Ric Flair faces the music with regret but no excuses in 'Nature Boy'

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

The styling-and-profiling, limousine-riding, jet-flying, Rolex-wearing, champagne-drinking, kiss-stealing, wheeling-‘n-dealing son of a gun is 68 years old now and more likely than not still capable of dropping a whipping on you and then taking you out and drinking you under the table.

“I can outdrink Brock Lesnar,” Ric Flair said. “Just ask him. I can put him under. That’s about all I can do with him these days.”

And with that, the Nature Boy bursts into one of his signature, deep-voiced laughs. He’s changed. He hasn’t changed. He remains a tornado of charisma, crassness built on a base of comedy and celebration.

Richard Fliehr, adopted son of a Minnesota doctor, probably couldn’t have imagined Ric Flair, international star, though he eventually created the character who wasn’t really a character. They became the same man, which was the problem. What you saw is what you got, an irresistible heel. Cheer him. Boo him. Wooo.

Pro wrestling may be scripted but it’s no fairytale. It’s what makes “Nature Boy,” the 30 for 30 that premieres Tuesday on ESPN (10 p.m. ET), so powerful, so much beyond what might be expected – just wrestling clips and tribute interviews packaged into 90 minutes of feel-good nostalgia.

Because Ric Flair’s life isn’t all that feel-good.

“I liked it,” Flair said of the documentary. “It was eye-opening. I figured, if you’re going to do it, you might as well open up.”

Pro wrestling is about sleight of hand, a masterful charade of secrets and scripts. At one point, when it still claimed to be “real,” the business delivered matches that were trying to be more vicious and violent than humanly possible. Then, later, when it embraced the truth that it was a show, that acknowledgement somehow masked that the business actually was far, far more vicious and violent than humanly possible.

The most haunting parts of “Nature Boy” is the look on Flair’s face, bearing scars and bloodshot eyes, as he wrestles over the damage his chosen profession did to his life – devastated marriages, kids openly discussing his no-show fatherhood, relentless womanizing and functional alcoholism. While brushed over in the doc, there is also decades of financial woes, IRS battles and endless lawsuits over unpaid bills, alimony payments (four divorces) and busted business deals.

Those Rolexes and Lear Jets? Turns out Ric Flair couldn’t actually afford To Be the Man.

“It was something I was really good at,” Flair says of wrestling in the doc. “Then it became a disease.”

Its most heart-wrenching chapter is the drug overdose death of his son Reid, who followed his dad into pro wrestling. It’s the kind of loss no parent ever truly overcomes. Flair blames himself for being too much of a friend and not enough of a father. That may not be fair. Opioid addiction can hit any household. It’s not drawn out in “Nature Boy,” but Flair tried to do what he could to save his kid.

“My son made five or six trips to rehab, the best places in the country,” Flair told Yahoo Sports. “He was on life support from overdoses three or four times. He was out once for six days. The doctors said he wasn’t going to make it and if he did, he’d never speak again. He woke up unfazed. One time, when he was a teenager, he got arrested for DUI and sent to jail, with grown men. He didn’t care. He wasn’t calling me crying.

“You just couldn’t get him scared straight,” Flair said, his voice in a thoughtful, mournful tone.

He paused.

“Drugs are drugs.”

The unexpected twists toward the truth anchor this tale. Regret is all over this story. It’s all over nearly every professional wrestling story, of course, where early death and dysfunction is a plague. For every high, the bill comes due. How can you be a father when you’re on the road 320 nights a year? How can you be a husband when after a match you’d pile in a car with two other guys, drive to the next town while drinking a couple cases of beer and then go looking for the party to start? How can anyone survive this life?

Ric Flair is Ric Flair because it wasn’t all that much of an act. And while the fans could change the channel after the show, or drive home after watching ringside as Flair poured his guts out in an hour-long bout, he didn’t. Or perhaps even couldn’t.

“We’d do 70-straight nights on the road,” he said. “Then we’d come home, but it would be for like a day. Then back out.”

He made millions. He spent millions. He inspired millions. There is a great part of “Nature Boy” where they mash-up his old strutting and wooo-ing around the ring with current athletes and entertainers imitating him, from NFL locker rooms to celebrity dressing rooms. That producer Rory Karpf landed nearly four dozen exclusive interviews speaks to the respect Flair commands.

There’s the Undertaker doing a rare out-of-character, on-camera sit-down. There’s Hulk Hogan, humble in his praise of how superior of a performer Flair was to him. There’s Snoop Dogg talking about Flair’s impact on black culture and hip hop. There’s Maria Menounos, of all people, doin’ the wooo herself.

And there are his ex-wives, explaining how he was intoxicating but you could never trust him. There are his kids, wishing they could have traded the mansions for him to show up at one of their basketball games or the family dinner table. There was Flair, acknowledging it all, facing the music with regret but not with excuse.

“You make your own deals in life,” Flair said. “No one tells you what to do, or where to go.”

This is 30-for-30’s first foray into pro wrestling. If anything, it may help convey the truth that while the matches may be predetermined, they aren’t “fake.”

You still have to slam and be slammed. You still have to fly over top ropes and absorb chairs to the back and then drive through the night and do it again. It takes talent and athleticism and endurance and focus. And it comes with a price.

Flair cracked a vertebra one time and his rehab plan mostly consisted of doing tag teams so he’d have some time to rest. The business is, perhaps, a little better now. Injuries and concussions are supposedly diagnosed and trips aren’t quite as long; although Flair notes his daughter, current WWE star Charlotte, is on a 17-day run through Europe.

The great days for Flair were as great as the business has ever seen. His appearances on WTBS, the then-fledgling cable “Superstation,” changed the game. He calls his 1983 victory over Harley Race at Starcade the biggest of his life. He describes his many hour-long matches with Ricky Steamboat his best, the two equally skilled wrestlers delivering something akin to “Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.”

He credits Shawn Michaels, whom he declares the best pure wrestler he knows, for carrying him through his WrestleMania XXIV “retirement” match at age 59. “I wasn’t nearly the performer I had been at that point. He literally put me on his back. The entire week was the greatest of my life.”

So many stories. So many memories. For every roaring big-city crowd, there was the night he wrestled in the rain outside in the parking lot of a Hutchinson, Kansas, used-car dealership, the show designed to drag in potential customers.

“There were people shopping and test driving while we’re out there wrestling,” Flair said. “You think I wasn’t going out after that? They’re lucky I didn’t drink more.”

He laughs deeply at that and goes on to another tale. The good. The bad. The triumph. The tragedy.

This is the life of the Nature Boy, all laid to bear by a guy who lived his life pretending something was real, now comfortable letting the real come out for all to see.

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