Legendary pro wrestler Ric “Nature Boy” Flair would be the first to tell you that the job’s demands on one’s body, mind and personal life are, in a word, brutal. Throw in a passion for self-promotion and an epic good time and you have the makings of potential disaster.
Flair — of whom I’ve been a fan since I watched AWA’s All-Star Wrestling broadcasts with my dad as a kid — and sat down with me at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in late July to talk all things Richard Fliehr, pro wrestling and his upcoming ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Nature Boy, which will premiere Nov. 7 at 10/9c. The 68-year-old athlete looked tanned, fit and characteristically dapper, and was in an amiable, almost introspective mood — until the film’s director Rory Karpf (I Hate Christian Leitner) and 30 for 30 executive producer John Dahl joined the conversation and spurred Flair into sharing some tales from the wilder side of his iconic and over-the-top career.
Still, what came through in the half hour I spent with the Nature Boy was a thoughtful guy and proud dad who owns his active role in abusing his body and his culpability in his children’s rancor, and is intent on making the most of now — a happy life with his fiancée and former WCW manager Wendy Barlow and basking in the great pleasure of watching his daughter Ashley (ring name, Charlotte) take the wrestling world by storm. Making all the more poignant the news that the Memphis born star was felled this week by what his current PR team labeled “tough medical issues,” from which he is now reportedly recovering.
Though we’re saving much of the chat for its real purpose — telling you about the unflinching documentary of which Flair is so proud — some of what he shared about life in- and outside the ring seems insightful right now as he fights to regain control of the body that made him an icon of the sport for four decades.
How far back in your story does the documentary go — and did you set any boundaries? Because it sounds like you are allowing the whole of your life to be out there.
Ric Flair: You know, there’s a sadness in it like everything. There’s always the downside, and that’s part of it, too. It’s just hard to be a wrestler and stay married — I’ve been married four times. And I’ve been wrestling 42 years, so there were times when I wasn’t home, where I would go out on the road for six months and never come home. So I didn’t see my older kids at all — which, to this day, they still resent it. They’ve never gotten over the fact that the younger ones got more attention, right? So it’s interesting, when I watch it, to hear what they all had to say. And they all cracked on me pretty hard. But that’s OK. I deserved it. But it wasn’t ’cause I was neglecting them; I just worked every day. Believe it or not, for about ten years, I wrestled 300 hour-long matches a year. Twice on Saturdays. People are gonna see that and I think they’re gonna be shocked that I literally wrestled that much, that I was gone that much.
What made you remarry? Was there a part of you that craved stability, that wanted a home life even though you knew you had a career that didn’t sync up with that?
Well, the way this comes out is that I didn’t like to be alone. And I don’t know if that’s true or not. I’m a very social person. Here’s an example. You would never see me drink at home. Maybe a beer. But I like to go out. I like people. And that’s the way my life has always been. So I’d wrestle till eleven o’clock at night and then I’d be out all night until the bars closed, depending on which city it was in. Then get up the next morning, work out and fly to the next town — or, when I was younger drive. We were driving 3,000 miles a week in the old days, in the ’70s.
Was your Nature Boy persona — the “dirtiest player in the game” — a conscious, marketing sort of decision or a natural evolution of your personality and your style of wrestling?
The whole thing is in the film, from when I crashed in an airplane in 1975 and broke my back. I broke it in three places and they didn’t think I’d wrestle again. Well, I just wasn’t going to accept that. And then the promoter there, when they felt like I was going to be OK, starting pushing the Buddy Rogers thing on me. Then I just took the Buddy Rogers persona and, as Harley Race would say, I just took it to a whole different level.
You’ve been at the forefront of the evolution of pro-wrestling, through the regional leagues, WCW, WWE/WWF and have watched the wrestling industry blur rosters and international borders, and evolve into a worldwide entertainment spectacle. Give me your impressions.
Well, wrestling was taken somewhat more seriously when I started. All the way till probably,the mid-nineties. Now it’s perceived pretty much exclusively as entertainment. It’s always been somewhat choreographed — but it’s still very physical and very physically demanding. But when I started, nobody cared — I mean, about anything. And you had to literally fight sometimes to stay alive in the ring. Because a big tough guy would try to eat you up if you didn’t like what the promoter told you to do.
And there were some really big, tough guys.
A lot of them, yeah! I just saw Baron von Raschke by the way.
Get out! I was so afraid of him.
I hadn’t seen him in years. He’s doing great. A great guy, he lives in Mankato, Minnesota, now. He and his wife Bonnie, still together!
But, anyway it was just a different deal back then you know, and it’s changed. When I went through my training camp to get in, the guys in our business today, none of them could do that. They wouldn’t want to. I quit twice. It was that hard.
Because of physical reasons or mental and emotional reasons — or a combo?
