The Piledriver Report 02.21.13: The History Of Vince McMahon’s Wrestling Empire: Part Six
Posted by Ronny Sarnecky on 02.21.2013
In 1991, in a surprise move, Ric Flair signed with the World Wrestling Federation. In Part Six of “The Piledriver Report’s” History of the WWF column, we examine the year and a half when the NWA Champion applied his trade in Vince McMahon’s territory.
In 1990, the weekly wrestling newsletter "Pro Wrestling Illustrated Weekly" ran a story following the Great American Bash pay per view. During that year's Bash, Sting beat "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship. "PWI Weekly," unlike the "Wrestling Observer Newsletter," catered to "marks." Their stories were based on wrestling being a legitimate sport. Following Sting's World Title victory, "Pro Wrestling Illustrated's" newsletter ran a story where they predicted that Ric Flair may be leaving WCW for the World Wrestling Federation.
The article, like most "Pro Wrestling Illustrated" stories, turned out to be untrue. Not only did Ric Flair stay in WCW, but also he would go on to regain the World championship from Sting in January of 1991. While everything appeared to "business as usual," Ric Flair's status in World Championship Wrestling was on shaky ground as the summer of 1991 approached.
According to Ric Flair in his autobiography "To Be The Man," when it was time to renew his contract, WCW wanted Flair to take a pay cut. "Their plan was to phase me out of the main events and scale back the number of my dates." At the time, Flair was making $730,000.00. According to the new deal, WCW offered him $350,000.00 a year for the first two years. In the third year, his salary would drop down to $250,000.00 for the final year of the pact.
Aside from feeling disrespected due to the contract demands, Ric Flair was starting to feel the pressure from being blamed for business being in a down period. "I just couldn't handle the confrontations day to day. It was the first time that I ever had to deal with not being wanted. I lost my confidence and started having terrible anxieties. There were times when I thought I couldn't feel my hands. I imagined that my jaw was stuck and I couldn't move it. I remember being thrown across the ring and getting scared that I wouldn't be able to raise my arms before I hit the turnbuckles. I started pinching myself during my matches. I'd roll onto the floor, bite my fingers, and pinch my forearms and biceps," Ric Flair mentioned in his book.
Kevin Sullivan added, "Jim Herd made Ric feel that he wasn't even worthy to wrestle, never mind being in the main event. He made him feel like a beginner-and a very poor one-not a guy who held the NWA World Championship seven times."
In regards to him leaving WCW, Flair explained "I refused to accept the contract renewal terms WCW had offered, so I was now working without any kind of binding agreement. Herd initially wanted me to lose the championship to Lex Luger at the Great American Bash on July 4, 1991. But he must have gotten frightened that I would refuse, because he asked me to lose to Barry Windham three days earlier at a TV taping in Macon, Georgia."
"I was ready to leave for Macon and drop the title when a termination notice was faxed to my attorney. As I was walking out the door, Herd called me and said ‘Fuck it. You're fired! You'll have your release. You're fired now," Flair said.
"The Nature Boy" continued. "Herd offered to have WCW's head of security, Doug Dellinger, come over to my house and pick up the championship belt. I said, ‘Well, tell Doug to bring my check, and he'll have it."
Back in those days, when a wrestler won the NWA Championship, he had to put down a $25,000.00 deposit for the belt. When the wrestler would drop the title, he would receive his deposit back. Since Flair always regained the championship, he didn't ever ask for his deposit back.
Jim Herd exclaimed, "Fuck you!" to Ric Flair. With that statement, the "Nature Boy" mailed the belt the next day to Vince McMahon.
Ric Flair headed to Stamford, Connecticut to meet Vince McMahon at their Titan Towers headquarters. Negotiations went extremely smooth as Flair explained, "we talked money, and I told him what I'd been earning in WCW. ‘I don't give contracts,' Vince said, ‘but I'll shake your hand and tell you that you'll make the same with me, or more.' He had another guarantee: if I was ever used as anything but a headliner, I would be free to seek employment elsewhere-even WCW."
