Ringside Shadows #127: The Four Horsemen Complete History (part IV: 1988)
The most comprehensive, educational and important history lesson on the 'net continues. Well... maybe that was a bit grandiose. Regardless, the Horsemen are large and in charge heading into 1988, however, the loss of Lex Luger could turn out to be something of a problem.
With 1987 drawing to a close, the Horsemen were reaching new heights. As the NWA's cult following looked on, they'd brought home the World Titles in both singles and tag team action. Their only loss was on the head of Lex Luger, who left the group at the tail end of the year, effectively eliminating their only weak link. Despite a renewed title race with new participants (the Fabulous Freebirds eyed the tag team titles, while Barry Windham was again making a bid for the World belt), the Horsemen took the time to celebrate their winnings. In the vein of the nWo ten years later, the Horsemen took over an entire television program and dedicated it to their leader, World Champion Ric Flair. It's like they always say, I suppose; work hard, play harder.
While the champions celebrated like kings, the undercard went on with business as usual, taking part in their scheduled matches as well as could be expected. One such worker was a young man with a distinct look, feel and style. His hair a bleached blonde spike, his face a painted canvas and his matwork risky and unique, Sting was building a respectable fan following within his first few years. On this night, the rising star had a thing or two to say about what was going on, and after dispensing of his opponent grabbed the mic. As the audience grew silent, Sting shocked the world by asking for a shot at Flair... later that very night!
Before long, JJ Dillon arrogantly made his way down the entryway and attempted to shoo the riled up youngster from the ring. With his disdain for Sting obvious, Dillon told the crowd that tonight was the Horsemen's night off, and such a wild challenge was far beneath the recognition of Ric Flair... he had better things to do. With that, he took a sip of his champagne and splashed the remainder of the alcohol right in Sting's face. As one can imagine, that wasn't the ideal action he could have chosen and the Stinger immediately delivered with a stinger splash and cinched in the Scorpion Death Lock. When the troops hit the ring, Sting fled.
Within one week, Sting had received his demands: Ric Flair stood in the ring, waiting for the young upstart to make a move. The match wasn't exactly classic when compared to their later efforts, but for an initial encounter it went over rather well. It wasn't much of a surprise when the Horsemen invaded the ring and caused a DQ finish, but Sting had kept up. He'd matched Flair all the way, overcoming a lack of technical prowess with speed and youthful vigor. Though he didn't walk away with the title, Sting had captured the hearts and souls of millions of fans nationwide. Flair knew the day would come when his experience wouldn't be enough to match up with this young man, and a plan had hatched in the back of his mind.
Elsewhere, the tag team champions had begun a personal crusade to right the wrongs of one Lex Luger, former Horseman and current threat to their infrastructure. When the three men were locked into a battle royal with one another, Anderson and Blanchard made a point of isolating and humiliating the Package. As the two pounded away, a familiar face ran into the ring and cleared out all his opposition. Ole Anderson had returned, and he'd taken a side against his former allies.
Tully Blanchard had more than former partners on his mind though, as he went after Barry Windham in a televised singles match that same nightr. A hard fought contest had apparently ended in a time limit draw, after the bell rang some twenty minutes into the match. Before the combatants could exit the ring, Lex Luger was right there to point out a technical error. Riding the controversy from the NFL instant replay debates (it's true, it's true), Luger grabbed the ref and showed him what had really gone down: JJ Dillon had, for whatever reason, rung the bell early. This was enough for the viewing public, and the match was resumed. Blanchard caught Barry off guard and made the pin almost instantly... or he would have, if Luger hadn't jumped in the ring to cause a DQ. Within moments, the Horsemen were right there, destroying the young Luger while Flair helped Windham to his feet. As Blanchard and Anderson held back Luger's arms, Flair looked into Windham's eyes and screamed "Join us!!"
Windham chose against the Horsemen, and was joined by Dusty Rhodes in chasing off the three before they could do any more damage. After a few tense moments, Luger apologized to Windham and the two embraced. Awww.
