The WWE Network Pick Of The Week: The One That Got Away
A weekly series here at Joe Montana’s Right Arm offers a weekly pick for viewers of the new WWE Network.
The two biggest wrestling stars of the 1980s (and perhaps of all-time) were Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair.
Flair dominated the National Wrestling Alliance with an iron fist as its heel world champion throughout the 1980s. After Flair’s uplifting NWA title win over Harley Race at Starrcade on November 24, 1983, another wrestler officially represented the company as its world champion for a mere total of 176 days through the end of the decade.
While Flair controlled the NWA, Hulkamania ripped through the World Wrestling Federation in the 80s. Hulk Hogan jumped ship from the AWA to WWF in late 1983 and quickly became the company’s champion after dethroning the Iron Sheik on January 23, 1984 in Madison Square Garden.
Soon after his victory, Hogan would become a pop culture icon. He held the WWF title for four years from 1984-88 and only a break to shoot No Holds Barred interrupted his reign, which resumed on April 2, 1989 after defeating Macho Man Randy Savage at WrestleMania V.
Hogan’s lasting impact on wrestling is still felt today. He remains the only professional wrestler ever to land on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
As both wrestlers reached the 1990s, the winds of change approached. Both the WWF and WCW (the old NWA) appeared ready to handpick their replacements for Hogan and Flair respectively.
For the first time in during his Hulkamania tenure, Hogan was cleanly pinned by another wrestler – the Ultimate Warrior – for WWF title at WrestleMania VI.
Three months later, Flair suffered a similar fate when he dropped the world title at the 1990 Great American Bash to a younger and stronger opponent…Sting.
However, neither Sting and the Ultimate Warrior developed into successful champions at the box office. Both Hogan and Flair regained their titles by April 1991.
Incredibly, Flair’s championship run was interrupted by a another wrestler but a contractual dispute with WCW’s Jim Herd. Flair left the company days before a scheduled title defense against Lex Luger at the 1991 Great American Bash (on the short list of worst pay-per views ever).
Thus, the man who represented the NWA and WCW as its champion for nearly a decade took his talents to Stamford, Connecticut and to the WWF but he wasn’t alone.
Herd failed to get Flair’s actual belt from him, which led to one of the great television moments in wrestling history. WWF mainstay and manager deluxe Bobby Heenan appeared on TV with the NWA/WCW world title…stating that the man who holds this belt would be joining the WWF soon.
Alas, Ric Flair arrived to the WWF in September 1991 with his famous big gold belt in a tow and his sights set on current WWF champion Hulk Hogan.
Following Flair’s meddling ways in Hogan’s matches and the duo’s record-breaking run in singles matches around the country, it appeared all but a formality that the two biggest wrestling stars of the 1980s would clash for the WWF title in front of nearly 70,000 fans when WrestleMania VIII rolled into the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Welp, a funny thing happened on the way to wrestling history.
WrestleMania VIII – April 5, 1992 – Indianapolis, Indiana
For the first time since WrestleMania III in 1987, the WWF placed its biggest annual show back in a dome – presumably for a match of epic proportions.
The Skinny: Flair won the vacated WWF title at the legendary 1992 Royal Rumble. In the weeks that followed, Hogan was named as Flair’s opponent at WrestleMania VIII.
Then, it changed.
For reasons to this day that remain a mystery, Hogan got moved out of the title match and into a feud with Sid Justice; while Flair was booted to a semi-main event position, defending his title against Randy Savage.
We’ll get back to a few conspiracy theories later…
Meanwhile, to jolt life into a Flair/Savage feud, the WWF champ used nefarious means to hype his title bout. Flair lauded that prior to Savage and his on-screen wife Miss Elizabeth joining forces, the Nature Boy engaged in a tawdry relationship with the Macho Man’s manager.
“She was mine before she was yours,” screamed Flair.
Other big matches included Hogan’s “last match” against Sid Justice; Rowdy Roddy Piper defending the Intercontinental title against Bret Hart; The Undertaker faced off against Jake “The Snake” Roberts, and Money Inc. defending the WWF tag team titles against the Natural Disasters.
Best Match: Bret Hart vs. Roddy Piper
Hart began his full-time singles run a year earlier by becoming the Intercontinental champion. Fast-forwarding to WrestleMania, Piper entered with his first championship around his waist. The back and forth match featured tremendous action and might be the best of Piper’s career.
A bloody Hart rolled up Piper to regain the Intercontinental title and eventually set the stage for his first world title run later that year.
This match is also notable because it indirectly led to Flair nearly getting fired for bleeding during his match against Savage soon after, according to the Nature Boy’s 2004 book “To Be The Man.” Upon seeing Hart busted open, Flair thought it was ok to show color and blade himself during his title defense.
Vince McMahon disagreed due to Hart’s claim that he unintentionally cut himself. As a result, McMahon blew a gasket on Flair afterwards and nearly fired him. Reportedly, Flair was heavily fined for opting to bleed, which at the time was a no-no within the WWF.
Worst Match: Big Boss Man, Virgil, Sgt. Slaughter, and Hacksaw Jim Duggan vs. The Nasty Boys, The Mountie, and Repo Man.
This screams “we needed to get these guys a payday.”
Plus, how badly did Sgt. Slaughter feel? One year earlier, he headlined WrestleMania against Hulk Hogan. One year later, he wrestled in a throwaway match straight from the “we don’t have anything for you” department.
Best Moment: As Sid Justice and Papa Shango (!?!) strangled Hulk Hogan towards the close of WrestleMania VIII, a returning Ultimate Warrior sprinted down the ring to clear house after nearly an eight-month layoff from the company.
Historical Significance: Back to the canning of the Hogan/Flair title match for a moment. WrestleMania VIII marked Hogan’s last WWF appearance until January 1993.
Whether it was time to transition to another era or heavy scrutiny from the Vince McMahon/George Zaharian, a Flair/Hogan match couldn’t be facilitated with the latter leaving for nearly a year.
If that match took place at WM8, there’s only one finish…Hulk up, big boot, and a leg drop. No other finish was the right one. Flair winning? Nope. Vince wouldn’t allow an NWA guy to run into his biggest show of the year and pin one of his boys in a main event. It just wasn’t going to happen.
However, Hogan winning the title wasn’t an option either.
Having said that, the company potentially left some money by not putting together perhaps, one of the biggest money matches of all-time.
When Flair and Hogan met at WCW’s Bash at the Beach in 1994, it felt slightly off. WCW attempted to do it justice but it lacked same weight had the match taken place under the then-WWF banner.
Meanwhile, Flair dropped the title to Savage in a great title bout.
Overall, with Hogan’s departure, the show marked a slow transition from the old guard to a new one. Shawn Michaels wrestled his first match as a singles star at WM8; while Hart regained the Intercontinental title.
While Flair and Hogan’s scrapped match is one of the enduring memories of the show, WrestleMania VIII remains a solid show but it’s hard not to wonder…what if.