Flair continued, "There was one obstacle in the way, and I told Vince about it. Herd had finally broken through to me, and WCW wanted a final meeting. I felt that I owed it to myself to at least hear their offer. Then I'd get back to Vince. We shook hands, and Vince looked me in the eye. ‘Is your word good?' he said. ‘Yes, it is,' I answered. ‘When I shake your hand, Ric, I'm taking you at your word, and you're taking me at mine,' Vince explained. Finally, a professional, I thought."
On August 10, 1991, the fans watching WWF television witnessed something they never thought they would ever see, the World Championship Wrestling title belt. Back in the early nineties, the WWF would never mention a different wrestling organization on their shows, never mind display their top rival's championship strap. This was mind blowing. Any one who saw the show knew that they were witnessing a historical moment in professional wrestling.
What made the segment extremely powerful were the verbal exchange between two non-wrestlers, and the appearance of the BIG GOLD BELT. Towards the end of the broadcast, Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan were shown standing side by side. Heenan, with the WCW belt in his hands, asked Monsoon, "How about this Gorilla?" Monsoon asked, "What's that?" Bobby answered, "This happens to be the real championship belt." Gorilla argued, "That's not Hogan's belt, Brain. I know the champ's belt when I see it." Heenan confirmed Monsoon's suspicions, "You're right. Comparing this belt to Hulk Hogan's belt would be like comparing ice cream to horse manure. You see, the man that owns this belt is now under contract to another organization. In the very near future, he might be coming to the World Wrestling Federation. This man is also a very long, dear, personal friend of mine." Monsoon inquired, "Does the guy have a name?" Heenan snapped back, "Yes, he has a name. This man has challenged Hogan on numerous occasions. Unanswered, I may add. If you want to compare them, fine. Then let's compare Hulk Hogan…..to Ric Flair!" The screen faded to black, as millions of diehard fans marked out in unison. It was such a strong and effective promo that was even more amazing considering that Ric Flair wasn't the person delivering it. Instead of having Flair show up, the fans were left begging for Flair to come to the WWF. Each week, the fans watched the WWF's syndicated programming with the hopes that Flair would finally show up.
Over the last seven years, wrestling fans across the country dreamed of a match between the WWF World Champion Hulk Hogan and the NWA/WCW World Champion Ric Flair. It was a match that no fan ever expected to see, but were finally about to. However, the fans would have to wait a little while BEFORE the big showdown. Ric Flair's first feud in the WWF would be against "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. It was a good feud to get Flair's feet wet in the WWF. However, the fans were too pre-occupied with visions of Flair and Hogan dancing in their heads. In what many professional wrestling historians consider a mistake, the WWF rushed into a Flair/Hogan match-up. Usually when the WWF was presented with a dream match along the lines of Sammartino vs. Morales, Hogan vs. Warrior, the WWF would have the two combatant fight at their biggest show of the year. In the case of Hogan vs. Flair, most fans figured that the big match would take place as the main event at WrestleMania VIII. It made perfect sense. After all, WrestleMania was the biggest wrestling event of the year, and this was the biggest match in the history of professional wrestling. Just hearing the words, "Hulk Hogan versus Ric Flair" would easily sell out the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome, which would be the home to the eighth installment of WrestleMania. Besides the audience in the dome, the first Hogan/Flair match would do a monster number in terms of pay per view buy rates. Unfortunately, this was not meant to be.
Not only did Hogan/Flair fail to main event WrestleMania VIII, they didn't even fight against each other at the Survivor Series. Instead, the Hogan/Flair feud was relegated to being a house show feud. Their first match took place on October 25th, 1991 in Oakland, California. The two toured the country against each other. Both men mostly traded count out victories, with the occasional disqualification or reverse decision thrown in the mix. Their first house show tour did great business. However, by the time the WWF came back to each city for a return match, business dropped significantly. The WWF did try to keep the Hogan/Flair feud fresh for their national audience.
