I admit it: I cried on March 29, watching Ric Flair’s speech for his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Then I watched his match the next night at WrestleMania 24 with the sinking feeling that it might be my last chance to see him perform in a new match. When he burst into tears in the ring after losing, I started crying too.
And I cried during his retirement ceremony the next night on WWE Monday Night Raw.
I’m not usually an emotional person; the last time I remember crying about anything but a death or something involving someone I personally know was when Johnny Carson retired. And just as it seemed like Johnny would always be there every night, so it seemed that Ric Flair would always be an active wrestler.
When Murray Rothbard died, a reporter asked Lew Rockwell for a short description of Murray’s thought and contributions. Lew’s response was to ask how one sums up Beethoven’s music or Dante’s poetry.
Indeed. And how does one sum up the contributions of Ric Flair to his niche of pro wrestling? How does one summarize a spectacular, unparalleled 35-year career that includes 16 world championships (officially; the real number is probably higher), numerous tag-team championships, the Intercontinental championship, several U.S. Title reigns, and more, including about a dozen Wrestler of the Year awards? (Yes, wrestling is fixed, but titles are given to people who will draw crowds; they’re not given to just anybody, and that was even more true in the past, during most of Flair’s career.)
"I’m the best wrestler in the world today."
For anyone who doesn’t know how pro wrestling works, it’s an exhibition, rather than a competition. That means the outcomes are predetermined, and the wrestlers aren’t really wrestling against each other; they’re working with each other to make the match exciting. But it’s still a sport, and it’s still dangerous. Every NFL player I’ve ever heard of who has tried pro wrestling has said it’s more difficult and more dangerous than football. And the injury rate is probably higher in pro wrestling than in any other sport.
Competitive wrestling may be the world’s oldest sport.
It appears that pro wrestling emerged as an organized event in the U.S. in the carnivals that emerged after the so-called Civil War. Skilled grapplers would often con carnival-goers out of money by taking on challengers from the crowd. The first challenger or two was a "plant" who was in on the con. They would choreograph a match, which the plant would win or barely lose. Thinking they could beat a wrestler who lost so easily, others in the crowd would take the bet, only to have the wrestler man-handle them and take their money. Of course, that situation was dangerous and unpredictable, and sometimes a carnival-goer would win.
Wrestling evolved into an arena event around the late-1800s. Some matches well into the 1900s were "shoots" (real competitions) and lasted several hours. The problem is real, competitive wrestling tends to be boring unless you’re a hardcore student of wrestling strategy or you personally know someone you’re rooting for, and who wants to watch one match for several hours — especially if it’s boring, with little action? So wrestling promoters began staging "worked" (choreographed and fixed) wrestling matches because they were more exciting to watch, while still portraying them as legitimate competitions.
Wrestling evolved again into regional territories in the late-40s, due to TV; again into national companies in the mid-80s, due to cable; and yet again in the mid-90s, partially by admitting what wrestling is, which was probably due in part to the Internet making it impossible to keep it a secret.
Even if pro wrestling isn’t your cup of tea, all libertarians should have some degree of respect for anyone who makes others happy by giving them an honest product or service through voluntary exchange on the market. Ric Flair, the greatest pro wrestler who ever lived, is just such a man; he undoubtedly brought more joy to his fans during his 35-year career than every politician and bureaucrat who ever lived — combined.
"Stylin’ and profilin’!"
Depending on the document, Ric Flair was born either Fred Phillips, Fred Demaree or Fred Stewart in Memphis, Tenn. on Feb. 25, 1949. Various documents show his birth mother to be Olive Phillips, Demaree or Stewart, and his biological father to be Luther Phillips.
The details of what happened next are unknown; Ric guesses his mother was told by hospital officials, who were in collusion with a crooked judge and the equally-crooked Tennessee Children’s Home Society, that he was still-born, and all she had to do to put it all behind her was to sign a few papers, which were really adoption papers. This scam was often pulled at the time on young, scared, unmarried (which carried even more of a stigma then than it does now) and often poor girls, many of whom were also uneducated and even under sedation when presented with the paperwork.
