Retro Review: Starrcade 1983 – A Flair For The Gold
When people think of the ‘big bang’ moment for the modern pay-per-view wrestling supershow, they often, quite understandably look back to the WWF’s first WrestleMania event in 1985. However, much to Vince McMahon’s chagrin I’m sure, somebody beat him to the punch. Jim Crockett Promotions, one of the larger, most successful promotions under the NWA banner, promoted the first big televised Supercard show with the first Starrcade event at the Greensboro Coliseum, North Carolina, on the 24th November 1983, aired on Closed-Circuit TV.
The creation of Dusty Rhodes and Barry Windham, the event was designed as a way of combating the national expansion of McMahon’s WWF, which was using cable to reach a wider audience across the country. Crockett hoped that by airing Starrcade on Closed-Circuit TV at a series of sympathetic arenas, with a card loaded with big matches, they could land a substantial audience. With the given attendance at Greensboro being 15,477 paying fans, and estimated attendance at CCTV venues being between 30,000 and 40,000 people, I’d say they more than succeeded.
While not the first Supercard nor the first wrestling event to be aired on CCTV, this was the show that set the blueprint for the modern wrestling Supershow as we know it now. WrestleMania developed it, made it evolve, but Starrcade invented it.
So, with the scene set, let’s go down to the ring!
Rufus R. Jones & Bugsy McGraw vs. The Assassins
This is the WWE Network edition, and it doesn’t open with any kind of introduction video or credits. Instead, we open with the two teams here standing in the ring being introduced. Unfortunately, I can’t confirm if that is how the show originally opened or whether it’s just how the WWE Network version is presented.
Paul Jones is the manager of the Assassins, resplendent in a white tuxedo, and it’s a shame Jones never gets mentioned when people talk about the great wrestling managers. He was very entertaining.
Very much a punch-kick match here, but the crowd is hot, and Jones and McGraw at least have some personality, shaking some boogie-woogie knees to the crowd’s delight. Simpler times.
Short and reasonably painless, the Assassins, who had been dominated throughout, sneak the win with a roll-up, grabbing a handful of tights to do it.
Wouldn’t recommend the tight lycra suits, though boys, with those figures…
Gordon Solie and Bob Caudle are your announcers tonight, ladies and gentleman, and Solie looks fetching in a raspberry-colored velvet jacket, subtly dandyish for such a serious voice. Bob Caudle is his usual jovial self, as both men share the same microphone to speak – no headsets here. They hype the Flair-Race main event and note Dusty Rhodes is here and will look to challenge the winner of the match at a later date. Little did they know that a year later Dusty would be headlining the second Starrcade.
The Era of Schivone Begins
Tony Schivone is backstage in the face locker room and it’s quite refreshing to see the likes of Ricky Steamboat and Charlie Brown milling around, not acting particularly in kayfabe. Roddy Piper and Flair and in the background talking and Flair look appropriately solemn as suits the occasion.
Schivone looks fifteen years old; he looks so young it’s frightening! He’s here to bring us any news from backstage. With that, it’s back to the ring!
Kevin Sullivan & Mark Lewin vs. Scott McGhee & Johnny Weaver
Reading up on this event for this review, I found out that Sullivan and Lewin were tagging in the Florida territory at this time, where Sullivan had ‘brainwashed’ Lewin into tagging with him. Unfortunately, that was not referenced here apart from a few strange mannerisms by Lewin. But I did enjoy hearing Solie say “some people believe Sullivan is a druid…”
A sound tag-formula match, which Sullivan and Lewin won with a double team knee to the arm, things got exciting after the bell when manager Gary Hart, the legend himself, pulled out a spike and handed it to Lewin, who proceeded to make a bloody mess out of Scott McGhee’s forehead with it! The second match in and McGhee’s juicing a real gusher. Angelo Mosca comes in to make the save and gets a spike to the arm for his troubles, but he’s soon back up and chasing the heels away.
Simple but bloody effective (literally!)
Post-match, Barbara Cleary interviews a family who’ve traveled 180 miles to be at Starrcade, which is impressive. They’re not very talkative but they do all give Flair the nod for the main event.
Harley Gives A Masterclass
Backstage, Baby Schivone interviews 7-time and reigning world champion Harley Race. Greg Valentine and The Brisco’s flank him. It’s interesting to see all the champions here and that they’re all heels. Race proceeds to give a masterclass in heel promo psychology. He looks relaxed, but you never doubt he means what he says. He remains softly spoken, never raising his voice, but you know he’s a nasty piece of work that would beat the living hell out of you as soon as look at you. Modern heels take note. He says he knows what Flair’s weak spots are and he’s going after each one of them.
