From 1987 to 2000, NWA/WCW’s production of Starrcade was a seasonal production, taking place every December. Despite originally starting on Thanksgiving before being forced to move by the World Wrestling Federation’s introduction of Survivor Series, sabotaging the show – it soon caught on as the end of the year flagship event for the promotion. As we reach the time of the year that Andy Williams assures us is the most wonderful, it seems suitable to revisit the Starrcades of Christmas past, trying to find each Pay-Per-View card’s absolute cracker.
1983: Roddy Piper vs Greg Valentine – Dog Collar Match
Acknowledged as the first wrestling Pay-Per-View due to it being shown on short-circuit television, Starrcade 1983 managed to make its debut outing a memorable one and by contrast done in a better way than the WWF’s debut event, WrestleMania, two years later.
The mid-card of the event was a solid one with reliable workers of the era such as Bob Orton, The Great Kabuki and Kevin Sullivan were just a few who played a part in the early goings, albeit with little significance. The final three matches on the card were the defining ones. Whilst the NWA World Tag Team title bout between Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood against The Brisco Brothers and the Gene Kiniski-officiated NWA World Heavyweight title Steel Cage main event between Harley Race and Ric Flair were both strong showings, they did little to stand up to the iconic, hard-hitting Dog Collar bout.
In April 1983, a newly-arrived Roddy Piper dethroned US titleholder, Greg Valentine. Just two weeks later, “The Hammer” won it back, winning a bout via referee stoppage after a noticeably large cut was sustained over the “Hotrod”’s left ear. At Starrcade, the two fought in a non-title bout. A teeth-gritting performance, viewers could only wince in pain at the chain whipping, chain-wrapped fists and grating across the face with the merciless steel chain. After 16 minutes of gritty, intense, brawling action, Piper got the win – hitting several punches on Greg with the chain before tying him up with it to win.
Although hard to watch, it is an iconic bout, reflecting the ferocity of the feud that makes you give credit to the dedications of the athletes involved. Piper himself would walk out with 50-75% in his left ear after having his eardrum broken in the midst of the match.
1984: Tully Blanchard vs Ricky Steamboat – NWA Television Championship
Despite the success of the first event, the next Starrcade was pretty lackluster.
The best match of the night was a bout for the TV title between Ricky Steamboat and Tully Blanchard. In what some might consider a dream match and clash of generations, it started as a brawl with both trading strikes before “The Dragon” took over and kept on offence – forcing Blanchard to flee despite Ricky’s best attempts to stop him. Steamboat remained defiant and dominated the match for the most part but could never keep Tully down for the 3 count.
In the end, the devious champion would cling onto his belt. This came after the future Horseman decked the challenger with a pair of brass knuckles hidden in his tights. Both men’s careers would take a drastically different path afterwards, as Steamboat left for the WWF after disagreements with booker Dusty Rhodes and Blanchard joined The Four Horsemen.
1985: Magnum TA vs Tully Blanchard – NWA United States Championship Steel Cage “I Quit” Match
Although 1984’s Starrcade was a bomb, they came back with a bang the next year. This card took place across two venues: The Omni in Atlanta and The Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina. A novel idea so great, the WWF replicated it the next year with less success. There is often debate over the best match was the Dusty Rhodes vs Ric Flair NWA title main event or the US title bout featuring Magnum TA and Tully Blanchard. For me, the Steel Cage “I Quit” match just tops the headliner.
Perhaps the most heated feud going in, the mega-popular Magnum T.A. had dropped the US belt to Blanchard in March 1985 after another use of a foreign object to prevail. A heated, aggressive and personal feud broke out. Some brilliant promos took place by the two and Magnum even forced himself upon Blanchard’s valet Baby Doll. Tully and Magnum had even fought in a near-hour long bout ending in a double count-out prior to the PPV before a more conclusive, decisive match ending was forced to take place when NWA President Bob Geigel signed off on this stipulation.
The cage plays a part early on as Magnum is bloodied and Tully’s arm is pulverized. A bloody, visceral encounter – they scream at each other to quit and results in very real-feeling ground-based attacks such as eye rakes and heavy punches. The action gets even more brutal when Baby Doll throws in a chair to Blanchard. Tully breaks off a leg and hovers the exposed spike near T.A. as he holds back the attempt with all his might. Caked in blood, Magnum then burrows the spike into Tully’s head as he screams out in agony that he quits, ending the intense encounter.
1986: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express vs The Minnesota Wrecking Crew – NWA World Tag Team Championship Steel Cage Match
Featuring two of the best southern workers of their time, the best match for Starrcade 1986 saw The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express take on The Anderson brothers.
