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It was 1988, and Lex Luger was on the verge of entering what looked to be his prime years. He had all of the vigor and enthusiasm of any other young star. After having spent nine months as a part of The Four Horsemen, his ring knowledge had surpassed his actual experience. No longer was he limited to competition for the United States title (as Dusty Rhodes had now become his ally), but he had nothing left to seek but the most coveted title in the NWA, the World Heavyweight Championship.
Luger was well aware of the system of roadblocks that his former teammates would put in front of him. He himself had often been used in similar fashion. Arn Anderson was the first hurtle in this journey. Defeating Arn was not impossible, but that wasn't the problem. It was no secret that "The Enforcer" was sent to injure Luger. Using the Anderson style of submission wrestling, Arn thought he could immobilize Luger's arms and legs en route to a victory. Unfortunately for Arn, Luger had been too familiar with what did and did not work against The Horsemen. Lex defeated Arn in nearly all of their singles encounters.
At around this same time, Barry Windham found himself defending the Western States Title against Horseman Tully Blanchard. The match went rather long and the bell rang for a time limit draw -- or did it? Luger made his way to the ringside area and ordered referee Tommy Young to watch some "instant replay" footage on the commentators' monitors. James J Dillon had rung the bell himself! When the match was re-started, Tully ambushed Windham to win the title -- almost! Luger entered the ring, causing Windham to be disqualified. As Ric Flair and Arn Anderson helped Tully triple-team Luger, Flair helped Windham to his feet and invited him to take a shot on Luger. Windham immediately fought off the Horsemen to rescue Luger. For nearly a year, Luger had been on bad terms with Barry Windham. That night, they made ammends.
After having regained Windham's trust, Luger was on top of the world. He started teaming with Barry, Dusty Rhodes, Sting and other former enemies in tag team matches against the remaining Horsemen. Win or lose, the former US Champion seemed enthralled to take on the men who had held him back in the past. Luger was totally reckless when he entered the steel cage battle royal at The Bunkhouse Stampede. It was obvious that winning was only secondary, as he brawled with Tully and Arn until all three of them literally fell out of the ring through the cage door. Luger was like an unmanned steamroller! Would he ever settle down and make a serious run at a championship? He soon did.
On March 27, 1988, fans watched the very first Clash Of The Champions on WTBS. In fact, a survey showed that more of them watched that program than Wrestlemania 4 which aired at the same time! Horsemen Blanchard and Anderson battled Lex Luger and Barry Windham for the tag straps. The Greensboro fans were on the edges of their seats for this encounter, as was the Horsemen's manager. Rather than sit down, Dillon decided to bring his (steel) chair to the ring apron. Arn aimed Luger's head at the furniture, but Luger reversed it and put his opponent into it face-first. Luger pinned Anderson to crown new NWA World Tag Team Champions.
The last time Luger was a champion, he was generally disliked by the crowd, thanks to his allegience to the Four Horsemen. Now, the ecstatic Luger was overwhelmed at finally becoming a titleholder and collecting the fans' adulation at the same time. Could his enthusiasm be overbearing? After all, he had spent much of 1987 trying to either injure or at least humiliate the man who was now his co-champion. If this was an issue, it went unnoticed by the adoring fans who, it seemed, were a bit more affectionate toward Luger than toward Windham.
On April 20, Barry Windham and Lex Luger were defending against the former champions, Tully and Arn in Jacksonville, Florida. Windham was getting double-teamed by the challengers and the fans wanted him to make the hot tag to Luger (of course). Luger was briefly involved, but he was tossed to the floor and had his forehead rammed into the ringpost. Again, Windham fought off two men, but now he found that his partner, on the floor and bleeding, was far from the corner. Oddly, Dillon sounded as if he was coaching Windham for a few moments. Dillon called out, "I told you he wouldn't be there." When Luger finally crawled onto the ring apron, Windham dragged him to his feet, tagged his lifeless hand -- and slammed him into the ring! Windham connected with his lariat clothesline and left Luger to be pinned. Instead of being one-half of the tag team champions, Barry Windham had chosen instead to become one-fourth of The Four Horsemen!
