The greatest past-his-prime moment of Ric Flair’s career came in Orlando, Florida. This was lightyears beyond getting bushed for drunk driving and another wrestler mocking his weirdly fascinating elbow-drop on top of his sports coat. Flair was 59 years old when he wrestled his last most meaningful match, a “retirement” match against Shawn Michaels. Flair played up the role of cagey veteran in the game for one final run. Everyone knew WrestleMania was his last go in a WWE ring. Still, they saluted him as if it were Babe Ruth in his final at-bat at Yankees Stadium.
In the near-decade since Flair “retired” from the squared circle, he has become a shrewd ambassador of any and everything imaginable. He’s been known to parlay his fame into pitches for Carolina-based sports teams, well, any sports team that would let him. His “whoooo” is universal, from every North American wrestling venue when somebody delivers a chop to Minute Maid Park whenever the Astros start putting crooked numbers in the run column. He’s routinely quoted by musicians, athletes and more. Because in the 1980s, no wrestler was cooler than Ric Flair. Hulk Hogan happened to morph the kind of All-American* look in splashes of yellow and red. The Ultimate Warrior was a face-painted madman who didn’t work by the hour. In my childhood, I rooted for Hulk Hogan as a child because he was the so-called “good guy.”
I wanted to be Ric Flair.
There’s a significant categorical difference between rooting for the most famous wrestler on the planet because he embodied 1980s America and rooting for the bar-none coolest wrestler of the 1980s. Flair parlayed the idea of not just being rich but being in-your-face with it, in a way you couldn’t help but love. Flair has become immortal in this way, a 6’1” former football player who arose from a broken back in a 1970s plane crash to become the blueprint for classic American wrestler in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Thanks to Flair, I know more about Charlotte, North Carolina than anyone from Houston, Texas has a right to. Stylish, heavily braggadocious promos? Came in style for real with Flair. The bad guy you prayed would lose but happened to have a squad of quasi-inferiors on hand to do his dirty work? Flair. Flair was so cool that he had a dirt-mall version of him in Tully Blanchard, who siphoned the heat off Flair because he was essentially the diet version of Flair.
And right now, we’re on the verge of possibly losing Nature Boy Ric Flair.
In the news recently, Flair’s name has appeared both in ESPN readouts, WWE programming and other verticals of media that have a hand in pro wrestling coverage. Flair had emergency colon surgery this past weekend due to blockage; complications from said surgery left him in a medically induced coma. A recent health update states Flair is resting comfortably but may have to remain in the hospital for a month due to his organs failing. As we pray for him, a feature-length documentary about his life and career is due in November. Besides possibly Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, few banked mind-blowing charisma into becoming a memorable entity more than Flair. If Ric Flair dies, whether ten or 20 years from now, I’d rather nobody tell me it happened. I’d rather it occur and be left to my own devices.
Flair’s life, through wrestling in and out of the squared circle, has been documented clearly. His most passionate rivals — Sting, Hogan, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat — were all driven by a need to beat wrestling’s version of the New York Yankees. Every man wanted to knock off the guy who wore a Rolex, touted his sexual conquests constantly and did anything to win because winning was the only thing that mattered to him. Steamboat gave him his greatest in-ring battles; Hogan was the one dance partner with whom Flair was supposed to draw massive dollars, but came around too late; and Sting was the perpetual babyface who routinely got tricked by Flair's Four Horsemen, and seemed more like a lovable loser who was always in it for the chase. Flair’s best rival? His idol, Dusty Rhodes.
Rhodes passed away suddenly two years ago at 69, but “The American Dream” always found a way to be the perfect contrast to Flair. To coin a Houston sort of analogy, if Flair was River Oaks-rich, Rhodes was Sharpstown — scruffy and round but beloved by the public at large. Wrestling works best in two versions: when all the logical points meet in the middle, both narratively and in entertainment value; and when humanity and dignity are expressed in every character. Rhodes versus Flair was a tussle of class warfare, with working-class hero Rhodes always wanting revenge for what rich-man Flair had done to him. Flair and his boys broke Dusty’s arm? Revenge. Flair and his boys broke Dusty’s leg? Revenge. Flair stealing Rhodes’ woman? Revenge. It didn’t matter what Rhodes appealed towards, emotionally or logically. Flair had his number and the story the two told kept fans enthralled because both parties played their respective roles.
Playing that role of “The Nature Boy” is what makes Flair great, scars and all. Even after he essentially ran the National Wrestling Alliance in the 1980s and then jumped to the WWF after getting fired in 1991, Flair was still the man. He parlayed being the “real” World’s Champion into winning the greatest Royal Rumble in history in 1992. He entered at No. 3 of a 30-man battle royal and lasted the whole way through. He acted like a “I’m Better Than You” scoundrel that routinely kept it up. When he came back to WCW to essentially save the company in 1993, he was once more treated like royalty, a proverbial savior.
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Not until the mid to late 1990s did Flair’s star began to fade, not at his own hand per se but because of too much loyalty to the company. Flair’s loyalty to wrestling, the longest marriage of his life, has cost him plenty. WCW burned his dignity time and time again, sacrificing him to Hogan’s ego when the WWF’s most famous wrestler arrived in the promotion in 1994. They shaved his legendary coif before the doors closed. He routinely showed up in terrible angles with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, in which the two attempted to prove neither was homosexual. He stripped naked, he delivered passionate promos and allow his real emotions into the ring every single time. His dedication and loyalty to a place that didn’t show him the same respect in the ‘90s as it had in the ‘80s is telling.
The Nature Boy is a fighter. Always has been. He probably had conversation with God at this very moment and deliver one of his spirited promos about having unlimited access to Space Mountain. God will probably send him back and tell us, “Sorry, he kicked out at two. Why? He put his foot on the damn rope.”
Flair’s legacy was secured even when I was a child. Now as he embarks on the biggest battle of his life, I hope the Nature Boy manages to pull through so that once Survivor Series rolls around and the WWE sets up camp in Houston for four shows this November, he’ll be there. Or maybe, also in November, riding shotgun next to Josh Reddick in the Astros' World Series parade.
Either way, the world still needs “The Nature Boy.”