At the Survivor Series, Hulk Hogan lost the WWF World title to the Undertaker thanks to Ric Flair's interference. The WWF presented their first ever Tuesday night pay per view five days after the Survivor Series. During the "Tuesday in Texas," Hulk Hogan regained the WWF World Championship after he threw ashes from the Undertaker's urn in "deadman's" face. This came after Ric Flair's botched attempt at inferring in the match. Due to the two controversial title changes over the past week, the WWF President Jack Tunney declared the WWF Championship vacant. Tunney proclaimed that the winner of the 1992 Royal Rumble would be named the next WWF World Champion.
The Rumble took place on January 19, 1992 at the Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, New York. On the undercard, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper captured his first and only WWF championship after he beat "The Mountie" Jacques Rougeau for the WWF Intercontinental title. A nervous Bobby Heenan announced the Rumble match while rooting for Ric Flair. When the third entrant walked down the aisle, Heenan couldn't believe his eyes. It was Ric Flair. Heenan started complaining that "It's Not Fair to Flair!" Throughout the rest of the match, the home audience could feel Heenan's pain and nervousness whenever it looked like the "Nature Boy" was about to be eliminated. Heenan's commentary really added to the drama of an already bout.
History would show that this was one of the most star-studded Royal Rumble matches in history. Besides Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, the Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Davey Boy Smith, Jim Duggan, Sid Justice, Randy Savage, Ted DiBiase, Kerry Von Erich, and Roddy Piper were all participants in the match. After being announced as the third entrant, the odds were severely stacked against Ric Flair. Each wrestler in the match, at one time or another would try to face off with the "Nature Boy." The final four combatants left in the contest pitted Ric Flair against the WWF's top three baby faces. They were his long time rival Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and his former Four Horsemen running mate, Sid Justice (formerly Sid Vicious).
Savage was the first eliminated. Sid was trying to toss out the "Macho Man," when Flair hit Sid from behind. This caused Savage to be dumped from the ring. Hogan then started to brawl with Ric Flair. Sid walked up behind Hogan, and threw him over the top rope. In protest, Hogan started yelling at Sid. The "Hulkster" grabbed Sid's arm, and threatened to pull Sid out of the ring. Seeing Sid distracted by Hogan, Flair shoved Sid out of the ring. After wrestling for nearly an hour, the "sixty-minute man," Ric Flair captured his first WWF World Championship.
As surprising as it was to see a wrestler in the WWF compete for an hour, his post-match interview was even more shocking. Dripping with sweat, Ric Flair told the world, "After video distorting the belt that proclaimed me the real world's champion, I'm going to tell you all. With a tear in my eye, this is the greatest moment in my life. When you walk around this world, and you tell everybody that you're number one, the only way that you get to stay number one is to be number one. And this (the WWF World belt) is the only title in the wrestling world that makes you number one. When you are the king, you rule the world. Think about it like that. Mr. Perfect! The Brain! Wooooo! WOOOOO!!! It's the greatest moment of my life. I want to jump. I want to party. But, I've got to tell you like this. For the Hulk Hogans, and the Macho Mans, and the Pipers, and the Sids, now it's Ric Flair. And you all pay homage to the man! WOOOOO!!!! In one two-minute interview, Ric Flair put over the WWF, and buried his former employer WCW all in one shot.
To no one's surprise, it was originally announced that Hulk Hogan would fight Ric Flair for the title at WrestleMania VIII. However, that was about to change. Vince was unhappy with the turn out for the Hogan/Flair house show rematches. He knew that Hogan vs. Flair was no longer a big draw. In top of that, Hogan wanted to leave to become a full-time actor. To get out of the Hogan/Flair WrestleMania match, the WWF had Sid proclaim that HE should be the number one contender. In a move that made little sense, Jack Tunney listened to Sid Justice. Hulk Hogan was no longer the number one contender for Ric Flair's title. Common sense would tell you that Sid Justice would become the new number one contender for the belt since he was the last man eliminated from the Royal Rumble battle royal. However, Sid would not be the top contender for the title either. It was announced that Randy Savage would fight Ric Flair for the WWF World title at WreslteMania. Sid would be wrestling Hulk Hogan at the show.
