With Clash of the Champions making a return as an event this coming Sunday I thought it would be cool to take a look back at the original one that happened almost 20 years ago way back in 1988. Unlike this year’s show the first was a strike back at the WWF by Jim Crockett’s NWA promotion. Crockett had been dealt two huge blows by the WWF in a two month period – first on Thanksgiving 1987 when his first attempt at pay per view was foiled by Vince McMahon’s strong arm tactics with cable companies, then in January 1988 when Vince put the first Royal Rumble on free TV up against his second attempt. So it was payback time.
Wrestlemania IV was scheduled for March of 1988, so Crockett put up a show of his own on free TV running at the same time. It took place at one of Crockett’s stronghold arenas, the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina. For NWA diehards like me this was a godsend, and it promised to be a really good show. Ric Flair was defending the NWA World Title against an up and coming star by the name of Sting. Sting was one of the few guys from the old UWF that was brought over when Crockett bought them out, and was in the midst of a quantum leap from where he’d been just a year ago. While Lex Luger was the guy everyone was expecting to be anointed as the next big star, Sting clearly had that it factor and was poised to move ahead of him. For now he was the stopgap challenger for Flair until the looming Flair vs Luger program would start that summer.
The card was short, only five matches, but each had a purpose and a storyline behind it. Four of them were title matches. So without further adieu, here we go:
TV Title Match: Mike Rotundo (c) vs . Jimmy Garvin
For those wondering what in the hell a TV title is, back in the day they avoided showing major title matches on free TV as much as possible as the point of free TV was to advertise house shows. So in order to be able to have some kind of title match happen enough on free TV to keep people watching you had a TV title. Trust me it made sense back in the 80s.
Rotundo was the champion and was managed by Kevin Sullivan. Sullivan was a part time wrestler/part time manager who was pretty much Bray Wyatt with less in ring skill and 1980s sensibilities, which is even more interesting because Rotundo is Bray’s real life father so there’s a real chance of some direct character influence there.
Sullivan was a cult leader type character like Bray is and in 1988 that cult was The Varsity Club, a group of heels embracing their college roots by wearing singlets from their alma maters to wrestle in and letterman jackets to the ring. And this being pro wrestling and them being heels they were the opposite of sportsmanlike. Garvin was a midcard face who was accompanied to the ring by his real life spouse Precious (that wasn’t her real name; go look it up on Wikipedia).
The match had the amateur wrestling angles of being in three two minute periods and only requiring a one count for a pin, the latter of which was obviously insert to set up a dirty finish. Match was ok and went beyond the first period to set up the anarchy situation for the finish where Rotundo retained the title. As with a lot of this stuff from back then and earlier the crowd heat makes a match that doesn’t look like much in hindsight totally watchable.
U.S. Tag Team Title Match: The Midnight Express (c) vs The Fantastics
The Midnight Express is hands down one of the best tag teams in wrestling history; you could drop them in any company at any time period and they would kill it. When you watch a team like The Revival in NXT, you can see the influence of teams like the Midnights and the Andersons. And their manager Jim Cornette is easily a top five all time wrestling manager. The guy got crazy heat for his mic work and somehow managed to make a tennis racket into a believable weapon to help you cheat to win a wrestling match.
The Fantastics were one of many 1980s pretty boy tag teams and they were brought in specifically to replace a departed pretty boy tag team, The Rock n Roll Express. The Rock n Roll Express was one of the most popular teams in wrestling, and replacing them with another team that was similar in style and look but wasn’t them was a panic move. At the same time most NWA fans knew the Fantastics from the UWF so they weren’t seen as frauds or imposters when they came in and did manage to get a lot of the support that the Rock n Roll Express had, at least at first.
The match itself was bonkers and had crazy heat from the crowd. For almost 10 minutes before the opening bell there was an extreme rules style chair right between the two teams, and later on we even got a bulldog on a table. Once the match got going we got the usual great stuff these guys could do in their sleep. In the ring The Fantastics were every bit the team the Rock and Roll Express was, so there wasn’t any drop-off. DQ finish came, followed by and downright dastardly heel beatdown on the Fantastics by the Midnights and Cornette.