Over 5,000 babies were adopted by the Society, including by Joan Crawford, June Allyson, and Dick Powell, before the governor of Tennessee called for an investigation in 1950; years later, 60 Minutes would do an expos on the Society, and Mary Tyler Moore would win an Emmy for her performance in the TV-movie about the scandal, Stolen Babies.
However it happened, Fred was placed with the Society for adoption as an "abandoned child" on March 12, 1949, about two weeks after his birth.
On March 19, he was adopted by Dr. Richard Reid Fliehr, an ob-gyn with one of the biggest practices in Minneapolis-St. Paul, who was also an amateur actor, president of the American Community Theater Organization, and who also held PhDs in theater and English; and Kathleen Fliehr, a Twin Cities socialite who was involved with Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, where she introduced Ric as a boy to the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Jessica Tandy, and Henry Fonda.
Upon adoption, they changed Fred’s name to Richard Morgan Fliehr.
In his 2004 autobiography, To Be The Man, Ric wrote, "Believe it or not, I never bothered looking at my adoption papers until I began researching this book. The documents were sitting in a safe in my house, and I didn’t even know my birth name. I was never curious. I’m still not. I’m an only child and, as far as I’m concerned, my parents have always been my mom and dad.
"They never kept my adoption a secret from me; in fact, they described it as one of the happiest events of their lives. I’d have a birthday party and then, every March 18, my parents and I would go to an Italian restaurant (I always liked Italian food) by ourselves to celebrate my ‘anniversary.’ "
Ric was a good kid, but a poor student with a short attention span and boundless energy; like many kids, he had a hard time sitting still in the typical government school setting.
He became wilder as a teenager, so his concerned parents sent him away to high school, to the prestigious and strict Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. He was still a poor student who had a penchant for getting into trouble, but he was a good enough athlete to get a football scholarship to the University of Minnesota.
In college, he made the acquaintance of another member of the football team: Greg Gagne, son of Minneapolis pro wrestling promoter Verne Gagne, who had been on the 1948 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. But that was the best thing he got out of college; predictably, he was more interested in partying than studying, and dropped out after his freshman year, when he became academically ineligible to play football. One of his coaches recalled years later that Flair was a good enough player to make it to the NFL, if he had also been a good student.
After college, he knocked around for about a year, selling insurance and bouncing at George’s in the Park, an upscale dinner and dance club in Minneapolis. There, he met frequent patron Ken Patera, an NCAA champion powerlifter who had been to the 1972 Olympics. Patera was about to enter Verne Gagne’s wrestling camp. Ric was a big wrestling fan who was still interested in playing sports, so he asked Patera and Greg Gagne to help him get into Verne’s camp, which was very selective. But since Verne’s son and Patera vouched for him, Verne gave him a shot.
"Diamonds are forever, and so is Ric Flair."
The training was on Verne’s Minnesota farm and began in the winter in sub-zero weather; it was so cold that the trainees literally had to wear three sweatsuits. But that provided motivation to keep training, because the only way to keep warm was to keep moving. The grueling training lasted six to eight hours per day; it started with running about two miles around a frozen lake, slipping and sliding, followed by 500 free-squats, 200 push-ups, 200 sit-ups, and numerous other calisthenics, like jumping-jacks.
Then they’d train in a broken-down ring inside of Verne’s horse barn, with horses wandering around the ring area and chickens roosting in the rafters, with their waste constantly falling into the ring. The barn wasn’t heated and was lit by one dangling light bulb. The wooden slats that made up the walls of the barn were about an inch apart, so there would often be snowdrifts in the ring as bad as if it were set up outdoors. In those conditions, they’d do everything in the ring in sets of 50: 50 front-rolls, followed by 50 back-rolls, then 50 turnbuckle reversals, 50 shoulder-tackles, 50 flying mares, 50 back-drops, 50 suplexes, etc.
