Wrestle Review Wednesday: An Ode to Starrcade

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My wrestling fandom began in an era well after closed circuit broadcasts gave way to descramblers, and Sunday evenings — not holidays — marked prime-time for live wrestling cards. As such, I missed out on the magic of the National Wrestling Alliance’s original incarnation of Starrcade, the annual Thanksgiving super-card that spawned WrestleMania.

Thanks to DVD and later the WWE Network, I caught up on what was once the premier event of the professional wrestling calendar, one that began as a Thanksgiving day showcase. Five Starrcades during the golden years of Jim Crockett Promotions ran from 1983 through 1987, before Vince McMahon’s growing influence on the industry interfered.

The debut of Survivor Series — which has since been moved to a floating Sunday in the month of November — forced cable providers to make a decision: carry Survivor Series and get Wrestlemania in the spring, which had by then had become the preeminent wrestling show in North America, or carry Starrcade and get nothing from the WWF.

The WWF won, and Starrcade left Thanksgiving for a December air date. Not long after, Survivor Series rescheduled to

The World Wrestling Federation’s intervention is a shame, because Thanksgiving seems like such a prime date for a wrestling card. Millions are already gathered around the home, typically with the TV turned on after a traditional feast.

Dusty Rhodes described the concept on the WWE “Best of Starrcade” DVD release, and it sure sounds awesome. Then again, that could be because Dusty Rhodes had the oratory ability to talk Minnesotans into buying blocks of ice.

The above promo plays a central role in Starrcade history, as we’ll get into later.

WWE is resurrecting the Starrcade this year in Greensboro, location for four of the five events held over Thanksgiving Day. However, this incarnation is slated for Saturday, and features a lineup that feels a bit more akin to a house show or B-show than the major event from which it takes its name. Any event featuring Dolph Ziggler in a featured bout in the year 2017 screams “throwaway.”

What’s more, a monolithic entity like WWE cannot run a show truly representative of Starrcade’s spirit. The original incarnation brought together top feuds and angles from a variety of promotions under one roof.

STARRCADE ’83

As WrestleMania has grown into a spectacle more comparable to the Final Four or Super Bowl than it is a typical wrestling event, the legend of the first WrestleMania has mutated into one not necessarily reflective of reality.

It’s renowned as a make-or-break moment for the WWF; a sort of Hail Mary in Vince McMahon’s pursuit of establishing the Northeastern territory as a national brand. I have never seen anything to suggest otherwise. However, the concept itself is discussed in hindsight as truly revolutionary. That’s not the case, as Starrcade brought live wrestling to locations around the country (and Puerto Rico; more on that to follow) through closed-circuit broadcasts a year-and-a-half earlier.

The first WrestleMania as a wrestling card is also pretty lousy. Beyond the inclusion of celebrities like Cyndi Lauper as Wendi Richter’s valet; Mr. T tagging with Hulk Hogan; Liberace performing and Muhammad Ali as a guest timekeeper, the first WrestleMania is essentially a Madison Square Garden house show.

The contrast between the first Starrcade and the inaugural WrestleMania functions as a microcosm in the differences between the NWA and WWF. The latter emphasized showmanship and entertainment, hence the court-ordered name change in 2002 that transitioned WWF into WWE. The former presented wrestling as more of a legitimate sport.

To that end, Starrcade ’83 places heavy emphasis on the championship matches — in particular, Ric Flair challenging Harley Race in a steel cage for the World’s Heavyweight Championship.

The main event is entertaining, showcasing Flair’s athleticism. Harley Race was beginning to wind down by this point, so the use of the cage worked both as a storyline plot point, preventing various goons Race employed to try to injure Flair in the build-up from interfering, but also masking Race’s physical limitations.

Ric Flair has better cage matches from the same era against challengers like Kerry Von Erich, and there are better matches on the Starrcade ’83 card. Chief among the superior bouts is Roddy Piper vs. Greg Valentine in a dog collar match. A common and not wholly inaccurate lament of old-school wrestling fans is that the hardcore style ECW popularized in the 1990s desensitized audiences, upping the expectations of what constituted brutality.

Decades later, however, this match absolutely holds up its intended effect. It’s an absolute classic that, if you’ve never seen, I highly recommend seeking out.

The hidden gem of this card pits Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood against the legendary Brisco Brothers for the NWA World Tag Team Championship.

STARRCADE ’84

The seeds for Starrcade ’84 were planted at the prior year’s show, with Dusty Rhodes appearing in the audience and giving an interview in which he challenged the winner of the main event to a title bout sometime in the future.

Sometime came on Thanksgiving Day in 1984 at Starrcade.

Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair are the two biggest stars of 1980s NWA, so it’s only natural they would meet at the biggest event on the calendar. The addition of Joe Frazier to the mix as special guest referee heightened the appeal — not to mention predated WWF’s use of celebrities to enhance its still-to-come supershow — though Frazier’s inclusion proved clunky.

