It remains my favorite moment in wrestling history…well, besides all those checks I cashed. I was there, in person, as a fan. It was the last time I acted like a mark.
Jan. 19, 1992. Twenty years ago. Knickerbocker Arena. Albany, N.Y. The fifth Royal Rumble.
The Ric Flair Rumble.
I spoke to Ric a few weeks before the show, but he had little idea of what might happen. WWE had dropped the ball with Flair since signing him the previous August. Billing him as the “real world champion” was inspired.Subsequently digitizing his belt by way of dodging legal action made a positive out of a negative.
But Flair’s history was ignored. He was mostly portrayed as some crackpot who declared himself world champ out of nowhere. VKM’s desire to promulgate his version of the truth trumped even his fiscal greed, as Hogan-Flair “unification” matches were relegated to house shows. We never got that payoff on PPV, and we’d waited YEARS for it.
But VKM always respected Flair’s talent, if not his past. That showed at the Ric Flair Rumble.
That year’s Rumble winner would win the vacant WWE title, which had been held up after two "controversial" matches between Hogan and Undertaker. Rumor ran rampant that Flair would win the title without ever laying hands on anyone; that he would enter 30th, setting foot in the ring just as any other remaining participants eliminated each other. It’s the same scenario you hear about Chris Jericho for Sunday's Rumble.
I’d halfway convinced myself that was going to happen…then Flair entered as the 3rd participant. My heart sank – yes, I cared THAT much then – because I assumed that Flair was going to last a decent amount of time, then get eliminated. Flair going 60 minutes and beating basically the entire WWE would be the ultimate form of putting him over. I just didn’t think VKM or the backstage politicians were ready for that.
But, that’s exactly what happened. Ric Flair was born again as a 60-minute man in front of the whole wrestling world.
Larry Zbyszko used to win Battle Royals by standing on the ring apron, avoiding contact – basically hiding from the fight. Flair did not do that. Oh, he didn’t get in much offense, but nearly every new participant in the Rumble headed straight for Flair. He took every one of his trademark bumps, some twice. That kind of attention – especially from the promotion’s superstars like Randy Savage and Roddy Piper – made Flair IMPORTANT. His ability to survive established his resilience and opportunism. WWE used the Royal Rumble to establish THEIR Ric Flair character. It was the same as the NWA’s Ric Flair character, but…UNLESS IT HAPPENS IN WWE, IT DOESN’T COUNT.
Flair wasn’t totally impotent offensively: He eliminated three foes solo (British Bulldog, Texas Tornado and Big Boss Man). Flair teamed with Sid Justice to eliminate Savage, and with Hogan to eliminate Sid and win the Rumble.
For me, that moment of truth – when Hogan grabbed Sid’s arm from outside the ring and Flair took advantage and dumped Sid out – was ORGASMIC. Almost literally. Up until then, I figured Flair would get beat, maybe disrespected somehow. But VKM did better by Flair on that day that any promoter before or since.
Flair’s my friend, but he’s always been my HOME TEAM, too. Despite growing up in Pittsburgh, a WWE stronghold, I’d always loved the NWA, first watching it on a low-rung UHF station out of Johnstown, Pa., then on SuperStation TBS. It’s a work, yeah. But I always wanted Flair to go to WWE and show them what a real champ looked like. That day, he did. Like I said, I popped like a mark. Jumped up and down.
The post-match interview was special, too. Flair’s legitimate pride at winning the WWE title was very evident. Bobby Heenan & Mr. Perfect served the role of sidemen well.
The Ric Flair Rumble will always remain a very special memory. Even if you’re not a Flair fan, anyone would admire that show. That booking. From beginning to end, it’s a blueprint on how to get someone over.
How come nobody knows how to do that anymore?
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM,Pittsburgh, PA (105.9). Check out his web page at WXDX.com. Contact Mark by emailing email@example.com . FOLLOW MARK ON TWITTER: @MARKMADDENX.