Ringside Shadows #130: The Four Horsemen Complete History (part VII: 1991 / 1992)
Following the greatest year in its long and storied existence, the incredible 1989, the old NWA had stumbled their way through the latter part of 1990. Despite a red hot Flair / Sting feud that saw the younger man elevated to World Champion status, poor booking decisions and backstage squabbles had left a sizeable dent in the hide of the proud organization. With such a lackluster several months in their recent past, the Horsemen dove headfirst into what would be the most tumultuous set of years in their history.
It was less than two weeks into 1991, but you knew it was bound to be a wild year both before and behind the scenes. In front of the camera, Sting had marched out of a horrendous feud with the Black Scorpion (later revealed as Ric Flair) with his World Title intact. The Horsemen had added new blood to their roster with Sid Vicious and a familiar face in Barry Windham, as well as a manager they could trust: Ole Anderson. Arn Anderson's TV title was the group's only gold (recently regained after Anderson had briefly dropped it to Tom Zenk) as the year began, but to count them out at this point would be ridiculous. Flair still had his head in the World title scene, Windham and Anderson were tagging together regularly, and common sense would lead Sid after Lex Luger's US title to round out the group's lineup of titles.
Backstage, away from the glare of the cameras, the former Jim Crockette promotions venture was at the center of some debate with its NWA partners. Some years back, Ted Turner had bought out Crockette's small fed and renamed it World Championship Wrestling. WCW had been just a small part of a larger whole, the NWA. It was Turner that put the NWA progamming on TBS, and when the two sides began bickering in early 1991, it was Turner who left the coalition and took all the stars with him. Early January would mark the last time you'd ever see the letters NWA on Turner air time. To further solidify this change of management, Turner held a World Title match between Ric Flair and Sting, the two top contenders, with the winner laying claim to the first WCW World Title Belt. Flair took the victory, and was recognized by the NWA as their world champ, to boot.
Flair and Sting renewed their rivalry on the airwaves, this time bringing their friends into the mix. The Horsemen found themselves opposed by Sting, Brian Pillman and the Steiner brothers in eight-man tag matches across the nation. The next generation of stars seemed to be taking shape right before our eyes, and the groups traded dance partners as well as victories for the majority of the first month.
Not long into the headlining feud, The Horsemen brought El Gigante into the mix, inadvertantly or not. Gigante was struggling through an interview with Jim Ross, rambling on about nothing in particular one evening early in February. As the giant crept along with his broken English, the Horsemen made an unannounced arrival and put the boots to Gigante. Somehow, the monster fought back and nearly chased the quartet off before finally succumbing to their combined assault. Before the night was over, the nearly eight foot monster had done his best to return the favor; he'd found Ric Flair backstage, and the two brawled the night away.
El Gigante began slowly building a single man offense against each of the Horsemen and their allies from that moment, which suited Sting & company just fine. He took on Barry Windham in the ring one evening, dominating most of the matchup. Windham bladed, and Gigante appeared ready to put the match away when Flair made the run-in and returned the favor of several nights ago. Gigante was featured on the "Danger Zone", the talk show of Horsemen ally Paul E. Dangerously (known today as Paul Heyman, former owner of ECW and occasional WWE extra) and took a verbal assault from the energetic mouth before getting physical and attacking him on his own program.
Still, it wasn't enough to merit a meeting at the next PPV event, the 1991 edition of WrestleWar. The Horsemen took on their standard opponents of the day, Sting, Pillman and the Steiners, in a War Games double cage encounter. Unfortunately, much of the magic of this gimmick had been drained in years past, and not even the starpower featured in this year's match could do much to save it. The Horsemen's experience with the gimmick gave them the necessary edge to put the 1991 edition in the bag, as they walked away the decisive victors, winning the coin toss and enjoying a constant advantage. It probably didn't hurt that they'd softened Pillman up considerably the night before, either.
In the nights after their victory, the Horsemen proved they hadn't forgotten about El Gigante, making their presence in his matches a common occurrence. In one instance, Gigante was in the middle of a squash victory when Flair ran in and laid out his own particular variation of the smackdown. Before he could do much damage, Sting threw his hat back into the picture and made the save for his foreign friend. Weeks later, they were meeting regularly in the tag team ranks.