The spring crept around and Sting's threat hadn't gone away, as Flair had hoped. Instead, the two had been meeting each other at house shows and untelevised events across the country in vicious battles for the World Title. Though he'd never taken a victory, Sting had more than proven himself and it was little surprise when the two were scheduled to battle once again atop the first Clash of Champions card.
Early in the lineup, Arn and Tully defended their belts against the resurrected tandem of Luger and Windham. As Luger doled out punishment to his former allies and Windham worked to overcome the losing streak that had befallen him recently, JJ Dillon crept to the ring apron with a chair. He made eye contact with Arn and brought the steel object to head level, while Anderson flung Luger towards the awaiting foreign object. Unfortunately, Arn wasn’t the only one who had seen Dillon's invitation, and Lex reversed the irish whip. Arn hit the chair, Luger fell on top and just like that we had new tag team champions. Upset, Tully Blanchard stormed to ringside and proceeded to throw a tantrum. When he looked up, Blanchard saw Magnum TA (who had begun doing ringside color commentary after his injury years ago,) and in the faded star a vent for his sudden frustrations.
As the crippled former wrestler stood his ground against the cocky former tag team champion, Blanchard took a look around and waffled his old rival, knocking him to the floor. As Tully began to stomp a mudhole, Dusty Rhodes made a much-needed save, nearly frothing at the mouth and toting a baseball bat. Rhodes swung at anything that moved, and before he knew what had happened, something had gone wrong. Not only was Tully Blanchard a mess on the floor, but so was NWA promoter Jim Crockett. The arena was in stunned silence as the main event drew near.
As an added attraction, JJ Dillon had been suspended above the ring for the main event in a little cage, and the Horsemen were barred from ringside. Flair and Sting fought neck and neck throughout, right up to the 45-minute time limit mark. In the very same ending Hart and Michaels used for the WWF's first Iron Man match, Sting had locked Flair into the scorpion death lock with only seconds left. Flair managed to hold off his submission until after the bell sounded, signifying a time limit draw. Instead of returning the belt to Flair, the officials instead went... to the judges? A 3 man committee voted, one in favor of Flair, on in favor of Sting and one calling it a draw. So, despite the presence of these tie-breaking officials, we had an even match. Flair kept the belt, while Sting was left to ponder how close he'd been one more time.
dusty rhodes loses his mind
The next week, an executive meeting was scheduled to discuss a fitting punishment for Dusty Rhodes and his wild actions at the Clash. JJ Dillon had somehow squirmed his way into the meetings, which didn't bode well for the American Dream initially. Once the meetings had concluded, it was obvious Dillon's influence was there... but JJ hadn't completely had his way with the suits. Dusty was to be suspended for three months and stripped of the US title. Only days later, a masked superstar named the Midnight Rider made his first appearance for the NWA. The Rider was a portly, slow man with a hat to go along with his mask... which is to say he bore more than a passing resemblance to the suspended Rhodes. Until Dillon and the Horsemen could find undeniable proof of his identity, though, the Rider was allowed to continue working.
About a month after winning them, Luger and Windham found themselves defending their tag team titles against the perennial pairing of Arn and Tully yet again. Luger started the match, and after several quick tags found himself on the receiving end of a lot of punishment. Time and again Lex would crawl within inches of the hot tag, only to be drug back to the Horsemen's corner and mauled even further. When he finally made the big tag, Windham jumped into the ring and cleaned house while Luger fell to the floor, a bloody mess. Windham held his own as long as he could, but was soon looking for a tag. Without Luger on the apron, Barry took more punishment than he was comfortable with and became frustrated, while Dillon taunted him from the floor. "I told you he wouldn’t be there!" screamed the Horseman manager, and Windham found himself believing it. Once Luger finally crawled his way to the apron, Windham tagged him, picked him up, and powerslammed him into the ring. The Package tried getting to his feet, but Windham took him down for good with a harsh lariat. Arn and Tully made the cover and claimed their lost belts as Dillon talked Windham back to the locker rooms.