One old-time wrestler who stopped by one day to watch the training remarked that the trainees were probably taking more "bumps" (falls) during the duration of the camp than he had in his 25-year career.
Rick Steamboat, who attended the camp a couple of years later, recalled that one activity they did during his training was to go into the stairwell of a high-rise building, where one trainee would put another in a fireman’s carry, then run up the stairs to the top of the building and back down with the other man across his shoulders, after which they’d switch places and do it again.
As almost anyone would, Ric quit.
In his autobiography, he recalled, "I must have been at camp for two days when I quit. I called up Greg and said, ‘I’m done.’ I was dead. Mentally, I couldn’t take it.
"Greg told his dad, so Verne came over to my house, grabbed me by the shirt and threw me out on the front lawn. ‘It took you five years to graduate high school,’ he screamed. ‘You quit college. Well, you’re not quitting this. I didn’t sign you up to be a quitter.’"
So he went back.
Then, after seeing another trainee get injured a day or two later, Flair quit again.
"I thought I was next, so I ended up quitting camp one more time," Flair remembered. "So I told Greg, don’t tell your dad I’m not coming back.
"Greg said, ‘Okay,’ and walked away. Of course, the second he saw his father, he told him.
"This time Verne didn’t bother going to my house. He just called me on the phone and said, ‘I hope I don’t have to come back there to get you.’
"That was all I needed to hear. I returned the next day like nothing was wrong."
Verne was reputed to pride himself on how difficult his camp was to complete. That difficulty put his graduates in an elite group; but the training was excellent for those who stuck with it, and many of his graduates went on to become superstars. So the fact that he went out of his way to not allow Flair to quit indicates that he saw great potential in Flair, even then.
In those days, pro wrestling presented itself to the public as a legitimate competition, rather than as a fixed exhibition, and trainees weren’t exposed to the secret until the last minute; some even had their first match having never been told in so many words what pro wrestling is, and had to go by intuition in the ring. Flair was "smartened up" literally right before he walked through the curtain for his first match, when Verne told him that he and his opponent were going to "go through," which meant, as he then had to explain to Flair, that they were going to a time-limit draw.
That debut match was against veteran George "Scrap Iron" Gadaski in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, on Dec. 10, 1972.
Over the next 18 months, Flair learned his craft, working matches low on the card for Gagne’s promotion, the American Wrestling Association, or AWA.
Ed "Wahoo" McDaniel came to the AWA during that time, and he and Flair became friends. When McDaniel left to work in promoter Jim Crockett’s Charlotte, North Carolina-based territory, Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, he promised to put in a word for Flair. He did, Flair was hired, and Flair has lived in Charlotte ever since.
It was in Charlotte that Flair began to take on the persona for which he’s known.
Just before leaving Minnesota, he bleached his hair blond and began growing it out.
Soon after arriving, he began making good money for the first time, so he began buying his custom, signature $5,000 long, velvet and sequin robes; they were made by Olivia Walker, who made costumes for other wrestlers and celebrities, including Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, and Charo.
He changed the spelling of his name from "Rick" to "Ric," which he felt was catchier and less common.
On his way to the TV studio to record some of his first-ever promos, Jerry Lee Lewis’ song "Great Balls of Fire" came on the radio in Flair’s car. Lewis’ "Wooooo!" from the song was stuck in Flair’s head, and he shouted "Wooooo!" at the end of his interview, on a whim. He didn’t necessarily expect to do it again until the first time he wrestled after that show aired, when numerous people in the crowd were shouting "Wooooo!" at him as he walked to the ring. He saw that it was catching on, and it has remained the punctuation mark at the end of his interviews to this day.
It was also around this time that Mid-Atlantic booker (the person who writes storylines and books matches) George Scott gave Flair the moniker "Nature Boy," because Flair reminded him of wrestling’s first "Nature Boy," Buddy Rogers, who had taken the name from the Nat King Cole song of the same name that was popular when Rogers entered wrestling in 1948.
