For a few years I wrote for a pro-wrestling website, NZPWI, mostly I reviewed DVDs and books, I wrote a nostalgia-based column – and I interviewed two of my favourite wrestlers the first being Bret “The Hitman” Hart and then – it was on to The Nature Boy, Ric Flair…
Ladies and gentlemen, his name is Ric Flair. And unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last thirty-plus years (or in wrestling terms, hiding under the mat after receiving The People’s Elbow courtesy of The Rock) then you will know exactly who Ric Flair is. You may even know more about Ric Flair than the man himself cares to impart. I am speaking on the phone with Mr Flair, the stylin’, profilin’, limousine-riding, jet-flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin’n’dealin’ son of a gun! Yeah, that guy. The man who, at fifty-nine years of age, is still climbing in to the ring several times a week, still putting on a show, still beading up a glow, and still completely in the know as a role-model-turned-spokesman for the art (and artifice) of pro-wrestling.
We exchange greetings, the telephone-interview version of feeling one another out before we lock up. I tell the man born Richard Morgan Fliehr that, as someone who has watched wrestling on and off for twenty years it is a great honour to talk to one of the biggest legends the sport has ever known. He tells me, in keeping with his North Carolina southern gentile confederate background, that it’s an honour to speak to me. He seems to mean it. Calling me sir (it sounds more like “s’aah”) after every question, thanking me profusely when I bring up a point related to his performance in the ring.
So, I am talking to Ric Flair. Where do I start?
We are speaking, ostensibly, with regard to the 15th Anniversary of RAW DVD. So, we start, ostensibly, with some remarks on RAW. Flair was there for the first ever episode – “I knew it was something different. I couldn’t say then that I knew it would be around for ever, but you’re talking to an old-school guy here”, he pauses for a self-aware chuckle, “and, ah, I guess I was on the back of one of the high-points of my career; I’d won a Royal Rumble for the then WWF, and I was doing great. You gotta remember I was in my 40s then, I had been at wrestling for a long time already, but, yeah, things were changing, and of course RAW would continue to change. I went away and worked for the competition [WCW] and came back. And here I am”.
Straight away, even when we’re talking about a retrospective DVD, Flair does not hide from talk of his potential retirement. The pro-wrestler that may have, at times, seemed unrealistic as a 50-year old defeating 20 year olds is not deluded when it comes to his in-ring longevity. “My time is coming I guess, I mean I don’t know when that time’ll be exactly, it’s hard to know, especially when I’m wrestling every match right now like my career depends on it” – kayfabe to the end – “but there’ll be a time, and it may be soon”, (I can almost feel him winking down the phone), “when the Nature Boy’ll have to move away from competing”. I guess it is impossible to discuss the history of any facet of wrestling without discussing Ric Flair’s involvement. And, therefore, a discussion of the 15 years of RAW instantly forces Flair to consider his last fifteen years – as well as the time before that – as one of the hardest-working legends this business has ever seen.
It is also hard not to talk in hyperbole when discussing Flair’s career. We touch on his run of championship titles and he laughs at the fact that he’s “either a 16 of a 17 time world champion, you tell me? Perhaps it’s more than that? There’s a few others in there that, ah, seem to get left out”.
Perfect time to segue to New Zealand, 1984. Ric Flair fights “The King” Harley Race. He drops the NWA belt in New Zealand. Regaining it before he gets another stamp on his passport. Memories of that time?
“Yeah, well, that’s one of those disputed times I’m talking about, that’s probably the 17th championship right there”, pause for a chuckle, “but it’s not one of the ones that officially counts. We did that as a favour to your promoter down there; a man named Steve Rickard. This was before much in the way of TV down your way”, Flair explains, “and so we did that, as was the way then, agreed to drop the title, to help build the event, to help promote it. And it worked. It definitely worked. I had a good time down there. We worked hard on the road. But that was the job. I was already used to it then. This is why I can still do it now. It’s all I know”.
Flair seems comfortable looking back, so I try to keep him focussed on what he has achieved, it seems unrealistic to prompt discussion on his future. He happily reiterates that he’ll not be wrestling forever and that, “in a way I already have been wrestling forever!” He is sure that he’ll move in to a role within the company (WWE) outside of being in the ring. But Flair is not interested in going back to being an on-screen puppet that doesn’t wrestle. He is not interested in booking and/or being a road-agent. But he will be fostering talent. Though not merely as a guy giving advice, internally. Ric Flair wants to project.
“I see myself as being a spokesperson for this company, a spokesman for this wonderful organisation. And I am already moving in to that role, doing these sorts of interviews, taking time to talk to people, to promote this amazing company. I’ve been blessed with my career, and this company is, and I say this not just for PR to you in an interview, but I say this hand on heart, this company is second to none – literally second to none – in terms of marketing, strategy, knowing the way to sell. And you know we’ve just stepped it up with our High Definition shows now, everything’s in HD, did you know?”
I did know. And not that I want to cut the Nature Boy short when he’s gearing up in to the off-screen interview version of an on-screen promo, but I want to know about his famous feuds. I butter him up with a personal anecdote, sharing that my favourite Ric Flair match of all time is the “I Quit” match against Terry Funk in 1989. I also love the Steamboat matches. And more recently his work with Triple H. Does Flair himself have a favourite?