Carlos Colon vs. Abdullah the Butcher
It’s 1983, and both men’s foreheads already look like road maps.
A short match and tame by the standards of the two men involved, it was very much kick-punch until Colon started biting and gouging Abby’s forehead with a spike that seemed to appear from nowhere. Interestingly the ref just let it go, which seems more of a modern trait to me, but then I suppose spikes and blood were often the point of Abby and Colon matches.
The ref gets bumped and wow if it isn’t future WWE commentator Hugo Savinovich running interference, cracking Colon in the head so Abby can get the pin.
Harmless and to the point.
But What About McGhee?
Backstage, Tony interviews a furious Angelo Mosca, whose spike arm from earlier is bandaged. Fine, until at the end of the interview, the camera pulls back to reveal an untreated McGhee, covered in blood and looking like he’s passed out. So, you’d treat a minor wound on the arm immediately, but leave a severely lacerated man to his own devices? Very, very odd.
Meanwhile, Barbara Cleary interviews two fans at ringside, one of whom says that her favorite wrestler is Charlie Brown. There’s no accounting for taste.
Wahoo McDaniel & Mark Youngblood vs. Bob Orton & Dick Slater
This is the first big match of the evening. Slater and Orton were super hot as heels in ’83, having collected Harley Race’s bounty on Ric Flair in the summer and putting him temporarily out of action. Wahoo McDaniel was super over as a face and had been for years, and Mark Youngblood was Jay’s younger brother, getting the rub by association.
A really good tag formula match, with Youngblood starting hot then playing face in peril, Orton and Slater worked beautifully together: double team moves, suplexes, and power moves, all the while keeping Youngblood in their corner.
Orton particularly showed his hard-ass heel side, body slamming Youngblood onto the security rail, which looked stiff as hell and a nasty bump considering the era. I winced.
Eventually, Wahoo got the hot tag and unloaded on the heels, only to tag in Youngblood and then be unceremoniously kneed to the outside. Youngblood missed a dropkick, and a big superplex from the top by Orton yielded the 1-2-3.
Not finished there, the heels took out Youngblood and Slater proceeded to stretch Wahoo’s arm out for Orton to jump from the top and land on the arm knees first in an effort to break it.
No nonsense and bad to the bone. Just like heels should be.
Interesting fact: Orton is one of four men who can say they wrestled at both the first Starrcade and Wrestlemania (the others being Piper, Steamboat, and Valentine).
Does Flair Have a Flair For The Gold?
In the locker room, Tony Schivone finds a solemn Ric Flair, which is a novelty as he didn’t go down that route very often, certainly not after he feuded with Terry Funk in ’89, as the nineties saw Flair get wilder and more over-the-top. Here, Flair just hopes Race is ready because this is a match of a lifetime.
Jay Youngblood and Ricky Steamboat are with Flair, and Steamboat, never the sharpest on the mic, impresses me by saying that for the Briscoes, this is “their inevitable end.” Steamboat’s not playing around tonight!
Back at ringside, Barbara Cleary interviews Dusty Rhodes but her microphone keeps cutting in and out. The Dream looks fired up, though. Solie promises to bring us the interview later.
NWA TV Champion The Great Kabuki vs. Charlie Brown
Your enjoyment of this match might depend on your tolerance for Jimmy Valient, the man behind the Charlie Brown mask. Usually, I have no tolerance for him but he’s the better man here, jumping on Kabuki at the bell, throwing him into the ring post outside, and ramming a steel chair into Kabuki’s throat. The ref lets this slide also, proving that it’s only now where the rules can be enforced laxly.
Kabuki is like a prototype for The Great Muta, spitting out the green mist in much the same way Muta did. If only Kabuki had half the talent Muta did. If ten minutes of Kabuki applying a claw hold is your bag, then fill your boots with this match!
In the end, Kabuki misses a big kick, bouncing from the corner to the mat, where Brown drops an album and gets the pin and the title! A very sudden ending to a dull match.
Meanwhile, Schivone has a quick word with Harley Race, who is with a gloating Dick Slater and Bob Orton. The boys are pretty pleased with what they did to Wahoo and warn Flair he’s not going to have it easy with Race. Race reminds Flair he’s going for that hurt neck. Seems a bit reckless to give away your tactics to your opponent, but then I’m not a 7-time NWA champion, so what do I know?