Flair won his first tag-team title in 1974 and his first singles title in 1975. He was clearly a rising star, and promoters were already looking at him as a possible future world champion.
Then it all almost came to an end.
"I’m a kiss-stealin’, wheelin’-dealin’, limousine-ridin’, jet-flyin’ son of a gun."
The Mid-Atlantic territory had a lot of 300-plus mile drives between cities. One night in a bar, Ric met 28-year-old Mike Farkas, who said he was a pilot. Farkas told Flair that he could fly them between cities for about $500 per trip, which meant if Flair could get five or six guys to go, it would cost them each $100 or less to make a 45-minute plane ride instead of a five-hour car ride. For whatever reason, nobody bothered to check out Farkas’ qualifications, and he soon became the official pilot of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling.
On the afternoon of Oct. 4, 1975, Flair and wrestlers Johnny Valentine, Bob Bruggers, and Tim Woods, and promoter David Crockett, piled into a yellow and white Cessna 310, which was a small, light, twin-engine plane.
Farkas saw that the plane was 1,400 pounds over gross, and he didn’t know how to distribute the weight properly. So, unbeknownst to anyone else, he dumped some fuel out of the tank.
During the flight from Charlotte to Wilmington, North Carolina, they ran out of fuel and had none in the reserve tank. The plane dropped into some treetops and the right wing hit a utility pole, then it nose-dived into the ground and slid 100-mph into a railroad embankment.
Woods suffered some cracked and bruised ribs, and Crockett suffered a concussion. They were lucky. Bruggers suffered a broken back; he recovered, but not well enough to wrestle again. Valentine suffered a broken back that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Flair’s back was broken in three places. Farkas spent a year in a coma, then died. It was all in the dumb luck of where they were sitting on the plane and how their bodies landed in the crash.
Flair didn’t need surgery; all he could do was wait to heal. Some doctors told him he would never wrestle again, while the most optimistic ones said it’d be two years, minimum, before he could return to the ring. But, luckily for him, he was a fast healer, and he resumed his career in Mid-Atlantic about six months later, right where he left off.
"I’m the dirtiest player in the game."
At this time, all U.S. wrestling was regional, divided into about 28 "territories," and each territory’s television show was local, just going to cities in that territory (cable television made this business model unworkable, which was one of the reasons the territories died in the ’80s). Each territory was owned by a separate promoter. Most territories were loosely associated into a cartel called the National Wrestling Alliance. Each territory had its own champion, which was usually named as a state or regional championship — although some called their top title the United States or North American Championship. And most territories ran their main cities weekly.
One of the benefits of the NWA system was that there was one NWA World Champion, who was chosen by a vote of all NWA promoters. The champion would go into each territory for a few days every month or two and face one of the territory’s top contenders, often its champion. That gave each territory a way to increase business every month or two, when the world champion was in town.
Usually, the champion was booked to barely escape with his title, either by going to a draw or defeating the local champion just before time ran out. Then the fans would buy tickets for the rematch, because the local favorite was going to win the world title next time for sure. But the champion would squeak by again. This process would repeat every time the world champion came to town until attendance for that main event started falling off; then the champion would win more decisively, then come back next time to face a different challenger — who would win the world title for sure.
Of course, the title was booked to change hands from time to time, so sometimes the local challenger really did win.
"To be the man, you’ve gotta beat the man!"
In the late-70s, Jim Crockett began lobbying for Flair, who was his territory’s biggest star, to be the next NWA World Champion. He got Ric booked in the Atlanta territory, because their TV show on Ted Turner’s WTCG Channel 17 (now SuperStation TBS) was now being beamed by satellite nationwide, which meant national exposure for Flair. He also got Ric booked in St. Louis, which was the headquarters of the NWA.
The lobbying and Flair’s hard work paid off: he won the NWA World Championship for the first time on Sept. 17, 1981.
Flair quickly proved himself to be more than worthy of his new position; whether he wrestled in a small town in front of 150 people, or a major city in front of 15,000, he always worked as hard as possible to give the fans their money’s worth. And, whether he was wrestling an equal or someone totally inept, he made the fans eager to see the rematch by making his opponent look so good that the fans left convinced that Flair barely left town with the title.
