If I said it on TV, I did it. I lived my gimmick. – Ric Flair
He was like the Pied Piper to defiant young athletes. – Jim Ross
I may have a different take on the Rory Karpf-directed and much-anticipated Nature Boy 30 for 30, which premieres tonight on ESPN. It’s not about the quality of the product, which is extremely high. This is a terrific documentary. But, if anyone walks away from the 77 minute documentary and wishes they were Ric Flair, I feel sorry for them. My emotions as Flair stated his hopes for how people would remember him was one of sadness for a life OVER lived.
Rory Karpf, director of two of the better 30 for 30 installments, The Book of Manning, and I Hate Christian Laettner, spent many months with and around Ric as he pieced together this exceptional portrait of a flawed man afraid to embrace the real man behind the gimmick. What it says about how fearful Flair was to be isolated from the party is as important as anything it says about how much fun he had sleeping with “ten thousand (women), maybe.”
What Nature Boy isn’t concerned with is a simple retelling of Flair’s iconic career or a puff piece about what a brilliant performer he was. Those things exist, but the overall success of Karpf’s effort is in its willingness not just to show the blemishes, but to accentuate them and even to re-open the necessary wounds to allow Ric a chance for true introspection.
As Flair talks about being an entirely absent father and a man that wasn’t just unhappy, but was “miserable” even thinking about monogamy, it’s so difficult not to shake your head at the thoughts that must have tortured him on a daily basis. He also clearly believes he let his adoptive parents down, although he seems disappointed that they never understood or embraced his pro wrestling lifestyle. His father only saw him wrestle three times, something he says seriously and not without a hint of unhappiness.
For Flair, pro wrestling was the drug he never wanted to quit. Even when he “retired” following a perfect sendoff in a loss to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XXIV, no one thought he was done. Shawn himself says in the documentary he knew when he gave everything he had to give Flair the exit a legend deserved, it wouldn’t stick. He didn’t want to stop, and he couldn’t go back to being Richard Fliehr.
In fact, according to Michaels, Ric never stopped to get to know Richard, didn’t care for him, and had no interest in slowing down even for a moment. After tens of thousands of bumps, the plane crash that changed his life, and all the accolades in his career, he couldn’t walk away. He didn’t want to try it. As WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross stated it, “he had to have somebody with him.”
Stories abound about Ric exposing himself on flights in front of one of his greatest opponents, Sting, to being naked out of the open window of a fraternity house at the University of Minnesota, to being unable to simply sit and have a conversation with a friend over a few drinks without ordering 137 kamikazes for the entire bar.
Ric Flair lived his gimmick, which wasn’t out of the ordinary in the 1980s, when kayfabe was fully in place and even those who knew it was choreographed didn’t “know” it was fake. In 1985, Flair appeared on Sally Jesse Raphael’s afternoon talk show, and was asked whether pro wrestling was indeed phony. He responded as everyone of the era did, and told Rory Karpf that such questions and critiques have always bothered him. “It’s not fake. It’s choreographed, and that’s a word we’ve just started using over the past 15 years.”
The film takes us through Ric’s childhood to his time as a three-sport athlete in high school to joining the Minnesota Golden Gophers football team alongside Greg Gagne, whose father Verne (the promoter of the American Wrestling Association) would train Flair to be a pro wrestler alongside the likes of Ricky Steamboat. Flair tried to get out of the training, which, also not surprisingly, was brutal. When it came time for Ric’s first match, he tells Karpf he wasn’t even smartened up. Gagne told him he had ten minutes, but during training, the business was never revealed to be a work.
Still, Flair was a natural, and realized relatively quickly he wasn’t just good, but was becoming great very early. His character stunk until the Wilmington plane crash that led to a broken back and hospital bed thoughts of being the next “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. He discovered a desire to be a blonde villain. Flair calls it “bad guy,” and never uses the word “heel” during the documentary. He doesn’t hold onto kayfabe, but there are certainly some things he avoids saying for the sake of the industry.
Flair describes the reasons why he and Steamboat’s feud is sometimes regarded as the finest of its kind in pro wrestling history, and also talks in detail about the genius of Dusty Rhodes. When speaking about his career, Ric’s eyes light up, even as he contrasts Hogan selling “vitamins and milk” with Flair selling “sex and booze.” But, when he’s forced to talk about his broken marriages or fielding questions about his family, his mood turns somber and he shows discomfort.
This is a man that feels remorse and regret, but not entirely. He still laughs anytime he talks about what a ladies man he was, how much he used to drink, and how every promo he ever cut was a retelling of something he actually did. He likes the idea that he was every man’s dream, or he believes he was at least. He had the houses, the cars, the jets, the vices, and now, he has money trouble because he didn’t save. Jim Ross says Ric Flair “needed Richard Fliehr to pay his taxes.”
He remains so proud of his wrestling career that it’s hard not to be swept up in how much fun that must have been, but Karpf balances it with the other side of his life, which left his children missing their dad, left his wives missing their husband, and left Ric escaping reality by turning his own unrestrained fantasies into concrete pieces of his real life. One of his closest friends, Paul Levesque (Triple H) discusses how Flair is an example of the highs and lows. Sometimes Paul uses him as an example to young talent of having it all but using the industry in the wrong way.
