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by Buck Woodward of

Mat Memory: Ricky Steamboat Returns To The NWA - 1989

World Championship Wrestling, Saturday night at 6:05pm, THE must see wrestling show of the time. Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson were gone from the NWA, but the remaining members of the Four Horsemen, Ric Flair and Barry Windham, were standing tall as the World and U.S. Champions. During their weekly interview, the two are interrupted by "Hot Stuff" Eddie Gilbert. Flair and Windham, taking Gilbert lightly, end up agreeing to a tag team match against Gilbert and a mystery partner. Jim Ross and Tony Schiavone put over the mystery aspect by calling Gilbert's partner "Mr. X" and saying he wore a mask to the contract signing. Now, let's relive the match....

Eddie Gilbert was in the ring alone, while Ric Flair and Barry Windham were accompanied by J.J. Dillon. Flair yelled over to the announce position at the old Techwood Drive studios, asking where the "big man" was. Gilbert, meanwhile, had a grin across his face. The music, which had last been heard 10 months earlier in the WWF began to play, and Ric Flair looked up, recognizing the music. Then out walked Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, wearing an even bigger smile than Gilbert had displayed. The small crowd went nuts, while Flair and Co. protested to referee Teddy Long. Still, they did not walk out of the match, and Barry Windham started out with Steamboat.

They locked up, and Windham was immediately sent flying by three Steamboat armdrags. Windham regrouped, they locked up again, and Steamboat grabbed a side headlock, was shoved into the ropes, and downed Windham with a shoulderblock. Steamboat ran the ropes, leaping over Windham twice, then sliding between his legs as Barry stood up. Windham turned around right into a Steamboat bodyslam. Flair ran in and tried to lift Steamboat for an atomic drop, but Ricky flipped over and lifted Flair into a press slam, then tossed him at Windham. Flair and Windham rolled to the floor to regroup. Windham gets back in the ring, then makes the tag to Flair.

Ric points a finger in Steamboat's face and tells him he has no business here, and that he's going to get his ass kicked. Flair grabs a side headlock, but Steamboat shoves him off and downs him with a shoulderblock. They lock up, and Flair pushes Steamboat in the corner for a chop, but the Dragon retaliates with two of his own, sending Flair to the mat. Another lockup, another side headlock by Flair, but this time it's Steamboat that goes down on the shoulderblock. Flair jumps over Steamboat to rebound off the ropes, but Steamboat is ready for him, and lifts him into a press slam. Flair rolls out of the ring. Flair takes a moment to regroup again, then returns to the ring. Steamboat leaves the ring, goes over to the interview podium and tells Flair if he wants to play, he should go back to the sandbox.

Another lockup, and Flair maneuvers Steamboat to a neutral corner. A forearm to the gut, a chop to the chest, then a right hand to the face. Steamboat throws a chop, Flair goes back to the midsection, but Steamboat hits two more chops. Barry Windham runs in, and Steamboat hits him with some chops, then bangs Windham and Flair together with the double noggin knocker. Windham flops to the mat, while Steamboat whips Flair to the corner, and backdrops him as he comes out. Flair backs up, as Steamboat lets out a "Whoo." As Steamboat advances, Flair kicks him in the midsection, chops him, but Steamboat again fires back his own chop, and Flair hits the canvas. Steamboat stalks Flair, and Flair rolls out of the ring for another breather. Windham tries to calm Flair, who is growing more frustrated. Steamboat yells over to Ross and Schiavone to tell Flair to go back to the sandbox.

Flair reenters, and Steamboat grabs a side headlock and takes him down with a side mare. Steamboat switches to a front chancery, and drags Flair to the corner for the tag to Eddie Gilbert. Gilbert hits Flair in the mid-section and grabs a side headlock, but Flair maneuvers him into a neutral corner and lays in a chop and a punch, but Gilbert fights back with a series of punches to the gut and head, taking Flair to the opposite corner, then tosses him out with a hip toss, and follows with a flying headscissors. Ric gets up, reaches for the tag, then falls on his face in the classic "Flair Flop."

Windham gets the tag, and shoves Gilbert in the chest. Not backing down, Gilbert returns the shove. The two exchange words, then lock up, and Windham muscles Gilbert to the corner and delivers a right hand. Gilbert no-sells it, and stares right at Windham. Barry backs up, then throws a kick and a punch, but Gilbert returns fire with a flurry of punches and a back body drop. Windham stumbles over to the wrong side of the ring, and Steamboat grabs him by the head and jumps off the apron, forcing Windham throat first over the top rope. Gilbert grabs him in a side headlock, but Windham, who is much taller than Gilbert, lifts him in the air, walks around, then deposits him with a back suplex. Steamboat reaches over the top rope to grab at Windham, but Barry stays out of his grasp, and he backs Gilbert into a corner. Barry slugs him with a right, then goes for a whip, but Gilbert reverses, and Windham hits the buckles. Gilbert starts firing off punches, then returns to the side headlock. Windham forearms Gilbert on the inside, then reaches around and rakes the eyes to break free. Windham locks in a front face lock, and tags in Flair, who kicks Gilbert in the gut.