The Dream Speaks…At Last!
Barbara Cleary has Dusty Rhodes backstage, and now she has a working mic, so game on. Dusty calls himself a folk hero and a legend and claims that he cannot be denied. True enough, he would appear in the main event with Flair the following year at Starrcade ’84.
Dog Collar Match: Greg Valentine vs. Roddy Piper
This has gone done as one of those canonized classics, and I’m happy to report it very much holds up after all these years.
Valentine was the US champion at this point, but this was a non-title match. Gordon Solie is none the wiser, advising everyone that it is a title match but was not. Just to be clear!
This was a heated, bloody brawl to settle the intense Piper-Valentine feud and did what every good feud payoff should do – it was wild, it was intense, it pushed things further than their previous encounters, and there was blood, and there was a decisive winner.
Collar (and likewise strap) matches can be quite limiting in the wrong hands, but Piper and Valentine were pretty creative here. They started with a chain tug of war, using their necks! They wrapped chains around mouths and eyes and pulled back with vicious intent. They hung each other against the ropes. They wrapped the chain around their fists and beat the hell out of each other.
Piper had hurt his ear in their last match and Valentine played on this, battering the ear with chain and fist and making Piper juice from there pretty damn bad. Valentine himself bled from the forehead, selling the effects of the beating he took but honing in on that ear with determination.
In the end, ‘The Hammer’ goes up top for a big elbow but Piper pulls him down with the chain. He then proceeds to smash Greg with chain strikes to the chest and face that are being thrown with such wild abandon it’s scary. Piper then cleverly wraps the chain around Valentine’s legs to prevent a kick out and takes the 1-2-3. The Hammer’s not done though and gives Piper a right pasting with the chain and another hanging against the ropes. Don’t mess with ‘The Hammer,’ guys!
An absolute must-see classic that benefits from the psychology behind attacking the ear and creative use of the chain. This is my match of the night.
Ric Flair: The Sequel (starring Wahoo McDaniel)
The interview segments are starting to get a bit much now, what with one after every single match. It’s not like they’re even interviewing different people – we’re back with Flair again! This time he has Wahoo McDaniel with him, arm in a sling, bigging up Flair. It won’t last long.
Down at ringside, Barbara Cleary speaks to former tag champion Don Kernodle, who is surprisingly respectful of both teams considering he and Sgt. Slaughter were a nasty pair of gentlemen during their reign. He also gives Flair the nod. Do you think by any chance Flair might win?
NWA Tag Team Champions The Brisco Brothers vs. Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood
This was a great match from bell to bell. The crowd is super into Steamboat and Youngblood. Gerry Brisco standing on the top turnbuckle, arms crossed, during the ring introductions was a strange but cool sight to see.
Solie makes the point that Jack Brisco was Heavyweight Champion for two and a half years. Imagine a champion doing that now! It would never happen. With the right champion, though, I’d love to see it. Whoever takes the title from such a champion is going to look good by the length of the reign.
The story of the match is that of the young challengers matching the champions on the mat but frustrating them by being faster, more athletic. It helps that Steamboat is in for his team for most of the match, as Ricky was always a workhouse. Jack Brisco is a machine, executing a keylock armbar and a bridging suplex with beautiful precision. Gerry and Jay featureless in the action, but everything they do is solid.
The champions make the mistake of pushing special ref Angelo Mosca, who pushes back. Steamboat then press slams Youngblood onto Jerry to become the new tag team champions! And. The. Arena. Explodes! Such is the love these two men had, the response to their title won is near-rapturous and like good babyfaces, the two men milk it for all it’s worth. Has to be seen to be believed.
Post-match we have 10 minutes to waste while they put the steel cage up (how things have progressed since!) So we get Tony interviewing Charlie Brown, Roddy Piper, and Steamboat and Youngblood in quick succession. Gordon and Bob comment on the interviews and thank the people in the Caribbean for tuning in. Barbara Cleary gives Dusty Rhodes some more mic time to say pretty much the same thing. And a man called James ‘Tiny’ Weeks sings the National Anthem reasonably well. In the dark. But then as he finishes, the strains of ‘Thus Sprach Zarathustra’ cuts through the darkness, and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your main event.