In the meantime, Sid and Flyin' Brian were involved in a series of their own. The feud had been hinted at long before, in the two ring battle royal at the 1989 Great American Bash. Sid and then-partner Dan Spivey walked away from that one victorious (splitting the winner's cash reward between them), but Pillman had been involved in heated exchanges with both before finding himself the last man sent to the floor. Sid had been on a rampage in the past months, basically destroying any jobber unlucky enough to get in his way and sending them home on their backs. In the middle of one of these "matches," Pillman decided enough was enough and made the run-in, standing up for the smaller guys.
Facing opposition, Vicious decided to modify his tactics a bit. The big man decided he wouldn't destroy his own opponents, he'd just find somebody else's. Fellow Horseman Barry Windham was facing Ricky Morton on an episode of WCW Worldwide, when Vicious tried this new strategy. Sid stalked into the ring, plain as day, and delivered a powerbomb on the former Rock'n Roll Express member. The two continued their assault until Pillman figured out what was going on and made yet another save. Morton went home on a gurney.
The war between the two reached unintended levels in the aforementioned War Games match, as Vicious attempted a powerbomb on his much smaller opponent. When Pillman's legs snagged on the roof of the cage, Vicious either didn't notice or didn't care, and dropped Flyin' Brian directly on his head. After that disgustingly sick moment, Vicious decided once wasn't enough, and continued his assault with a second brutal powerbomb. El Gigante then surrendered the match to the Horsemen on Brian's account, an improvised finish to the year's WarGames. Pillman's neck suffered some serious damage as a result, and the two never had a proper blowoff. Sid went to the next PPV, SuperBrawl, against the perennial Horsemen opponent, El Gigante, in a no holds barred / loser leaves town / stretcher match. Apparantly, WCW wasn't large enough for the two of them (and Vicious, unimpressed by his push, was headed straight for the open arms of Vince McMahon), so this was "the only way" to settle things. Still, in a day and age before the internet, news of Sid's jump travelled slowly and the match's outcome wasn't spoiled by rumors of his contract's end.
In the month prior to that same card, WCW and New Japan had co-promoted a show in Tokyo, where IWGP champ Tatsumi Fujinami took on WCW/NWA champion Ric Flair, pitting his Japanese gold against Flair's WCW title. Though both were just passing their prime at the time of the encounter, they never really got things together in the ring. At their first meeting, Flair carried an early advantage through the bout, working primarily on the leg (as always). When Fujiyami made his comeback, Flair fell back into character and begged off, already wearing a crimson mask. The ref took a dive, and in the aftermath, Fujinami threw Flair over the top rope in what should have been an automatic DQ. Flair surprisingly slid back into the ring, just as a second ref ran in and counted the fall in Fujinami's favor. WCW officials argued that the challenger's actions warranted a disqualification, and that Flair was still the rightful champion, but NJPW didn't see things that way and both men were declared WCW champion in their respective home country. The rematch was set for Superbrawl, where fellow Horseman Arn Anderson would be defending his TV title against the constant challenge of Bobby Eaton, Sid would be fighting the aforementioned bout with El Gigante, and Barry Windham was nowhere to be found.
fujinami holds the world title
Interestingly enough, the Superbrawl card would also see the introduction of a man that would (for better or worse) hold a strong influence on the company in later years, wrestling under his real name... Kevin Nash. At the time of this show, he wasn't working as himself, of course, as this was the early 90's and pro wrestling still stunk to high heaven of a gimmicked circus sideshow. Nash was instead dubbed "Oz," and he came out complete with a manager named "The Wizard" who walked a yellow brick road. It isn't even as simple as a poor gimmick choice, however... Nash's character was advertised to hell and back. See, Turner had recently picked up the rights to a great many classic films for exclusive airing on his networks, and the Wizard of Oz was listed among the masses. Billionaire Ted, in all his majesty, figured there was nothing like free advertising, so he went about promoting his buy in this unique fashion.
When the Wizard had completed his duties, Sid and El Gigante made their way to the ring as fans screamed for Sid's head. Incredibly, the audience remained lively before, during and after the match, despite the slow, plodding work in the ring. The match crept along to a finish in a relatively short amount of time, and El Gigante took the "V" with his dreaded clawhold, sending Vicious out of WCW in a huff. The loss of their big man was the least of the Horsemen's worries at this point, however, and with the group slowly drifting apart, his departure was glossed over.