“You know, I can honestly say that I don’t have a favourite match or feud. I’ve had some great ones, and I think I can say that knowing that there’ll be people that will back me up. And yeah, the I Quit match with Terry was, well, you know yourself, it was epic. And of course everyone talks to me about the matches with Steamboat. But again, you know, here I was getting in to my 40s when I was having these matches that people rave about – and I just think, you know, the thing with Steamboat was we would wrestle, city to city, night after night for 30, 60, 90 minutes. We would do it. And we would do it again. And full credit to Ricky Steamboat because I really feel he bought out the best in me. And I bought out the best in him. But you should have seen what we did in our 30s! You know, the stuff we did off-television night after night, working the house-shows, that was better than anything that showed up on TV. And all of the matches you’ve mentioned, with Funk, with Harley, you know they were all great. I am lucky when I look back because, you know, I can honestly say that I have no regrets. I’ve made mistakes. Sure. But I have no regrets”.
I try a bit of a music comparison now, telling Flair that I always remember when Sting (the musician, not the wrestler) said that watching The Beatles made him want to be a pop-star, but that watching Jimi Hendrix made him want to be a musician. So, with that, is Hulk Hogan the rock-star. And is Ric Flair the musician?
“Well, you know, I see where you’re going, but for me, there was never any issue with Hogan, his work ethic always impressed me. He worked his butt off to help make wrestling so big, and he was out there through the 80s and the 90s, working 300 days a year, selling t-shirts, selling out arena and he worked hard. Full credit to him. I never said he was the greatest in-ring performer, but that doesn’t matter. That is only part of what wrestling is about”.
So, if that’s only part of it – and there are so many other parts – what does someone who has been in the game this long, and stayed active in the game, been part of stables, been a manager, worked behind the scenes and continued to wrestle in singles competition, think that the biggest change has been?
“For me, I think the thing is technology. I mean there’s just so much we can do now, High Definition is just the latest. Where will it go next? Who knows! But we’ll be there – I mean this company is just so on the ball with technology and with staying in touch”.
So what about the internet? I tell Ric that I am writing a story that will be posted on an internet site, and will be read by people that will go off and make comments about him. And even if they don’t, they will do in some other forum. Does that matter? Has it helped the sport or harmed it?
“Well I guess it’s done both – but you know what, I just let all of that happen because you can’t stop it. And it doesn’t really interest me”. Again there’s a moment where Ric breaks in to a knowing laugh, “I’m not really an internet-guy you know. I’m sure that’s not surprising to any Ric Flair fans out there. I use computers a bit, when I need to, but I’m interested in sticking with this business through thick and thin because it’s the business that I know and I love. And I’ve worked hard and I’ll continue to work hard”.
Interviewing Ric Flair is easy – you pop the question, you stand back, he cuts the promo. It never sounds too rehearsed, but I imagine him saying the same thing over and over to whoever asks similar questions.
And so it goes for most of our time together. But, when I talk to him about his autobiography To Be The Man he becomes unexpectedly candid, rather emotional and very honest.
“First of all, thank you sir for reading it. And thank you for saying you enjoyed it. That means a lot. And I really loved doing it. But it was a difficult process too. I had wanted to do it for a while and I was unhappy with the writer we had working on it, he didn’t get my voice and that took a long time and I want to do another book. I think I’ve got more stories in me…” I cut him off to award him with an unofficial understatement-of-the-year award even though it’s only January! Flair picks up on that riff, laughing, telling me that “it was a very cathartic process though, to write about what I’d done. And you know I talked about people I’d had issues with and that was a good thing to do. I mean, it felt good to say what I thought and what I felt, the way I always have”.
And then, something happened, we got very deep, very quickly, and Flair – the man so often referred to as the greatest pro-wrestler of all time; as one of the true living legends of the game – confesses that “the last five years I have suffered from self-confidence issues”. What? The man that struts his stuff – even if he looks a bit like an embarrassing uncle at a 21st these days – gets nervous still? Gets anxiety? Struggles to believe his own self-worth and ability as a performer?
“I have had a lot of problems and a lot of it is in my head, I know that, I go out there and do my job and deliver. But it has been hard. And it’s a process I’ve been working through – and I guess writing the book was part of what helped me to get over some of those worries and fears. And I’d like to write another book”.
I wish him luck with the new book – and there’s the cut-in call from the outside listener telling me to wrap up the interview. I quickly ask that other obvious question that anyone would want to ask someone like Ric Flair. With so many matches against so many great heroes and villains there most be someone you have never faced and wanted to?
“No”, the man that still wears sequined robes and marches down the aisle to Also Sprach Zarathustra (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) announces, “there’s no one that ole Naitch hasn’t faced. I’ve fought ‘em all and beaten most of them. The only guy of any magnitude that is still on the scene that I have never gone one-on-one against properly and would love to is John Cena. But that’ll never happen now. We’re in different zones, career-wise, he’s on the up, I’m, I guess, winding down, and also he’s still recovering from his injury. And that’s going to take a long while yet. So there’s really not much likelihood of that happening”.
Okay, I’m wrapping it up. Who will be the next Ric Flair?
“There will never be another Ric Flair. Ever. I thank you sir, it was a pleasure and good day to you”. The phone goes click. I instantly think of somewhere in the vicinity of 15,000 questions I would have liked to ask.
And then I write this story up, a week later, realising of course that this “new WWE spokesman” got all soulful and confessional, and then when he had me believing him, had me ready to take mercy as he was on my knees in front of me, he pretty much reached up and nailed me with a closed fist between the legs. He had me totally believing him. And that was the moment he chose to tell me that John Cena was a long way off recovery. I then watched Cena return a few days later to win the Royal Rumble. The Dirtiest Player In The Game just claimed another victory. I am honoured to be on the list. A-thank you, s’aah!
This interview first appeared at NZPWI