Just two days later, Luger was onhand for the Third Annual Jim Crockett Senoir Memorial Cup Tag Team Tournament. It was a day in which Luger felt all was wrong with the world. He was in a tag team tournament -- and he didn't have a partner even as the matches had started. Fate intervened on Luger's behalf when Jimmy Garvin met Kevin Sullivan in a "Prince Of Darkness" blindfold match. Ronnie Garvin, in the corner of his brother Jimmy, was struck with a foregin object and rendered unable to compete. He was planning on teaming up with Sting on that night. Hence, Luger and Sting each needed a partner, so they selected each other. On this night, there began one of wrestling's greatest "Cinderella" stories. In their very first match as a team, they beat Dick Murdoch and Ivan Koloff. The Midnight Express, and then The Powers Of Pain all fell to Lex and the Stinger. Finally, with the legendary Magnum T.A. at ringside, the new team in town beat Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson, the new NWA World Champions, to win the tournament and the one million dollar prize.
In several interviews, Luger expressed outrage over Windham's betrayal, but deep down inside, he may have felt guilty over the incident. Perhaps he allowed his own pride to pry their friendship apart all over again. If Windham had any regrets, it didn't show at all. Reaching into his family's bag of tricks, Barry Windham now donned a fingerless black glove, a fashion tip from Blackjack Mulligan. He also started using his father's clawhold on his opponents. His first victim was none other than Lex Luger. Showing no remorse, Windham dug his massive hand into Luger's forehead until a puddle of blood filled his palm. Pain was only one of Luger's emotions at that point. Again, was this his own fault? Was he now paying for his sins from the previous year?
Surveying the obvious trauma over a shattered relationship, Ric Flair selected this time (of all times) to agree to an NWA World Title defense against Luger at the Great American Bash. Emotionally, Luger would not be at 100%. Still, there also was the physical threat that the 280-pound adonis posed to the World Champion. His fellow Horsemen settled that issue quickly enough. At the Second Clash Of The Champions held in Miami, Lex Luger arrived in a tuxedo for a special press conference announcing the big title match. Tully, Arn, and Windham all attacked him in the parking lot. However, Lex Luger did not appear to suffer any injuries that would keep him from wrestling. He only endured some damage to his face.
Just one month later, The Great American Bash: "The Price For Freedom" brought mayhem to the ring in Baltimore, Maryland. After four other bouts, it was finally time for the World Title match. Lex Luger versus Ric Flair: the former Horseman versus the current champion. It must have been tempting for Luger to rush into the match like a raging bull, but he managed to control his emotions, and hence, control Flair. His attack included several gorilla-press bodyslams, his trademark running clotheslines, and even a few dropkicks. As usual, Flair countered with his superb ring knowledge. While captured by a bear hug, Flair somehow managed to lure The Total Package into pushing him into the ropes, forcing a break. As soon as Luger was distracted, Flair started to work on the knee. Although Luger leveled him with another clothesline, Flair tricked Luger into going for a kneedrop, further injuring the legs. This was still Luger's night to shine. Even the figure-four leglock could not evoke a submission from Lex Luger. After about twenty minutes, both men tumbled over the top rope to the floor. As the referee tried to pull a steel chair out of Flair's hands, Dillon rammed Luger's face into the ringpost. Luger's blood spread over his face as the two wrestlers returned to the ring. It seems as though the parking lot attack in Miami had left a tender scar in Luger's forehead.
