The Column Beyond: The Great Hunt

horseman 1991

There’s a unique thrill that wrestling fans experience, a certain wonder that I’m sure each and every person taking the time to read this article has felt, the joy of finding a lost match. Oh, no match is truly lost. People have long and loyal memories. They’ll remember some house show match they saw when they were four in some armory long torn down; they’ll swear by it and tell anyone that’ll listen that it was the match of the year and it’s a shame no one will ever get to see it. Or, they’ll bring up a shining, rosy televised match from their youth and so what if you can go back and watch it and it doesn’t hold up? To them, it was magic.

Whatever match we might find digging through youtube or old tapes and discs or match results isn’t truly lost. Someone, somewhere knows about it and loves it and has a stub of a thread on some message board somewhere asking if anyone’s seen it. That’s okay though, because the people we talk to haven’t mentioned it, haven’t seen it. It’s not heralded on lists we’ve seen and associated with dogma-creating star ratings and held as a standard-bearer for workrate and excitement and what a match should be. Conventional wisdom leaves it behind. It’s not lost to everyone, but it is lost to us.

There are levels of this, levels related to how deep down the rabbit hole you go with your fandom. Some matches can be lost to you because they aren’t mentioned on WWE TV or aren’t on the Network. Some are lost because they were never pushed hard by newsletters. Some are lost because they were on a C show instead of a B show and some are lost because they were from a more minor territory or sitting in someone’s garage unseen for years. It doesn’t matter because it’s a personal thing tied to yourself and to your social group. You’ll find it, you’ll gasp that no one talks about it, and you’ll rush to share it about. Sometimes you find someone who knows it and backs you up and has wanted someone to mention it for years and that just makes you hold it all the higher over your head for the world to see.

This is one of those matches.

I began to watch WCW in 1991. That said, there aren’t many specific television matches I remember from that year. I remember broader things, like WCW Saturday Night being preempted by baseball or watching the Main Event on Sunday night and having it roll right into National Geographic Explorer and how that signified that the weekend was over and school was about to begin again. I remember the completely immobile WCW action figures who all came with belts (even Z-Man) and getting packs of the WCW trading cards at the corner drug store. I don’t remember this match. I’m not even 100% sure that this match aired in the Boston suburb in which I lived.

It was on WCW Pro. I really like going back and watching 1991 WCW TV. I know the company was rudderless at times but there are a lot of wrestlers I liked and still like. I especially like watching the Power Hour (which was on Saturday mornings for me as a kid, before WWF Superstars and Wrestling Challenge) as the Jim Ross/Paul E. Dangerously commentary was a lot of fun. Pro I don’t remember, though, and the first time I came across this particular match, a couple of years ago, it was from not just Pro but the local-market driven Pro Chicago, which, earlier in 1991 had former AWA stalwart Larry Zbyszko as co-host, and was filmed in various parts of Chicago as a way to hype one of the larger WCW markets (to poor drawing effect, unfortunately, as it wasn’t a bad idea on paper).

There’s a lot to like on TV that year. The lack of direction can be fun since it makes for head-scratching viewing sometimes and the pairings are as random as can be, whether it’s The Diamond Studd teaming with Flair against Bobby Eaton and the Yellow dog or Flair teaming with Windham, One Man Gang, and Nikita Koloff against PN News, Tommy Rich, Brian Pillman, and El Gigante. Those matches actually happened on TV.

This match wasn’t quite as random, though the timing of it was, perhaps. As best as I can tell, it was filmed sometime in September (we don’t seem to know), and aired on the November 2 version of Pro. This was not all that long after Windham’s face turn (the one that was still quizzically up in the air considering he was marketed on the heel team in the Chamber of Horrors at Halloween Havoc right up until the end) and less than a week after Havoc itself, which began with the big angle of the Enforcers crushing Windham’s hand in the car door. This match was obviously taped before that, though, and the announcing was filled in before that as well. The Steiners were mentioned as key Enforcers opponents coming up and Windham was paired with Abdullah the Butcher of all people. The latter was advertised into November but Eaton replaced him on house shows due to the injury. Regardless, while it was a heated match, the cause for that heat was stressed as Arn and Barry’s past history in the Horsemen (or as Ross put it “an elite organization that has disbanded”) and maybe because he and his new friend Ron Simmons might challenge the Enforcers for the belts, not because of the injury angle even if many people watching the match had already seen that angle – the joys of syndication and WCW taping in advance.

The match was heated, but more than that it was smart, and brilliantly executed. Anderson, at 33, and Windham, at 31, were very close to their physical prime, but more than that, they were at that perfect cross-section of physical ability and wrestling experience. Both men brought intensity, theatrics, and consequence to almost every move that they made.

The match started hot with Anderson and Windham in each other’s faces, talking trash. Anderson struck first with a slap across the face and Windham, incensed struck him repeatedly in response, with Arn stumbling out of the ring in his unique style. There was no one in the history of wrestling who could switch from vicious and dangerous to stooging so effectively. And back as well, as he slipped into the ring and locked in the smoothest hammerlock imaginable only to eat an elbow to the face for his trouble.

