1989 was a special year in professional wrestling.
From mid-February through May 7, Ric Flair and RIcky Steamboat battled over the NWA heavyweight title in what many wrestling pundits say are the three greatest trilogy matches in the history of the sport.
At the Chi-Town Rumble in February of ’89 in Chicago, Steamboat pinned Flair to capture his first ever NWA world title. They met again at Clash of the Champions VI on April 2, opposite of Wrestlemania V in a two-out-of-three-falls match where Steamboat won the 55-minute battle two-to-one.
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The finale took place one month later on May 7 at WrestleWar: Music City Showdown in Nashville, Tenn. There, Flair regained the belt with pro wrestling legends Lou Thesz, Pat O’Connor and Terry Funk sitting ringside to serve as official judges.
The common theme in those matches? Jim Ross, whom many consider the greatest wrestling announcer of all time, called them all. Before he returns to the booth on Saturday at All Elite Wrestling’s inaugural event, Double or Nothing (7 p.m. ET, PPV and B/R Live), Ross took time with Sporting News to discuss what it was like calling those matches 30 years ago, where they rank in wrestling history and memories from those nights.
(Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Flair underwent heart surgery on Monday, subsequently withdrawing from this weekend’s Starrcast II event. The interview has been edited for length and clarity).
Sporting News: You are going to be out in Las Vegas commentating the AEW Double or Nothing event. But you are also going to be appearing at Starrcast. What will you be doing there?
Jim Ross: Conrad (Thompson) told me that Ric had asked for me to run the panel on the three Steamboat-Flair matches from 1989 that I called and are considered three of the greatest trilogy matches ever. Some people won’t agree with that and will say (Kazuchika) Okada-(Kenny) Omega. I’m not going to make an argument that one was better than the other. But I will say that you can’t compare one without the other. Those are high-level matches between those four guys which were extraordinary.
He (Thompson) asked if I wanted to do a show with (Jerry) Lawler and I said absolutely because this may be one of the last bookings we get to do together because of contractual issues with WWE. Of course, I said hell yeah.
SN: As you said, you called the three Flair-Steamboat matches from 1989. Have you watched those matches at all since you called them, or do you just let people talk to you about how great they were?
JR: To be totally honest, I have not watched the entire trilogy of matches. I’m not a big fan of my own work. I’m kind of reluctant to listen to anything I’ve done. But I will tell you that I felt like they killed it. All those matches are different. The effort was intense. The professionalism was A-plus. I knew when we did them; they were special. The only one we did that I thought would have some negative around it was that it had nothing to do with the talent and it had to do with the venue was the match at the Superdome. It was a lousy site for the second match between those guys. That stadium seated at the time around 65,000 fans and we only had around 5-6,000 fans. That does affect your perception and magnitude of everything that night. I loved the match, but the surroundings were a little different.
The intensity in Chicago was unbelievable for the first one that I did with Magnum T.A. and the second one I did with Terry Funk and the last one I did with Bob Geigel. All three different trips. All three different rides. All three different journeys and destinations. That’s a compliment to Ricky and ‘Naitch’ because they changed their matches up to continue the storyline and added new wrinkles which added new elements to the matches. The trilogy ends with Flair regaining the title and afterward starting the angle with Terry Funk which started a new series of matches over time. I thought it was really well done.
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SN: What are some memories from the show that people don’t know about?
JR: The atmosphere in New Orleans was strange. You had so many people but so many open seats where our announce position was placed. I had to go to the bathroom during the long show. There was nobody around, so I hunkered down and peed in the seats around me. I had to go somewhere. I had to do that or urinate on myself. There was nobody there so I looked around and knew I could do it. I felt like a farm boy outside by a tree. That’s how empty it was. There wasn’t a soul in sight where we were at. Terry (Funk) laughed and thought it was funny, but he told me you got to do what you got to do. So I had two options. I could do number one right here, or I could soil my pants. The other thing I remember that I can recall is that I was walking down to the ring in Chicago and Magnum was ahead of me, and it took him a little bit longer to get out there than me because of his physical situation.
There was no hurry. I was trailing a little bit, and George Scott was the booker at the time. He grabbed me and mind you I didn’t know what the finish was going to be and I didn’t want to know what it was. I was adamant not to know like I would on most nights. He said to me, ‘You know we are taking the belt off of Ric tonight, right? I said, ‘I didn’t know George. Why did you tell me that?’ He told me, ‘I thought you needed to know.’ It pissed me off a little bit, to be honest with you. I wanted it to be spontaneous. I didn’t want to know anything. But the good news is the match was so good, and the crowd was absolutely amazing that information George provided was forgotten. I found myself immersed in what Ricky and ‘Naitch’ were doing. It all worked out well. They’re classics. I hope all these years later that my commentary still holds up to some degree.
SN: Your commentary was exceptional in all three matches. In my opinion, your best work was the second one just because of the crowd and you could tell it felt empty. But the emotion you exuded made it feel special and feel like there were 20,000 people in the Superdome.
JR: It’s like you’re in the kitchen cooking and you hear the announcer raise the inflection in their voice for a reason or a specific call. The person is naturally going to turn around, go to the TV and see what it is going on. That’s human nature. It’s the same thing with a football game. You could tell what some of the big plays are just by the announcer’s tone to get your attention. That’s how we function. I was blessed to be at the right place at the right time to call those three classic matches and be able to add a little music to the dance they led everyone on. It’s a great memory for me. I never broadcast in person or elsewhere, three better trilogies.
I did the three Okada-Omega matches. Unfortunately, those are all on voiceover on a slight tape delay, which loses a little bit of its P&V for anybody. It’s not as good being ringside and feeling the crowd, their energy, and noise. I never called three more memorable and historically significant matches in my career.
The only three matches that come to mind, but they were far apart, were the three Wrestlemania matches between The Rock and ‘Stone Cold’ (Steve) Austin at Wrestlemania 15, 17 and 19.
SN: Is the fact that Flair and Steamboat did three different matches the determining factor of why it made them so special, compared to what we saw with Okada-Omega, Rock-Austin, and other trilogy matches throughout time?
JR: I’m a fan of wrestling, first and foremost. For any broadcaster, to call a Flair-Steamboat match, I don’t have to do much to build up their performance. I just have to be motivated to call a great match or as great as they are wrestling. It helped tremendously that they were unique, and they were always changing it up. They not only changed it up for the fans, but they changed it up for the broadcasters. Even though I was the common denominator in those three matches, they all had different feels to them. But you had two artists in there who painted like Picasso, so you knew you were going to get something great. I knew what we could potentially have but Ricky and ‘Naitch’ over-delivered in my opinion, in my view. And that raised everybody’s game. It was an amazing experience and opportunity to do it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If you are a wrestling fan, it is more than worth your time to go and watch these matches.