In spite of the cut, Luger began unleashing his best moves on Ric Flair. He applied the powerslam, which always was followed by the Torture Rack backbreaker. The crowd went ballistic as Luger hoisted the champion onto his shoulders. Something was about to go terribly wrong. From the floor, an older gentleman was tugging at referee Tommy Young's ankle. It was the ringside physician, who desperately tried to tell Young something over the roar of the fans. Tommy Young ran to Luger and signaled for the bell to ring. Had a new champion been crowned? Not tonight. The ring announcer instead proclaimed that the match had been stopped by members of the Maryland State Althetic Commission, seated at ringside. It was stopped due to blood. Just blood. Blood which had poured from Luger's head due in part to when the Horsemen had attacked him in June. Blood which had also been released thanks to Barry Windham's clawhold in previous weeks. Nothing but blood. Even before the match, the Four Horsemen had robbed Lex Luger of the NWA World Title.
It would be another month before "The Total Package" could get Flair in the ring one-on-one, but they found themselves violently opposed to each other in the meantime. Luger had now joined forced with Dusty Rhodes, The Road Warriors, Nikita Koloff and Steve Williams. In various combinations of five or four, they systematically demolished The Four Horsemen in cage matches and WarGames matches. On July 28, Luger returned to Florida to defeat Barry Windham in a Texas Death match. When his return matches with Flair finally arrived, Luger ended up with a long string of DQ and countout victories over the World Champion. For the next three months, Flair dodged the Luger bullet by literally escaping him. In Chicago, their match ended in a draw. In any event, Luger's chances of winning the World Title were drifting away. After being a Horsemen for nearly a year, Lex Luger knew better than anyone else that no one got a fair shake when dealing with Ric Flair.
Lex Luger was again lured away from Flair's gold when his friend Sting called for help. During a six-man tag match, Sting's partners The Road Warriors turned against him. They attempted to break The Stinger's neck with their elevated clothesline. Sting was less injured than angered. Who else but the powerful Lex Luger would be the perfect partner against the Legion Of Doom. The two teams squared off in a number of tag team matches which ended in all sorts of non-decisions. The disqualifications and countouts meant little to either team, as all four men routinely went at it long after the bell rang. When the Warriors decided to attack their former partner Dusty Rhodes, the feud escalated into a six-man war in which Luger, Sting, and Rhodes met The Road Warriors and Barry Windham. Luger did his best to help his partners gain vengence on these turncoats, but something was still eluding him. To his surprise, NWA officials made a decision that would put Luger in a prime position to obtain his prime objective.
The chase was over. It was decided that Lex Luger would receive another title match against Ric Flair at Starrcade '88. No doubt, Flair was already planning his escape route. ("Self-disqualification? Or have the Horsemen attack Luger during the match?") This time, however, things would be different. If Flair was disqualified in this match, Luger would be awarded the title via forfeit. This meant that any help from either Windham or Dillon needed to be done as discretely as possible. The match proceeded in much the same way as their previous encounters, as Luger's power moves often came close to KO'ing the champion, but Flair's methodical wear-down holds took their toll on Luger's lower body. It was advertised as a "no time limit" affair, so Flair knew that he could not rely on escaping on account of a draw. With this in mind, he must have given up hope about fifteen minutes into the match. On cue, Dillon climbed onto the ring apron to distract the official. This was the only chance he had, so Flair took it. With Luger's knees draped over the edge of the ring, Ric Flair whacked them with a steel chair. Was it now time for Luger to submit to the figure four? On the contrary, the "Total Package" soon regained the advantage. As he had done in Baltimore, Luger caught Flair with the powerslam and then signaled for "The Rack." He swung Flair's aching body onto his shoulders and began to wrench the champion in half. Suddenly, amidst all of this intensity and added weight, his knees folded up! Flair landed in a heap on top of Luger's chest. The referee immediately went from asking for Luger's submission to counting Luger down for the three count. The championship dreams of The Total Package were dashed again!