Back in the ring it was now Arn's turn, as he'd be defending his TV title against former Midnight Express member "Beautiful" Bobby Eaton. The history between these two was a bit tangled by this point, as JJ Dillon's orders to jump Eaton were what drove Arn to the WWF years ago. For the purposes of this match, Eaton was playing the face, as he was opposed by a member of the top heel stable in professional wrestling. The two began feeling each other out, and Eaton hit a short armbar before climbing up top. Arn would have none of it, though and hit a nice reversal, slamming him all the way out to the rampway. The enforcer attempted a piledriver on the ramp, but Eaton wasn't worn down far enough just yet. They took things back into the ring, where Anderson quickly regained the advantage through a shot to the eyes. Double A went on to work heavily on the knee, capitalizing with a rope-aided leglock. When Eaton tried his big comeback and went for a suplex, the leg buckled. Arn nailed the spinebuster late, but Eaton somehow mustered up the strength to kick out. Arn, pissed, assured the ref that he'd counted three. However, when the argument grew heated, Eaton hit his finisher and fell on top for the three count and the belt.
With main event time just around the corner already, fans were eager to discover the true fate and future of the WCW World title. Fujinami held the early advantage, wearing Flair down with submission holds of all names, shapes and sizes, and as the Nature Boy attempted to stand, Tatsumi nailed him with a forearm for two. Hitting another, Fujinami sent a helpless Flair out to the concrete. But just as things seemed to be going completely in the Japanese athlete's favor, Flair managed to land an atomic drop on the outside railing, effectively crotching Fujinami. Always looking for a submission, Flair immediately tossed him back into the ring and went right to work on the leg. The victim of an early figure four, Fujinami reached the ropes, eventually turning the maneuver over into a sharpshooter. With the Nature Boy already a bloody mess, the action spilled inside and outside of the ring dozens of times. Flair went for a scoop slam, but balanced incorrectly, allowing Fujinami to fall on top for two. Fujinami looked for a rollup, only to find Flair waiting for him with a rollup of his own that finally netted the three count, as well as undisputed rights to the World Title after nearly 20 minutes.
The remaining Horsemen (with Ole moving back into a more active role) would immediately continue their ongoing feud with Sting and his "dudes with attitudes" (a rotating crew of faces, including but not limited to El Gigante, the Steiners, Brian Pillman, the Junk Yard Dog, and Bobby Eaton), with matches at an upcoming Clash of Champions in June. Pillman and El Gigante were scheduled to meet Double A and Windham in a tag team "loser of the fall gets outta town" match, while Flair was to defend his World Title against TV champion Bobby Eaton in a best two of three falls match. By this time, WCW had been building Lex Luger steadily for well over a year in the US Title picture. He'd emerged quite successful after another feud with Nikita Koloff, but had yet to find a steadfast role as heel or face. Still, his victories had warranted a title shot against Flair at the upcoming Great American Bash card... a match in which many expected to see Luger's first World Title victory over the Nature Boy. All that stood in the way was this Clash of the Champions card, and the slim issue of Flair's expiring contract.
The tag team "loser leaves town" match turned into something of a mess, both in its execution and the follow through. Windham pinned Pillman, which meant the Flyin' one should've been gone from the promotion. Instead, the masked "Yellow Dog" began showing his face shortly after, in what appeared to have been a poor attempt at recapturing the old Dusty Rhodes / Midnight Rider magic.
Flair and Eaton took each other to as good a match as could be expected, with Eaton taking the surprise first fall with a fluke pin. Flair fought back and took a cheap countout victory for fall number two, and instantly drug Eaton back into the ring to work on the leg. A figure four later, and it was all over.
On July 1st, only a few days after the Clash defense, Flair met with WCW officials to discuss the standings of his contract. As far as WCW was concerned, everything was in order. They'd labeled Flair as the loyal, aging superstar of the company, one who'd never even consider jumping ship. He'd been with the promotion religiously for more than twenty years, and officials assumed they could have their way with him rather easily. However, they'd made a bad move in telling Flair their future booking plans. The champ was scheduled to do the job to Luger, a task which Flair had refused several times in the past, as he didn't believe Lex was ready to be World Champ. There was a suggestion that Flair should drop the title to Barry Windham, who would then do the necessary job to Luger at the Bash, but nothing came of it. The two sides drifted even further apart within the span of a few days, and when Flair signed a deal with the WWF he was stripped of both his WCW and NWA World Titles.