In the early going, The Express outpaced the Andersons to get the upper hand. The cut-off came – rather surprisingly – on Gibson after missing a corner attack. Working with traditional tag rules, the Andersons methodically worked over the legs of Robert. Gibson got the tag and Morton came in as a house of fire but was quickly subdued by Ole Anderson who threw him face-first into the cage.
The blonde grappler would get a few hope spots but was consistently shot down by Arn and Ole. Despite long periods of wear-down, things were kept interesting by Arn’s beautiful Spinebuster and a top rope double team move from Ole yet Morton stayed defiant. Tag chaos inevitably broke loose before Gibson dropkicked Morton who was being held by Ole; Morton hooked the leg and managed to get the 3 to retain their tag belts.
1987: Arn Anderson & Tully Blanchard vs The Road Warriors – NWA World Tag Team Championship
Famously the victim of sabotage, 1987’s installment of Starrcade was largely overshadowed by WWF powerplay as Vince McMahon set up Survivor Series to rival the event.
In the 3rd appearance for Tully and 2nd for Arn, the duo would defend their tag belts against The Road Warriors at this event in a solid encounter. The Anderson/Blanchard alliance played intimidated against the more dominant Hawk and Animal, relying on illegality and pure wrestling to have any attempt at surviving. Hawk dominated until the duo worked on the legs. After the future Legion Of Doom regained the advantage after a well-placed groin shot, Blanchard knocked the referee outside the ring. Animal backdropped Anderson over the top rope before the duo hit Arn with the Doomsday Device and new referee Earl Hebner counted the pin.
Yet the original ref overturned the decision and awarded the belts back to the heels. This was as throwing over the top rope was still a disqualification at this point in the NWA. A slightly disappointing BS finish but one that made sense, made all play their part brilliantly and continued on necessary storylines.
1988: Ric Flair vs Lex Luger – NWA World Heavyweight Championship
The first main event on this list, this bout likely saw the best match in the career of Lex Luger.
A tense rivalry, Luger was a member of The Four Horsemen until leaving when feeling held down. Subsequently, he teamed with friend Barry Windham only for the song of Blackjack Mulligan to betray him. After failed attempts previously due to non-conclusive finishes, Starrcade was chosen to be the place of another chance.
The powerful Luger looked dominant for the most part, controlling with suplexes, gorilla press slams and clotheslines. Flair often fled but managed to gain a few advantages through illegal or shady means. Flair worked on the legs for a long time but Luger never quit. As is custom, Flair got the lucky win when eking out of a Torture Rack when the worn-out legs of Luger gave in, Flair pinned, got his feet on the ropes and won.
1989: Sting vs Ric Flair
Another Ric Flair main event, 1989’s edition of Starrcade revolved around 2 round-robin tournaments. Both the singles and tag league saw:
- 20 points for a pinfall or submission
- 15 points for a count-out
- 10 for a disqualification
- 5 for a time-limit draw (15 minutes)
- 0 for a loss
Given such short time, no brilliant matches took place, the best being between Sting and “The Nature Boy”. Had Sting won via pin or submission, he would not only have pinned the NWA champion but won the tournament.
In a very tense and unpredictable main event, Sting would show off his early in-ring prowess and prove his worth in the main event scene. Flair had the upper hand mostly although Sting had some brief moments of hope. In the end, Flair went for the Figure-Four, only to fall to an inside cradle from Sting. After the victory, the combatants shook hands, sparking “The Stinger” joining The Four Horsemen which would lead to Sting’s first world title win the next year.
1990: Lex Luger vs Stan Hansen – NWA United States Championship Texas Lariat Match
1990’s NWA WCW saw a stark changing of the guard in terms of booking yet the Starrcade event stayed very close to last year. Another tournament – this time the catchily-titled Pat O’Connor Memorial International Cup Tag Team Tournament – as well as a Sting/Flair main event, although “The Nature Boy” was doing his best Deadpool cosplay as The Black Scorpion.
In October at Halloween Havoc, Hansen had ended Luger’s 523-day reign as US titleholder – still the longest single reign of all time. As you would imagine, this was just a big, burly hoss fight albeit with Texas Lariat rules, aka a touch-the-corners Strap match. Steel chair, a rope-hanging spot, heavy strikes and general anarchy – it is a big, clobbering brawl but so entertaining. It ends in controversy however as Luger wins but the referee is knocked down. Hansen touches the corners and wins when a replacement official arrives but the initial ref vetoes that decision and declares “The Total Package” the winner and new champion.