Flair, holding Gilbert by the hair, backs him in the corner, and fires off a chop and a punch. Gilbert responds with a fist, and the two go punch for punch, with Gilbert getting the better of the exchange and whipping Flair across the ring. Flair hits the buckles, flips over the top rope, and collapses on the apron before going onto the floor. Flair and Windham, once again, have to regroup, and Flair comes into the ring. He begs off a little, then kicks Gilbert, doubling him over, then drives an elbow to the back of the head. Flair puts Gilbert in the corner, and hits a chop, then applies a side headlock. Gilbert shoves him off into the ropes, but Flair knocks him down with a shoulderblock. Flair bounds off the ropes, planning to go over Gilbert, but Eddie catches him with a drop toehold. Flair goes down, and Gilbert quickly applies a figure four. Windham tries to run in and break it up, but Steamboat beats him in and chops him away. Steamboat leaves, JJ Dillon jumps on the apron to distract Teddy Long, and Barry Windham reaches in and rakes Gilbert's eyes to break the hold. Flair then tries a figure four, but Gilbert grabs an inside cradle for a two count on the small package. Flair backs off, then tags Windham, but immediately drops down and hooks Gilbert's leg, sending him to the mat and keeping him from tagging. Windham, now the legal man, drops a knee to the chest. Windham whips Gilbert to the ropes and hits a powerslam. Windham hits a right hand, then goes for a slam, but Gilbert rolls him into a small package for a two count. Windham beats Gilbert to his feet, and hits a kick to the gut. He whips Gilbert in for a clothesline, but Eddie ducks, rebounds off the ropes, and hits a cross bodyblock. Windham kicks out at two, and rakes Gilberts eyes. Windham grabs a front facelock and tags Flair, who drives a knee into Gilbert's ribs.

Flair hits a kneeling Gilbert with a punch, but is still limping from the figure four by Gilbert from earlier. Flair with a chop and a punch, then goes for a vertical suplex, but Gilbert floats over, runs Flair into the ropes from behind, then rolls him up. Flair kicks out at two, and whips Gilbert into the ropes. Flair throws a chop as Gilbert comes off, but Gilbert ducks, rebounds off the other side, and leaves his feet for a clothesline. Both men are down, and crawling for a tag. Flair makes it first, and Windham cuts off Gilbert with a knee to the back. Windham tosses Gilbert to the floor, and goads Steamboat to distract the referee. On the floor, Flair chops Gilbert and grabs him in a hammerlock and rams him shoulder first into the ringpost. JJ Dillon rolls Gilbert back into the ring, where Windham, while still trash talking Steamboat, gives Gilbert a vertical suplex. Windham floats over for a two count, but Gilbert kicked out. Windham lifts Gilbert to his feet, and Eddie throws a punch to the gut, but Windham rakes his eyes again. Windham measures Gilbert for two punches, Gilbert throws another body shot, and Windham lifts Gilbert for an atomic drop. He hits it, but Gilbert turns right around and hits a clothesline. Both men are down, but Windham hooks Gilbert's tights and tags Flair.

The Nature Boy hits a double underhook suplex, then hits a kneedrop to the face for a two count. Flair shoves referee Teddy Long, complaining about the count. Flair hits Gilbert with a forearm to the back, then a kick to the same area, then drops Gilbert with a back suplex. Flair covers, cradling the head and the outer leg, but only gets a two count. Flair grabs a side headlock and fires off a punch, then tags Windham. Flair whips Gilbert into the ropes, and Windham fires off the lariat. Windham holds up the four fingers and yells at Steamboat before making the cover, but Gilbert kicks out. Windham lands a punch, then hoists Gilbert over his shoulder, walking with him before delivering a reverse atomic drop. Flair calls for an elbow, and Windham slams Gilbert and heads to the top rope, as Flair lets out a "Whoo" and he and Windham high five. Windham comes off the top, but Gilbert moves, and both men are laid out, and slowly turning to make tags. Flair tags in, as Gilbert crawls to the wrong corner, but as Ric approaches him, Gilbert scoots to the other side and makes the hot tag to Steamboat.

Steamboat fires off two quick chops, then hits Flair with a flying shoulderblock. He throws another chop, whips Flair into the ropes, and hits a back body drop. Windham runs in, and is treated to a chop, his face rammed into the turnbuckle, and another chop. Steamboat goes back to Flair with a chop to the head, one to the chest, then another backdrop. Steamboat with a scoop and a slam, then bounces off the ropes with a chop to the downed Flair. Steamboat rams Flair's face into the mat twice, then catches Windham with chops as he tries to intervene again. Windham is sent to the floor by the chops, and Steamboat goes back to Flair, whipping him into the ropes and press slamming him. Steamboat goes to the top rope and hits a perfect flying bodypress, hooking the leg as they land, and Teddy Long makes the three count as Gilbert cuts off Windham from breaking it up.

Gilbert and Steamboat embrace, with Gilbert ecstatic that Ricky "did it" while Flair and Windham sit on the mat dumbfounded. J.J. Dillon protested, but the match was over. Ricky Steamboat had returned to the NWA and pinned the World Champion. This match would begin the classic Steamboat-Flair series of 1989 (Chi-Town Rumble, Clash of Champions, Wrestle War) that gave us some of the best matches ever. For Windham, he would go on defending his U.S. Title, losing it to Lex Luger at the Chi-Town Rumble. For Eddie Gilbert, this was probably the highest profile angle of his career on a national level, although his greatest work was in Memphis and Bill Watts' UWF.

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