The professional wrestling business, much like other forms of entertainment, is amazing and tragic. Perhaps, nobody in the history of the industry personifies that contrast more than “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. A sixteen-time world heavyweight champion, Flair came from a wealthy background in Minnesota and his time as one of the recruits of the AWA’s Verne Gagne in 1972 led to a successful formula. Flair carried the National Wrestling Alliance on his back in his heyday, wrestling hundreds of matches a year around the globe. His elaborate attire and interviews about his lavish lifestyle were more than wrestling hype, “The Nature Boy” lived the gimmick.
The peaks and valleys of his nearly four decade career were numerous. The fast lane of sports entertainment caught up with him after the in-ring spotlight faded. The life on the road and late night parties garnered Flair four alimony payments by the time he retired, and the financial pressure of multiple divorces, as well as other debts, forced him back to the ring even after his grand WWE retirement. In many ways, World Wrestling Entertainment provided a safe haven of sorts for the former NWA champion, because after his exit in 2008, several personal problems surfaced. Lawsuits over financial problems and contract disputes were a different side of the charismatic athlete than fans had seen before. After decades as pro wrestling’s iron man, years of “stylin and profilin” finally took their toll on him, as this past August he landed in the intensive care unit at an Atlanta hospital after he was diagnosed with a bowel obstruction. Several years of drinking caused the health scare and he spent ten days in a coma before another month in the hospital to recover prior to his return home.
Still, in the years since his WWE retirement, Ric Flair became somewhat of a pop culture icon that many modern sports stars emulate as a tribute to his legacy. This continued popularity led to the much anticipation ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on his life. Despite the WWE’s working agreement with ESPN, I was really skeptical about how the documentary would portray the sports entertainment industry. Would this be another, “pro wrestling ruined another athlete” type of feature?
One of the most interesting aspects of this documentary is the background of his adoption and early family life. It appears that Flair’s parents didn’t necessarily have much time for him in their lavish environment. In some ways, it gives some insight into why he might’ve sought the approval of the viewing audience during his career. It was also nice to see the emphasis on the strict training that the AWA recruits endured because it showcased performers as athletes, not just “phony wrestlers.”
Another impressive feature in the documentary is that it took an honest look at Ric Flair, both inside and outside of the ring. The problem is, sometimes viewers might not be too thrilled with the answered revealed about his personal life. This part of the show might’ve given some insight into the “character” of Richard Fliehr the human being as opposed to the Flair that appeared on television. During the documentary, Flair almost bragged about his infidelity, dismissing it as a part of his on-screen persona. But, there’s a harsh reality to his choices, including alimony payments that resulted in a warrant being issued for his arrest in 2013 before his attorneys resolved the situation. The partying life style and drinking caused a diagnosis of alcoholic cardiomyopathy more than a decade ago, and ultimately contributed to the life-threatening health scare earlier this year were taken lightly by Flair in the film. Again, he seemed to brag about the excessive drinking that had already caused him health problems before the most recent health scare, which took place after production for the documentary had finished. At some point, the excessive alcohol consumption isn’t, “Flair being Flair,” but rather a series of unwise decisions that led to a major problem.
The financial problems that he had throughout his career were highlighted. As depressing as it was to watch again, the portrayal of Flair’s post-WWE wrestling career was very accurate it the film. His TNA run was embarrassing and difficult to watch, but he did it because he needed the money. As mind-boggling as it is, Flair, one of the highest paid wrestlers of the 80s, was forced to continue to take bumps in his 60s because he needed the cash. The 61-year-old bleeding on live TV for a minor league organization was sad. Still, make no mistake, Flair is not a victim in this situation, but rather an example of the pitfalls to avoid. He’s responsible for his own decisions, and his foolish financial decisions are what led to his TNA run. The Nature Boy lived his on-screen persona and quite literally paid the price for it.
On the flip side, the greatness of arguably the best in-ring competitor of all time was featured, too. As wild as his lifestyle was outside of the ring, Ric Flair was always consistent and solid inside of the squared circle. Jim Crockett Promotions was one of the major league groups in the 80s, and the main event star on an almost nightly basis was Ric Flair, who delivered quality matches with any opponent. The ability to make his opponents look like credible challengers can’t be overlooked, and it’s importance can’t be mentioned enough. The skill to make an average hometown hero look like a legitimate threat to the prestigious NWA World Heavyweight title was the basis of the business model at the time. The ability for NWA on the marquee to draw, and for Jim Crockett Promotions to surge in popularity in the 80s was based around the credibility of the World Heavyweight championship. Obviously, Flair was one of the most successful champions in the history of the company.
The details of Reid’s tragic passing continued to shed light on some of the unstable family life that can result from fame. It’s sad that Flair joked about his son drinking at a young age before he breaks down in tears at the notion that he should’ve asserted more authority. Triple H was very well spoken in the documentary, and it was very interesting to hear that Reid was initially going to be signed by the WWE, but failed the drug test.
The conclusion of the documentary leaves somewhat of a sense that some things in Flair’s life are still unresolved. Don’t get me wrong, Rory Karp did very well as the director of the film, but the former grappler seemed as though he has yet to truly find a place of peace in his life after he hung up the boots. As Shawn Michaels said in the film, Ric Flair hasn’t discovered who Richard Fliehr is yet. Maybe the joy of watching his daughter, Charlotte compete as a major star in the WWE is the closest resolution possible for Flair.
The sum of the 30 for 30 about “The Nature Boy” is a fair look into the world of professional wrestling. Just like any other form of entertainment, it can be a tough way to make a living, but the platform it gives performers allows them to become extremely influential figures. Ric Flair had an unquestionable dedication and passion to his craft. In fact, he was without a doubt one of the hardest working competitors in the history of the business. He’s responsible for the consequences of his personal choices, and despite being nearly flawless inside the ring ropes, he was far from perfect outside of the arena, which is something that Flair said himself during the film. The wrestling business didn’t leave Flair financially struggling in his 60s, but rather several unwise personal decisions contributed to his money problems. Regardless, Flair’s impeccable style, precise skill, and tremendous dedication to professional wrestling made him one of the most influential and recognizable figures in sports history.
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Until next week
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