In those days, TV wrestling basically served as an infomercial for the promotion’s live arena shows, which were wrestling’s main revenue stream. The mentality was to rarely have evenly-matched bouts between two headliners on TV, and to rarely have the world champion wrestle on TV at all, because people wouldn’t buy tickets to live shows if they could see those matches, or the world champion, on free TV. So TV matches were mostly "squashes," where a headliner dominated a match against a mismatched "jobber," whose role was to "do the job," meaning lose, and TV matches tended to be worked as being one-sided, with the outcome never in question
But not when Flair wrestled; another thing that made him great was that he was unselfish, even with jobbers. There are reasons to make a match one-sided, such as if you’re pushing a certain wrestler as an unstoppable monster. But generally, matches that are too one-sided are no good; Flair understood this, and on the rare occasion that he wrestled on TV when he was NWA champion, he was a master of painting a picture for the fans watching at home that lightning was about to strike and that pale, scrawny Joe Blow was actually going to beat the world champion. A wrestler only looks as good as his opponent allows him to look, and Flair always went out of his way to make anyone he worked with look like a million dollars.
Flair summarized his philosophy in his autobiography when he wrote, "It’s not about you; it’s about you and your opponent having a great match. You both have to look good, because if you’re the only one who looks good, no one cares."
In his early years as NWA champion, Flair often wrestled more than 365 times per year, because he would often work double-shots on the weekends in two different towns, and sometimes he was gone from home for up to 30 days at a time. He worked every NWA territory: the roughly 28 in the U.S., plus in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Japan and more. Years later, in 1995, he even wrestled in North Korea; his account of that trip in his autobiography is terrifying, like it’s straight out of Orwell’s 1984.
"I’m the world champion. That’s why my sport coat cost $800, and that cost $200. And I don’t know what that cost; I’d be ashamed to wear it."
In addition to his tremendous performances in the ring and maintaining a grueling schedule for years, another component of Flair’s greatness was his incredible gift of gab and charisma when doing interviews. It was impossible to watch his interviews and not love him, not feel in some way like you were living vicariously through him, not to laugh or get excited.
While certain aspects of the character he portrayed aren’t especially virtuous traits that anyone would really want to emulate, overall he was the epitome of cool.
I first got hooked on wrestling in 1986, at nine years old, when Flair was in his prime. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of being glued to the floor in front of my parent’s Curits-Mathes console TV every Saturday afternoon, watching NWA World Championship Wrestling; I vividly remember sitting through the last few minutes of Roland Martin’s mind-numbingly boring fishing show on WTBS, waiting for wrestling to come on at 5:05.
At some point during the show, out would stroll Ric Flair wearing a perfectly-tailored suit, always with a pocket square — one of the marks of a well-dressed man, with his long, flowing blond hair, aviator sunglasses, with his world championship belt under one arm, and often with a beautiful woman on the other.
Unlike most wrestlers, who would talk about how tough they were, whom they were going to defeat, or what title they were going to win, Flair would talk about being "custom-made from head-to-toe" and would show off his custom-made suit, expensive tie, alligator shoes, and Rolex watch, talking about how much they all cost. He would also talk about things like riding in limousines and living in the biggest house on the biggest hill in Charlotte. If he was a bad guy at the time, he wouldn’t hesitate to tell the announcer that his shoes cost more than the announcer’s car, or to tell the fans that his watch cost more than their house; as he left the set, he would often pull out a roll of cash, peel off a few c-notes, and stuff them in the announcer’s empty breast pocket where his pocket square should be, and ask the announcer to buy a nicer jacket before next week, because he wasn’t well-dressed enough to share the stage with the world champion.
He wasn’t just trying to come across as cool and successful (although, yes, admittedly shallow if it were real life and one analyzes it too closely); he would often build anticipation for a big match by explaining that the nice things he had were some of the perks of being the world champion; it made the championship seem even more important, because the fans could see the belt through the challenger’s eyes as the ticket to fame and fortune.
