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Unfair to the legacy of Ric Flair

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Blood feast: The horror of the ongoing Hogan vs. Flair feud.

File under Ric Flair returns  to the ring in TNA.

“It’s a little sad to watch a fall from greatness….”

And so begins film critic Roger Ebert’s review of “Halloween II,” the 1981 sequel to one of the best horror films and one of the highest-grossing independent films ever made. The Ebert review goes on to quote John McCarty, author of the book “Splatter Movie,” who claimed the forces driving the splatter genre  “aim not to scare their audiences, necessarily, nor to drive them to the edge of their seats in suspense, but to mortify them with scenes of explicit gore. In splatter movies, mutilation is indeed the message–and many times the only one.” The longtime Chicago Sun-Times critic closed his review of the slasher sequel by saying, “…Halloween II is a retread of Halloween without that movie’s craft and exquisite timing.”

I was reminded of those words recently during the March 8 iMPACT main event featuring Hulk Hogan and Abyss vs. A.J. Styles and Ric Flair.

When Jerry Jarrett and I spoke earlier this week regarding the death of Corsica Joe, the subject eventually turned to TNA and the abysmal 1.0 rating in their first week going head to head with the WWE juggernaut. When he asked what I thought about the promotion building around the Hulkster and the Nature Boy in 2010, I blurted out, “Flair was one of my idols when I was a kid. I was saddened to see he and Hogan cut their heads off Monday and flop around like broken-down shells of their former selves. This isn’t the way I want to remember my hero.”

In quite possibly the publication's only nonfiction story of the year, the spring 1978 issue of The Wrestler touts young Flair as a future World champion.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Ric Flair in early 1978. I was nearly 7 years old and about to take yet another step from casual fan to hardcore mark. Months earlier, I had been living and dying with the drama unfolding in Memphis during the first-ever series of bouts between Jerry “the King” Lawler and “Superstar” Bill Dundee. Along with the release of STAR WARS and the death of Elvis Presley, my discovery of Memphis rasslin’ is the most vivid of that year of my young life.

I was watching another staple of my childhood, an episode of CHARLIE’S ANGELS, which featured an unsavory character–I believe an ex-grappler–reading a wrestling magazine. I was unaware of the existence of wrestling magazines–apparently I was so hell-bent on getting my grubby hands on the latest Spider-Man, Hulk or Fantastic Four comic book that I never noticed the magazine rack.

I begged my dad to take me to 7-11 to investigate and, sure enough, there was Ric Flair on the cover of the spring 1978 issue of the Best of the Wrestler.

Although over the years I would slowly figure out that most of the Apter mag stories were pure fiction, the headline on that Flair cover story proved to be quite prophetic — “The Experts Declare: Ric Flair is the Next Champion.” Flair may not have been the next World champion, but he did go on to rewrite the record book, capturing, depending on whom you believe, 16, 18–as high more than 21–World titles. I pretty much stopped counting after the seventh (eighth, if you count the New Zealand quickies with Harley Race) title win over Sting in East Rutherford N.Y. — the first of many times Ric came back to win the gold after seemingly being forced out to make room for the next new superstar in the business.

I became a regular reader of the Apter mags in the ’70s and ’80s and did my best to follow the storylines taking place around the country. Although I couldn’t see Flair wrestle on TV or in person, that made him larger than life to me, especially when I read that he’d won the NWA World title from Dusty Rhodes in Kansas City in 1981.

Equally as memorable as that introduction to Flair via wrestling journalism — the first time I saw Slick Ric wrestle on TV. When Flair showed up unannounced in the WMC-TV 5 Studio on August 14, 1982, I remember being terribly excited, calling my friends on the telephone and urging them to hurry over. We huddled around the TV in nervous excitement as Lawler masterfully goaded Flair into an impromptu NWA World title match. Sure, Nick Bockwinkel, the AWA World champ, played the role well and most Memphis fans believed him to be the champion, but we Apter-reading marks knew that the NWA strap was considered the big one by the prestigious wrestling press (cough). Dressed in a perfectly pressed double-breasted, navy-blue blazer and starched white button-down and khakis, Flair almost appeared as if he had steered his yacht down the Mississippi River to arrive in Memphis. In hindsight, I love how Flair gives the city and announcer Lance Russell repeated backhanded compliments, speaking methodically without a trace of sarcasm as he explained that he’d heard that Memphis was full of nothing but rednecks and he was pleasantly surprised to see otherwise. Ironically enough, Flair was actually born in Memphis, a fact I was stunned to learn years later. Oh, what might have been had Flair grown up in Memphis and come up through the local promotion at the same time as the man who would be King.

Lawler, riding high after the Andy Kaufman angle earlier in the year, humbly says that he’s not in Flair’s class and puts the Champ on the spot with a challenge. In one of the best performances of his career — which is saying a lot — Russell perfectly plays the role of the small-time announcer. He’s almost in awe of Flair’s presence, going so far as to comment on the Nature Boy’s “stunning watch.” I also like how Russell lowers his head when Lawler asks if Flair’s scheduled opponent, Rick McCord, has ever won a match. Lance quietly answers, “Well, Jerry … I don’t remember it if he if did.”

