For the sake of clarity in this article, let’s start by defining some terms for the specific scope of what we will discuss. Others might disagree with these definitions, but they’re how I’ll be looking at things in the paragraphs to come. “Working hard” is fairly self-explanatory. It is represented by the concept of workrate, best summed up for my purposes here as the amount of action divided over time or how much physical effort a wrestler puts into a match. Stiffness, bump-taking, motion, snappiness of offense all come into play. “Working smart” is using various tricks and tools (you can say “psychology” if you want) in order to create an effect without necessarily exerting the effort involved in working hard. Looking at it by extremes, an example of working hard might be elaborate full-speed rope running spots and working smart might be stalling on the floor for four minutes to make the crowd irate and make the first lock up mean far more than it would otherwise. Neither is necessarily good or bad in a bubble and you can use one in the execution of the other. You can smartly use hard work by selling it or structuring it in a clever way and you can really exert yourself while working smartly. Watch how much speed and terror Honky Tonk Man puts forth when diving out of the ring while he’s stalling against a formidable babyface some time. Wrestling is often best when the two come together.
Then there is the “southern tag style.” This is the style of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, something you’re far more apt to see outside of the WWF, which tended to push more babyface -dominant matches. It’s hallmarks are 1.) a hot shine, where the babyfaces use their speed and finesse to clown or control the heels, using frequent double teams and driving them from the ring. 2.) a relatively long section of heat-drawing, where one of the babyfaces gets caught in the ring and acts as face-in-peril, either getting a body part worked over or otherwise beaten down by sneaky heel tactics, often aided by their own hotheaded partner (who channels the anger of the fans) trying to get in to help only to distract the ref to the benefit of the heels. During this section there are a number of hope spots where it looks like the face-in-peril might make it to his corner only to for the heels to cut him off by hook or crook. There could be babyface tags that the ref misses and heels making switches behind the ref’s back, all to ramp up the tension. The more sympathy the crowd feels for the face, and the angrier they are at the heels, the more they’ll want to see the babyfaces make the tag and get their revenge. And 3.) the eventual hot tag and the comeback, where the face-in-peril’s partner clears house, often hitting the same moves on one opponent and then the next, with everything breaking down as they rush to a finish. There’s not one exact formula for all of this. Most of it hinges on the heat section in the middle and stoking the audience’s fury and hatred and desire to see the tag and for the heels to get their comeuppance.
All of this brings us to Clash of the Champions XVII, which ironically enough, was the first to not have a subtitle. It’s ironic because it’s the show with one of the best angles in WCW history and one of the best matches and that, coming off of Halloween Havoc, really felt like the turning point. It’s the show that finally navigated out of the dire straits of mid-1991 and brought things into the Dangerous Alliance era of great TV matches and big events that would define the next many months. The angle in question is the Madusa/Lex Luger/Sting/Rick Rude series of events. The match is Dustin Rhodes and Ricky Steamboat vs The Enforcers of Arn Anderson and Larry Zbyszko, and it’s arguably one of the best US tag team matches of all-time, one that both embraces and defies its southern tag trappings on the path to greatness.
This match was billed as Dustin Rhodes and Barry Windham vs The Enforcers. They had run the angle at the start of Halloween Havoc where the Enforcers slammed Barry Windham’s arm in a car door. Why? That was never quite revealed. Maybe it was to eliminate a potential threat to their titles. Maybe Arn was offended by Barry’s babyface turn. Maybe Lex Luger paid them to do it because Barry was still a challenger to his title. Who knows? This is 1991 we’re talking about. It happened, though, and that meant, despite the billing, Barry would not be able to compete. He came to the ring and instead announced a mystery partner would replace him. Enigmatic music chimed through the Savannah Civic Center and a man with a large reptilian mask stalked down to the ring. Upon reaching the middle of the ramp, Dustin walked back and and pulled the mask off, revealing none other than Ricky the Dragon Steamboat, looking a little more goofy with his kung fu moves in the early 90s than he had in the late 80s, a little more like someone’s uncle and not like one of the most legendary babyfaces of all time. It’d been rumored that he was making the jump but this hadn’t been advertised as a mystery partner match and many of the fans hadn’t come in that night expecting him, so they were over the moon about this even before the match begun.