Not a week later, Windham had already discovered the fringe benefits of his new association: an instant seed in the tournament to fill the still-vacant US championship. Things weren't picture perfect, as he met the Masked Rider in the first round, but there was something strange in the ring on this night. Windham completely destroyed the Rider from start to finish, and added insult to injury by removing the mask! Instead of revealing Dusty Rhodes, though, there sat a jobber named Gary Sabough. Rhodes had skipped out this time, and had drawn the Horsemen out. It mattered not to Windham, who found himself in the tournament finals after Lex Luger's first round match went to a double DQ. Tully Blanchard's efforts fell short in the semi-finals against Nikita Koloff, but Blanchard did more than his share after the match. A prolonged beating left Koloff's ribs ripe for the finals, a weakness which Windham exploited to its fullest on his way to an easy victory and a US championship reign. Once again, the Horsemen were on top of the game... they'd filled their ranks in the wake of a defection and now held the US, World and Tag Team championships.
the impressive mid-88 horsemen lineup
With the US title around his waist, Windham needed a direction and JJ Dillon, mastermind that he is, found him one. Lex Luger had been making a nuisance of himself in the past months, and seemed ready and willing to make his move for Ric Flair's World Title. Luger and Windham had more than enough issues of their own, and Flair would appreciate the extra breathing room. So Windham took the bait and began assaulting Luger whenever the opportunity presented itself. Backstage, outside the ring or at the announce position, nowhere was safe and Windham always had backup. One evening, the returning Dusty Rhodes had seen enough and gave Windham a taste of his own medicine while Koloff, the Garvins and Sting stood guard outside the ring.
Once the Great American Bash had crept around again, Windham wanted more of Rhodes than he did Luger. With the card shuffled, Luger had been granted his World Title shot at an annoyed Ric Flair while Windham occupied himself with Dusty Rhodes in a US Title match. Elsewhere, the tag team champions defended against the combined might of Sting and Nikita Koloff.
Anderson and Blanchard had more than a handful in their defense, and for the first time JJ Dillon was a non-factor in the end result. While the four workers went at it in the ring, none of Dillon's attempts seemed to be distracting Sting and Koloff. The match was very physical and a fair fight, for what seemed like the first time in the Horsemen's history. Sting finally locked on his scorpion death lock in the middle of the ring on Blanchard, and when Anderson tried to get in to break it up, Koloff cut him off. Blanchard screamed his submission but before the ref could call for the bell, it had already sounded. Arn and Tully walked away with their belts, the result of a time limit draw.
In the US title matchup, Dusty wasted no time in showing us all why Windham had been labeled the underdog on this night. After a lengthy advantage, Windham turned the tide to slap on his big claw finisher, which Rhodes managed to fight out of. Barry whipped the challenger to the corner, and then took him up top in hopes of delivering a superplex. The champ seemed to forget that ol' Dusty's got a few pounds on him, and the extra weight was enough to reverse the maneuver. On his way down, Barry nailed the ref and seconds later, Rhodes dropped his trademark bionic elbow for what should've been the win. From the back came Ronnie Garvin, who Rhodes figured was out to wake up the referee. Instead, Garvin drug the Dream to his feet and leveled him with his "hands of stone". The ref came to in time to catch Windham delivering the claw on an unconscious Rhodes and called for the bell. Ronnie had been bought by JJ Dillon.
The main event was as strong an event as could be expected, in a time that Flair could carry a stray turd to a match of the year candidate (provided it was still warm). Luger even threw out an effort, trying a few new moves along the way and keeping the Nature Boy on his toes. Where he couldn't hope to match Lex in terms of sheer mass and physical strength, Flair instead counted on his experience and intelligence to carry the load. He took every opportunity to wear down the leg, often tricking Luger into attempting a knee drop, which would further his work without as much effort. Twenty minutes in, Flair had locked on the figure four, but Luger managed to fight it off. When the action spilled outside the ring, Dillon sent Lex headfirst into the ringpost, drawing blood. Back between the ropes, Luger caught Flair off guard with a powerslam, which was followed by the torture rack. Amidst medlam in the crowd, the bell rang and confusion reigned in the ring. Luger grabbed the belt, but it was immediately taken back and placed around Flair's waist. The Maryland Athletic Commission, in a rule that's still enforced today, had called the match as a result of blood loss.
