There is nobody who has ever loved the professional wrestling business as much as the “Nature Boy,” Ric Flair. You may think that’s a bold statement or perhaps incorrect for whatever reason, but when you think about how this man wrestled at a ridiculously high level from his first match in 1972 and his last match in 2012, there’s really nobody else that can touch him.
The editors of this fine website asked me to write something about the two-time WWE Hall of Famer and 16-time World Champion. That’s because Flair is the subject of the latest 30 for 30 sports documentary, a film that has been in production for over two years. A lot of us know Ric’s journey, but to see it covered in this way will be interesting.
That documentary will likely do a great job of talking about his career and his life. (You can read Ben Koo’s review of the film for Awful Announcing here.) What I’m here to do is answer a simple question: What made Ric Flair the legendary wrestler that he was? The answer is… everything. Let me explain.
Ric Flair Had No Weakness as a Wrestler
Flair was the complete package as a wrestler. He was an incredible in-ring performer capable of having a great match with anybody, his promos are as good as anybody in the history in the business, he was very charismatic and he had a look that made him stand out with those flashy robes as well as the white hair. Everything that you could want in a professional wrestler, Flair had it.
Most wrestling fans know of Flair’s greatness, no matter how old they are, because he has been a significant name in the business for over 40 years. A lot of you have probably seen a lot of his best matches against his greatest rivals like Ricky Steamboat, Sting, Randy Savage and Dusty Rhodes. If you never saw those matches, maybe you heard the stories. It might have been about the three five-star matches with Steamboat in 1989 (when Flair was 40, by the way), the cage match Flair won over Harley Race at the first Starrcade in 1983, bringing Sting to his level of greatness by having a 45-minute draw at the first Clash of the Champions show in 1988, years of feuding with Dusty Rhodes with both men bleeding heavily for our entertainment or maybe you heard about how he could carry a stiff like El Gigante to a three-star match.
The Four Horsemen stable that Flair led from the mid-1980s into the 1990s is the best alliance in the history of wrestling. People can mention other groups all they want, but most of them didn’t last for a decade like the Horsemen did. Flair was the leader of the group as a main event heel who would use his buddies to help him win matches. Other members in the group included his best friend, “The Enforcer” Arn Anderson and a group of others that changed over the years like Ole Anderson, Tully Blanchard, Barry Windham, Chris Benoit and Dean Malenko. There were also less celebrated names like Paul Roma and Steve McMichael too.
The constant was always Flair, though. His greatness gave the group swagger, credibility and most importantly, they made us want to see our heroes like Sting, Ricky Steamboat and Dusty Rhodes find way to overcome them because of how dominant they were.
Flair really was that good in the ring. He was on another level from anybody else in his era because of his consistency. It’s why other wrestlers who some fans consider to be the best ever, like Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels, will talk about how Flair’s the greatest. Ric did it day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year and even decade after decade with a crazy schedule that saw him wrestling 300 times per year as a World Champion in the main events. Nobody wrestled at such a high level for as long a period as Ric Flair. Those days are over now. The wrestlers of today don’t have an easy schedule by any means, but compared to what Flair did it’s a lot better on their bodies.
As a side note, if you haven’t read my colleague Matt Yoder’s column on some of Flair’s greatest matches from a few months ago, then you need to check that out. He did a great job in selecting some of the best Flair matches.
Flair is considered by most to be the best heel (bad guy) ever. He knew every trick in the book in terms of doing moves behind the referee’s back. It’s why he earned the nickname of the “Dirtiest Player in the Game.” That’s who he was. Even when he was a face, he would act like a heel and the fans absolutely loved him for it. His trademark spots in matches like when he would go up top, never hit a move and take a slam off the top would pop the crowd every time. Don’t forget about the Flair flops as well when he would take a bump face first on the mat. Flair did all the little things right.
Being a heel allowed him to cut some of the best promos in the history of the business. His trademark “Woo!” is a celebrated thing that people love doing, but he used it more like a taunt to annoy his opponents. The promos he would cut were full of cockiness and a word I mentioned earlier, swagger. Back in Flair’s day, the word “swagger” wasn’t even used, but he was the definition of it because of how he would brag about how great he was. He told people he was the man and then he’d beat them in the ring to prove it. “To be the man, woo, you’ve got to beat the man.” Nobody could tell it is like in wrestling like Ric Flair.
