It’s Day Two of #FlairWeek, a celebration of all things The Man and the seventeenth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. Yesterday, we started by making Ric A Wrestler You Should Probably Know Better. Today we give you the finer points of the Richard Fliehr oeuvre with some Essential Viewing. We’ll march through tomorrow with a GIF parade, then after Hump Day we’ll make our “Amazon 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 we said yesterday, Ric Flair was earmarked for the top of the NWA from the second he crossed over to Jim Crockett Promotions from the AWA, and his work in late-70s JCP set a standard that very few in wrestling can even claim to have approached. By working with every star of import in the Mid-Atlantic from Wahoo McDaniel to Greg Valentine to Roddy Piper in big money programs, Flair established himself as the company’s most important star. It was Flair’s series of matches in the late ‘70s with Ricky Steamboat, however, that made it obvious that Ric Flair was destined to be “The Man” in professional wrestling of the ‘80s.
The two were natural opponents: Tremendous young athletes with strong characters that connected to the crowd on a visceral level. “The Nature Boy”– the boisterous, blowhard champion — was born to beg off against quiet, likable white meat babyfaces like Steamboat which. This dynamic, along with the marathon matches they work on almost a nightly basis, made the work between the two something to behold on the mic and in the ring. It’s clear to see that Flair is thinking ten years ahead of everyone in terms of character, and Steamboat is the perfect, athletic, vanilla good guy to play his foil.
Ric Flair’s rise into wrestling’s stratosphere helped display one of the key characteristics of any all-time great: versatility. Flair, acting as a dastardly heel against the people’s champion Dusty Rhodes, took the NWA World Heavyweight Title in villainous fashion. However, with the rise of Jim Crockett Promotions as the seat of the NWA, Flair quickly and cannily shifted into playing the hometown babyface role, which he would famously embody in his quest for his second title reign leading into the original Starrcade.
Flair was the goods as both a babyface and a heel. The crowd just loved to reacting to him, and he knew how to make them feel the right way. As a heel, he never played for cheers (except, maybe, from good-looking women), and as a babyface he extolled the virtues of the Carolinas and their fine citizens. He turned countless times throughout his career, but unlike many of today’s stars, his turns always felt authentic and were accepted by the crowd wholeheartedly.
Exactly a year before his Starrcade ’84 match against Dusty Rhodes, Flair had been the hometown boy made good, taking on big, mean Midwesterner Harley Race. Against Rhodes, however, Flair played the mean-spirited, joyless heel in opposition to Dusty’s inspirational – albeit goofy – overness. Some say this match has an exceptionally bad finish, but if you examine the booking closely, it serves a number of purposes: the unflappable Rhodes refuses to give into to Flair, the heel champion does significant, vicious damage to his opponent’s face, and the referee makes an unpopular but understandable decision in a realistic, sports-like manner.
While working with performers like Steamboat and Dusty allowed him to create transcendent work years ahead of its time, what made Flair truly special was his ability to elevate the profile of every other wrestler in the room. At the height of his powers, Flair could take immobile big men, athletic but vacuous midcarders, and unfit-for-camera tough guys, and make them all look like legitimate opponents for him, the greatest wrestler of all time.
The first Clash of the Champions supercard in 1988, when Flair took on an up-and-coming Sting, is an all-time clinic in elevation. Much like Flair in the late ‘70s, Sting had already been tagged the star of the ‘90s based on his spectacular look and uncanny connection to the crowd. Unlike Flair, however, Sting was not a natural tactician in the ring and desperately needed a signature match to catapult him into the main event. Flair delivered for Sting and WCW, putting on a legendary 45-minute-draw that cemented the Stinger as a wrestler who could go toe-to-toe with anybody in the ring. Of course, this was the result of Flair’s own masterful storytelling, and Sting, never looked quite as good again.
After his momentous initial run in JCP/WCW, Flair arrived in the WWF on the heels of a toxic falling out with the WCW front office, Flair entered the federation with an introduction that no other wrestler has ever been affording: he was presented instantly as a worthy World’s Champion, in fact, he was the real World’s Champion.
