The match that made Sting a star 36 years ago: ‘Struck gold’

It was Sting’s first real taste of the big time. The angle and the night that put the first stamp of legitimacy on a legendary in-ring career that is set to come to a close at the same venue it was anointed in.

Sting, whose real name is Steve Borden, will have his final match at the AEW Revolution pay-per-view when he and Darby Allin defend their world tag team championships against The Young Bucks at Greensboro Coliseum on Sunday (8 p.m., Bleacher Report). 

But it was in 1988, three years into Sting’s career, that he began his first storyline with then-NWA world champion Ric Flair and the famed Four Horsemen. 

Jim Crockett Promotions’ new babyface began by spoiling “Ric Flair Day” in January. 

With Flair and the Horsemen dressed in tuxes, a bleach-blond Sting got physical with the Horseman’s manager J.J. Dillion, who had just tossed champagne in his face.

Sting managed to escape the Horsemen and felt they had something special as the crowd reactions that night and afterward only reinforced that. It set him and Flair on a collision course for a title match at the first Night of Champions that March at Greensboro Coliseum up against WrestleMania IV.

“I was already getting a taste of it and thinking, ‘Wow this is incredible. Wow, I’m with Ric Flair this is amazing,” the 64-year-old Sting said.

He also knew it would be up to Flair, one of the greatest in-ring workers ever, to decide where Sting’s career went immediately from there. 

“This is for all the marbles and the best that wrestling has to offer and it’s for the gold,” Sting said. “Just a huge, huge night for young Surfer Sting two years into the business actually live most people’s dream.”

The two battled to a 45-minute draw — time running out with Flair in the Scorpion Death Lock — that showed Sting belonged with the best of the best. Tony Schiavone, who called the match, remembers it as something that was meant to counterprogram against the WWF but as it went on that changed.

“It was apparent to me that as the match went on we were in the midst of making star,” Schiavone said. “You can’t just credit Ric Flair with all that, his opponent had to have something the fans could hold on to. The excitement that Sting would generate and his look and his character, plus wrestling Ric Flair made for a very special moment that we all knew by the end of it Sting — it didn’t matter that he didn’t win the match it mattered that he looked the part and looked great on TV. I think we all thought by the end of the night, everybody backstage, we were in the midst of something very big.”   

Sting credits Flair, who will be by his side on Sunday, for making him.

Sting gets set for his Clash of Champions match vs. Ric Flair in 1988. No Context Flair/YouTube

“He had a choice that day and I knew darn good and well he did,” Sting said. “He wanted to have a good match. He could make me. He could break me. I think he had that ability. The rest is history.”

From that moment, Sting went on to become one of the most legendary figures in pro wrestling history through different iterations — Surfer Sting, Crow Sting, Joker Sting, Vigilante Sting, Icon Sting working for Jim Crockett Promotions, WCW, TNA, New Japan, an injury-shorted stint in WWE and now his final run in AEW.

When asked what’s allowed the Sting character to connect with fans at the level it has, he mentions work ethic, presentation and engaging with the crowd.

Sting will have his Final match at AEW Revolution on Sunday. AEW/ Ryan Loco

“Wrestling fans can tell when someone’s sort of coasting, going halfway,” Sting said. “Not just physically in the ring with their pace and they’re working hard in the ring and they’re trying to deliver and they’re trying to entertain, also in the way they take care of their physical bodies, what their gear looks like, the whole package. Wrestling fans can see all of it.”

He said he “never understood” why so many wrestlers would not and could not engage the crowd in any form or fashion. Sting took his cue from some of the then WWF’s biggest stars.  

“I was watching guys like “Macho Man” Randy Savage, who was over the top and then Hulk Hogan and all these guys in the 80s and going ‘Wow, they’re all engaging the crowd,” Sting said. “Watch what Hogan does. Watch what he does. I sort of followed that example and developed an ear for the crowd.”

Ric Flair walks to the ring to face Sting at Night of Champions. No Context Flair/YouTube

Schiavone believes a lot of Sting’s initial connection to the audience at the time of his career came from his look. While the rugged Road Warriors were also wearing face paint but Sting with the color schemes, the blond hair, signature scream and willingness to smile at the fans was unique to Jim Crockett Promotions at the time.

“You either get it or you don’t with being able to interact with the fans,” Schivone said. “ I think the people who don’t interact with the fans on the level that Sting did or Hogan did or a Savage did just don’t have it in him and Sting did.”   

Allin sees the Sting character as something “timeless”, especially the Crow character he created in WCW. 

Ric Flair will share the stage one more time with Sting on Sunday. AEW/ Ryan Loco

“You can look at Sting in ’96 and you can look at him today and it’s timeless,” Allin said. “I feel like the whole representation, everything that goes into it. You can’t put it in a year or a category, like that’s so 80s.”  

That being said, Schivone has even joked with Sting about coming out as Surfer Sting one more time on Sunday. 

“Spike up the hair, make it blonde, come out with the red, white and blue star spangle banner suit on, but I don’t think he’s gonna do that.”

All of this was possible, in part due to one memorable night in 1988.

“Especially at that time in this era, if you had any opportunity to do a storyline with Ric you struck gold,” Sting said. “You hit it as big as you could possibly hit it. You couldn’t get any bigger. It meant everything in the world. I felt in a sense that I had arrived.”  

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