During the brief bout, I recall my friends and me marking out when Lawler traps Flair in the sleeper hold, with me screaming, “He’s got him! He’s got him!” It was clear to all of us that Lawler was the better wrestler when Flair ran off to keep his title after one of those devastating fistdrops. (Always funny to me to hear Lawler knock Flair for his chops, when his finishing move was a flying punch off the ropes.)

I was so convinced that an injustice had been done on that day in 1982 that I fired off a letter to Bill Apter proclaiming the King to be the uncrowned World champion. Lawler’s apparent good showing, though, was vintage Flair, making the local star appear unbeatable at his own expense. And, in the aftermath, when Flair accuses Lance of being in on the plan to embarrass him, Russell’s expression in response is priceless.

Of course, as the years went by, I saw Flair regularly defend his title on Mid-Atlantic Wrestling and World Class Championship Wrestling, which suddenly began appearing on TV prior to Jerry Jarrett’s and Lawler’s show at 11 a.m. I cheered as he regained the 10 pounds of gold from Harley Race at STARRCADE ’83. I rejoiced when Kerry Von Erich defeated Flair to win the belt for brother David and the entire state of Texas.

Stylin' and profilin': Another one of my favorite Flair T-shirts over the years.

In the mid-80s, when I began understanding what the business was all about, Flair supplanted Lawler as my favorite. To my dad, it seemed like I was always watching Ric Flair matches or interviews on our family’s big TV.

By the time I was in high school in the mid- to late ’80s, nearly every photo with three of my best friends from that era feature each of us displaying the sign of excellence: four fingers that represented the symbol of the Four Horsemen. My friends and I learned all Flair’s catchphrases, repeating them to our opponents on the soccer and football fields (which, according to my British wife, are one and the same), and occasionally, even our girlfriends, much to their disgust.

As the cocky goalkeeper for my high-school soccer team, I wore a Ric Flair T-shirt underneath my jersey for every game. One humid April night in 1989, I hastily left my nighttime soccer game, and still wearing my uniform, made it the Coliseum for a rare NWA show at the Coliseum just in time to see Ricky Steamboat defend Big Gold against Flair. The show only drew about 2,000 fans in the 11,364-seat arena, but Flair and Steamboat delivered an amazing 32-minute bout that was only slightly below their Chi-Town Rumble match in February of that year.

In my high-school graduation book, in the section devoted to future goals I want to accomplish, I wrote only: “To win the NWA World title from Ric Flair.” In college in 1991, I had T-shirts printed up declaring Pi Kappa Alpha “the real World champion of fraternities,” with an illustration of Flair (done by Kevin Lawler) wearing the World title belt featuring our Greek letters. I was wearing this T-shirt when I met Flair in the parking lot as he climbed into his rental car with Earl Hebner following a WWF show at the Pyramid Arena that same year. Upon hearing him say, “I love it!”, I literally gave him the shirt of my back in freezing temperatures–a gesture he seemed amused by.

The Four Horsemen of Bartlett High School (apparently making an appearance at a Bass Pro Shop).

When I broke into the business working for Jarrett and Lawler and eventually turned heel, I patterned myself after the Horsemen, always wearing starched button-downs and ties. One of the best compliments I received early on was from longtime wrestler Buddy Wayne, who rarely put over anybody or anything. (But you could always count on Buddy to tell you what was wrong with the business, which was usually followed by “… and I tell ya, it’s killin’ us, it’s killin’ us.”) He remarked that the way I dressed on TV made it seem like I was really somebody — not a wrestling manager with loud jackets and buffoonish, cheap shirts and slacks. In my mind, I was stylin’ and profilin.’

Wrestling would continue to change over the years, but Flair was the only thing that remained a constant. In some ways, he represented the last of the old-school era for most fans. Almost hard to believe that the two stars of that angle from August 1982 in Memphis were the only big-name territory guys still featured in Vince McMahon’s WWE heading into the 2008 WRESTLEMANIA event. Now only Lawler remains, but he’s not the same King I grew up with.

I had that feeling of being a kid again all over again during what was promised to be the last time I would watch Flair in a wrestling match. I had the words “Don’t be ashamed of those butterflies” in my head in response to my nervous stomach as I watched Flair walk that aisle for that bout with MichaelsI popped early when Flair successfully made it off the top rope with a bodypress. I cringed when the bridge spot–which I’d seen Flair do with the likes of Steamboat, Barry Windham and Brad Armstrong so many times in the ’80s–didn’t quite work out. I almost believed that Flair might pull it off when HBK hesitated and gave Flair the advantage late in the bout.

And my eyes started welling up just a bit when HBK mouthed the words “I’m sorry. I love you”–what a beautiful way that would have been to close the final chapter of the most storied career in the business. HBK kept his word: He gave Flair exactly what he needed to have one last great match. Simply a tremendous performance put together by the Naitch and HBK. Flair, on the other hand, didn’t keep his word that Michaels would have the honor of his last match.