I didn’t grow up a huge Ric Flair fan. It has nothing to do with him, though. It was more about where I lived. Living in southern Ontario, Canada (let’s just say near Toronto), this was WWF/E country. They were the ones that put on local shows here every few months and were all over our television stations. When Randy Savage caught my eye doing his “Macho Man” routine in the mid 1980s, I was hooked. If I grew up in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida or somewhere in that part of the world, I’m sure I would have been a Flair supporter much earlier than I was.
The 1992 Royal Rumble Is The Signature Flair Moment
When Flair joined WWE in late 1991, I knew all about him even though we didn’t have TBS at that point, so it was tough to see his matches. Thankfully, I had older cousins who would buy or rent wrestling tapes for me, so I could watch PPVs like Starrcade once in a while. It was just crazy to see his WWE debut because I didn’t know if he was ever going to work there, so to see him there with Bobby Heenan holding the WCW World Title was one of those moments I’ll never forget because it confused me so much.
“What’s he doing there?” I wondered. “He doesn’t work there.” I was 11. I didn’t know how things worked in the business yet.
One of my favorite matches ever is the 1992 Royal Rumble match. It was such a unique match with the WWE Championship vacated and, in theory, anybody out of 30 men in the Rumble match could be the WWE Champion. I’ve watched that Rumble match more than any other. It’s loaded with star power and about half the roster sitting in WWE’s Hall of Fame as legitimate stars among the best ever and not just because they were long-term WWE employees.
The 1992 Rumble match is incredible because it was built around Flair entering as the third man in the match trying to last until the end. It seemed like everybody was targeting him as soon as they entered the match while legendary announcer Bobby Heenan (who recently passed away and is remembered fondly as the best to ever do his job) freaked out on commentary about how it’s “not fair to Flair.”
Flair entered the match at #3, lasted all the way until the end for 60:02 and in doing so, won the match by eliminating Sid Justice after Hulk Hogan tried to get revenge on Sid for dumping him out. Keep in mind that Flair was 43 years old at the time of the 1992 Rumble, so he wasn’t a young man by any means. Yet he proved he still belonged out there and that he was going to outshine everybody in the match, which he did.
After Flair won the WWE Title, he did a legendary promo where he said, “With a tear in my eye, this is the greatest moment of my life.” That’s a statement that was likely done for the show and it fit because of how well Flair delivered it, but I have to question if he would rank it ahead of the birth of his four children. Anyway, Flair had a lot of credibility as a performer, so when he had a tear in his eye talking about being a champion, we all believed it as being authentic.
Returning To WCW As A Conquering Hero
Flair’s first WWE run ended in early 1993 because he just wasn’t a big part of the company’s plans, so they let him go back to WCW later that year. By that point, I was fully entrenched as a WCW fan. I still liked WWE more and got more of their shows, but I liked the alternative that WCW offered.
One of my favorite Flair matches ever took place at WCW’s Starrcade 1993 in Charlotte, North Carolina, which was considered Flair’s hometown. It was an event headlined by the dominant heel World Champion Vader, a 400-pounder who could move like a smaller man combined with incredible power. Flair had to retire if he lost the match. Isn’t it funny how Flair was having a retirement match about 17 years before he really retired? It shows just how long he was a superstar.
Flair was 44 years old at the time, so some people may have thought he would lose, but of course he found a way to win and when Flair won with a rollup, he got back the WCW World Title while receiving one of loudest ovations of his career. The match was excellent and the moment was even better. Flair’s the greatest heel in the history of wrestling, but it was that moment for him as a face that I’ll remember as well as anything in his career.
In 1994, WCW brought Hulk Hogan in and Flair was back to being the great heel that he was because Hogan was obviously going to be featured as a face at that point. They had several great matches together that actually led to Flair retiring at Halloween Havoc 1994. That retirement only lasted about four months until Flair came back dressed as a woman in the crowd because…well… it’s WCW. They weren’t the smartest wrestling company out there.
Going Out On Top At WrestleMania… Sort Of
It was very cool when Ric returned to WWE in 2001 as the “co-owner” of the company for a feud with Vince McMahon. He ended up having some big matches against Vince and also The Undertaker. Later, he was a mentor to Triple H, Randy Orton and Batista in the Evolution group that was fascinating to watch on the Raw brand in 2003-04.