The most powerful portion of the documentary comes in the back half as Ric talks about the tragic death of his 25-year old son Reid, who died of a heroin overdose at a Residence Inn in 2013. Karpf includes the frantic 911 call, allows Flair the opportunity to mention what he would tell his son if he were there, which includes the heartbreaking line, “I had so much fun with you, and I regret the fact that sometimes I was your best friend instead of your dad.”
Reid idolized Ric, and went from amateur to professional wrestling, with his first big break coming in Japan. He had serious potential, and Ric was around for much of it, but Reid also took the rest of Flair’s personality, including the substance abuse. Ric laughs as he tells the story of his then 16-year old son drinking with his neighbor, calling him “incorrigible.” Even here, Flair isn’t fully able to grasp “Fliehr” rather than “Flair.” That’s simply who he is.
It’s in discovering who Richard Fliehr never was, replaced for all-time by Ric Flair, that is Karpf’s biggest triumph with Nature Boy. Ric comprehends his faults, but still can’t change them. While he’s trying to give up alcohol following a massive health scare this summer, he’s now vicariously living through his daughter, Ashley, who performs as Charlotte in WWE.
Ashley never cared much about wrestling, but honored a promise to Reid by carrying out his dream. During that process, she recognized not only that she was good, but that she loved it. She says without Reid’s death, she wouldn’t be where she is today, which she admits is a great place. For Ric, he’s found more joy in Ashley’s success than in his own. “The greatest moment of my pro wrestling career was Ashley winning that title. Nothing in my career ever gave me that.”
Karpf puts together a solid list of interviewees outside of the film’s star. Included are the likes of Greg Gagne, Ricky Steamboat, Sting, Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard, Jim Cornette, Baby Doll, and in a rare appearance, Mark Calloway OUT OF CHARACTER. There’s no Undertaker to be found, just Calloway talking about Flair’s brilliance. Snoop Dogg, Maria Menounos, Michelle Beadle, and Marty Smith appear, with Smith in particular delivering a wonderful comparison of Flair to WWF icon Hulk Hogan.
Speaking of Hogan, he’s here as well and is very good, humbling himself to say Flair was “ten times better than me, easy,” and you can see the friendship the two have built later in life. Triple H is the most effective interview outside of Ric himself, because he’s completely unvarnished as he relates the truth about one of his closest friends. His wife, Stephanie McMahon, briefly appears, as do David and Megan Fliehr, Chael Sonnen, and Shawn Michaels. Daughter Ashley speaks throughout, as do Flair’s first wife and his current fiance, Wendy Barlow.
All in all, Rory Karpf nails it with Nature Boy. This is an engaging, entertaining watch, that will leave you sober in a way “Naitch” never was. You’ll marvel at Flair’s charisma and his ability, you’ll love his explanations of why the Four Horsemen stable was as successful as it was, as well as the way he and Steamboat could work on the fly without speaking. You’ll love the Hogan vs. Flair WWF match that never was, the stories (especially the sports psychologist story), the impact he had outside of pro wrestling, and the many exaggerations.
No question, some of Flair’s words and some of the stories are embellished, or details are left out that might reflect negatively on other parties. Triple H describes him late in the documentary thusly: “Ric is a consummate liar. He will only tell you what he wants you to hear.” It was the inability to acknowledge truth that led him to disbelieve two consecutive drug tests Reid failed when trying to earn a WWE roster spot in 2012. And, when reality hit, Flair retreated into a bottle, drinking himself to death for a solid year.
Ric Flair may well be the greatest professional wrestler in history. It’s arguable with some of the Japanese legends a select few Americans from many decades past, but Nature Boy is a mix of the tallest peaks and not just the valleys, but the deepest caverns. Flair is a complicated man, because he never allowed time to experience what the simplest pleasures can bring.
One of the best 30 for 30 installments in years and my personal favorite since OJ: Made in America, Nature Boy is absolutely cannot miss and is appointment television. You may not leave as in awe of Flair as you entered, but that’s as it should be. You might wish, as I did, that he at least got to know Richard Fliehr once or twice, but in the pain he displays at times during the documentary, you can see a real guy behind Ric’s eyes. He’s in there.
And both versions of Flair have taken their bumps. Both also now realize the advantages and shortcomings of life, but will never be on the same page. Once you experience that fame and become the Nature Boy, for some, it’s impossible to turn back. It created one of the great wrestling careers we will ever see, and simultaneously affected the rest of his family in unthinkable ways.
When Karpf asks how he hopes people remember him, his answer reveals the best and worst of Ric, but finally also reveals a Flair that understands his strengths and also his weaknesses.
On a personal note, without Ric Flair, no way do I end up working in pro wrestling for almost a decade. He was the first heel I ever knew to hate in the mid 80s. Cheering Dusty and Sting and Nikita and so many of Flair’s NWA opponents is what addicted me to the art form. Flair is Michelangelo.
I’m @JMartOutkick. Whether you like it or you don’t like it, learn to love it, because it’s the best thing going today.