For the remainder of the winter, Luger was still immersed in a series of tag matches pitting he and Sting against The Road Warriors. Although he felt obligated to help Sting in his feud with the Legion Of Doom (in return for Sting's cooperation at the Crockett Cup), this wasn't quite what he had in mind. The Warriors held the NWA World Tag Team Titles, but these matches continued to end in indecisive brawls. When this tag team war faded away, Luger's competition in singles action was anything but impressive. At the St Valentine's Massacre Clash of Champions, Luger put away The Blackmailer, a name that was forgotten the next day. Although he headlined Starrcade, Luger was not even scheduled to wrestle in the next pay-per-view in February of 1989. As luck would have it, at around this time, Dusty Rhodes parted ways with the NWA after having been one of its most influencial participants, both in the ring and behind the scenes. Taking Rhodes' place in a US Title match at Chi-Town Rumble '89, Lex Luger had another brutal encounter with Barry Windham.
In addition to the dramatic history between these two men, the match was physically grueling for both parties. Windham generally controlled the pace of the match, but he injured his hand while battling on the floor. With Luger propped against the ringpost, Windham had missed his mark and hit nothing but steel! Sporting a bloody right wrist, the champion had trouble using his favorite moves, such as the clawhold and the superplex. After Luger withstood all of these attacks, he absorbed the blow of a back suplex. With both men's shoulders on the mat, the referee began to count -- and Lex's shoulder was up before the three count! In spite of his superior physique and power, Luger had regained the United States Title by using strategic wrestling! This must have been an embarrassment to Windham, who did not leave the ring without giving his former partner a farewell present: a piledriver on the Title belt.
Now toting gold for the first time since leaving the Four Horsemen a year earlier, Luger had to wonder "What next?" Seeing as how he wasn't even scheduled for the title shot, let alone win it, his challengers were few and far between. Case and point, Lex Luger polished off Jack Victory at The Ragin Cajun (Clash 6). To give you an idea of the variety of Luger's opponents, Victory had the honor of portraying The Blackmailer at the previous Clash! In any event, Luger's career needed something to revive the fans' interest. Something indeed had happened.
In March, Lex Luger teamed up with the popular Michael PS Hayes to take on Barry and Kendall Windham. (After following the rules for a few years, Kendall decided to follow his brother into the camp of wrestling's villains.) The Atlanta crowd was thrilled to see Luger manhandle both Texans as if it were a handicap match. Perhaps Luger could wrestle two men, but could he wrestle three men? Hayes shocked everyone by dropping behind Luger, allowing the Windhams to score a double clothesline! All three of them then went to work, putting the boots to the Total Package. When presented with a microhpone, Hayes declared, "Me, Ric Flair, and the Windham Brothers! We rule wrestling!" Unfortunately for Hayes, Barry Windham was leaving for a brief vacation before joining the WWF, and Flair was much more interested in regaining his World Title than dealing with an angry Luger. Finally, Luger was focused on one isolated target, and he was out for revenge.
Michael Hayes claimed that his altercation with Luger was his sure-fire method of getting a shot at the United States Title. Sure enough, Luger accepted the challenge at WrestleWar '89: "Music City Showdown". If only to remind everyone how dominant he was as US Champion in 1987, Lex Luger trounced Hayes from pillar to post. Even though Hayes had nearly twice as much experience as his opponent, Luger's physical gifts continued to dominate the veteran. Using his superior strength, Luger thwarted each attempt on Hayes' part to maintain an advantage. It was only when Luger attempted the Torture Rack (a strategy Hayes had anticipated) was he able to secure his DDT. By then, Hayes was too groggy to make a pin. After a collision in the ring, Luger was down, and Hayes was held up only by the ropes ... until he was pushed, that is. Michael Hayes was not an "isolated target" at all. In one of the most surprising arrivals in wrestling history, Terry Gordy had stepped out of the audience to push Hayes' limp body on top of Luger's! The referee counted to three, and the fans had to decide what was more shocking: Michael Hayes becoming the United States Champion or the apparent reformation of The Fabulous Freebirds!!