The main event disappointed me, which fits the theme for the night. Starrcade ’84 features three more matches than the preceding year, but didn’t really need them. The Zambuie Express vs. Buzz Tyler and Assassin #1 went six minutes that could have made a good Ricky Steamboat vs. Tully Blanchard a classic.

STARRCADE ’85

Um…wow. OK, so Starrcade ’85 again featured Dusty Rhodes challenging Ric Flair on top of the card, and this time delivered a match much more reflective of these two transcendent talents. Ric Flair put Rhodes out of commission with an injury, setting the stage both for the match, and producing arguably the greatest promo in wrestling history: Hard Times.

The main event is one of a few truly outstanding bouts on this card that every wrestling fan should see, but Starrcade ’85 is also worth a viewing in its entirety for the more hardened fan.

Put simply, Starrcade ’85 is as violent as any show ECW ever ran.

The highlight of this show is Magnum T.A. challenging Tully Blanchard in an I Quit steel cage match for the United State championship. The two put on a legitimate 5-star match, and the most believable pure fight I have ever seen in a wrestling ring.

The carnage shaping this match crystallizes the entire show, on which damn near every match features blood — though, ironically enough, not the main event.

Starrcade ’85 is noteworthy for running two shows simultaneously, cutting from one arena to the other from match-to-match, again beating WWF to the punch. Starrcade emanated from Greensboro and Atlanta; WrestleMania 2 four months later ran on Long Island, Chicago and Los Angeles.

In both instances, the multiple-site format resulted in production issues that are especially staggering to watch in 2017.

STARRCADE ’86

Hindsight rendered this a tough viewing for me. By 1986, the territory system was beginning to fall apart. The Gulf Coast was in recession, hurting Mid-South Wrestling to the point that a federation thriving just a few years earlier was destined to be bought out when the calendar turned.

The death of David Von Erich in 1984 delivered the first blow to World Class in Texas. A month after Starrcade ’86 at its annual Christmas Star Wars show, WCCW drew 7,000 fans; 5,000 fewer than 1982 when Kerry Von Erich challenged Ric Flair for the World’s Heavyweight Championship.

Jim Crockett Promotions continued to put out a good product; a great product, even. But the WWF was beginning to pick up steam, and just a few months after this show, drew a reported 93,000 to the Pontiac Silver Dome for WrestleMania III.

The reported number and actual audience are likely different, but the World Wrestling Federation attracted no fewer than 70,000 legitimately. The direction of the industry was clear.

Perhaps that clouds my judgment of the show decades later. Maybe knowing Jim Cornette legitimately blew out his knee falling from the scaffold in the Skywalkers Match between the Midnight Express and Road Warriors lessens my enjoyment of a milestone bout in wrestling history. I could be bummed out watching a main event of Ric Flair and Nikita Koloff, because I ask myself how the direction of JCP might have changed had Magnum T.A. not been in a motorcycle accident that prevented him from ever wrestling again — much less challenging for the World’s Title at Starrcade ’86.

Whatever the reason, watching this show for the first time and re-watching years later isn’t as much fun as the previous three Starrcade installments.

STARRCADE ’87

So, this is it: the final Thanksgiving Starrcade. Everything about this show is dramatically different from the previous four, not the least of which is that Greensboro and Atlanta were left for Chicago.

Watching a WWF show from late 1987 then seeing this card is jarring. The WWF became a juggernaut by this point, perfecting the production style and presentation many of today’s wrestling fans grew up watching. Starrcade ’87 is nowhere near that.

The WWF’s explosion in popularity also forced JCP to present less of a regional image, hence the move to Chicago. JCP also acquired Mid-South’s parts, which plays a central role in Starrcade ’87. Former Mid-South stars such as Sting and Dr. Death Steve Williams appear on the card.

Having grown up watching WCW on both TBS and TNT, seeing a young Sting here was exciting. I have always been a huge fan of the Stinger, and it’s plainly evident in the six-man tag of which he’s part that he is destined for stardom.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Ron Garvin in the main event against Ric Flair.

Garvin’s an excellent in-ring technician with a few of my favorite hidden gem matches to his name. His I Quit match against Greg Valentine at the 1990 WWF Royal Rumble is great fun, and so is the cage match against Ric Flair at Starrcade ’87.

There’s just no real drama. The same was true of Starrcade ’83; Flair’s win over Harley Race was such a foregone conclusion that the show is subtitled “A Flair for the Gold.” Still, that show concludes with a sense of excitement about the future; Starrcade ’87 concludes with a feeling that there’s nothing more left for the promotion to give the audience.

To that end, it’s a poetic conclusion to the original incarnation of Starrcade.