The beatdown was punctuated by a leather belt whipping of one of the Fantastics by Cornette while being held down by the Midnights. It’s the kind of spot that would have gone over really bad has it been say, Ron Simmons and Butch Reed catching the beating instead of Tommy Rodgers and Bobby Fulton. That’s how nuts Cornette was as a heel manager, and he got crazy heat for it from the crowd. Just insane and you have to watch it yourself to get it.
Barbed Wire Match: Dusty Rhodes & The Road Warriors vs Ivan Koloff & The Powers of Pain
Barbed wire matches are another one of those things that we are better off without in 2016. The only real purpose was to add an effect to matches where one or all involved like to bleed a lot. The story here between the two tag teams. The Powers of Pain were a Road Warrior knockoff team that were looking to take out the originals and claim their space as the tough guy, face painted tag team in the NWA. And in doing so they attacked Road Warrior Animal at a weightlifting competition between the two teams, injuring his eye and forcing him to wear a hockey mask to protect it. (The injury was a legit one Animal got during a match between the two teams). Rhodes and Koloff were respective allies and six man tag team partners of the two teams and Rhodes needed to do something on the show, so here we are.
The match was a relatively short but effective brawl, just long enough for everyone to get in what they needed to fill the time. Rhodes was getting up in age and was moving to more tag team stuff so this was perfect. The good guys won, but the heels went for the post match beatdown and you will see a beautiful accident of history similar to when Tiger Woods’ golfball got caught on camera with the Nike logo showing right before it rolled in the cup. Animal gets hit in the face, bends back to sell it, and the hockey mask slowly slides off his head and falls to mat in spectacularly dramatic fashion.
World Tag Team Title Match: Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson vs Barry Windham and Lex Luger
Going into the show I thought this would be a throwaway match with a DQ finish. As it approached I figured if there was gonna be a title change it was gonna happen here. The building was going crazy for this one and everyone here was way over. The match was, in its own way, a tell as to why the company was always so hesitant to put the big belt on Luger no matter how big of a star he was at the time. Even 13 year old me couldn’t help but notice how Windham did so much more of the work in the match. Luger did his signature stuff, sold for a sequence or two, then tagged out until the finish. Blanchard and Anderson were masters at their craft and Windham was one of the better in ring guys around at that time. Match was good but the crowd made it better. The pop when Windham and Luger got the win and the titles was crazy.
World Title Match: Ric Flair (c) vs Sting
This was by all accounts the coming out party for Sting. Flair reportedly saw that there was money in working with Sting and called for a program with him. At that point they’d had several house show matches but if you hadn’t been to one you had no idea just what Sting could do in a longer match. Before this program he was almost entirely a tag team guy who worked 10 to 15 minute matches at best. Here he would have to go at least 30 minutes with the master. Could he keep up or would this one go like most big matches that were occasionally given away for free?
Sting kept up and more. They went 45 minutes, and while Flair was obviously leading things there Sting was able to do his part and break out enough offense to show he was legit. The difference between he and Luger in the ring was clear from that point on. Luger would need someone like Flair to have great matches while Sting eventually would become someone who could lead a good one himself against a lesser worker. The crowd ate the whole thing up and the ending, with time expiring as Sting had Flair locked in his Scorpion Deathlock finisher, was the perfect to get Sting over as a real threat to the title while keeping it on the champ. After this one match Sting was made for the rest of his career.
The show was an exhibit in how to do a less is more show and get it right. The matches were well executed and there was enough fan service as far as winners and losers to offset the endings that the crowd may not have liked. And the show ended with the minting of a new star. Sadly this would be one of the last hurrahs for Jim Crockett’s NWA promotion. Crockett overextended himself financially by buying out several of the faltering NWA territories and the UWF, and was teetering on the brink before eventually having to sell to Ted Turner. 1988 was the last year for the old Southern style NWA wrestling, and not long after this show a lot of Crockett stalwarts began to leave. But that doesn’t take away from what was a great free show here.