Most great wrestling personas aren’t entirely fictional; they’re more like the real person with the volume turned up. Flair has a reputation for being very polite and soft-spoken in real life, and the one time I had the honor of meeting him, I found that to be true. And he certainly doesn’t go around in real life making others feel bad about having less money than him.
But the image he portrayed as a big spender was true. In his autobiography, he recalled spending every last cent of his first big income in Charlotte in 1974 on a used black Cadillac, then wrote, "That’s the way my wrestling career went for the next 15 years — if I made $3,000, I spent $4,000. If I made $5,000, I spent $10,000. The image people would later have of Ric Flair throwing around money was absolutely true. The difference was that in the real world, there wasn’t always more where that came from."
It’s none of my business, but as much as Flair loves wrestling, I wouldn’t be surprised if his past spending is another reason he’s stayed around so long. If so, maybe we’re lucky in a perverse way that he was such a big spender.
Flair was the last real, touring NWA World Champion. By around 1987, wrestling’s old territory system was almost dead, due largely to old promoters being unable to adapt to the new reality of cable television. By then, Flair’s home territory, Jim Crockett Promotions, was just about the only NWA territory left, and Flair was really just the Crockett Promotions company champion, although the title was still called the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
The Atlanta territory had gone under in 1985, and Crockett signed a deal that year with Ted Turner to provide all of the wrestling programming for WTBS.
By 1988, largely due to overspending and poor booking leading to declining revenues, Crockett Promotions was on the verge of bankruptcy. Wrestling had been a staple on Atlanta’s Channel 17 since 1971, and Ted Turner always credited it and Andy Griffith reruns as saving his station from bankruptcy in its early years, which left him with a soft spot in his heart for wrestling. That, combined with his desire to keep the highly-rated wrestling shows on TBS, led to him purchasing Crockett Promotions in 1988. By 1990, it would be known as World Championship Wrestling, or WCW.
Ric Flair turned 40 shortly after Turner Broadcasting bought the company. At an age when most athletes are either retired or long past their primes, Flair had perhaps the best year of his career, wrestling a classic series with Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, losing the NWA title to him and then winning it back, followed by a memorable series of matches with former NWA champion Terry Funk. Flair’s matches with Steamboat are arguably the best ever performed in North America; anyone who doesn’t "get" pro wrestling, but wants to try to understand, should see their best two of three falls match from New Orleans from April 2, 1989; the match went just under an hour and is my favorite match from 22 years as a fan. It can be seen on WWE’s Ultimate Ric Flair Collection DVD set (WWE’s Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen DVD set is also excellent, and they’re coming out with a new Flair collection in July).
Despite coming off such an excellent year, WCW Executive Vice-President Jim Herd, whom Turner Broadcasting had hired to run WCW even though he was totally unqualified, decided in 1990 that Flair was too old to be champion any longer, so he put the belt on a younger, bigger (but much less talented) wrestler named Steve Borden, who wrestled as Sting. But in Jan. 1991, after Sting failed to draw acceptable crowds, Flair was made champion again.
Flair’s relationship with Herd continued to deteriorate during the following months, and Herd decided in June 1991 to try another bigger, younger (and much less talented) wrestler named Lex Luger as champion. Flair’s contract was about to expire; he agreed to lose the championship to Luger on the condition that he receive a new contract first, because he would have little leverage after he lost the title. They failed to agree to terms, and Herd wound up firing Flair a few days before his scheduled pay-per-view match with Luger.
The WCW title was declared vacant and the excellent Barry Windham was made a substitute opponent in Flair’s place; embarrassingly for the company, the entire live crowd chanted "We want Flair!" literally throughout the entire three-hour pay-per-view. WCW realized they had made a huge mistake and tried to lure Flair back on almost any terms he wanted, but he had already signed with what was by then the only other major wrestling company left, Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, or WWF.
