The wrestler many consider the best of all-time doesn’t need much of an introduction except to say: Woooo!
LVII. Ric Flair
The “Nature Boy” has been a wrestling institution since the 1970s. He won his first world heavyweight title in 1981 with the NWA, and famously (pretty much) retired at WrestleMania 24 in 2008. He wasn’t the first “Nature Boy” (that would be Buddy Rogers, who was also the first WWE champion), but Ric Flair became known as the standard of excellence in the ring, and also for “stylin’ and profilin’,” on his own and with the Four Horsemen and Evolution, contemporaries and successors.
He happened to break his back early in his career, too, but that didn’t stop him.
As the legend goes, Flair was all set to assume a completely different legacy when he was encouraged to adopt his own, and by claiming the tag “Nature Boy,” his natural wrestling ability and personal outspoken charisma quickly shot him to the top, first in NWA and then in WCW, helping mark the transition for one of the sports’ most cherished traditions into one of the modern era’s defining promotions. During the 1980s, with the help of Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race, Sting, and others, he provided the counterargument to Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan’s WWE, the idea of supersized bodies representing the popular idea of wrestling. He’s the only wrestler WWE ever brought in from a competitor and allowed them to keep their reputation and momentum, in the glorious period between 1991 and 1992. He returned in triumph to WCW and continued his championship dominance. In 1996, he took a backseat to the New World Order, perhaps the successor to the Four Horsemen, but persevered despite great internal opposition, returned to the spotlight, ate another helping of humble pie, watched the death of WCW unfold, and then be welcomed into the WWE fold on his own terms, even if he didn’t understand them at the time.
Ric Flair became a legend very quickly, not just another dependable star that would become the face of a promotion and lay claim to the main event scene, but someone who constantly worked with every emerging face, the wrestler who could always be turned to and be capable of providing compelling action. He amassed a record number of world championships and survived upheavals and changing demographics. He lived the good life (and continues to pay for it) and constantly struggled with an ego that would have been buried if it had come from any other time and from any other man. He is the pattern for the modern champion. Anyone who holds a title for longer than a few months at a time isn’t considered respectable. They’re considered phony, manufactured. It’s enough to be considered competitive, crafty, noteworthy, the three tenets of Ric Flair’s career, the signs that you’re willing to spread the wealth around.
Competitive is what Flair was all about. He knew the business of wrestling inside and out, knew how to manage himself in the ring, against the opponent, off the reaction of the crowd, and had developed predictable but spontaneous moments in every match. If he couldn’t win by superiority, he won by sheer force of will, or by cheating (the “dirtiest player in the game”). Most times by cheating, which is strange, because he made his name by being the most respected wrestler of his generation (a conundrum only Eddie Guerrero was able to duplicate).
Crafty, yes, because he wasn’t just competitive, he knew every way out, not just the cheap way, but the true heel’s craft. He could wrestle hour-long matches, sure, probably better than anyone, probably the last guy to make his reputation that way, outside of the PPV spotlight, but the art of wrestling isn’t just about holds, about maneuvers, but all the things in-between, and every way to influence the outcome of a match that doesn’t strictly involve the rulebook.
Noteworthy because he knew that promoters love the guys who can put themselves over; Ric Flair was among the great stick men. It’s not even that the fans necessarily care that much, if they really think about it, whether or not a guy can talk. Superstar Billy Graham and Dusty Rhodes had exactly the same abilities in that regard, but the “American Dream” built a career out of his gift of gab, while Graham was always dismissed as a muscle guy (as he has sometimes been considered recently, years ahead of his time). Graham was a lot more old-fashioned as a wrestler, though, while Rhodes had figured out the formula the 1970s were popularizing, the one Ric Flair mastered. By the 1980s, everyone had to talk in order to make an impact on nationwide TV; what we consider to be of vital importance today is actually less important, more of a necessity than anything, had already been played out by the end of the 1990s and the Attitude Era, when The Rock and Steve Austin took it to unapproachable heights. Where Vince McMahon now prefers realism, to compete with no-nonsense MMA, someone like Ric Flair would now seem like an anachronism. But at the times, Flair was the best in the business, having studied his predecessors, not just Buddy Rogers but the flamboyant Gorgeous George, and he knew it. “Woooo!” was just the icing on the cake.
“To be the man, you have to beat the man.” Flair might have seen the writing on the wall when he made his first trip to WWE. WWE itself knew how to handle him, but its biggest star, Hulk Hogan, didn’t. It was believed that the two biggest stars of the 1980s couldn’t provide the blockbuster feud of the 1990s, and so Flair spent most of his time in cards with Roddy Piper, Randy Savage, and Bret Hart, which probably worked extremely well for all involved, but still suggested that Flair was not considered to be at the same level of Hogan, when it came down to it. They would engage in a protracted rivalry in WCW, but when it really counted, when everyone had been expecting it, it never happened. Flair’s mastery of professional wrestling, in the end, only went so far. It wasn’t just that the years were starting to pile up, but from that moment onward, Ric Flair was no longer considered the unchallenged rightful heir to the main event.
By the end of WCW, he was probably only about sixty percent of what he had once been. His importance to wrestling, despite how he’d been treated in recent years, warranted a bigger percentage, but his confidence was shot. By the time he came back in 2001 as a thorn in the side of Vince McMahon, he needed every boost of confidence possible to believe that he could still perform where it really counted, in the ring. It wasn’t until Triple H formed Evolution that the old “Nature Boy” truly returned. He was a supporting player throughout the existence of the united stable, but by the end, he was seen as someone who could battle Triple H himself and appear competitive, even though he was now well past his prime. By the time he fought Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 24, everyone knew the end had finally been reached. As he had depended on since the 1980s, Flair relied on the support of fans who had witnessed a remarkable legacy for decades to put on one last great match.
That’s the real story of Ric Flair, getting the fans behind you, despite every obstacle, despite your best and worst impulses, and keeping them there, not just for months or years but decades, so that they cheer for you in a match like that. Bruno Sammartino had a brilliant decade, and probably could have had another one, but he fell out of love with wrestling, gave up when things changed. Lou Thesz had six NWA world title runs between 1937 and 1966. Thesz is someone whose influence long outlasted him. Sammartino is on the verge of being forgotten. Ric Flair’s accomplishments will probably last as long as professional wrestling exists.