Anderson, one of the most amazing stooging heels ever, had the opposite reaction, letting loose the iconic scream of “NOT RICKY STEAMBOAT!” That one moment did more to get over the match and his opponent than any twenty minute promo in the history of pro wrestling. Zbyszko was more focused on the fans, trying to get them to shut up. Two and a half very long years before, Ric Flair and amusingly enough, Barry Windham, had a similar experience when Steamboat had returned to be Eddie Gilbert’s mystery partner, starting his championship winning run in 1989. Jim Ross did not mention that parallel moment, but he did mention how Steamboat was a former World and World Tag Team champion (with not just Jay Strongbow but Paul Jones as well, a very strange name to hear on 1991 WCW TV). Between this and the excitement of the crowd, before the match had already begun, this already felt like a very big moment in a year that had so few.
Hype and excitement, a primed and ready crowd, the importance of titles, basically being in the right place at the right moment, all give a match an opportunity to succeed. There have been any number of such matches that failed to live up to their expectation, or that lived up to it but didn’t surpass it. Sting vs Hogan from Starcade 1997 is a perfect example of this. There are other matches that might have overachieved but that didn’t have the right opportunities to begin with. There’s a Chris Masters vs Drew McIntyre match from Superstars that would blow you away, but I doubt you’ve ever seen it or that you’re even going to go seek it out now. Rhodes and Steamboat vs The Enforcers had the moment, had the opportunity, and it took it and ran, and ran, and kept running until it was past the finish line of history.
I meant that literally too, the running at least. The match followed the basic southern tag structure. It was, however, worked so hard that you’d almost not know it. Arn and Larry were dervishes during the shine, rushing headlong into Steamboat and Rhodes’ offense, getting dumped out of the ring not once but twice. The second time, Arn would bellow once again: “He’s just a man! He’s just a man!” Steaboat worked a brief headlock sequence on Zbyzsko, but once Dustin tagged in, he started to work over the arm, and Steamboat, veteran that he was, latched on to the story element so that they would unleash rapid fire tandem offense upon it. The heels flailed and suffered, scraping for an eyepoke or a quick push back into the corner whenever they could, usually to no avail. Zbyszko tried to slam Dustin during an armbar only for him to hang on. Then, he tried to escape outside only to have Steamboat use the ring itself as a weapon agaisnt him. For a moment, it looked like they had Dustin on the ropes, as Arn grinded him to his corner, got up to the top, avoided a toss with an eye rake, hit an axe-handle, grinded Dustin’s face with his knee, only to run right into Dustin’s foot after all that work.
Finally the heels did manage to gain control. Zbyszko paintbrushed Steamboat, incensing him. He then took off outside, around the ring, and back in, making a tag to Arn in the process. By the time Steamboat got his hands on him, it was too late; Arn was able to attack from behind. At this point, as the heels began to draw heat, the match really took off. In a more standard southern tag match, this is when things would slow down, where the heels would cut off the ring and the babyface would start selling. In a match that was worked harder, without that structural underpinning, there’d be a minute or two of heel offense before they started frenetically trading moves again.
What happened was this: the heels did cut off the ring. They did use every dirty trick in the book. They goaded Dustin into the ring and made use of the referee’s distraction with fake tags. They ran across the ring to knock him off the apron to prevent a tag. They hung on to each other for illegal leverage. They managed a blind tag to strike from behind. At the same time, though, Steamboat was a comeback machine. Anytime they gave him even an inch, he stared to fight back and they had to find a new, imaginative way to cut him off with only seconds to react. Sometimes you’ll get two or three hope spots in a really good face-in-peril section. This was just a constant string of them. In a situation like that, it’s usually because of no selling, of a wrestler just constantly fighting back and obliterating the potential meaning of anything done to him. That wasn’t the case here. Every shot was sold by Steamboat and every attempt to come back felt earned. That they happened so quickly and frequently made him look like a force in his first match back, but also made the Enforcers look like wrestling geniuses. That was how smooth and organic everything felt. There were no holes or gaps. There was no hesitation or looking lost. There was very little shrugged off in order to hit the next spot. There was a fiery hero, a prodigal son returned when he was needed most and there were the dirtiest, trickiest, most desperate villains imaginable.