1991: Arn Anderson & Lex Luger vs Terrance Taylor & The Z-Man – Lethal Lottery
Despite his apparent lack of wrestling ability, this is Luger’s 3rd placement on this list, although he does have aid from 3 highly underrated workers in this match.
1991’s event saw the premier of the Lethal Lottery concept in which random wrestlers were paired up to win a tag match to advantage to a main event battle royal. This met we saw such oddity teams as Bill Kazmaier and Jushin Liger, Larry Zbyszko and El Gigante and Arachnaman and Johnny B. Badd.
Then-NWA champion Luger alongside manager Harley Race was teamed with WCW World Tag Team champion Arn Anderson whilst “The Computerized Man Of The 1990s” Terrance Taylor tagged with ex-Television champion Tom Zenk. The Zenk/Taylor team were on a roll until Harley Race got the distraction. Zenk was the victim of the heat from the all-heel team for a while until Taylor tagged in and went wild. The York Foundation member seemed to have things won but “The Enforcer” got a cheap shot leading to Lex Luger’s Attitude Adjustment Piledriver.
A good match with good workers, what more can you want?
1992: Ricky Steamboat & Shane Douglas vs Barry Windham & Brian Pillman – NWA & WCW World Tag Team Championship
At over 20 minutes, the star-studded tag bout of 1992’s Starrcade takes my pick for match of the night. Many others may choose Sting versus Vader but for me, the tag bout just tips it.
Arguably featuring 2 stars of the past and present (Steamboat and Windham) and 2 young studs yet to truly make the impact they eventually would (Douglas and Pillman), it was hyped by Windham going chair-crazy on both men pre-match. It is also important to note Pillman and Windham have both wrestled already tonight and Barry even has another match after this one.
The faces get the early advantage with Steamboat and Douglas taking control of proceedings. Douglas and Pillman seem to be facing off to see who can take the scarier and more painful looking bump. A heated and important match to the point, the career-face Steamboat uses a chair as “The Dragon” hit Windham with it. After a long, long while wearing down Shane, Ricky is tagged in and goes ballistic on the bad guys before an illegal manoeuver regains them the advantage. After some more fighting, Steamboat crossbodies Windham over the ropes as the legal men fight inside and Shane hits a Belly-To-Belly on Pillman for the win. Windham makes a tremendous effort to get back in time to break up the pin to no avail.
Even the half-dead crowd warmed to this match whilst the competition between the blossoming Pillman and Douglas was entertaining and a more defiant, angry Steamboat made the bout feel that much more intense and fueled by frustration.
1993: Ric Flair vs Vader – NWA World Heavyweight Championship
The best match this year was not even supposed to happen. Originally penciled in as Sid Vicious taking on Vader, the infamous stabbing incident with Arn Anderson led to Sid being released. In his place, Flair challenged “The Mastodon” and put his career on the line. The fact Ric retired and returned both before and after this match tells you all you need to know about the jeopardy of this bout.
“The Nature Boy” worked face against the dominant monster Vader. Thus, this featured a compelling David versus Goliath story as the smaller, more experience, more technically-sound wrestler had to overcome the unassailable task of taking down the super heavyweight. In fitting tribute, Flair would end the 10th anniversary of Starrcade like the 1st – as a world champion as well as beating Vader, managed by Flair’s opponent at the first Starrcade: Harley Race.
Despite Vader’s own agility, Flair had to use his quickness to outpace his opposition. Using ring psychology to his advantage, Flair used every method to cut down his more ruthless opponent. Vader was in control for the large majority, often thanks to interference from Race. Harley would even miss his patented Diving Headbutt and accidentally hit his client. After a brilliant bout from Flair, whose selling made Vader look like a true machine, he would win with a roll-up; the finish made total sense considering the wrestler dynamics and protection of both. Yet the execution of the end could still be a little better but it nonetheless got 4½ stars from revered Wrestling Observer journalist Dave Meltzer.
1994: Johnny B. Badd vs Arn Anderson – WCW Television Championship
It is no secret 1994 was a lull period in wrestling history. Although shit would not hit the fan until the next year, it was being hurled very rapidly at this point even though Hulk Hogan had defected to WCW. Starrcade ‘94 saw good workers like Sting, Vader, Alex Wright and Booker T amongst other. Yet also Mr T beat Kevin Sullivan and Brutus Beefcake main event the biggest event in the WCW calendar under another short-lived gimmick. Meltzer rated no matches higher than 2¼ stars.
Yet the best match was Arn Anderson taking on Johnny B. Badd for the TV title. Almost definitely better than the scheduled match, the Little Richard impersonator was supposed to lock-up with The Honky Tonk Man but “The Enforcer” was thrown in as the contingency plan.