In 2008, Flair finally retired for good from in-ring competition (or so we thought) at WrestleMania 24 in a match against the man who I think is the best in-ring performer ever, Shawn Michaels. It was incredible to see Flair, at 59 years old, put on one more memorable match with Michaels with the crowd going crazy for all of it knowing this may be the end. How many guys can have a good match at that age? Almost nobody, but Ric did it. I rated the match four stars out of five and it’s incredible how well he could perform for 20 minutes at that age.
Flair’s retirement didn’t really last that long because he still had an itch to wrestle. He got out of his WWE deal and end up having some matches with TNA Wrestling as well as some independent promotions. He finally had his last match in 2010 at 61 years of age.
Despite Wrestling Success, Flair’s Personal Life Was A Mess At Times
The 30 for 30 special on Flair is going to focus on Ric as a performer, but they will also pull back the curtain a lot to reveal what his personal life was like as Richard Fliehr. A lot of us know the stories because he has been very open about it in interviews. Flair has been divorced four times in large part to him being so committed to his wrestling career that he was admittedly a bad husband. He cheated on his wives constantly and said recently he probably slept with 10,000 women.
Then there’s his children. His two oldest kids, Megan and David, were born at a time when he was in the prime of his wrestling career. His first wife, Leslie, raised them mostly on her own because of how much Ric was working. Most wrestling fans will know David from a brief run as a crazy wrestler in WCW from 1999 to 2001 when he was in his early 20s. His wrestling career didn’t last long.
Charlotte Flair, a current WWE superstar whose real name is Ashley, is an incredible women’s wrestler who is his third oldest child. Her mother is Ric’s second wife, Beth. As Charlotte has mentioned many times, Ric was around for her childhood a lot because he was older in his wrestling career and would make sure she had the best coaches in sports. She was a star volleyball player in college. Eventually, she found her way to wrestling. Charlotte is a tremendous wrestler with Ric saying that when she wins a title, it means more to him than when he would win. It’s great that he can live through her career these days.
The saddest story that you’ll hear about Ric’s life is about his son Reid, who died in 2013 at the age of 25 due to an accidental drug overdose. Reid was a pro wrestler who had dreams about making it big in the business and Ric was with him the night he was found dead as they were about to fly to a show in the morning. Reid’s death really impacted Ric a lot, which is understandable because no parent wants to bury their child. Flair ended up drinking a lot more because of it too. I’m sure the documentary will cover it and many of us may tear up just seeing him talk about it.
Flair also had a major health scare in August of this year. He was put in a coma so they could perform an operation on him because his organs were failing. Combination of too much alcohol in his life and just living life the Ric Flair way. Thankfully, he got through it thanks to the love of his family including fiancée Wendy Barlow, who longtime WCW fans may remember as “Fifi” the maid during Flair’s WCW talk show days. They gave Flair a 20% chance to live, yet he got through it and we all hope he has many more years ahead of him. He has sworn to never drink alcohol again too, which his obviously a wise decision.
Ric Flair’s life has had so many ups and downs that it’s hard to cover it all. What I want wrestling fans to know is that he’s one of the most beloved names in the history of the business. If you were old enough to see him wrestling, then you know. If you weren’t, please check out WWE Network, search his name and watch some of his matches because I can assure you they stand the test of time.
In writing this article about Flair, one word kept popping up in my head: longevity. The fact that he was so freakin’ good at pro wrestling for so long and nothing could ever really stop him showed how special of a talent he is. The man survived a plane crash and getting struck by lightning. He was barely injured during his career despite wrestling 300 times per year for most of his run. It’s incredible to think about the legacy he has left in the wrestling business.
If he could go back in his life to do some of it over again, would he change some things? Of course he would from a personal standpoint because the death of his son Reid was the worst thing that ever happened to him. In terms of his career, I don’t think Ric would have changed anything because he lived life to the fullest and provided us with a ridiculous amount of entertainment we can enjoy for years to come.
When you think about Ric’s career as you watch the ESPN 30 for 30 special about him, do so with an appreciation for his legacy. There may never be anybody else like him. That’s something worth celebrating for sure.