So Luger walked away without the title (in what's become known as a Dusty finish), and the Horsemen moved on to other challenges. Nothing much was really said about Luger's unsuccessful bid for the title afterwards, and it would be a long while before he could really complete his climb to the top with a successful title shot. Flair went on through the rest of the summer into short feuds with most of the NWA's top guys. Sting, Koloff, Steve Williams... they all made a run, but Flair stood strong as champion. Some nights would end with a hazy Horsemen run in and DQ, some would see Ric walk away a clean winner. While the Nature Boy was having a relatively easy time, his partners in crime weren't getting off quite as lucky. All three had been on something of a slump lately, dropping more matches than they picked up, but their respective belts remained snug around their waists. Though the record books may not tell the same story, many believe this collection to be the finest set of Horsemen throughout history. They'd passed the test time and again, and when the matches mattered and the titles were up for grabs, the Horsemen always walked away the winners.
The success of this magnificent foursome wasn't going unnoticed however, and it was only a matter of time before jealousy changed someone the team considered an ally... in this case, the US tag team champion Midnight Express. Managed by Jim Cornette (and his tennis racket), Bobby Eaton and Stan Lane had considered the Horsemen brothers in arms since their shared feud and disputes against the Rock'n Roll Express. Recently, Cornette had been experiencing problems with JJ Dillon; both considered their boys to be the superior team of the alliance, and it wasn't long before the workers took notice of the managers' constant bickering. Before the argument could escalate to much more, Dillon decided to take advantage of the opportunity their mutual respect presented before the chance vanished altogether. Backstage at an NWA show, Tully and Arn jumped the Express at JJ's bidding... leading to their inevitable clash with the belts on the line. After a rough and tumble meeting, the Express walked away with their heads held high and the Tag Team titles around their waists.
The very next night, Arn and Tully heaped the blame on Dillon, as two and a half years of pent up frustration finally came to a head. The former champs had actually come to consider the Midnight Express as close personal friends, and to treat them as they had didn't feel right. As Dillon, backpedaling, tried to explain, Tully said they'd had enough. Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard walked out of the ring, out of the Horsemen, and into the waiting arms of the WWF. And just like that, Ric Flair was the sole remaining original Horseman.
arn and tully invade the wwf as the brain
busters, here taking on a young shawn michaels
As his usual cordial self, Jim Cornette wasn't about to let such a moral victory go without squeezing every possible drop of humiliation out of the situation. The first opportunity he was given after Arn and Tully's departure, he grabbed a mic and announced his Midnight Express as "The men who chased half the Horsemen out of this territory." Just as before, Dillon found himself outspoken, outmaneuvered and outclassed by the fast-lipped Cornette, which served to further enrage the remaining Horsemen. Seeing as how there's only one way to settle things in this fine business of ours, the four took it to the ring in a brawl to end all brawls. Flair and Windham met the Midnight Express in a tag team main event at the fourth Clash of the Champions. Where Flair and Windham worked as a combination of singles workers, the Express had the edge as a team and often used this to their advantage with experienced double team maneuvers. Yet, despite their disadvantage, there was no doubt the Horsemen had the edge when the action was limited to one on one... and such was their game plan. Both isolated Bobby Eaton, working him over piece by piece and effectively taking him apart. However, when the hot tag was made, the winded singles workers were overwhelmed by the fresh man. Their game plan in ruins, the Horsemen were sitting ducks, and moments later, the Express hit their finisher and Eaton went for the pin. Watching his teammates' fall, JJ Dillon immediately hopped up on the apron, but Cornette was right there to pull him back down again. Dillon's shoe made it into the ring regardless, and armed with this new advantage, the Horsemen snuck home with a victory in this quick blowoff.
