ESPN documentary deconstructs ups, downs of Ric Flair

Wrestling icon profiled in ‘Nature Boy’ as part of network’s ’30 for 30’ series

Although it is largely scoffed at by the mainstream, professional wrestling has a large and devoted following, and the brand sells well. Even though this branch of sports entertainment is considered fake, it produced cultural icons during the modern-era heyday of the ‘80s and ‘90s. One such figure was Richard Flieher, better known to the masses as “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.

“Nature Boy,” the latest entry in the award-winning ESPN documentary series “30 for 30,” focuses on the life and career of the popular wrestler. Emerging from Minnesota in the early ‘70s, Flair’s career began humbly, as he played the role of tomato can – an unskilled entrant who enhances the image of competitors – for more established wrestlers. But he would spend more than four decades in the ring and eventually would take his rightful spot as his sport’s version of Muhammad Ali.

As one of the most recognized faces in professional wrestling, Flair was one of the few athletes to compete in all three of the biggest regional or national sanctioning bodies, including the National Wrestling Alliance (which, after establishing its roots in Georgia, later would become World Championship Wrestling thanks in large part to exposure from Ted Turner’s then-burgeoning network TBS), the World Wrestling Federation (which later changed its moniker to World Wrestling Entertainment after losing a court battle to the World Wildlife Fund) and Total Nonstop Action (TNA).

Interestingly, Flair’s wrestling career almost ended as soon as it had begun. Having started training under the supervision of Verne Gagne, he came close to not making it through that initial process. Flair actually quit, but only long enough for Gagne to find him in a roadside dive bar and literally slap him back into reality.

“He came in and said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m quitting, I just can’t handle it,’” Flair says in the documentary of his encounter with Gagne. “He slapped the s— out of me and said, ‘You’re not quitting. Get in the car; we’re going back right now.’”

Flair would complete his training and would eventually join regional circuits, where he found out that wrestling results were predetermined. “The first I ever knew of that was when I heard the guys talking about it in the locker room,” Flair tells Rory Kropf, the director of the film.

Wrestling is predetermined and may be considered fake by those who compete in standard individual and team sports, but you’d be smart not to question Flair about the legitimacy or validity of pro wrestling. Onetime television talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael made that mistake in the early ‘80s, and the Nature Boy quickly corrected the former titan of afternoon TV.

“Wrestling is not fake; it’s predetermined,” Flair said. “I hear a lot of people out there booing who don’t have a right to boo.”

After lettering in football, track and wrestling (the Greco-Roman style) in high school, Flair wanted to attend the University of Michigan and play football for the Wolverines. Unable to enroll at Ann Arbor, though, he settled for an athletic scholarship at Minnesota. Flair spent a year with the Golden Gophers, but he scarcely attended practice because of a stronger commitment to partying.

This lifestyle would come to define the wrestler’s public persona and create problems in his personal life. Flair encountered another obstacle when he broke his back in a plane crash, although he identifies his return after injury as a turning point that allowed him to become a cultural icon and achieve superstardom in his field.

“My character was boring, and I became the Nature Boy after the plane crash,” Flair says of the occurrence.

Prideful of his success, he used his own life as an example of how the sport he loves wasn’t all phony. “I was fortunate to be on TV for 40 years,” he tells ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt in the film. “If you saw it on TV, I did it,” he adds, speaking of the physicality and athleticism required to pull off in-ring maneuvers.

Flair’s first rivalry was with Dusty Rhodes in the NWA, which was where both became fine actors, displaying a hatred for each other, playing on geographical and cultural stereotypes and cultivating a deep rivalry. Rhodes, who died in 2015, was the son of a plumber. Flair, on the other hand, was adopted by a doctor. The latter’s character was hated by Southern fans, who flocked to arenas, such as the Omni in Atlanta, to cheer Rhodes and hurl jeers at Flair.

Flair impacted every life that he touched. Acknowledging his flair for selling his craft, Rhodes acknowledged that the Minnesotan made him better. Another prominent figure in the sport that was affected was Hulk Hogan.

“He changed my life,” Hogan says. “He made me better. He made you better when you knew that he was going to beat you. And when he left, he left things behind that made everybody better.”

Flair is part rock star, part actor and part athlete. His stardom has impacted all sports. His patented catchphrases “Woo!” and “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man” have been heard in all sports, including the mighty National Football League.

He also is an idol in Los Angeles’ hip-hop culture. “He’s one of us. He’s part of the black community,” Snoop Dogg says in the documentary when asked about Flair’s gold jewelry, alligator kicks and flashy threads.

Although Flair was all business in the ring, he has faced many hardships in his personal life. He’s been married four times and has fathered multiple children. One of them, Reid, attempted to follow in his father’s career footsteps but died of a drug overdose in 2013 at the age of 25. While he inherited his dad’s passion for grappling, he unfortunately also received his taste for overindulgence.

Reid’s untimely death was just one price that Flair would pay. His lavish and excessive lifestyle cost him marriages, family and friends. But while many other stars have loved and lost, Flair never really grew up, according to those around him.

“I remember coming back from Kansas City,” says wrestling and former XFL commentator Jim Ross. “We went back to the hotel bar, and maybe there were 10 people in the bar and there was one server. Ric orders 125 shots, kamikaze shots, and starts serving them to everybody. He was flirting with women, and they were partying with the Nature Boy. And I thought, ‘Why can’t we come back, have a couple of drinks and a conversation and then go back to the room.’”

That just wasn’t Flair.

“As I got to know him, I realized that he needed to have companionship, even if it was only a guy to shoot the breeze,” Ross says.

Flair, who was adopted by an upper-class family, never really felt accepted by his parents.

“They didn’t get it,” Flair says. “I screwed up enough to get sent to private school … then my parents came to my $2 million house and I thought my dad would be proud of me. And all my dad said is, ‘What the hell are you doing? Who needs all this?’”

A supreme performer and athlete with a dark side, Flair nevertheless had a major impact on pop culture that is undeniable. He made it acceptable to watch professional wrestling, and he was a posterboy for the enjoyment of excess in the ‘80s. He also made it alright to root for a villain.

A balanced portrayal, Kropf’s film captures Flair at his best, but it also shows him at his worst. The only thing that seems to truly hurt the 16-time champion is the loss of Reid. His death, however, was a motivating factor in making the Flair family change for the better.

“If Reid hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” says daughter Ashley, who herself wrestles under the name Charlotte Flair and whose success makes Flair tear up at the end of the documentary.

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