Moments that changed wrestling history: The Four Horsemen

FourHorsemenCraig Wilson 

The history of wrestling is littered with stables of wrestlers from the Heenan Family through to the Hart Foundation and NWO. Some of these stables were great and undoubtedly played a crucial role in that era of wrestling while others fell well below that level (I’m looking at you, Million Dollar Corporation). But one stable holds legendary status even to this day and that group is the Four Horsemen.

The original quartet, Ole and Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard, and The Nature Boy Ric Flair with J.J Dillon as their manager, dominated Jim Crockett Promotions and the NWA and created something special. It is fair to say that what they did create has often been imitated but never duplicated, let alone bettered.

They set the standard for excellence in professional wrestling, a standard that has never been equaled. Not only in terms of in-ring work and in promos but in the way that they lived the gimmick giving it even greater authenticity as a result

The reason for this is really quite straightforward. The whole concept of The Horsemen did not come from a booker’s pen. The Four Horsemen wasn’t the creation of Jim Crockett nor was it even Dusty Rhodes, a man responsible for many of the great storylines of that day in the NWA. No, instead, the Four Horsemen just happened. All four men were friendly, and being heels, were often thrown together in tag matches and six-man tag matches but it was an interview that really set the ball rolling.

After enough exposure to one another, the idea of a group began to take shape. Their images, their gimmicks, began to mesh. Each man’s constant drive to be the best, the same drive that brought them together, unified them into the greatest heel faction of all time. They didn’t just act as if they were part of The Four Horsemen. They WERE The Four Horsemen. They lived that gimmick.

Formation and the Horsemen era

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The Horsemen began when an impromptu tag team interview threw Flair, the Andersons, Tully Blanchard and Dillon together. During this interview Arn Anderson stated “The only time this much havoc had been wreaked by this few a number of people, you need to go all the way back to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” From that moment on the comparison and the name stuck.

From the beginning the four men ran roughshod over the NWA. The Andersons were in tag team title contention, Tully was the National Champion and ‘The Nature Boy’ Ric Flair was the NWA World Champion. Their biggest nemesis during this era was unquestionably Dusty Rhodes. The most famous incident of this feud, and indeed during this era, was when they followed Rhodes’ car and filmed themselves breaking his arm with a baseball bat.

In early 1987 Ole was thrown out of the group and replaced with Lex Lugar. The group’s main rivals at this point were the Road Warriors (Hawk and Animal) and the Super Powers (made up of their long-term rival Dusty Rhodes and Nikita Koloff). In an effort to attempt to settle this bitter rivalry the WarGames match was created. This is arguably the finest creation of Dusty Rhodes and also easily the greatest stipulation match in the history of wrestling.

The match originally consisted of two teams of either four or five men each facing off with each other in staggered entry format. The setup of the cage consisted of two rings side by side with a giant ring-encompassing cage that covered both rings. The match began with one member of each team entering the cage. After five minutes, a member from one of the teams would enter the cage, giving his team the temporary handicap advantage. After two minutes, a member from the other team would enter to even the odds. Entrants alternated between teams every two minutes, giving the coin toss-winning team the temporary advantage in the numbers game before giving the other team the advantage with the freshest man and even odds. Once all men had entered the cage, “the match beyond” commenced. Both teams would brawl in the cage for as long as it took until a member of either team submitted, surrendered, or was knocked unconscious. There was no pinfall and no disqualification, which often led to brutal and often very bloody confrontation.

The very first WarGames match took place at the Great American Bash 1987 and pitted the Road Warriors, the Super Powers and Paul Ellering against the Four Horsemen (Flair, Arn Anderson, Blanchard, Lugar and J.J Dillon). The Four Horsemen lost this bloody and brutal match when Dillon submitted after injuring his arm as a result of a botched Doomsday Device.

In early 1988, after dropping the US Title and stopping Dillon winning a Bunkhouse match, Lugar was thrown out of the Horsemen and a few months later replaced by Barry Windham. With Windham as a member, it meant that the Horsemen now held all of the top belts in the company at the time. However, owing to pay issues, Blanchard and Anderson left the company that summer and moved to the WWF as ‘The Brain Busters’. In their absence, Barry and Ric tried to continue the Horsemen with a new manager, Hiro Matsuda as Dillon had accepted a front office job with the WWF, but the group quietly folded.

In-ring impact

From the outset, the Four Horsemen were a force to be reckoned with as the created problems for other wrestlers in the promotion. They feuded with many of the top babyface stars that Jim Crockett Promotions had at the time including Dusty Rhodes (breaking his ankle and hand), Magnum TA, Barry Windham, The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express (breaking Ricky Morton’s nose), Nikita Koloff (injuring his neck), and The Road Warriors.

I’ve recently immersed myself in Joe ‘Road Warrior Animal’ Laurinaitis’ autobiography ‘The Road Warriors: Danger, Death, and the Rush of Wrestling’ in which he talks about the Four Horsemen. After riding roughshod across various wrestling promotions, it was the Horsemen that gave the Road Warriors their first real beat down in the ring. That action showed how highly regarded the Four Horsemen were that even though they were smaller wrestlers they were able to dish out such a beating and despite those actions, the Road Warriors were not damaged in the eyes of the fans as a result.

It was their heavy involvement in each title division that gave the group added legitimacy as a force to be reckoned with. When Flair was the World Champion and each of the others either held their respective titles or were heavily involved in the title scene, it made the group look unstoppable as they dominated everyone that stood in their way.

As a result, it is little wonder that nearly a decade later when it was the NWO that were creating havoc in the WCW that the Four Horsemen were heavily involved in attempts to bring down this new faction. Of course, it wasn’t the original quartet but this demonstrated just how highly regarded the Horsemen were by fans – many who may not have seen much of the original grouping – that they were seen as a legitimate threat to the NWO.

