April 2, 2005
Going toe to toe with Ric Flair
By TIM BAINES - Ottawa Sun
RALEIGH, N.C. -- To be The Man, you've got to beat The Man ... or at least hang out with him for more than an hour right in the heart of Flair Country. The Dirtiest Player in the Game. Slick Ric. The Nature Boy. Naitch.
The bleach-blond-haired legend slides into a seat beside me in the RBC Center. North Carolina. The state where he's gained so much notoriety. So many memories.
Now 56, Flair is still stylin' and profilin'. He's still the limousine-ridin', jet-flyin', kiss-stealin', wheelin'-dealin' son-of-a-gun. Armani suits, sequined robes worth thousands of dollars. Struttin' down the aisle.
But, for the moment, he's sitting back in his chair, offering a glimpse at what it's like to walk in his shoes.
"To be Ric Flair, The Nature Boy, to be the character is hard to describe, hard to put into words," says Richard Morgan Fliehr. "It's been outrageous, a tremendous time.
"For about 20 years of my life, Ric Flair was the same inside and outside of the ring. I lived that life. I loved that life. Every day. I couldn't get enough.
"I think I'm wrestling's Jesse James. About half the stories you hear are probably true.
"I had fun. There were no drugs, nothing illegal. I just wanted to be part of the party."
Flair is humble, not like the character who is so at home with a microphone, with catchphrases like: "Ric Flair is just like space mountain, it might be the oldest ride in the park, but it still has the longest line."
Outside of the RBC Center, Mike Clark stands beside his black stretch limo. He's been a driver for Flair.
"He's larger than life. He's Ric Flair. Very flamboyant," says Clark. "Some superstars get so full of themselves, but Ric has never been anything but a gentleman."
A gentleman who has changed his lifestyle. He's toned down the nightlife. He may no longer be The Man, but other wrestlers still put him on a pedestal.
"I grew up watching Ric and even to this day I think he's the best there has ever been," says Flair's Evolution mate Triple H.
Flair insists he's a changed man. Part Nature Boy. Part Ric Flair.
"I was so full of myself, so full of the business," says Flair. "I didn't take time to slow down and look at some of the important things in life. I was so wrapped up in the moment.
"Ultimately, I was selfish. I wasn't mature enough. In my eyes, family is the most important thing in life, but I don't think it was for me. I was out of control ... My only regrets are for the people I hurt. I was so wrapped up in my career, I sacrificed family and I wish I could have that back. But you can only say that so many times. At the end of the day, we're all close.
"Part of it is I just got older. I couldn't stay out all night. To be that character is awesome, but I've got four beautiful kids -- (David, Reid, Ashley and Megan) and a 10-month-old granddaughter (Morgan Lee). I've always been pretty affectionate with kids and I love her to death."
Flair was born in Memphis, Tenn. on Feb. 25, 1949, adopted through the Tennessee Children's Home Society, stolen from his birth parents and put into an adoption black market. Conflicting documents say he was born Fred Phillips, Fred Demaree or Fred Stewart. He was raised by the Fliehrs -- Dick, a gynecologist and Kay, a theatre writer. And he grew up a wrestling fan, admiring AWA stars like Verne Gagne, Bobo Brazil and The Crusher. He was Mad Dog Vachon's paperboy.
The Nature Boy persona started emerging long before he put on the wrestling trunks. In his book, To Be The Man, he says he started having sex at the age of 14.
A chance meeting with Ken Patera kickstarted his wrestling career. He began in the Minnesota area, but relocated to Charlotte, N.C., in 1974. And the legend began. He won his first NWA title in 1981. It wouldn't be the last he'd strap across his waist. He's a 16-time, yep, 16-time world champ.
And he'd be a central figure in the Four Horsemen, along with Arn Anderson, Ole Anderson and Tully Blanchard ... then later with Barry Windham replacing Ole. The Four Horsemen are the greatest faction in wrestling lore. Four larger than life figures who lived large.
"Night after night we drew a phenomenal amount of money," says Flair. "Every night in an arena, we'd get beat, but we could draw."
And while Flair says he has no stroke in WWE's creative department, he wouldn't mind a Four Horsemen reunion of sorts.
And now he sits in Raleigh. Weighing and measuring his career, putting his life in perspective and talking about others who stake their claim among wrestling's giants.
"Bret Hart never drew a dime," says Flair. "He's taken the opportunity to knock everyone. But how can you knock a business that's made you $7 million? Bret's got a cult following, but he's losing that. Losing that because he just goes on and on. It's funny (that he knocks me) because I'm the only guy that would put him over.
"Hulk Hogan? The Hulk Hogan thing was great. He worked hard at being Hulk Hogan. I always said the difference between me and Hogan was I said yes and he said no. (Hogan wouldn't put anybody over.) I'll concede the fact that Hogan was a bigger star than me.
"But in terms of overall product, he'd wrestle a five-minute match and be back at the hotel by 9. I'd wrestle for an hour ... and I'd give it everything I had.
"Eric Bischoff? He was a liar. And that's why I beat him up. I was the one guy who punched him, but there was a line of 20 guys who wanted to do it."
"Mick Foley? He can fall off a roof, but he can't wrestle. He can entertain doing something that's insanity, not wrestling.
"The biggest problem I have with guys like Foley and Hart is they're their own biggest fans."
There have been some slumps in Flair's career, too. Times when he wondered why he was still putting his limbs on the line.
"I lost a huge amount of self-confidence and a lot of self-respect in about 1997," says Flair. "I never thought I'd come back to work after WCW closed down.
"The company had been an embarrassment for two, almost three years. They let the inmates run the asylum and it was destined to fail.
"They tried to retire me. They were saying, 'He's 39 and he's too old.' I got my hair cut and they wanted to put an earring on me."
Then when he got hired by WWE, he had more doubts.
"Wrestlemania in Toronto. I was operating at about 50%," he says. "The Undertaker carried me through the match. I was afraid I was going to fail. I had never woken up wondering whether somebody was a better wrestler than me."
Flair is having fun again. He's confident in himself, confident that he's become a better person. And confident of his role. Confidence that probably coincided with the intervention of his buddy, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, the villainous Triple H, who invited him to join Evolution, with up-and-comers Randy Orton and Batista. He's stylin' and profilin' again. Once again knowing his role.
"When we were coming in here on the flight the captain came on and said we had just flown over Atlanta, we were heading over Savannah, then going over Columbia. I turned to Shawn Michaels and said: 'Why can't the guy say we've just entered Flair Country?' "
"Wooooooo! When there was such a thing as the NHL, Flair's voice boomed over the RBC Center's sound system each time the Hurricanes scored a goal. And for some Hurricanes fans, that may be the best reason to end the current NHL-NHLPA stalemate.
Wooooooo! The chant grows with each knife edge chop Flair delivers in the ring. As a heel, he does everything he can to get the fans to hate him. But as he absorbs several body shots and does a face plant into the mat, the fans laugh. The Nature Boy is at it again. An entertainer. A crowd pleaser. An icon.
"I've been to the nuthouse, I've had a heart attack on TV, I've been buried alive in the desert and I've played musical chairs," says Flair. "There's not much I haven't done.
"I can still be very good at this, I just need to keep my head straight. Whether it's 30 years or tomorrow (that I quit), the fans know that, whether there are 200 or 20,000 watching, I've given them my best performance."
And for that we're thankful, Naitch.
UP CLOSE WITH THE NATURE BOY