WrestleMania VIII was billed as a two-match show. This Mania was filled with firsts. Jake Roberts faced the Undertaker, Bret Hart battled Roddy Piper for the Intercontinental championship. A heel Shawn Michaels wrestled in his first WrestleMania singles match. An old favorite made a surprise return. Ric Flair wrestled in his first WrestleMania. Hogan wrestled in a Mania match for the first time where he was not the champion going into, or after the show.
As one would suspect, the WWF provided the most hype for the Hogan vs. Sid, and the Flair vs. Savage WWF World title match. When the WWF signed Sid away from WCW, every fan figured that the two would meet at WrestleMania VIII. Hogan was the champ, while Sid was seen by many as the "next Hogan" due to his huge muscular frame. When Flair arrived, everyone forgot about a Hogan/Sid clash. Due to a poor house show run by Hogan/Flair matches, Vince knew that Hogan vs. Sid would be a more marketable match at WrestleMania. The WWF sold the match-up as Sid believing he should be the number one contender. To make sure Sid would be the "heel" in their match, the face announcers claimed that Sid was jealous of Hogan. The WWF also had Sid hire a heel manager in Harvey Whippleman. After the announcement of the Hogan/Sid match, Sid attacked Brutus Beefcake on his interview show called "The Barber Shop." To ensure that Hogan would garner cheers, the WWF proclaimed that this could possibly be Hogan's "retirement" match.
The build-up for the Flair-Savage match-up took on a more soap opera-like storyline. As part of the story, Flair targeted Savage's extreme jealousy in regards to his relationship with Miss Elizabeth. Ric Flair has always prided himself as being the "leer jet flying, limousine riding, kiss the girls, and make them cry, son of a gun." He talked about being a "sixty-minute man," and taking girls up to "Space Mountain." Flair tormented Savage by implying that he was "with" Elizabeth before Savage ever was. During each interview, he would tell Savage "before she was yours, she was mine." He even went so far as to say that he had nude photos of Miss Elizabeth. Flair claimed that he would show the world the photographs after he beat Savage at WrestleMania. According to Ric Flair's autobiography, he was supposed to leave WrestleMania VIII as the champion. However, Randy Savage complained until they decided to put the belt on Savage. While the Savage/Flair match was for the title, it was not the last match on the card.
The Hogan/Sid match was put on in the main event position. The two wrestlers didn't live up to the hype of the match. Sid kicked out of the legdrop. Normally, this would be a huge deal, perhaps leading to the downfall of "Hulkamania." However, Harvey Whippleman ran into the ring to interfere and cause Sid's disqualification. Papa Shango then hit the ring to join Sid in a double team against Hulk Hogan. The Ultimate Warrior made his WWF return just in time to save Hogan from a 2 on 1 beating.
The rest of the card consisted of the following matches. Shawn Michaels pinned Tito Santana. The Undertaker beat Jake Roberts in Roberts' final WWF match in his first stint with the company. Bret Hart pinned Roddy Piper to capture his second Intercontinental Championship. Jim Duggan, the Big Bossman, Virgil, & Sgt. Slaughter defeated Repo Man, the Mountie, & the Nasty Boys. Tatanka pinned Rick Martel. The Natural Disasters defeated WWF Tag Team Champions Ted DiBiase & IRS (w/ Jimmy Hart) via count-out. Owen Hart beat Skinner.
With Hogan going on hiatus, the WWF put the Ultimate Warrior in a program against Sid. Unfortunately, a Warrior/Sid feud was short lived, as Sid left the WWF a few weeks later. He was then placed in a feud against Papa Shango. While their angles were strange, their matches were awful. After his feud with Shango, the Warrior moved on to bigger and better things.