Arn was always a good worker so bound to get something good out of Badd, even at the last minute. Arn unleashed his beautiful Spinebuster and Johnny hit a great DDT but those were the real highlights. Johnny – himself a good worker held down by a questionable gimmick – would stand his ground but Anderson would only aid it. Wish we could have seen more but after Arn argues with the referee after an illegal pin, JBB got the roll-up and the win. Neither man’s best match but a beacon of light compared to the rest of the card.
1995: Shinjiro Otani vs Eddy Guerrero
1995’s event saw a working relationship between WCW and New Japan. Dream matches such as Benoit/Liger, Savage/Tenzan and Sting/Sasaki were good but not as great as they could have been. The best match on the card pitted recent WCW signee Eddy Guerrero take on Shinjiro Otani (stylized as ‘Ootani’ here, likely due to the spelling of manager Sonny Onoo’s name).
A fast and technically-sound bout, this match saw action that really nowhere else was putting on, on such a global stage. A strong showing for the young performers, it is simply a great match between two stars of the future without any outside conflict ruining it. Their styles mesh really well although you may not notice this over the ramblings of a madman named Dusty Rhodes on commentary – it is barely comprehendible what the guy is trying to say.
The contest is made even more tense and heated by the current 2-2 result with this a tiebreaker to see who will reach closer to winning the best of 7. The end, in my opinion, was really well told. Both were protected and the desperation of getting either the USA or Japan to get a point up on the other side showed. After a hurricanrana, many pinfall attempts took place in succession before Otani could finally keep the defiant shoulders of Eddie down for the 3. Despite not developing into the Eddie Guerrero he would later become, it was an immense showing for the young high-flier.
1996: Ultimo Dragon vs Dean Malenko – J-Crown & WCW Cruiserweight Championship
1996’s Starrcade kicked off with a bang as Cruiserweight champion Dean Malenko took on J-Crown titleholder Ultimo Dragon.
Starting off with smooth technical wrestling, the two chain wrestled with Dragon portraying the evil foreign heel managed by Sonny Onoo. Dragon got the advantage after an outside dive onto “The Man of 1,000 Holds”. Dragon further worked over Dean with submission holds until Malenko got some close falls and started worked over the ankle. Malenko got out of a surprise Powerbomb and then the crowd came alive for a leaping tombstone piledriver but Ultimo kicked out. After failing to lock in the Texas Cloverleaf, the Cruiserweight champion hit a double underhook powerbomb for a close 2 count.
Soon after, Dragon hit his patented Asai Moonsault onto “The Shooter” on the outside. Dean dodged a standard Moonsault attempt after. Malenko locked in a snug-looking Cloverleaf, setting the crowd alight but Onoo distracted him, forcing him to release the hold. Dean stayed in control but had a win stole from him and after a series of counters was hit by the Dragon Suplex and pinned.
A truly great technical encounter between naturally talented grapplers and exciting, backable characters – it would open the show with a bang and would be the bout of the night, even surpassing the classic rivalry rekindling of Roddy Piper and Hulk Hogan, which itself was quite the spectacle despite lacking in in-ring prowess. This (as well as their match at Clash Of The Champions) were both rated 4.5 stars by Dave Meltzer. This makes this one of the joint highest-rated matches in Starrcade history.
1997: Eddy Guerrero vs Dean Malenko – WCW Cruiserweight Championship
1997’s Starrcade was the biggest PPV of WCW’s history, aided by the Sting versus Hulk Hogan feud 18 months in the making. The match of the night was again the opener and again featured Dean Malenko, as he revisited his old ECW showdowns with Eddy Guerrero
The heel Guerrero started off playing around but Malenko soon regained the advantage over the devious Guerrero. A solid powerbomb and Alabama Slam highlighted the crisp acoustics in the ring and made every move feel much more crunching. Eddie would flee to get some distance before returning and targeting the leg of Malenko. This was soon cut off as the super-serious Dean regained the advantage and defied the reigning champion’s begging to Malenko. After more offense, Eddy reversed the tide and further went about weakening the leg with use of the apron, ring post and steel steps.
Malenko regained the advantage, thwarting a hurricanrana into a brilliantly-executed reverse wheelbarrow. Malenko would get some near falls but not put away his opponent and that injured leg would come back to hinder him. Eddy capitalized on his injured opponent with a diving dropkick to the leg and Frog Splash onto it for the 3 count and title retention for “Latino Heat”.
1998: Billy Kidman vs Juventud Guerrera vs Rey Mysterio – WCW Cruiserweight Championship
The pattern of opening bouts being the best resumes as we move on to yet another. Reigning champion Kidman defended against Latino World Order members Juventud Guerrera and Rey Mysterio – who was forced to join so showed defiance against the faction.