Later versions

When Ric Flair returned in 1993 after a brief spell with the WWF, the Horsemen reformed with Ric, Arn, and Paul Roma. Roma had previously been, at best, a mid-carder in the WWF and not the elite superstar that fans were used to seeing as a member of the Four Horsemen and his spell with the group didn’t last long. The Horsemen again reformed in 1995 this time with Brian Pillman and Chris Benoit. When Pillman left WCW, he was replaced by the former American Footballer Steve ‘Mongo’ McMichael. Jeff Jarrett was to later join the group after defeating both Benoit and McMichael in a series of matches but he too was later kicked out.

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In the summer of 1997 Arn Anderson was forced to retire as a professional wrestler and gave his position in the group to, after much fanfare, Curt Hennig. However, Hennig quickly turned on the other members. In 1998, Dean Malenko joined the group. This final incarnation of the Four Horsemen ended when Benoit and Malenko left the group and joined Shane Douglas and Perry Saturn to form the Revolution.

Imitators and Influence

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Such was the success attained by the Four Horsemen that it was of no surprise that various promotions attempted to recreate the magic but none came close. Arguably the closest any promotion got was the WWE in 2003 with the creation of Evolution. That group again featured Ric Flair, but it was Triple H that was the stable’s leader with Randy Orton and Batista making up the quartet. Evolution worked in a very similar manner to how the Horsemen did in NWA: dominating the titles scene and feuding with the promotions top babyfaces.

In 2010, TNA tried to get in on the Four Horsemen imitation stakes with their grouping of Fortune (originally titled Fourtune). This stable consisted of leader Ric Flair, A.J. Styles, James Storm, Kazarian and Robert Roode and later also included Christopher Daniels, Douglas Williams and Matt Morgan. In similar style, Fortune were heavily involved in the various title scenes and even used a variant of the Four Horsemen hand gesture.

A lesser known imitator was the Xtreme Horsemen. This group came together in Dusty Rhodes’ Turnbuckle Championship Wrestling promotion and comprised of Steve Corino and “The Enforcer” C.W. Anderson who were joined by former ECW superstars Justin Credible and Simon Diamond with the group also being briefly managed by former Four Horsemen manager J.J. Dillon.

In terms of influence over other stables, it would be difficult to narrow that down. As Jim Ross stated in the excellent Four Horsemen DVD, stables such as DX, NWO and the Million Dollar Corporation would never have existed had it not been for the Four Horsemen demonstrating how good a stable could be and the success that could be attained.

Few would argue that Evolution were the closest any promotion has gotten to replicating the Four Horsemen, but virtually every wrestling stable since been influenced by the Horsemen and their heyday in the mid to late 80s.

Legacy

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The Horsemen concept helped define the NWA in the mid to late 1980s. The Four Horsemen were quite simply the greatest stable of all time in wrestling. Whilst I grew up a WWE fan and missed the Four Hoursemen the first time around, I’ve started watching Jim Crockett Promotions and WCW events and was blown away by the group.

Not only was it helpful that each of the members was an established start from the outset, it also helped the group no end that Ric Flair was generally the NWA/WCW Champion, certainly during the early years, meaning that the group was the elite entity at the time and when other members also held titles they looked close to being unstoppable.

They set the standard for what it meant to be the best in every single aspect of the wrestling business. Their matches were generally regarded as being the best, few superstars could cut promos of the standard of the Four Horsemen and they lived the Horsemen lifestyle outside of the ring putting the business ahead of everything else.

The group was unquestionably helped by the fact that they were close friends and outside of the ring lived their gimmicks but their role in the history of wrestling cannot be underestimated. No stable beforehand or since has come close to equaling either their style or their in-ring success and the group’s induction into the WWF Hall of Fame in 2012 was long overdue.

The Horsemen paved the way for future stables such as the NWO, Evolution, Fortune and DX. The Horsemen rode roughshod over everyone and everything that stood in their way which made the group look unstoppable. The original quarter were highly skilled workers yet could easily mix it up and brawl if necessary making the group look even more dangerous. The various angles of injuring the promotion’s top babyfaces at the time, coupled with their dominance in the title scenes, gave the Four Horsemen unmatched legitimacy. The Horsemen were a promoter’s delight with huge amounts of money being made as fans desperately craved for babyfaces that could stop their dominant run.

Even as the groups weakened as members left and were generally replaced by poorer superstars, the group was still seen as the real deal and no doubt superstars such as Pillman, Lugar, Benoit and Malenko would have greatly benefited from the rub that they received as part of the Horsemen and extra TV exposure that came with the position.

It is unlikely that wrestling fans will see such a powerful stable ever again yet to this day it is still a great joy to look back on those old clips from the 80s and early 90s and see their arrogant promos and the way that they took on all comers as they became the most dominant stable in wrestling history.

Even with, in Ric Flair, perhaps the greatest wrestler of all time in their ranks, the other members of the members of the original Four Horsemen never looked like supporting stars. Each and every one was the real deal and that’s what made the group the best in the business. I mean, look how over they were even as late as 1998:

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4 thoughts on “Moments that changed wrestling history: The Four Horsemen

  1. Everyone who thought the NWO was the be all end all as far as factions go need to wake up. They didn’t do anything that the Horsemen didn’t do first. The NWO wasn’t really hated. But at their peak, the Horsemen were, and we all know about that incident one night when they literally had to fight their way back to the locker room because of the fans that they enraged when they attacked Dusty Rhodes.

    Evolution was a close to the Horsemen as we could get, and isn’t ironic that a former Horseman was in it?

    Like

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