Only a few months after jumping ship to Vince McMahon’s WWF, Flair was not only the real World’s Champion, he was the WWF World Champion. Flair’s unreplicated title win in the 1992 Royal Rumble stands as one of the single greatest accomplishments in wrestling history. Only Steve Austin’s 1997 Rumble win comes close to so perfectly telling the story of a man on a mission (Not to be confused with Men on a Mission.)
In the moments after his historic title win, Ric Flair cut one of the most memorable promos in WWF history alongside his partners in crime Mr. Perfect and Bobby Heenan. Once again displaying the versatility and plasticity of his character, the heel Flair cut an emotional promo selling the prestige of the WWF Title, the quality of the WWF roster, and his willingness to be a great champion.
The climax of Flair’s WWF run came at Wrestlemania VIII against “Macho Man” Randy Savage. In a way, it was poetic that these two men ran into each other at the biggest yearly show in wrestling. Flair and Savage were wrestlers who deserved each other. Both could cut excellent, emotionally-honest promos to build a main event feud, and both could deliver the goods with a long, well-worked match that featured strong action and told a good story.
Futhermore, both were top draws and top workers who promoters, for some unfathomable reason, were slowly trying to put out to pasture. Before Flair left WCW, the famously clueless Jim Herd was convinced his days as a draw were over and believed the best way to rebrand the Nature Boy was as a Spartacus rip-off. Similarly, Savage, who’d carried the torch of actual wrestling for the WWF throughout the Hulkamania era, was just a year away from being pressed into a backstage interviewer/color commentator role.
It wasn’t enough that Flair and Mach’s feud was built around the prestigious WWF Championship and that the two were arguably the great in-ring workers of their generation; more heat was poured on the feud by Flair and Perfect, who claimed not only that Flair was having an affair with Savage’s wife Miss Elizabeth, but also that they were in possession of compromising pictures of her (the early 90s version of a sex tape.) In spite of enough talent and booking to build this into the biggest match since Wrestlemania III, the WWF instead presented this match plonk in the middle of a ‘Mania card that was headlined by a match between plodding Hulk Hogan and Sid Eudy.
Although he famously never worked a program with Hulk Hogan during his run on top in the WWF, Flair got to run with some of the great up-and-coming talent in this business. He frequently worked tag matches with the likes of Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon, and did his best to elevate the profile of the stars of “The New Generation,” just as he had elevated Sting in WCW.
The following match against the quickly-rising Bret Hart in 1992 shows Flair at his very, very best. Flair is in full “elevate the young guy” mode as he was at Clash of the Champions, but he is also fully engaged with a talented technician and ring psychologist as he was in his classic feud with Ricky Steamboat. While Flair and Hart have exchanged barbs through books and media in subsequent years, their in-ring chemistry was truly something to behold. Perhaps born from some sense of real life tension, the young hometown hero Hart (well, sort of “hometown” – the match takes place in Saskatoon which had been part of Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling circuit) plays the plucky upstart, desperate to prove that he is every bit the competitor as the wily old champion.
And, in some ways, that was it. Flair returned to the WCW as something of a prodigal son, but in spite of his name and his talents, he was never quite The Nature Boy again. He did his Flair for the Gold segments with Missy Hyatt, presided over umpteen reformations of the Four Horsemen, and watched with a mixture of concern and dismay as WCW drifted further away from its NWA roots and closer to crash TV. Even as the ground cracked under him, Flair tried desperately to do what he had done best when he was on top: make everybody look good.
In 1999, he worked a match on Nitro against Bill Goldberg, who was rising as the only logical solution (in both a kayfabe and legitimate sense) to the rapidly-escalating nWo mess. Flair did his best to bump and fly for Goldberg, putting on what Michael Cole would surely call a “vintage” performance, but as was the case in 1999 WCW, an over-booked schmoz finish stood in the way of Flair truly doing the honors for Goldberg. Much like his match over a decade earlier with Sting, however, Flair made Goldberg look like a capable, big-match, main event performer in a way that no one else ever did.