Despite the loss of half their roster, Flair and Windham were determined to keep the dynasty alive. Standing in their way was an old enemy, ready to deal the final blow and not without his own backup. Dusty Rhodes brought Bam Bam Bigelow to the main event scene in the fall of 1988, and the two soundly defeated the remaining Horsemen in a series of tag matches throughout that season. In Rhodes, the Horsemen knew what to expect and how to counter his offense... but Bigelow was the undetermined variable, and Flair just couldn't find an effective counter to his rough and tumble style. There were rumblings that the Beast from the East would be jumping right into the World Title scene, but the tattooed monster hadn't made any such choice just yet. After a televised title defense of his own, Barry Windham decided to dish out a little post-match punishment to his poor opponent, which was enough to bring Bigelow to the ring for the save. Bam Bam manhandled the US Champion with a press slam and a diving headbutt from the top, solidifying the notion that his bid for Windham's title took precedence over Flair's World gold... for now.
With Starrcade '88 peeking right around the corner, Flair had kept himself busy with title defenses against Rhodes, Eddie Gilbert and, more recently, a rejuvenated Lex Luger. The champ was worked to the bone, and though Windham had relieved him of Bigelow's challenge for now, Luger was becoming more and more of a nuisance as the months carried on. With rumors growing concerning the Horsemen's destruction, Starrcade 1988 would prove to be judge, jury and executioner for the group's immediate future. A duo of strong defenses against Bigelow and Luger at the event would silence critics nationwide, but dropping one or both belts would just amplify the personal assaults. It was do or die time as the month of December finally crept in.
With Bigelow the odds-on favorite, Windham did his best to make a name for himself once again on this night, but not without certain precautions. Every time the Beast started to take a solid advantage, Windham would find a way to skid to the floor. After a couple of these momentum-stoppers, Bigelow grew tired of the games and followed him to the cement. This was just what Windham was waiting for, and he took the much larger challenger by surprise. The minute Bigelow was on the floor with him, Windham cut loose with wild punches, clotheslines and various other power moves... effectively fighting fire with fire. Back in the ring, Windham continued his assault with suplexes and powerslams while the stunned Bam Bam tried to find an effective counter. As the tide of the match turned, Bigelow found what he needed with a swift flurry of acrobatic maneuvers, but Windham fled to the floor again. When Bigelow climbed out one more time, Windham used the same tactics again, this time pounding his opponent to the floor and rolling back underneath the ropes just in time to avoid the count out that awarded him a victory over the heavily favored opposition. Nearly two years after his first taste of fame, Windham had effectively turned a lot of heads and raised his stock once more... and he'd done it with a sound ring strategy.
While Windham walked to the showers a proud man, Flair came to the ring worried. Luger had convinced the Board of Directors to add a special stipulation to this match, after Flair had kept his belt so many times in the past as a result of a disqualification. Tonight, if Flair was DQ'd, Luger would take the belt due to forfeit. As the two fell into the roles they'd filled so often in the past months, Luger took an early advantage with his power moves, claiming several near falls early in the encounter. As Dillon held himself back from causing the DQ that would cost his man the title, Flair slowly began work on the challenger's legs. Attempting an early figure four, Flair was surprised by a Luger reversal that put the pressure right back on his own legs. Flair went outside the ring, and while Dillon had a chat with the official, put a steel chair to good use across Luger's legs.
flair offers luger a seat
As Luger gripped his knee in agony, Flair enjoyed the moment. After an adequate amount of taunting was admonished, the Nature Boy settled into the Figure Four. Fighting off waves of pain, Luger eventually escaped the hold and caught Flair by surprise with a powerslam. While Ric lay dazed on the mat, Lex showed us all it was time for the torture rack. He picked the champ up, and stretched him across his shoulders for the big finish, but all that work Ric had done to the knees wasn't for nothing. Before Flair could submit, Luger's knee gave out and he fell. Flair landed on top and before either man knew what was happening, the ref had counted the fall. Flair had squeaked out another victory, and the Horsemen had proven the critics wrong with their most successful Starrcade to date. Despite their diminished numbers, the Horsemen had remained a force to be reckoned with.
In the following weeks, the challengers were being mowed down, one by one. Not long after his impressive arrival in the promotion, Bam Bam Bigelow had left to pursue other interests. With Dusty Rhodes also on his way out, would the story end here? Not a chance, as 1989 turned out to be one of the best years in NWA history. But that's a story for another time. Check it all out in part V tomorrow.
until next time, i remain