Although we may never know for certain, one can guess that Lex Luger had a very sleepless night in Nashville. His title reign, bearing no notable defences, had ended in less than three months. Michael Hayes had played him for a fool. He felt betrayed when Hayes turned on him in Atlanta. Now he felt ashamed for having lost his title to someone who had little standing as a singles wrestler at that point. Luger had spent a year and a half wrestling for an adoring public, but he had met with more frustration than glory. His thoughts had to have led him back to a time in which he had sacrificed popularity for success ... a time in which he had a firm grip on the United States Title thanks to a very different philosophy ... a time in which he won his matches by any means necessary ...
Just two weeks later, Lex Luger had Michael Hayes right where he wanted him. On this night, Terry Gordy was banned from the arena in Bluefield, West Virginia. A packed house was chanting Luger's name. The match unfolded in pretty much the same way their WrestleWar encounter had gone - which spelled trouble for the lonely Freebird. Could the crafty Hayes take advantage of Luger's naivite again? Not this time. Relying on his bag of tricks, Hayes tried to roll Luger up by using a handful of trunks. Luger responded in turn by pulling Hayes' tights and holding onto them for the three-count! By fighting fire with fire, Luger had regained his title in 15 days instead of 15 months. Luger was elated at having won the match, and he had no qualms about how he did it. In the next few days, he began to wrestle more and more agressively. Some rules were bent (if not broken), but Luger was still getting the same warm reactions from the fans. "Getting away with it" was something that the 1987 version of Lex Luger had been quite adept at doing. Back then, Luger's US Title defences had deterred him from ever facing his fellow Horseman Ric Flair. This time around, though, US Champion Lex Luger was not going to be held back from World Champion Ric Flair. Nothing could stop Lex Luger now, nothing, except ... two numbers?!
Immediately after regaining the World Title from Ricky Steamboat, Ric Flair had been injured at the hands of Terry Funk. As the most recent titleholder, Steamboat would have been first in line for a few return matches with Flair. On the other hand, Lex Luger's new championship elevated him to the top of the pack. In fact, the United States Champion is traditionally seen as the automatic number-one contender to the NWA World Title. How did the NWA's championship committee see this matter? They decided that since Steamboat had not yet gotten his return match, he was declared the number-one contender. Luger's belt only guaranteed him a spot at number two. It now seemed as though all of Luger's recent gusto would not be enough to bring him that World Title. All of this really meant little to Steamboat, who had developed a close relationship with Flair. He just wanted to punish Funk for his sneak-attack on the champ. Funk and Steamboat battled at the Seventh Clash: "Guts And Glory", and the evil Texan decided to injure The Dragon. He used his branding iron as a weapon to earn a disqualification. Lex Luger ran to the ring and grabbed a steel chair. Terry Funk wanted none of this and made a hasty retreat. Still lying on the mat, Steamboat waited to be helped up by Luger, who had oddly decided to pick up a microphone.
- "You know, there's been a lot of talk ... that I have some problems lately ... some problems with my arrogance maybe ... that I'm too cocky ..."
- (The fans cheered in disagreement.)
- "... That I have a problem with maybe too much ego, a lot of ego ..."
- (Again, the fans could be heard voicing their loyalty.)
- "I don't have any problems. All I've got is a lot of pride. Come on, Ricky, let's go."
And on that note, Luger lifted Steamboat to his feet ... and swung him back down to the mat with a vicious clothesline! Lex Luger, who had just finished a speech which resembled an apology, now picked up the very same chair he used to rescue Ricky Steamboat. The Dragon was already battered from Funk's branding iron and, for the first time in his career, was actually pleading for mercy. No mercy was shown. Luger hammered Steamboat with the steel chair like a lumberjack swinging an axe. As if that was not enough, he even applied the Torture Rack to a nearly-unconcious Steamboat. Luger shouted, "Is this your number-one contender?!?" It was now obvious that Luger had seen the sort of success he had as a Horseman, and he saw fit to return to his most ruthless ways.
"... where credit is due ..."
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