Needless to say, this was an astounding display of athleticism between 3 of the best workers in the high-flying field. A hectic scene of flips and leaps, this was crammed with content only WCW were creating at the time, as illustrated with Gillberg holding the WWF Light Heavyweight belt at the time.
It would be hard to do the near anti-gravitational prowess in this match justice in writing so let us summarize some of the highspots. This includes an Asai Moonsault from Rey to both on the outside, a hurricanrana from Juventud onto Rey on Kidman’s shoulders, Rey hitting a hurricanrana onto Juventud to the outside and Kidman hitting a Shooting Star Press onto both on the outside, as just a sample of this match.
A point to note is that nobody kicks out of any moves, rather the opponent breaks it up, likely to protect all of those involved and add to the sense of desperation. In the end, LWO leader Eddy Guerrero tries to cheat to get Juventud to win. Rey then kicks Guerrera and accidentally leaves Kidman rolling up Juventud to get the win. A smart finish of Rey rebelling against the group he does not want to be in but it costs himself.
1999: Chris Benoit vs Jeff Jarrett – WCW United States Championship Ladder Match
With Scott Hall injured, Chris Benoit was gifted the US title belt but was not content. In an open challenge ladder match, Jeff Jarrett – who himself had previously competed that night – accepted and cut a short promo to add some justification and heat to the impromptu bout.
It did not take long for both to use the ladder to their advantage. Using it as a weapon, they whipped each other into it, threw it onto each other and even had some more innovative uses that had not fully been explored in this era. There was clear desperateness on both men’s side, climbing but getting knocked off of the ladder. Aside from being pushed over with the ladder, a high point was Jarrett hitting a top rope dropkick to the ladder, sending “The Crippler” on a terrifying-looking fall from way up high. Benoit then hit a Diving Headbutt from the top of the ladder onto a prone “Double J” and retrieve the belt to retain.
As good as this was, an improvement over their match at Starrcade 3 years earlier, there were some flaws. This includes the rather sinister finish in hindsight although it did not look like its connection was so damaging. Furthermore, it did get a little repetitive plus why hit moves like superplexes in a ladder match, seems a little illogical and unrealistic. Nonetheless a great bout, it stood head and shoulders above the other questionable booking decisions and bad action of 1999’s Starrcade.
2000: 3 Count vs The Jung Dragons vs Evan Karagias & Jamie Knoble – WCW Cruiserweight Championship #1 Contendership Ladder Match
Starrcade 2000 saw the continued long-term feud between The Jung Dragons and 3 Count. Which considering the talents of all involved, is no bad thing.
Perhaps not as memorable as the absolutely chaotic New Blood Rising match, it now featured a new line-up as Knoble and Karagias had broken up from their respective groups to form their own allegiance.
It started out – rather oddly – under a tag format before breaking out into a tornado style. Despite a few botches, the talented performers managed to keep it together. The sneaky 3 Count tried to win when the other teams fought on the outside but this was thwarted by The Dragons. Knoble and Karagias argued amidst a number of ladder spots including Jimmy Yang performing a corkscrew moonsault off a ladder position on the middle ropes. Following this, a plethora of diving moves took place before the unaffected Knoble was pushed off the ladder onto the crowd on the outside.
In the ring, Karagias hit a hugely impressive scoop slam on Yang who was jumping back into the ring. He was then wiped out by Shannon Moore. Helms hit a huge neckbreaker off the leaning ladder to Knoble. Just crazy, mental moments in rapid succession. Fighting on a ladder, Moore hit a sleeper slam off the ladder. In the end, 3 Count both stood on a ladder bridge, threw their opponents off to win.
Absolutely chaotic and filled with high-risk, impressive spots – this was a joy from start to finish. Perhaps taking inspiration from and inspiring the TLC trio, it was a career-making display.
2000 was the last Starrcade as the WWF bought out WCW in early 2001.
Overall, there are many candidates for the best Starrcade performers. As for the best match per card – Eddy Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Ricky Steamboat all have 2. Close competition for the top, Ric Flair, Lex Luger and Tully Blanchard have 3 yet one has 4. Arn Anderson is the most frequent best performer due to matches in 1986, 1987, 1992 and 1994. As to whether this makes Arn the best Starrcade performer is arguable.
One thing that is for sure is that the legacy of Starrcade will never die. No matter how much the recent return of it in WWE as a live event tries to do so. Starrcade will forever be the biggest stage that WrestleMania aimed to achieve the status of and would later surpass. Had there been no Starrcade, the wrestling world would be a much darker place.