Losing Flair, and especially deliberately causing him to leave while still champion, combined with the fact that the company had lost money during all three years that he ran the company, led to Herd being fired about six months later.
"Space Mountain may be the oldest ride in the park, but it still has the longest line!"
Flair debuted in the WWF in Sept. 1991 with his championship belt, billing himself as the "Real World Champion."
Then he won the WWF World Title in Jan. 1992 at the company’s Royal Rumble pay-per-view, defeating 29 other wrestlers in a classic match that lasted about an hour.
Flair wound up having a great 16-month tenure in the WWF that included two stints as world champion, after which WWF owner Vince McMahon decided that Flair was getting too old, despite his excellent work, and wanted to demote him to a mid-card attraction. WCW was under new management and wanted Flair back as a headliner, so he and McMahon parted amicably, and Flair wrestled his last WWF match in Jan. 1993, returning to WCW a month later.
"Whether you like it, or you don’t like it, learn to love it, because it’s the best thing going today!"
Different people with political power in WCW came and went during the 1990s. But, despite numerous attempts by numerous people to keep Flair down for political reasons, and despite often being treated very shabbily behind the scenes by people in power, he remained one of WCW’s biggest stars and headliners and one of its most popular wrestlers for the rest of the decade, and had several more runs as world champion.
WCW held its biggest show of the year, Starrcade, on Dec. 27 for several years, which is also my birthday. Some of my favorite birthday/Starrcade memories include Ric Flair winning the WCW World Title from Vader in 1993 and from Randy Savage in 1995, after it seemed that he had been permanently moved down the roster; and becoming the storyline WCW President in 1998.
Ric won his final WCW World Title in June 2000, at age 51.
WCW had some profitable years, and even overtook the WWF in popularity around 1996—97. But by 1999, largely due to the same overspending and ego-driven booking that destroyed its predecessor, Crockett Promotions, a decade earlier, WCW’s business was collapsing. In 2000, the company lost about $60 million — about the same amount as its profit just two years earlier.
Time Warner had purchased Turner Broadcasting in 1996, and now had an impending merger with AOL. Ted Turner had no power in the new company, so his loyalty to wrestling couldn’t save WCW. In an attempt to get WCW off the books before the merger, Time Warner sold it for a pittance (reportedly about $5 million) in a fire sale to Vince McMahon in March 2001.
Ric Flair lost the last-ever WCW match to Sting on March 29, 2001 in a live broadcast on Turner network TNT.
McMahon didn’t buy WCW’s outstanding contracts, so AOL-TW was obliged to continue paying them until they expired, even though WCW no longer existed.
But McMahon did buy out some contracts later; he knew that Flair still had a lot left to contribute, so in Nov. 2001 he paid off Flair’s WCW contract and brought him back to WWE, at age 53.
Flair went on to have six more good years in the business; while he wasn’t generally used as a main eventer and never held the world title again, he did headline several pay-per-views and have stints as Intercontinental and tag-team champion.
I’m not sure whose call it was for Flair to retire — Flair’s or McMahon’s. As good as Flair still is, he is 59, and he can’t keep going forever. But Flair not only cried during his WWE Hall of Fame induction speech; word is whenever anyone tried to go over his match with him backstage the next day at WrestleMania, he broke down in tears, and some were worried if he’d be able to make it through the match. He did make it through and did a great job, but just before the match’s "finish" (the last move before the end of the match), Flair broke into tears in the ring, and cried afterward as he walked back to the dressing room. That makes me wonder if Flair was nudged into retirement sooner than he was ready. But maybe it was his decision, and his emotions are having a hard time conforming to what his intellect believes: that it’s time to quit.
In the week leading to what most knew would be his retirement match, he received numerous tributes in mainstream media outlets — which is rare for a pro wrestler, and even received the key to the city in Columbia, South Carolina, a town he wrestled in weekly during the territorial days.
I can’t think of one wrestler who retired for any reason other than a career-ending injury who didn’t come back, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t hope Flair returns — at least occasionally, if not as a regular performer. He obviously loves the spotlight, and I’ll be surprised if he can stay away for long.
