In 1987, a feud started with WWF and Vince McMahon over scheduling pay-per-views when WWF’s Survivor Series went head-to-head with NWA’s Starcade. McMahon threatened to hold back any further pay-per-views from the cable companies if they chose the NWA event over his own. This led the NWA to counter program McMahon by offering up a supercard on live television as the first Clash of the Champions aired on TBS against the pay-per-view, Wrestlemania.
Slowly, the Clash of the Champions morphed into an advertising tool. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, long before Monday Nitro, the NWA had a Saturday evening, and sometimes Sunday evening, hourly show to advertise on. Their solution was to start airing Clash before pay-per-views. The purpose was two-fold: one, to draw ratings with a usually well-stacked card, and two, to use that card to promote the upcoming pay-per-view. Major title changes rarely happened on the show in the early years, but major developments in the storyline usually occurred around the matches. Clash of the Champions became notable because they aired on prime time mid-week and would deliver acceptable to amazing cards. The quality decreased when past-his-babyface-prime Hulk Hogan showed up and Monday Nitro was developed. The work rate was rather abysmal at that time and, with national television every week, the need for Clash died. Nevertheless, those old cards produced dozens of lauded matches. The following list looks at the best of them.
5. “Stunning” Steve Austin (c) vs. Ricky Steamboat for the United States Title – Clash of the Champions XXVIII (August 24, 1994)
This match features a young Steve Austin, approximately two years before his breakout in WWF, showing he’s one of the better workers in the United States by keeping up with Ricky Steamboat. The match has the special stipulation that allows Steamboat to the win the title if Austin gets disqualified, which Bobby Heenan notes early that if he were Steamboat, he would toss himself over the top rope and pretend Austin threw him to get Austin DQ’d (Throwing an opponent over the top rope was a disqualification at the time). There is a long heat segment in the match that shows Austin in control with mat wrestling and stymieing Steamboat’s attempted comebacks. The crowd slowly builds sympathy for Steamboat. As Steamboat starts to rally, Austin throws him over the top rope at this time, but Steamboat catches himself and pulls himself back in even though he would have won the title. This babyface move, the guy who wants to win on merit, sets the crowd on fire for the last five minutes of the match. When Steamboat finally gets the pin, the crowd explodes.
4. The Midnight Express (c) versus The Fantastics for the United States Tag Team Titles – Clash of the Champions I (March 27, 1988)
If any modern viewers are wondering why the tag team matches in NXT are so much better than those on the main roster, it is because those NXT teams are watching video of the 1980s NWA matches. This is a great example of one of those matches. The Fantastics are a great tag team, and if The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express hadn’t been the darlings of the babyface tag teams, then The Fantastics would have been a much bigger team. They were technically proficient, fast-paced, and fiery. The Midnight Express is quite possibly the greatest heel tag team of all-time. The Fantastics show their quick offensive moveset early in the match until the Midnight take control with non-stop tags and double team maneuvers, cutting off the babyface from his partner. When the hot tag is made, all hell breaks loose, and the crowd loses it. Again, for modern viewers, crowds were insane for tag team wrestling in this time. The Fantastics seemed like they won the U.S. Tag Titles, but there was an earlier DQ when the referee was accidentally thrown over the top rope. While the match was a DQ finish, it was the perfect build to The Fantastics finally taking the titles at The Great American Bash ’88, in an equally great match.
3. Ric Flair (c) vs. Sting for the World Heavyweight Title – Clash of the Champions I (March 27, 1988)
This is the historic match that “made” Sting in the eyes of wrestling fans. It is also what the first Clash is remembered for. The leader of the Four Horsemen and wily veteran champion, Ric Flair, had to defend against the young, up-and-coming Sting. The match was similar in construction to the Flair and Luger matches. Flair sticks with the slow pace, “work the leg” strategy in an effort to slow down the quick and high-flying powerhouse. What makes Sting so impressive in this match than in previous matches is that he showed mat wrestling, the ability to sell, and the stamina to go to a 45-minute draw. This was a time where someone didn’t need to win to be “made” in the eyes of the fans; they only needed to show they could compete. It would be another two years before Sting won the title, but on this night, his career really started.
2. Ricky Steamboat (c) vs. Ric Flair for the World Heavyweight Title – Clash of the Champions VI (April 2, 1989)
This match is the second out of the classic Flair-Steamboat trilogy of 1989, and it is considered by many to be one of the greatest matches of all-time. The working class Steamboat had already won the World Heavyweight Title from born-with-a-silver-spoon Flair a couple months earlier, so this was Flair’s rematch. It was a scheduled two-out-of-three falls match. Flair won the first with an inside cradle and took the advantage. Later, Steamboat made Flair submit to a double chickenwing to even it out at the 34-minute mark. The two men proceed to go another twenty minutes past that! The ending is one of the more famous controversial endings in wrestling. An exhausted Steamboat lifts Flair up in the double chickenwing, but he can’t hold him up and falls backward; both men’s shoulders are on the mat. Steamboat gets his shoulder up at two; Flair does not. But, Flair did put his foot under the rope although the referee didn’t see it. The babyface Steamboat immediately offers Flair another rematch to settle things. This match is long, but is one of the masterpieces of NWA wrestling – a long war between two of the greatest technical workers in the world at the time.
1. Ric Flair vs. Terry Funk in an “I Quit” Match – Clash of the Champions IX (November 15, 1989)
Many would place the Flair-Steamboat bout above this one, but this match between an oddly babyface Flair and a maniacal, violent Terry Funk feels like a major showdown as this is one of the few times where Clash was used to finish a feud before a pay-per-view rather than heat one up. Flair came down to his traditional music, Thus Sprach Zarathrustra, and the Texan Funk came down to an Ennio Morricone score. This match was an “I Quit” match, but in a unique approach, the referee carried a microphone around with him in the ring asking if the men wanted to quit. The two legends, both still in shape where in another three to four years they wouldn’t be, beat the living hell out of each other. It’s all fists, chops, kicks in between moves. Both men had submission moves – Flair, the figure four leglock, and Funk, the spinning toe hold. Funk, however, forgoes his submission hold in order to try to punish Flair into submission, beating him mercilessly and even executing a piledriver on concrete. Flair, often more methodical, is just as ferocious as Funk when he gets the upper hand, yet he sticks to his game plan and systematically destroys Funk’s leg, leading to the most famous part of the match with Funk hollering in pain before saying “I quit.” Quite simply, this match is the ultimate in blow-off matches and a great showdown between two, aging but capable legends.