#RicFlairWeek: Better Know a Wrestler

It’s the First Day of #RicFlairWeek, a celebration of The Man and the seventeenth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. As always we’ll start by making Flair a Wrestler You (Should) Probably Know Better. Tomorrow, we give you the finer points of the Richard Fliehr oeuvre with some Essential Viewing then march through Wednesday with a GIF Parade. After Hump Day we’ll make our Amazon.com-on-steroids dreams come true with “Juice Make Sugar Recommends…” before finishing everything off on Friday with a Difference of Opinion (where JMS HQ erupts in a Flair Chop-fueled civil war.)

As one of the countless victims of an “orphans for sale” scheme, Richard Fliehr never had the time or opportunity to form an authentic sense of identity. In lieu of an actual personal history, he created one of the great mythic identities of all time: the man every high school football player looked up to, every nerd was desperate to be and every woman wanted to have. Out of Richard Fliehr’s tragic existence was born the inspirational life of the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.

His legacy, like the career of so many star wrestlers, was born in the training camp held in Verne Gagne’s brutal barn. He absorbed the most relevant aspects of Gagne’s wisdom — the emphasis on cardio so he could work long matches and the balance of over-the-top character with no-nonsense in-ring work —  while denying the fatuous aspects of Verne’s approach like laying on the mat for months at a time and refusing to put anybody over. Flair took Verne’s AWA style and did what Gagne himself refused to do: look forward.

In the mid-70s, he jumped to Jim Crockett Promotions and the NWA in what would become a Reggie Jackson-level free agent signing and was quickly recognized by the Crocketts as a future centerpiece, winning singles gold as soon as he showed up in the Mid-Atlantic. Only a plane crash — which would kill the pilot and permanently paralyze Johnny Valentine — would slow Flair’s rise to the top, an obstacle he shrugged off like a sprained ankle despite the nearly catastrophic destruction it did to his body. After a mere six-month recovery period from a broken back, Flair returned to JCP to take the torch as the United States Champion, the Mid-Atlantic’s highest regional singles title.

If you know anything about wrestling, you know what happened from there: Flair won his first NWA World Heavyweight Title in ’81 from Dusty Rhodes, perhaps the only star of the day more over than The Nature Boy himself. Then, if that wasn’t enough, Flair was made-in-a-way-that-guys-just-aren’t-made-anymore at the original Starrcade when he went over Harley Race in a steel cage. With wins over Rhodes and Race, Flair was ordained as “the man” in such a decisive fashion that any stiff could have had a successful run on top. However, Flair was no stiff, so instead of a successful run on top, he had the definitive run on top.

From ’81-’91, Flair was the face of JCP/WCW. During the Hulk Hogan era of the WWF, Ric Flair kept the largely-anachronistic NWA afloat through sheer force of will, charisma, and talent. Night in and night out, Flair presented what Hogan and the WWF couldn’t hope to: long, athletic, competitive matches in which the title seem in legitimate peril and both face and heel got over as huge stars.

At his height his matches and promos were equally phenomenal. In the hall of all-time greats, perhaps only Randy Savage stands level with Flair as a storyteller who communicated the importance of his journey through both promos and matches. Flair wasn’t just a championship wrestler – he was a championship personality. His character was as big as anything from Vince McMahon’s WWF, but his wrestling ability was the absolute embodiment of the AWA/NWA style. At his zenith, Ric Flair was wrestling.

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While Flair was at the tippy-top of the business for the entirety of the 80s, he was at his all-time peak during the initial run of the Four Horsemen. Flair and his Four Horsemen became the definitive wrestling champions, embodying what it was to be serious top-tier heels. As was his wont, Flair balanced portraying a bombastic, over-the-top character with a dead-serious, all-time champion. His bleached hair, feathered robes, and bellowing “Woo”s were memorable and game-changing, but his big-bumping, hard-working style did more to enhance the whole roster than any other star has ever done. Flair got himself over, but the magic was the way he got the other Horsemen and his opponents over as well.

As is the case with all spectacular, consistent and consistently giving performers, Flair eventually became underappreciated in the face of a sexier new generation of stars: Rick Steiner was a better pure wrestler, Lex Luger had a better look, and Sting got a better crowd reaction. In a move that just couldn’t be replicated today, Flair flipped those who undervalued him the bird and jumped to the WWF.

