What was Lex Luger’s best year in wrestling?
I was listening to the Lex Luger episode of Grilling With JR with the two-parter on The Total Package. JR and Conrad broke down Luger’s career in Cliff Notes fashion and discussed how booking failed what should have been an obvious Hall of Fame career.
For the record, I’m a big Luger fan as he was one of my favorites for most of his career. Let’s just gloss over that post Wolfpac era though.
As shoddy as the booking was over his career, Luger did have enough banner years to make the case for his best 12 months period interesting. You could make a strong case for 1997 where Luger was the flagbearer for WCW as he led the charge against the nWo.
Luger teamed with The Giant to face Hollywood Hogan and Dennis Rodman at Bash at the Beach, led Team WCW in Uncensored and in his biggest moment got to dethrone Hogan for the WCW title. I always appreciated that title win as it felt like a thanks for your service victory and a make good on way too many times he got screwed.
Luger had a decent 1988 as well. He teamed with Sting to win the final Crockett Cup against arguably the best tag team ever in Tully and Arn. That year started off even better as he teamed with Barry Windham to dethrone Tully and Arn for the NWA titles. Then he entered into a featured role as the top challenger for Ric Flair’s title at The Great American Bash. Sting and Luger reunited to take on the newly turned heel Road Warriors and then Luger got another shot at Flair’s title. Awful booking in both title matches hold 1988 back however.
Ironically, Luger’s career highlight would coincide with the best year of his former Four Horsemen running mate Ric Flair, which is why I’m calling 1989 as Luger’s best.
The case for 1989
Setting the Stage
Luger had been screwed once again out of the world title by Flair (both on camera and backstage). After two failed attempts to become the face of the NWA, Luger had to go back down the card in hopes of restoring his top tier main event status. It didn’t take long to find a fitting opponent as Luger set his sights on his hated rival and former best friend Barry Windham.
Windham was in the midst of his own career peak as two of the last Horsemen standing with Flair. With Ricky Steamboat gunning for Flair, Luger targeted Windham’s U.S. title. At this point, Luger only had one U.S. title reign, which ended on the wrong side of a Dusty Rhodes’ DDT and a steel chair.
Luger would go on to defeat Windham before getting betrayed once again by another partner in Michael P.S. Hayes. Hayes would steal the title with help from his Freebirds brother Terry Gordy. Hayes was unable to stave off Luger for long and Lex beat Hayes with an assist from rolled up tights — foreshadowing the direction of the rest of the year for the Total Package.
With the victory against Hayes, Luger would go on to enjoy unquestionably the most dominant run a U.S. champ ever had in the NWA or even the WWE revival of the title. The only U.S. champ that comes close to matching Luger’s run is Rick Rude and even that is a distant second.
Extinguishing the Dragon
The U.S. title has always been considered the default No. 1 contender to the NWA World Title. After patiently waiting his time while his friend Steamboat defended the title against Flair, Luger was eager for his shot. He’d recaptured the U.S. title and Flair was once again the champ.
In vanquishing his hated rivals Windham and Hayes, Luger considered himself battle-tested and now experienced enough to finally take the title from Flair. Only problem. The NWA ranking committee slotted Steamboat as the No. 1 contender since he didn’t get his obligatory title rematch.
This infuriated Luger, who played by the rules despite constantly getting screwed over by various entities from the Four Horsemen to the Maryland State Athletic Commission and now his pal was blocking his rightful shot at the title?
Nope. Following Steamboat’s brutal battle with Terry Funk at Clash of Champions: Guts and Glory, Luger came out. He’d refused Jim Ross and Bob Caudle’s invitation to provide commentary on the match and wanted to explain himself. With one shocking clothesline wiped out Steamboat to Ross and Caudle’s dismay. “He wants to be No. 1 contender, but not at this price” pleaded Ross. Luger left the ring scoffing at Steamboat’s status as the No. 1 contender. A few moments later Sting came to the ring to aid the fallen Dragon, but a confrontation with Luger would be many months away.
Flair’s war with Terry Funk had accomplished the impossible in making the hated leader of The Four Horsemen a beloved fan favorite. Luger had already gone through months of being sidelined while a fan favorite held the NWA title so the cheers and adulation of the fans no longer had the same appeal as winning the world title.
His experience with The Horsemen helped Lex realize the importance of biding his time. Funk was too wild and out of control to beat Flair, Lex reasoned. But if Funk did more damage to Flair’s body…perhaps breaking his neck again, Flair would be easier pickings for the Human Torture Rack. And this time no trickle of blood, no interfering managers or tag team partners could help The Nature Boy.
Lex couldn’t afford any would-be challenger cutting him in line again and to preserve his No. 1 contender status, he battled a series of newcomers/returning stars to the NWA. Former NWA champion Tommy Rich, enjoying a career resurgence, couldn’t overcome Luger’s mix of power and speed and the up and coming Flyin Brian got wrapped up too.
Now’s the Time
Lex had patiently bided his time and with Flair having his final showdown with Funk at Clash of Champions: New York Knockout, he made his intentions known about wanting another crack at The Man. But demolishing the competition doesn’t allow for strong friendships and Lex’s closest former friend, Sting finally had enough.
Sting confronted his ex-friend and literally tried to slap some sense in him. Luger didn’t retaliate…at the moment, but waited until Great Muta and The Dragon Master tied up Flair and Sting and came in with a steel chair
Top 5 Matches of 1989
Lex was a very consistent wrestler in 89 so you won’t go wrong watching any of his matches and promos from this time period. Here’s my five recommendations:
Luger vs. Barry Windham (Chi-Town Rumble, Feb. 20, 1989)
Luger vs. Ricky Steamboat (Great American Bash, July 23, 1989)
Luger vs. Tommy Rich (Clash of Champions: Fall Brawl – Sept. 12, 1989)
Luger vs. Flyin Brian (Halloween Havoc, Oct. 28, 1989)
Luger vs. Ric Flair (Starrcade: Future Shock Dec. 13, 1989)
Lex’s 1989 was his career best, but 1990 wasn’t bad either as he continued his U.S. title reign through October (!) and shifting to defending against the NWA’s heel roster. He would have some classics against Flair and have good matches with Mark Callous (aka The Undertaker), Stan Hansen, Sid Vicious, Barry Windham and more.
Photo Credit: WWE.com
I’m still waiting on a classic 80s Lex Luger figure from Mattel, but I have done reviews on the 93 Narcissist and 94 Made in USA incarnations.
Check out the Lex’s excellent autobiography Wrestling with the Devil: The True Story of a World Champion Professional Wrestler–His Reign, Ruin, and Redemption now on Amazon.