The Golden State Warriors and the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers will meet up on Thursday, making them the first teams to battle for an NBA championship for three consecutive years. Trilogies in sports are rare, only happening a handful of times ever. The most notable probably being the Ali/Frazier boxing matches in the 70s, but even then their legendary fights were years apart.
Even in the scripted world of Hollywood where trilogies have become the gold standard for movie franchises, pulling off the perfect trifecta is an elusive goal. Star Wars had those damn Ewoks. The Matrix had two meaningless sequels and The Godfather had a part three movie with an incest storyline and Sofia Coppola.
The beauty of the Warriors/Cavs trilogy is that it’s been played out with the drama of a scripted battle. There really isn’t a comparable movie or sports comparison to match the ups and downs and epic entertainment of the last two years. Only one genre of entertainment sets up a blueprint for such a confrontation: professional wrestling.
There’s really a single trilogy, one unforgettable encounter, that resembles the Cavaliers vs. Warriors. And it’s the best trilogy in wrestling history. The three-match series between Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat in 1989.
In the world of wrestling, it’s easy to manufacture matchups and trilogies. In fact, most feuds are set up as trilogies with wrestlers usually having around three major matches to conclude a feud: two regular matches at consecutive major events before culminating in some sort of cage match or no holds barred match to wrap up the series.
CM Punk and Samoa Joe had three great matches for Ring Of Honor in 2004, two of them went to a one-hour draw, and some people say that is wrestling’s greatest trilogy, but for me it lacks the drama and prestige of the Flair/Steamboat classics. And The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin headlined three WrestleManias to cap off wrestling’s greatest feud, but they happened over the course of five years and only the WrestleMania X-Seven match was truly great.
What makes Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat stand out as the greatest wrestling trilogy is that it featured the two best wrestlers in the world at the time, wrestling at the peaks of their careers and filling up roughly three hours of flawlessly executed performance. And why shouldn’t it be flawless? The feud was more than a decade in the making.
Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat first met in 1977 in Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic wrestling promotion. Flair had been wrestling for a few years and Steamboat was just beginning to cut his teeth. Flair, though, knew instantly that Steamboat was a star. The two blue chip stars would have series of matches for the Mid-Atlantic TV Title in the 70s. From most accounts (including Flair and Steamboat), those matches were superior to the bouts they’d be most known for in 1989.
However, the matches for the TV title were only seen by fans in attendance as they weren’t televised. It makes sense for Flair and Steamboat to love those matches as they were in their athletic primes.
The duo would feud off and on for a few years but Steamboat would eventually head to WWE, where he had arguably the greatest match in WrestleMania history with Macho Man Randy Savage at WrestleMania III in 1984. Meanwhile, Ric Flair was busy forming a little group called The Four Horsemen and dominating NWA as World Champion. Unfortunately for Steamboat, WWE never quite figured out how to utilize him, so he floundered a bit after his match with Savage until he eventually returned to NWA. And immediately the feud was back on as Ted Turner has just purchased NWA and turned it into World Championship Wrestling. So he needed a fresh feud to introduce his new company. Steamboat was perfect.
Ric Flair was the cocky, rich, swagged-out sex hound with Rolex watches and limos. He had no reverence for his opponents or their women. Steamboat was a quiet, humble family man who brought his wife and kid to the ring for his matches. They were oil and water but made for perfect foils.
One famous TV taping saw Steamboat strip Flair down from his thousand-dollar Armani suit and leave him in the ring in nothing but his underwear and gators.
Their first match of the trilogy took place on February 20th, 1989 at an event called Chi-Town Rumble. The match is non-stop movement, chops and action. While there is a debate about which of the three matches is the best, this one probably ages better than the other two because the action is so intense and constant. The crowd is also in a frenzy and everything is chaotic. This felt like a real fight. In the end, Steamboat took home the WCW title for the first time.
The next match took place at Clash Of The Champions IV in the Super Dome on April 2nd, up against WrestleMania V. The 2-out-of-3 falls setup added drama to what would be the longest match in the series, clocking in at nearly an hour. The match was more deliberate than the Chicago showdown but it told a beautiful story of Flair and steamboat wearing down each other’s backs and legs to see who would fold first. If you want to see a masterclass in selling and letting a story unfold, this is the match.
The finale to the trilogy came in Nashville at WrestleWar on May 7th. Again, it’s a clinic. Again, they wore each other out, flying around the ring and trying to clip one another to weaken various body parts. Steamboat was able to get off his patented arm drags and dictate the pace.
Flair spent most of the match chasing Steamboat and trying to wear his leg down for the Figure Four. Steamboat would gradually show more wear on that leg until he eventually started just dragging it across the ring. This match was the shortest but just as intense and brutal as the others. They would counter moves from each other’s previous matches, playing on their history, riveting fans into a frenzy. The match and the drama capped off the best three-match series ever.
If you notice, I never mentioned the endings to these matches. Because the way these matches played out is a pretty on-point reflection on how the Warriors and Cavs had their series play out in real life. The first two matches in the Flair/Steamboat trilogy ended under shady circumstances. The Chi-Town Rumble ended with Steamboat accidentally knocked out a referee, causing a replacement ref to come in and count the three. The second match ended with Steamboat getting a fluke pin while Flair’s foot was under the rope while Steamboat’s shoulders were maybe on the mat. The point is each guy had a legitimate claim to walking out of each match with the championship.
They entered the third match each thinking they deserved to be 2-0 even though Steamboat technically won both matches.
The Cavs and Warriors have similar mindsets going into their rubber match. In Cleveland’s mind, they should be 2-0. They lost the Finals in 2015 after Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were inactive for the series and they came back from 3-1 to win in 2016. The Warriors feel as though they would have won in 2015 even if Cleveland were healthy and they only lost in 2016 after a questionable Draymond Green suspension, a banged up Steph Curry and injuries to Andre Igoudala and Andrew Bogut.
The rivalry has essentially been booked like a wrestling rivalry, namely Flair and Steamboat’s. There really hasn’t been a clear-cut winner yet despite the fact both series gave us spectacular basketball and drama. For Flair and Steamboat, we got a third match the world couldn’t wait to see because we all wanted a definitive winner. The same is true for the NBA Finals. Both teams are finally healthy. There aren’t any looming suspensions. No flukes.
We’re going to finally get a true winner. And we can only hope this edition of the battle is half as good as any of the Flair and Steamboat matches that set the blueprint for trilogy greatness.