In the meantime, Randy Savage and Ric Flair continued their feud across the country. SummerSlam 1992 was going to be held at Wembley Stadium in London, England on August 29th. Most people thought that Ric Flair would fight Randy Savage in the blow off match to their feud. Instead, the WWF announced that Randy Savage would defend the WWF World title against the Ultimate Warrior. In the month leading up to their big match, Mr. Perfect told to the fans that both the Warrior and Randy Savage were trying to gain his services for their World title match. It turns out that the wrestler who Mr. Perfect was backing all along was Ric Flair. During the match, Henning attacked each wrestler during different intervals in the match. In the end, it was clear that he was on Ric Flair's side. The Ultimate Warrior wound up beating Savage in the match by count out when the "Macho Man" went to hit Flair with a double axe handle off of the top rope. However, Flair hit Savage's knee on the way down.
Around this time, Savage's real-life marriage to Elizabeth was falling apart. According to Ric Flair, "Elizabeth was hanging out with Hulk Hogan's wife. While Randy was on the road, Linda took Liz to the Jockey Club in Miami, and Liz never came back. I was with Savage in Vancouver when he was on the phone and couldn't find his wife; he was out of his mind. I think Randy was so miserable that he didn't care if he had the championship or not."
Vince had Savage drop the title back to Ric Flair on September 1st, 1992. This was the famous restart match that Bret Hart talked about in an interview in response to Flair being critical of Bret Hart's work. According to Ric Flair's autobiography, "the match was terrible. Randy's heart wasn't in it at all. Scott Hall was supposed to interfere. Randy didn't like Scott personally, so that made it even worse. In fact, things got so bad that in the middle of the match, Bobby Heenan came out of the dressing room, whistled to get our attention, and made the cut sign with his throat. Vince didn't like what he was seeing on the monitor, so he was calling a conference in the back. The two of us just stopped dead in the ring and bailed. Vince was standing on the other side of the curtain, not looking very happy. ‘This isn't what I laid out,' he told us. We went over the details again, and returned to the ring half an hour later."
Like most of the WWF heel World champions at the time, Ric Flair's second reign was to be used as only a transitional champion. Vince McMahon wanted Flair to drop the title to Bret Hart. Before Flair was to fight "The HitMan," he was injured in a match against the Ultimate Warrior. The Warrior hit Flair with a suplex. Flair landed on his head, which dislodged a chip in his inner ear and upset his equilibrium. The injury was so serious that it was feared that his career may be winding down.
On October 12, 1992, Ric Flair dropped the strap to Bret Hart in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Flair admits that the match was awful. However, it was probably due to the "Nature Boy's" ear problem.
At this time, the WWF started to lean towards the youth movement. The original main event was supposed to be Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior against Ric Flair and Razor Ramon. However, the Ultimate Warrior left the WWF for a second time shortly before the Survivor Series pay per view. The match was changed to Flair and Ramon against Savage and Flair's former corner man, "Mr. Perfect" Curt Henning. While that was the hyped match, the main event World title match featured the first pay per view battle between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart. Although the two men were friends in the locker room at this point in their careers, the Michaels/Hart rivalry would heat up over the next three years.
When Vince decided to start a "youth movement," Vince approached Flair in Madison, Wisconsin. McMahon told Flair, "We're going to start going with the younger guys. I want you to wrestle Razor Ramon. Do the favor for him, and then I'm not sure where we're going from there." That was Vince's way of telling Flair that he will be getting dropped from the main event role that he has enjoyed in the WWF for the past year. Bills Watts, who was now WCW's head booker, called Vince McMahon, and asked him if he would let Ric Flair come back home to WCW. Vince McMahon lived up to the promise he made to Ric Flair during the summer of 1991. He released Ric Flair, allowing him to return to World Championship Wrestling. Before he headed back to Atlanta, Ric Flair had one small issue left to take care of in the WWF. On the second edition of Monday Night RAW, Ric Flair lost a "Loser Leaves WWF" match to "Mr. Perfect. On an episode that aired on January 25, 1993, Ric Flair would be seen in a WWF ring for the final time until November 2002.
Sources that were used for this article include Ric Flair's autobiography, as told to Keith Elliot Greenberg, called "To Be The Man."