In the early 90s, Ric Flair appearing in the WWF was something like John Cena appearing in TNA today. The undeniable long-term face of one company – he embodied everything good, right, and traditional about the NWA, and suddenly he was in the WWF, which represented everything he was supposed to oppose.

In spite of the fact that he should have been a fish out of water, his pairing with Mr. Perfect and Bobby Heenan was arguably the most natural fit in wrestling history. And together with this (pardon the pun) “brain trust”, Flair put together perhaps the greatest year-and-a-half run of all time between late 1991 and early 1993. Even if hadn’t won the title twice, put on one of the truly great matches in Federation history with Randy Savage at   WrestleMania VIII and put Bret Hart over for the Hitman’s first title run, his iconic ’92 Royal Rumble wins stands as one of the most spectacular accomplishments by any WWF/WWE wrestler in or out of kayfabe in the company’s long history.

Unfortunately, the WWF couldn’t provide Flair with the single-minded focus he had commanded in the ‘80s NWA scene. In some ways, WWF’s Flair was trapped between the Hogans of the ‘80s and the Harts of the ‘90s. He had the ‘80s personality and the ‘90s in-ring work. Had he been in the WWF three years earlier or three years later Flair might have been an all-time, definitive New York star on par with Hulk Hogan or Steve Austin. Encapsulated in the uninspired early 90s, however, Flair was only a diamond in the rough.

After his short but spectacular WWF run, Flair returned to his former stomping grounds in the WCW, becoming one of many players in a muddy political scene. From 1993 to 2001, Ric Flair consistently played the most poorly-presented star in wrestling history. Ric Flair’s character in Eric Bischoff’s WCW alternated between “crazy old man you shouldn’t care about” and “crazy out man I guess you should care about a little bit.” The company’s half-cocked presentation of Flair took the greatest all-around star in wrestling history and reduced him to a cartoonish antique. In spite of the title reigns and the TV time, a post-WWF Ric Flair was never utilized correctly as a valuable player in WCW. In a talent pool of young sharks, Flair faded into the background as an elderly guppy.

It was only after the fall of WCW, the company whose predecessor he had embodied, that Flair finally got the recognition he deserved as one of the legends of the wrestling business. The WWE gave a 50-plus-year-old Flair the “elder statesman” push he had deserved in his early 40s as a long-reigning world champion with an infinite number of memorable matches under his belt. As the dean of Evolution, the WWE found a balance between presenting Flair as wrestling’s past and a performer who had a lot to give.

The build to Flair’s retirement match with Shawn Michaels was one of the most well-composed angles in recent WWE history. The story went that Ric Flair declared that he would never retire, leading to Vince McMahon declaring that his next loss would be his final match. Flair wrestled for his life against the likes of Triple H and Mr. Kennedy, turning in a final parade of strong, memorable matches to cap off his career. The final match of the series occurred at WrestleMania XXIV, a bout that fully lived up to the Flair legacy of great matches at big shows. Even Shawn Michaels’ maudlin, “I’m sorry. I love you,” somehow seemed fitting as the final moment of Flair’s career in which Flair received a final symbolic nod from his fans in the E.

However, somewhat regrettably, Wrestlemania XXIV was not the actual end for Flair, who enjoys money as much as you or I and has more ex-wives than the two of us combined. The Nature Boy had his ignominious run in TNA — remember, this is coming from JMS’ resident TNA defender — which saw him wrestle matches he shouldn’t have been in and half-heartedly put over talent that deserved a fully-cocked effort.

When I write about wrestling or wrestlers, I find myself too often quoting T.S. Eliot, stating that they went out “Not with a bang, but a whimper.” While Flair’s last full-time run in TNA was indisputably a whimper, I remain hopeful that The Nature Boy has one good (seriously, pardon the pun) bang left in him. Ric Flair embodies wrestling in a way that Hulk Hogan, who couldn’t work, or Bret Hart, who couldn’t talk, could never hope to. He is the ultimate wrestler; the all-time over-the-top, simultaneously heroic and tragic figure who rode the highest highs and the most depressing lows on his way to the most memorable possible career.