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Favorite Angles in Pro-Wrestling History | Ric Flair in the WWF 2001-2003 | Part One: The Man Comes Around

By no means was it a time of glory or riches in the world of professional wrestling. For the biggest company in the game, Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, the Era of Hulkamania and Rock N’ Wrestling were all but over, and the looming threat of steroid investigations lingered on the horizon. After a failed run with the charismatic and unpredictable Ultimate Warrior on top, could an older, obviously smaller Hulk Hogan stave off the bleeding and keep the business afloat until a new superstar emerged to take his place?

Ric FlairMeanwhile, over in what was now officially known as Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, it was a time of transition. Jim Herd, Executive Vice President in charge of the company for Turner Sports, had witnessed his company hemorrhage money for years as aging has-been’s and young never-were’s performed before lackluster and sparse crowds even deep within the franchise’s homebase in the Deep South. Like his former tag-team partner up north, it was clear that Sting was not the draw that would lead WCW to the Golden Age, and the World Heavyweight Championship found itself back in the hands of the only true superstar the company had ever known, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Alas, though, even Flair’s act was getting old, and Herd and lead booker Dusty Rhodes (himself a longtime Flair rival) were desperate to find their next big stud, perhaps in the form of the current United States Heavyweight Champion and #1 contender, “Total Package” Lex Luger. So, while still on top in early 1991, Flair was asked to alter his character gimmick and undo all of the things that made Slick Ric who he was. Gone were the flowing golden locks up top. Also Sprach Zarathustra, the most recognizable ring entrance music in the game, was replaced with generic brass fanfare. All in preparation for turning Flair from the Dirtiest Player in the Game into … Spartacus, wise old gladiator of Rome? I know, I don’t get it either.

WCW World Heavyweight ChampionshipBut in the “what could have been’s?” of the world, we never fully got there. Herd greatly underestimated his perceived foe and lowballed the champion during contract negotiations that ran through the first half of 1991. Eventually, frustrated and unwilling to entertain legitimate negotiations with the biggest star his company had ever seen, Herd outright fired Flair in the days leading up to the champion’s title defense against Luger at the Great American Bash 1991. The results proved to be a complete abomination. Luger did indeed finally reach the top of the mountain, and turned heel alongside new manager (and legend in his own right) Harley Race while defeating Flair-substitute Barry Windham in a cage match for the WCW World Title. The match and overall supercard, though, are considered to be among the very worst of all time, as the crowd in Baltimore, MD reacted with disgust and outrage at the ouster of Flair and shat over the whole card, repeatedly calling out the former champion’s name in protest. To make matters worse, the vaunted Big Gold Belt that had long represented the National Wrestling Alliance and World Championship Wrestling remained in the possession of the Nature Boy, who had put down a tidy deposit as security for its jeweled value and rightly requested that money be returned plus interest in exchange for the belt. With civil discourse all but impossible, Herd told Flair to figuratively fuck off, and Luger celebrated his big win by holding up a blurry and indistinct championship trophy that looked suspiciously like the old NWA World Tag Team Championship that someone stamped a new plate over top of.

As for Flair, the world was his oyster. Technically never defeated, he could still claim some air of legitimacy as being the true World’s Heavyweight Champion in professional wrestling. Heck, he even had the belt to prove it! He could tour the world on his own, taking on all comers and perhaps even establish a new brand and a new era in the world of traveling world champions. Or, he could firmly extend his middle finger towards his former employer and wind up in the arms of their greatest competitor.

In late August, 1991, we would learn the answer, as broadcast journalist Bobby “The Brain” Heenan closed out an otherwise routine episode of the syndicated WWF Wrestling Challenge program with a pretty blockbuster announcement.

Next: The Man makes his debut, and a First Challenge is set.

What If? In 1993, Scott Steiner Stays in WCW and Turns Heel.

I’m an old-school fan of professional wrestling. I love the use of true in-ring psychology, such as working on a singular body part to wear down your opponent, and then having your opponent sell that injury for the duration of the match. For me, every match should begin with the standard collar-elbow tie-up, and move to the standing side headlock before pushing an opponent into the ropes to kick off the action. But that all being said, there’s nothing I love more than seeing some well-executed, old-fashioned power moves, like a tight, crisp suplex or power body slam. These high-risk, high-reward moves are visually appealing, tie back to classic amateur wrestling, and serve to differentiate the sport from its more striking-oriented cousins, boxing and mixed martial arts.

So, it’s no surprise that I love the work of Rick and Scott Steiner, from about 1989 through 1993. The two brothers, collegiate stars both at the University of Michigan, revolutionized tag team wrestling during the era and moved it away from the usual ranks of muscle-bound freaks and pretty-boy rockers. The Steiners were physical, and they were there to take your ass OUT with an array of high-impact throws. From the standard belly-to-belly suplex to the stiff and brutal Steinerline clothesline to the revolutionary at the time Frankensteiner flying vertical head scissions from a standing start, every move was fast, devastating, and utterly believable. When you got hit with the Frankensteiner, your were done and the match was over in decisive fashion.

Eventually, though, contracts expire, management sucks, and superstars bail to the competition. And so it was in 1993, when the Steiners would make their way from WCW to the World Wrestling Federation, in search of greater fame and fortune. While somewhat out of place in the more-cartoonish world of the WWF, the Steiners did earn their likely increased paychecks and standing, and you can consider their run there a moderate (if slightly disappointing) success.

But, what if WCW booker at the time Bill Watts had convinced the team to stay, or at least convinced Scott Steiner to break up the partnership and fly solo? We had a fleeting, tantalizing tease of this very possibility in early 1993. With Rick already on the way out, WCW continued to utilize the more-talented and less-doglike brother for the duration of his contract in a solo run that flashed heel tendencies. Scott’s matches became even more aggressive, and he tossed his opponents around with glee. Once, after suffering a loss in a tag team match, he turned on partner Marcus Alexander Bagwell and beat him to a bloody pulp. Finally, he dominated an absolute legend in Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat and convincingly beat him to win the WCW World Television Championship. Even the closing inside cradle looks stiff and like no opponent in the world would ever be able to kick out when Steiner locks it in, even a former World Heavyweight Champion like Steamboat! See the full match here, which occurred 23 years ago on this day:

Imagine if Scott had stayed and renewed his contract. Would he have gotten the next monster heel run after Big Van Vader, following a transitional but historic championship run by Ron Simmons? How would he have fit into the crowded ecosystem of top WCW heels, such as Ravishing Rick Rude, Stunning Steve Austin, Vader, Sid Vicious, and others? Remember, this was pre-Big Poppa Pump Steiner, but also after the point where he had shown enough promise to have already been considered for a world title run in 1990, allegedly. He was still at his absolute physical peak. Could his raw athleticism have propelled him to greatness years ahead of his world title run in late WCW of 2000? Could his anger and brutality overcome his relative inability to cut a decent promo? Imagine a run where Steiner was putting on world-class matches suplexing the shit out of Simmons, Sting, Ric Flair, Steamboat, and Cactus Jack. Could Steiner serve as a monster heel world champion to eventually be slayed by none other than Hulk Hogan one year later upon his debut? It seems unlikely, and perhaps it might have even devolved into a trainwreck, but those matchups prove a tantalizing missed opportunity lost to history.