It should've ended there, but it didn't... politics found a way to get even more involved. See, when the World Title is placed around the waist of a man, he's responsible for its care, its well-being, its arrival at every event, night after night. Thus, an insurance deposit of a large sum of money is standard, as a collateral in case something happens to the gold along the way. Flair had indeed put down his money when the belt was given to him earlier in the year, and when the money wasn't returned upon his being stripped of the title, he took the belt with him to the WWF. Summerslam 1991 featured an incredible backstage segment; Bobby Heenan took a cameraman along with him as he knocked on Hulk Hogan's dressing room door backstage. Hogan turned, and Heenan offered up a challenge on behalf of the man himself, Ric Flair... and in Bobby's hands was the WCW World Title. It was a surreal sight, especially considering how well the word of Flair's contractual difficulties had been kept.
As is often the case, everything eventually sorted itself out. Flair publicly protested the questionable actions of the WCW commitee by showing up on WWF TV every week with their World Title, calling himself the "true world's champion" and working it all into an angle. WCW finally cracked and repaid his money in full, and Flair returned the belt immediately. I've heard rumors that Vince had asked Flair to hold onto the belt for the sake of continuing the gimmick (and McMahon would have even paid the resulting legal fees from the ensuing WCW lawsuit), but Flair had too much class and stayed true to his word in returning the belt. But that's just a rumor, and Flair was WWF champion within a year, NWA belt or not.
flair is overjoyed, carrying the wwf strap over his shoulder
Don't go feeling sorry for WCW, though. The Great American Bash went off without a hitch, as far as their booking was concerned. Lex Luger and Barry Windham met after Flair's departure deleted the Horsemen from group contention, and Luger walked away with his first World Title after years of toiling in the midcard. Flair's path eventually crossed once again with former Horseman Sid Vicious (now dubbed Sid Justice) in the main event scene of the WWF, though the two never had anything of a feud. Justice and Flair were the last two men in the ring at the 1992 Royal Rumble, a rumble which would grant the winner a World Title reign (as the belt had been vacated at the time.) After drawing the number three spot in the brawl, Flair had managed to outlast every man but one, and Sid was less than overjoyed to see his old running buddy again. As Justice smiled over the winded Flair in the closing moments of the big brawl, Hulk Hogan surprisingly yanked Justice out from the floor, giving Flair the nod in what many consider to be the greatest rumble of all time. Justice and Flair both found themselves competing in the main event of Wrestlemania VIII, but not against each other. The big show featured the first "double main event" in Wrestlemania history, as Flair defended and lost his World Title to Randy Savage, while Justice took part in a grudge match against Hogan (in what was, at the time, billed as Hulk's "retirement match.") Ironically enough, the man WCW had so firmly backed in their contract negotiations with Flair, Lex Luger, made his jump to the WWF official with this very show, appearing in an interview segment via satellite. Flair would go on to defeat Savage for the title a few months later, with help from his friend and colleague Mr. Perfect, before granting Bret Hart his first World Title reign a month after that. Just one short year after leaving the familiar confines of WCW, Flair's contract with the WWF was up, and faced with a recalculated role in the midcard of the WWF, he decided to triumphantly return home to Atlanta, and the chaos held therein.
While Flair was gone, Arn Anderson had joined another stable... Paul E.'s Dangerous Alliance. Though the group had disbanded by the time Flair returned, it was actually quite successful for its time, and gave Double A a good angle to work with while Flair was gone. With the Nature Boy's return, rumors were almost instantly sailing regarding yet another Horsemen reunion. Like Arn, Barry Windham had flourished in Flair's absence. After losing his World Title bid against Lex Luger, Windham took the role of the "lone wolf" and found success as a technician, and when Flair returned to the fold, Windham ruled the roost as champion of the resurrected NWA.
The stage was set, and the important players were once again returning to the scene. After a successful WWF stint, Flair had proven his worth to the skeptical WCW crew, and they needed him now more than ever. Following a tumultuous 1992 and on the brink of an even worse 1993, WCW turned to their multiple-time World's Champion to once again bail them out. Though he couldn't technically play an active role until midway through the year, Flair seemed ready to grab the ball and run with it. With loads of new faces to work with, what would 1993 have in store for the Horsemen? Part VIII, comin' at ya tomorrow.
until next time, i remain