Understandably, even some of Flair’s biggest fans have been calling for him to retire for some time, because they feel he’s tarnishing his legacy by hanging on so far past his prime. But, with all do respect to Mr. Flair, that ship sailed at least 10 years ago. One could’ve made the argument 10 — or especially 15 — years ago that Flair should bow out gracefully while he’s still on top, when he can never be remembered as anything but what he was in his prime. But that’s already long gone now.
And, in a way, Flair has added to his legacy by showing that he can still be one of — but, admittedly, no longer the — best performers in wrestling at nearly 60 years old. At this point, as long as he still enjoys it, the fans still love him, and Vince McMahon still wants him in the ring, he might as well wrestle until he’s 70 if he wants to.
So what made Ric Flair the best, especially when lots of wrestlers were great and had various attributes similar to Flair’s? There were lots of guys who were taller than Flair, more handsome than Flair, or who had better physiques than Flair. There were others who worked just as hard as Flair, and who were just as unselfish in the ring. There were some who were as good as Flair in the ring, but who had little charisma and were as plain as dry toast on interviews. There were guys who were great talkers, but weren’t as good as Flair in the ring. Some drew more money than Flair. There were probably even a small few who were as all-around good as Flair, but who had much shorter careers.
What made Flair the best was that no one else was ever as good at so many things for so long. It’s beyond my comprehension how he has managed to take the physical abuse he has for so many years and still be healthy, especially when so many of his peers — and even people younger than him — have had to retire after much shorter careers due to bad necks or bad backs. There was no one else whom virtually everyone agreed was one of the very best for about 25 years — and most of those would say was the best during that period, much less who had a spectacular 35-year career and who — even now, at age 59 — is still at least among the best on interviews, and still better in the ring than many of his peers, many of whom are less than half his age.
If he doesn’t come back, his career will have ended perfectly; the retirement ceremony on WWE Monday Night Raw the night after WrestleMania was something I’ve never seen in 22 years as a fan: After Flair gave a tearful goodbye speech, it appeared that every wrestler and office employee in the building, as well as some of his retired colleagues from the past, came out and all gave him a standing ovation, and most of them were also crying. And the many thousands of fans in the arena, many of whom were also crying, were chanting, "Thank you, Ric!" Thank you, Ric! Thank you, Ric!"
We should all be so lucky to find something to do for a living that we love so much that the very thought of retiring makes us sob like babies. And we should also be so lucky that, when we do retire, our peers and customers give us a sustained, genuine, teary-eyed, standing ovation in honor of our accomplishments.
As Flair wrote in the 2003 WWE behind-the-scenes book, Unscripted, "When I first started, I had no idea that I could ever be where I am today. Nobody could dream that, because the business didn’t have the money in it that it has now.
"I just knew that I liked it a lot, and I knew that I got along with the guys, and I knew that I had found a niche in life. I’ve got a tremendous gift that someone’s given me. I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve gotten a lot more than I could’ve asked for. There’s nothing left for me to do; I’ve done it all.
"It’s not like my wife and I are going to retire and travel around the world; we’ve done that. There’s nothing left for us to do, except be comfortable. We’ve been to every country 10 times, from Japan to Singapore, from Europe to Honolulu. And we did it when we were healthy and could have a good time, and they’re great memories.
"My mom and dad saved a lot of money, and now they’ve lost a lot of it because of the stock market. I just wish they had lived it. My mom is sick now, and my dad has passed away. They were so worried about having money at the end. I’d rather say I did it all, and downsize at the end."
Thanks for the memories, Mr. Flair. There will never be another like you.
Johnny Kramer [send him mail] holds a BA in journalism from Wichita State University. He is one of the authors of the first-ever biography of Ron Paul, Ron Paul: A Better Way, which will be released in Fall 2008 by Variant Press. For more information on his work, or to hire him as a writer, editor, or to speak at your next event, please visit his website.