Steel Cage Match: NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race vs. Ric Flair
Here we are, the match that ushered in and cemented the Flair era for the remainder of the decade. Yes, Flair was already a one-time NWA world champion at this point, but the masterful build to this match over the previous six months, with Race putting a bounty on Flair’s head, and Flair surprising everyone by returning to action and gunning for Race, had built Flair up to superstar level. Having the title match be in Carolina just sent him supernova.
This would be Race’s last official run with the belt and signaled his withdrawal from the main event scene and almost functioned like the changing of the guard. This is the official anointing of Flair as ‘The One.’ And the audience is ecstatic about it.
Everything from the entrances (Flair with strobe lights and pyro, Race taking it slowly like the ultimate asshole heel) to the post-match celebration helped to lend this a real big fight feel – a cliché now but here it’s very appropriate. This feels incredibly sports-like, like a big boxing title fight, for example. It adds gravitas to an already monumental match.
The match itself is possibly a little slow, even by ’80’s main event style. Still, it is a very enjoyable contest that tells a story and does build up to a faster-paced climax. Here are two men who hate each other but are cautious because of the title on the line. At first, they go to the mat, trying to wear each other down, but flashes of temper lash out, forcing guest ref Gene Kiniski to intervene.
Finally, tempers overcome and the cage comes into play, both men juicing and hitting big moves like a beautiful butterfly from Flair and the classic head-butt from Race. Race, befitting the heel, is the more vicious of the two men, forcing Kiniski to pull him off Flair at times, grabbing a handful of Race’s hair and yanking! But Flair gives as good as he gets, landing some vicious chops on Race’s chest and using the cage as an ally.
In the end, Flair, as we know, takes the win but does so in an uncharacteristic manner, hitting a flying crossbody from the top for the pin. The crowd reaction is seismic. The era of Flair begins here!
Post-match, the babyfaces storm the ring and pick Flair upon their shoulders as cameramen come in and take pictures. It all adds to the big match feel. Ric’s then-wife Beth enters the ring, kisses Ric, then leaves again, which is quite unintentionally funny. Ric eventually takes the mic and, sounding pretty sincere, thanks the fans and claims this to be the greatest night of his life.
You’d think that would be a perfect point to end the show, but no. We go back to Solie and Caudel, who congratulate Flair, a backstage interview with Flair, who looks moved and thanks Ricky Steamboat for the training, an interview with Race who concedes Flair is the champ but Race isn’t finished with him (he is), and then a little more waffling from Solie, who compares Starrcade to the World Series and the Super Bowl. If he only he knew about WrestleMania. Then, with a strange hand gesture and a ‘hey!’ from Solie (what is this, cabaret?), we go to a highlight reel for Flair vs. Race and we’re finally out of here!
History has been made.
Bearing in mind this was the first filmed and live-aired Super Card of its kind, Starrcade ’83 holds up incredibly well. Without a load of bells and whistles, it still manages to have the aura of a major wrestling event. There were two excellent and two very good matches on a card of eight matches, and at least 3 of the lesser matches were at least short and inoffensive. The only clunker is Charlie Brown vs. The Great Kabuki, and that goes by quick enough.
If you were to compare this to the first WrestleMania, only a year and a half later, the WWF had the edge on production with a better pace, a slicker feel, and a harem of celebrities but Starrcade wins hands down on a match by match basis. WrestleMania had a lot more filler and low-quality grappling, whereas the best matches at Starrcade were genuinely great matches.
What lets Starrcade down is the production. Nobody expects modern-day lighting and sets, and the visuals are perfectly acceptable here. Where the real problem lies is with the layout of events. An interview after every single match isn’t necessary, especially when Flair, Race and Dusty get three interviews EACH across the show. It does give the show a stop-start feel at times, and the repeated interviews feel a little like filler by the end.
Still, it’s easy to be over-critical. This was the first event of its kind and there were always going to be moments of trial and error. All would learn from this and slowly but surely production would improve, especially once a certain Vincent K. McMahon would get involved in the pay-per-view market…
Would this show appeal to an audience brought up on Ruthless Aggression onwards? Parts would, certainly. Valentine and Piper generate a startling amount of heat and blood that would appeal to a modern audience, and there’s enough in the Briscoes/Steamboat and Youngblood match to appeal to the Strong Style and NXT crowds, I’d argue.
Still, whatever your age or taste, this is a must-see. Not only is there some genuinely great wrestling on display, but it is also an important historical document. As Gordon Solie says, right at the end of the show: “There’s no question we’re entering a brand-new era of professional wrestling.” Amen, Gordon.