Crockett temporary hope that they would not have to sell the company to Turner Broadcasting. Flair and Luger did massive house show business during a time that Crockett was dying, and even in 1990, when Luger stepped in to hastily turn babyface to substitute for an injured Sting, Wrestle War '90 did a surprisingly good buyrate and house show attendance had a short-lived mini-spike. It was a rivalry people were interested in following and the prevalent belief, years before wrestling conditioned its fans to never expect anything to pay off, was that this had to pay off somewhere and that they wanted to see it happen.
That continued investment can be attributed to how well these matches were worked. Flair saw his role as not to have a great match with Luger, although they would eventually have some classics. Instead, he saw his role as to make him look invincible. Flair has told a story many times about how he drew the ire of Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard because of how he worked with Luger; Arn and Tully thought Ric's pinball bumping and obsessive begging off was a little too much self sacrifice. Flair explained to them that he saw his role as to both carry Luger and teach him how to draw money at the same time, so he had to work in overdrive to pull it off.
They weren't quite there yet at this early stage of the feud, but it was clear that once they settled into their formula, Ric Flair and Lex Luger would have a sure thing.
Flair has always defended Luger as someone who never had the opportunity to really learn how to work because he was pushed to the top right away. While Flair's graciousness is appreciated, he was selling Luger short. This match had some rough spots because it was Luger's first time to be in such a pressure-packed main event position, to the point that Dave Meltzer commented in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter that the match looked like two independent wrestlers trying to copy a Flair match than it did an actual Flair match. However, Luger reminded us all that he was an excellent athlete in spite of any other critiques leveled his way -- his surprise leapfrog and dropkick were legitimately great moments. Over time, Luger did exactly what Flair hoped he would do -- he learned on the job and adapted. By the time they met again on pay-per-view four months later at Starrcade, Luger had dropped about 15 pounds in muscle and improved his cardio so he could do long matches without getting winded. By the time they wrestled a year after that, Luger was strong enough to carry a match between the two of them offensively while working heel. While Luger never really learned how to do a proper figure-four leglock, he did have one of the best heel runs of his era in 1989 as U.S. champion and had a clear hot streak on pay-per-view that lasted a good two or three years. He gelled wonderfully with Flair, who would take his own trademark bumps in exaggerated fashion during their matches -- usually two or three high-elevation press slams, big back body drops, the slam from the top rope, and the Flair flip into the clothesline off the apron. The "Flair Formula" as we know it didn't originate in the Luger series, but that's where it was tweaked and cultivated.
None of this addresses what this match is most notorious for, and that's the finish. Luger was barely cut at all, the match was stopped by the Maryland State Athletic Commission for Lex's "excessive lacerations", and Flair retained on a technicality. It did lead to a massive house show run of Flair-Luger matches, sold on the idea that they don't stop matches for blood loss in YOUR town, so YOU might just see a title change. However, I'll reprint a fan letter from the October 3, 1988, issue of the Observer explaining the problem with this booking, even though it worked in the short-term, and which Meltzer defended for that reason.
"Your comment that, ipso fact, the ridiculous Flair-Luger blood angle on the PPV Bash was a success because live gates were up immediately was the most naive thing I've ever read by you. Don't you think infuriating the PPV audience was more significant than live audience, a totally different and relatively microscopic portion of the potentially vast PPV audience? The NWA's biggest problem is they never take the long view. Like children, they live in the eternal here and now. People are turned out of the blue (Windham, Luger, Murdoch, Garvin) with no build up because they need heat at some shows. They get good notices on Clash and think they've won the wrestling war. They draw a few good live gates and suddenly Dusty and Jimbo are convinced they've been right all along and should continue to run the organization even after Turner spends good money on it. " -- Bill Kunkel, Woodhaven, NY
This match being the catalyst, the Flair-Luger feud acted as a platform for a lot of people to project their own biases, ideas, and truths, including promoters, wrestlers, reporters, and even fans like Mr. Kunkel of Woodhaven. It was hard to cut through the noise and appreciate the matches for what they were, but it's something that became easier with time as Luger gained confidence and Flair found in-ring sanctuary from the constant politics of the new TBS environment. While it was a long-running program that left behind so much collateral damage and Luger developed a "choker" label that followed him for the rest of his career as a result of this very match, it did eventually become a really rewarding series. This isn't the match to watch to see the absolute best version of these two against each other, but it's a primitive look at where they'd go through the turmoil, growth, and fallout of the next few years, accidentally crafting a compelling long-term story in spite of itself.