It was mentally and physically too, too demanding. I wasn’t in shape for that, ’cause I was looking at The Crusher and The Bruiser, and I got up to 300 pounds. I hadn’t run a mile since I was a freshman in college. Run two miles outdoors in November in Minnesota, and then do 500 free squats and 200 push ups — are you kidding me? This is brutal. For 300 pounds? I quit twice. But Verne Gagne — and thank God for him — he came and got me and wouldn’t let me.
Can you tell me about a time where you look back on it and wonder, ‘How did I survive that —and live to wrestle the next day?’ Or is your whole life kind of like that?
My whole life has been like that. I’ve been hit by lighting twice. Crashed in an airplane. Just going out every night.
One of the great stories — it’s not in the film and people have a hard time believing this — but, I had been wrestling down in Florida for a whole week and it was in the ’80s. You’re in Orlando one night, then Tampa, Miami, Fort Lauderdale. It’s hard to go to bed, so I was out all night, every night, and wrestling an hour-long match every night, and the next day I had to fly to Tokyo. So I was driving back home from Orlando, and I called my dad who was a doctor, and I said, “Dad, man, my heart’s skipping beats. What do you think?” He said, “When was the last time you had any sleep?” I said I hadn’t had much, he said, “Well, get some sleep and you’ll feel fine.” But I was cracked, knowing I had to fly all the way to Tokyo and then I had to wrestle three-hour matches, consecutive days, against guys I didn’t like to wrestle. So I drank all the way there, for twelve-and-a-half hours. This was back when we had paper tickets, and I said to myself, I’m just not gonna do it. There was a flight going to Seattle, and I said “Can I put this toward Seattle and get back to Charlotte.” The guy said, “Yeah.” I just left my bags, got on the plane, flew all the way back to Seattle.
I was so cracked, so I started talking to the guy next to me. I said, “Can I talk to you?” He said, “Yeah, what’s up?” and I said “You’re not gonna believe it.” I drank all the way to Seattle with him, and then I slept going to Chicago, and then I got back to Charlotte — and the promoter in Charlotte was waiting for me at the airport. Made me get back on a plane and fly all the way back to Tokyo and wrestle. I made it by an hour for that match.
And how’d that match go?
It was good, once I broke a sweat and got going. If I’ve been wrestling Ricky Steamboat, I would have said no problem, but I had to wrestle Jumbo Tsuruta, Genichiro Tenryu and some other guy. Guys that were really tough.
And after the match? A nice long nap?
I went and partied all night in Tokyo. [Laughs] Tokyo is the best. I never got tired. I remember we bought a big jar of horseradish, brought it on the plane and the flight attendants made Bloody Marys for us with the horseradish all the way over. Different times flying back then, huh? [Laughs]
The flight attendants were great back then. I’ve taken more flight attendants to another town with me. They didn’t even go home to their husbands. One time, we flew back from Tokyo and instead of going to Fort Meyers, [the attendant] asked where I was going. I said, “I’m gonna go to St. Louis, wrestle and then I’m gonna party there and have a good time.” She’s like, “Can I go with you? I’ll bring my friend too.” So I brought two of them to St. Louis. I just bought them tickets. So, like three years later, I was in Fort Meyers wrestling and Tony Garea, the agent, came and got me and said, “There’s a girl out here, a woman with three kids and her husband, that says she flew with you from Tokyo to St. Louis and partied with you.” So I went out and I remember shaking her husband’s hand. [Laughs]
Rory Karpf: I thought you were gonna say you were worried the kids look like you. They had platinum blonde hair.
No, no, no! I never had that problem, thank God. Of course when I was sixteen, I was a Water Safety Instructor — this isn’t in the book either. I was teaching these little kids how to swim and the mom liked me. She was 33, I was 16, and that’s where it all started. Then I go off to boarding school, my parents put me in boarding school in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. So I’m in school one day, and they came and got me and said, “Your aunt Carolyn is here to take you off campus for the day and night.” So I walked in the headmasters office and there [the woman] is. She told them she was my aunt! She drove all the way from Minneapolis! And then she had a nervous breakdown and went to see her doctor and guess who her doctor’s partner was? My dad. So my dad brought me home and made me apologize to her husband and all that. He was like, “What have you done?”
Ten thousand women. Did that offend you? Two-hundred-and-eighty women a year for 35 years.
Er, I guess I’m just glad you’re still here. So, how about a different take on women and wrestling? Tell me about watching your own daughters — Charlotte especially — be so much a part of the revolution in women’s wrestling.
That’s been the most rewarding thing of my career. It’s been just fabulous to see Charlotte and, in such a short period of time!
30 for 30: Nature Boy premieres Nov. 7 at 10/9c on ESPN. Check back for info and more of our chat with Flair.