It shouldn’t have worked. I can’t stress that enough. When things are moving at that speed, it’s almost impossible to make them resonate. Not only did Steamboat have to balance his selling with his fighting back almost perfectly, but he needed the heels to not just be able to play along, but to succeed wildly in enforcing believable, compelling cut-offs. Almost any other babyface in that position wouldn’t have even attempted to do what Steamboat did, and if he did attempt it, it would probably have crashed and burned in a morass of selfishness and lack of nuance. Or, if tried against lesser heels, it would collapse even if the babyface tried to establish the perfect balance. Even if the setting was a little different, if the fans weren’t so excited to see Steamboat again (and using young Dustin as a face-in-peril and Steamboat as the hot tag would have been a far safer, more conservative decision considering that excitement), the energy might not have cycled from the ring, into the crowd, and back again.
It was the perfect work for the perfect moment, and the crowd responded, cheering Steamboat more and more in his comebacks and booing harder and harder at the manic chicanery that kept Rhodes from tagging in. Finally, after trying and failing to ground Steamboat in a Boston crab, they lost their grip. Steamboat bounded across the ring, but the ref was out of position due to Arn hanging on to him. It’s the ultimate log tossed on the face-in-peril bonfire, to make the fans think that the tag happened, only to snatch it away. Ricky was still on the rise though, and Arn (who rushed in with no real tag while Dustin was complaining about the missed one) missed a punch, ate an atomic drop, and then, in a spot that he did better than anyone, crashed the back of his head with Steamboat’s forehead after hitting the turnbuckle. Anderson was up first, though, and he scaled the ropes for a grounded double axe-handle, a move I have seen work just once in my entire life in a match between the Brainbusters and Demolition. Here, it did not, for Ricky, just enough recovered, brought his feet up into Anderson’s face. This allowed him to start crawling once more towards Dustin and salvation. Arn tried to cut him off, but knowing he’d never make it in time, he shouted to his partner to just run in and do it. Zbyszko tried, but it was too little and too late. Steamboat reached out and slapped a hot tag that, if not perfectly timed, was full of power and emotion.
Like the rest of the match, the comeback was swift, dynamic, and to the point. There was no wasted motion. Dustin fought back both Enforcers in a burst of offense before being reversed into the ropes. Steamboat, with just a moment’s rest from his ordeal, landed a blind tag even as Dustin turned that bounce off the ropes into a bulldog on Arn. He charged across the ring to neutralize Zbyszko and Steamboat ascended to the top. Anderson stumbled back to his feet and took the full brunt of Steamboat’s trademark Flying Body Press for the pin as the crowd burst into jubilation over the victory and the title change.
Rhodes and Steamboat aren’t considered one of the best teams of all-time. They only lasted another month or so and would even be feuding as parts of different teams a year later. They were very much a thrown together babyface force, not nearly the natural fit that was Rhodes and Windham. The Enforcers would almost immediately disband to be replaced by the Dangerous Alliance tandem of Anderson and Bobby Eaton. In some ways that makes this match all the more impressive. Dustin wasn’t called on to do much but he was more than competent as a force early on, played his role perfectly on the apron during the middle, and was energized and effective at the end. Zbyszko is wildly underrated today, with people mocking his stalling without understanding how well he was able to utilize it for positive effects and just how good (and willing) he was at bumping and stooging. In this match he kept up with Arn and Steamboat. On this night, he belonged in the ring with two of the very best.
And it worked. It all worked. It was the ultimate southern tag for television, something that glued your eyes to the screen but that also shot emotion right into your heart. You felt Arn’s fear and desperation, Zbyszko’s frustration and anxiousness. You felt Steamboat’s anger and determination and just how badly Dustin wanted to get into that ring. Every cut off by the Enforcers seemed like a rabbit pulled out of a hat, magic but possible due to skill and deftness, cheating but never a cheat, and Steamboat’s courage in fighting back, in refusing to let them fully overtake him, was palpable. That was the level of this performance, the perfect intersection of working hard and working smart, of throwing one’s self wholeheartedly into a match but through instinct or mastery making the best logical, artistic, and emotional decisions at every point. On paper, it should have been a trainwreck. In reality, it was a masterpiece. I’m not sure that WCW was ever better.