At the time, I felt that the shot of the long walk back to the dressing room for Flair after sharing the moment with his family would always be with me — it had the feel of Larry Bird’s retirement from basketball. Since that time, his son Reid has been arrested for heroin possession, while his daughter Ashley was picked up by police for allegedly assaulting her dad after a night of drinking. His latest wife, Jackie Beems, made headlines on TMZ for allegedly biting, kicking and punching the former champion.

The night after what was to be Flair’s final bout, in a sendoff never before seen for even the biggest of Vince McMahon’s creations, the Nature Boy, for years the franchise player for the WWF’s former promotional rival, was saluted by his peers and his family in touching fashion following Ric’s farewell address. Not only did we get Four Horsemen Tully Blanchard, Barry Windham, Arn Anderson, Dean Malenko and J.J. Dillion and former rivals Race, Steamboat and Greg Valentine, but we also got to see guys like HBK, Chris Jericho, Triple H and Edge give thanks to one of their childhood heroes. Big Show appeared to be in tears when he climbed on the ring apron, probably still reeling from Flair’s comments at the Hall of Fame that Show could own the business if he had his head screwed on straight.

The entire scene was poignant. I was truly touched. My wife, Hayley, leaned over looking for tears on my face, and I had to look away. Nearly 30 years to the day I first laid eyes on the Nature Boy on that magazine cover, I was saying goodbye. And thank you.

Hayley walked into our living room on March 8, to see a bloody Flair staggering around like a crazed maniac–straight out of a bad horror film. “Oh, my. Is that Ric?! That is sad,” she said. Yeah, but for altogether different reasons this time.

  1. William Burnett – Little Rock
    March 21st, 2010 at 01:35 | #1

    Often in sports — or, in “sports entertainment” — our hero’s stay too long, still trying to hold on to the spotlight, or trying to afford too many ex-wifes.

  2. David Fullam
    March 21st, 2010 at 09:55 | #2

    Think you feel bad? Guess how this soon to be 39 year old, life long native of Charlotte feels? Flair was arguably the greatest. Now all younger fans will remember is the crazy old man act, elbow dropping invisible opponents, and jobbing himself out to Hulk Hogan, etc. What happened? Did he fail to realize he didn’t have to be the nature Boy in real life? Can he simply not say no? Did he live the gimmick too much with all the spend, spend, spend and younger women? Everyone here in town figured that he would retire and make a run for some kind of political office. No way in hell that could ever happen now. So embarrassing.

  3. DLC320
    March 22nd, 2010 at 05:01 | #3

    It reminds me of what Richard Pryor once said after visiting inmates in prison while filming Stir Crazy. He asked a convicted murderer why he killed everyone in the house while committing a roberery. The reply was “well, they were there!” Meaning that it was not personal, it was part of “his” job. That applies here I am afraid, Ric does not see the bond with the fans the same way we might, it’s just part of the job.

  4. Signdoc
    March 23rd, 2010 at 03:35 | #4

    I chuckled when I read the comment your wife made; mine made almost the same comment. I, too, grew up watching Ric Flair do his thing during a time when being the NWA World Champion seemed like something special. Sure you had your promotional champs, but when the WORLD champ came to town, it was something different, more important, more “real.”

    I agree that the send off that the former fed gave to Ric was moving and well done. It would have been best had he stayed in retirement; however, if he were to come out of retirement, it should have been built up to a point at which he just HAD to come out of retirement. There should have been a reason for him to get back into the ring. For example, they could have run an angle in which Flair mentors A.J. and every time A.J. gets close to losing, Flair intercedes from the outside (playing the role of the manager). They could do this for a long while and lead up to a stip match with Flair having to get into the ring. He could then use that as a reason to start beating up guys again. At least in this scenario, there is a reason why Flair comes out of retirement rather than just getting back into the ring because he wants to…Alternatively, if they wanted to keep him babyfave, they could run Flair in the angle they are running for Hogan. The ambivalent veteran who wants one more run in the sun. I have no doubt that Flair could pull it off better than Hogan.

    I was very disappointed at the Hogan / Abyss v. Flair / Styles match. Hogan and, to a lesser extent, Flair just looked old (likely, because they are!). There is no snap left in their moves. Hogan could barely get his leg up for the face stomp (he did more of a sternum stomp). I guess I do not understand why Flair and Hogan are getting involved on TV — I understand the first time…to draw a crowd. But I would think that it would make more sense to build to match at a pay per view rather than give it away on TV (regularly).

    At any rate, as a 40-something fan and quasi-insider (I was a photographer for an Indy promotion for several years), I have not watched WWE for a while, because I was not entertained. For several reasons I watched TNA last night and found much of it enjoyable. Just my $0.02.

    Enjoy the blog! I remain in awe of your encyclopedic-appearing memory for details regarding your involvement in wrestling, first as a fan, then as a talent.

    Cheers,

    Doc

  5. Jerry
    April 9th, 2010 at 10:28 | #5

    I agree, maybe Flair is too old, but the guy needs cash and TNA will pay. It’s sad, but if he needs to make a living then he needs to make a living. I mean, we can’t choose what day everyone retires, and neither can Vince McMahon. Flair can still cut better promos than 99.9% of active wrestlers, and if he can get paid for it, good for him.

  1. May 7th, 2010 at 16:12 | #1