This was how the opening stretch went. It was fast, competitive, but mostly a babyface shine. Arn would cheat or pull out some trick or finesse move but Barry was too heated and too athletic and too much. They worked in a rope running spot, a headlock from Windham, an attempt at one by Arn, and then a second one by Windham that Arn reversed immediately into a headscissors. Windham snuck out with a headstand in a nice athletic spot punctuated by a punch to the face. Arn ended this stretch by rolling out and asking for a time out, slowing things down in an attempt to control the tempo as he took his time getting back in, bringing the crowd back down to prepare them for the next bit of the match.

That next bit was more focused and would help to shape the rest of the match. Through more crook than hook (more on that later), Anderson finally managed to get Windham down. He wasn’t quite down enough, though, as a follow-up knee drop missed and Windham immediately targeted in on the leg, kicking away, twisting, and slamming it into the post, before going for a figure four. Anderson escaped that (more on that later too) and followed up with a knee lift that hurt himself as much as his opponent. He tried to make it up the ropes but was slowed down by the hurt leg and was tossed off. Here now, at around the halfway point of the match, Windham finally capitalized on the hurt leg, locking in the figure four. Arn made it to the ropes and rolled out but Barry was unrelenting, following him out, crushing the leg with a knee-breaker on the outside. He climbed up to the apron for a double axe-handle but, perhaps due to the loss in focus, Arn was able to recover slightly (again, more later), and slam Windham’s arm into the post.

Now, with about half the match left, both men had a damaged limb and things really came alive. Arn slammed Barry’s arm into the post again. He then grabbed the arm, and placed his foot on the post, which was still between the two of them, and pulled as hard as he could, making for a brutal image. All the while he made sure to limp to remind the fans of his own injury. Barry tried to fight back with a few kicks but Arn kept on the arm, including punching it directly to cut Barry off. He drove him down into the old, stepover Anderson armbar, using the ropes for leverage and using his head to drive him into a pin.

Windham’s arm was damaged but his climb to fight back was aided by Anderson’s damaged leg. Once back on his feet, he launched a kick into Anderson’s leg, but Anderson struck back with a kick to Windham’s arm. Both men dropped down in pain, selling the weight of the match and the pain that it had levied upon them. Arn would scoop under for a hammerlock, using the tights but Windham fought up with four huge back elbows and another kick to the leg. Arn recovered (more later) only to run into a sleeper that eventually sent both men down as Arn tried to counter. They’d make it up only to collide into each other head on head (another spot that Anderson did as well as anyone ever).

That was the key for them to move in to the last transition and the finish. Arn took over one last time (more soon), and went for his always ill-advised second rope axe-handle to a prone opponent (complete with throat cutting taunt before he leapt). Barry’s leg went up and the tone of the match changed. Windham would hit a big second rope clothesline and a powerslam, both for two counts, but Anderson managed to stun him one last time (more next paragraph, I promise), and set up for a piledriver. Windham back body dropped him, but Arn hung on for a sunset flip, used the ropes for leverage and got the three count. This brought Ron Simmons down to the ring to complain. The ref listened, restarted the match and a distracted Anderson was immediately rolled up for three and a Barry Windham win.

Alright, now for all of those admittedly annoying “more later”s. During the match, maybe eight times or so, Anderson would regain control of the action with one of two moves, either an eye rake or a shoulder to the gut out of nowhere (often times in the corner or against the ropes). If he had used these two or three times, it would have felt like a lack of imagination. By doing it over and over again, without apparently thought or hesitation, it felt like a gameplan and raised the frustration level of both Windham and the fans watching. Going to the eyes was how he escaped that first figure four and in an act of flailing desperation, how he set Windham up for that match-ending piledriver attempt. Through this repetition, they were able to overlay an additional element of character-driven mood to the match, one that made every bit of punishment that Windham doled out and the eventual finish of justice triumphing over underhandedness all the more satisfying.

The last star of the match was Jim Ross, who was calling the action alone. I don’t think he was as successful as he could have been on the big shows of 1991 with Tony Schiavone because they’d often talk over one another to get points in; there was little contrast between them. Here, though, without anyone else to affect his call, he was excellent in making the match feel all the more heated and bringing up good points. He effectively brought up Anderson and Windham’s history, put over the limb damage that both wrestlers suffered and how it might affect their capabilities, and very believably took the heat off the ref for missing Anderson’s cheating by mentioning how great a job he was doing in being in the exact position he should be relative to Windham. He helped take a very good match with nothing at stake and made it feel more important than it actually was.

Sometimes, with matches such as these, you watch them once and overinflate how good they are because they’re yours, your find, your discovery, your match. That was my worry in rewatching this again. I was happy to see how well it held up. It’s two amazing wrestlers, one of which, in Anderson, who really wasn’t positioned to have a lot of great televised singles matches in his career, doing the big things and the little things so well. It’s not a perfect match; maybe Windham takes a bit too much of the first half and it would have been interesting to see what the match would have been like if the armwork on Windham came first, followed by the legwork on Arn and then the more even vying of the two competitors before they went to the finish. What it was, however, was so well executed and full of such earnest, gritty, honest performances from Windham, Anderson, and Ross, that I despite the usual hesitation in a situation like this, I’m not hesitating in calling it great and one of the best WCW matches of 1991. It’s a lost match, I found it (as others have before me and others will after me), and I’m very glad that I did.