Since the late ‘70s, Ric Flair had been the embodiment of everything Jim Crockett Promotions and the NWA stood for. Even when the regional promotion he represented died, he continued seamlessly to present himself as a top star in WCW. However, twenty years after he had become “The Man,” the kingdom he had presided over for his prime fell apart.
Flair’s promo at the last episode of Monday Nitro is difficult to describe. In it, Flair displays the full spectrum of emotions, from anger, to regret, to righteous indignation, to nostalgia, to pride. As Flair speaks, you can almost feel the wheels in his head turning as he’s attempting to process what is happening to the wrestling business second by second and what the end of WCW means to his professional legacy and, perhaps more importantly, his sense of self.
Flair’s promo was a fitting eulogy for WCW and, perhaps he thought at the time, a eulogy for his own career. However, Flair continued to survive and thrive in the WWE in the first decade of the twenty-first century. He had a memorable feud with Vince McMahon, had what has become the ultimate honor in a Wrestlemania match against The Undertaker, and formed Evolution with Triple H to, once again, help push the next great stars in Randy Orton and Batista.
The Ric Flair of the twenty-first century, while clearly older and no longer capable of being a promotion’s standard-bearer still had a lot to give in the ring. At the age of 56 in November 2005, Flair worked one of the most brutally physical matches in WWE history against his former running mate, Triple H. Flair and Hunter’s cage match combines old school storytelling, Attitude Era brutality, and a twenty-first century sense of theatrics. On a personal note, it’s a favorite of mine, so here it is:
Watching a match like that, it’s clear to see that an aging Flair was far more devoted to putting on a good show than he should have been, and more capable of doing it than he had any right to be. In the last years of his full-time career, Flair worked with every wrestler of consequence in the WWE, putting together strong matches and giving young workers moments they would never forget. When the time finally came for Flair to be phased out, however, the WWE paired him with a veteran legend capable and worthy of having a historic Ric Flair match: Shawn Michaels.
Michaels had worked with Flair in some tag matches during his initial singles push at the beginning of the former’s run as the Heartbreak Kid, and so it only seemed fitting for Michaels, himself in the twilight of his career, to close the loop on the man who had helped show him how to be a main event star. The Michaels-Flair story was one of admiration turned to love turned to frustration turned to anger. Neither man blinked during the angle, however, resulting in a ride that felt authentic, emotional, and dramatic.
The Michaels-Flair match at Wrestlemania XXIV is a moment that I will remember forever. Even knowing that Flair was clearly going to lose, wondering how long the match would go on and what the final spot of Flair’s career would be was engaging as any TV cliffhanger, as riveting as any Oscar-winning movie. The result was a match that was good. It was everything it should have been; a fitting close to the legacy of Ric Flair.
But, however, the plucky Flair emerged in TNA in 2010, and less than two years after his spectacular retirement match, took part in a “who can go the longest without taking a bump” tag team match against Hulk Hogan and Abyss. The TNA Flair was just sad: the sparkle in his eyes created by the huge stage of the WWE was gone, and he relied on tactics well below his stature as a legend, like blading himself constantly rather than taking bumps. With that said, he still had his moments of being The Man.
Flair’s time as the premier elevator of young talent was clearly long over, but he did have a memorable exchange with Jay Lethal based on Lethal’s impression of him. Flair and Lethal had a highly entertaining run together, but between Flair’s age and TNA’s inability to push talent, nothing ever came of it.
The only match worth talking about from Flair’s run in TNA is a match that assuredly should never have happened. In October of 2010, Flair faced off with Mick Foley in a Last Man Standing match on TNA Impact. Both men were at least a decade removed from having any business in such a match, and the shortcuts taken to bandage that fact were shameful.
Somehow — just somehow, though — the match worked. Was it graceful? Smooth? Worthy of two great champions? Not. But, it displayed the core, magical qualities of Ric Flair that existed even in his battered, aged-out body. He did everything he could to be The Nature Boy, he destroyed himself to have a match that could make his opponent look good, and he didn’t hold back a bit when it came to performing for the fans.
Don’t remember Ric Flair, the greatest professional wrestler of all time for this match. Remember him for the sincerity of effort and the desire to entertain in this match.