The blingy bravado of two-time WWE Hall of Famer Ric Flair elevated professional wrestling to new heights. His iconic in-ring performance still provides a benchmark for today’s biggest wrestling stars and tomorrow’s up-and-comers. Maybe that’s why ESPN chose the self-proclaimed "stylin', profilin’, limousine-ridin’, jet-flyin’, kiss-stealin’, wheelin’ n’ dealin’ son of a gun" for their next 30 for 30 documentary.
For those unfamiliar with the network’s ongoing project, 30 for 30 began in 2009 as a celebration of ESPN’s 30th birthday. It started as a series of 30 one-hour films, set to explore the biggest sports stories of the previous three decades. But the popularity of the series has endured and eight years later, the project is still going strong.
And now, professional wrestling is getting into the spotlight. During the first week of the Television Critic Association 2017 summer tour, GameSpot was able to gather a bit more insight on the project. Director Rory Karpf (The Book of Manning, Coach Snoop), executive producer John Dahl (30 for 30, O.J.: Made in America), and Ric Flair himself gave a better look at the newest 30 for 30 film, "Nature Boy," set to premiere on November 7, 2017.It started with one 8-second interview, according to Karpf, who first worked with Flair on the 30 for 30 doc I Hate Christian Laettner. "That’s what kind of got the ball rolling to get a 30 for 30 done on [Ric Flair]. I grew up a huge wrestling fan. John [Dahl] saw Ric’s interview...He was only in one interview and it was like 8 seconds long, but people kept writing about it on Twitter, 'I can’t believe Ric Flair is in this movie! Wooo!' and 'How’d they get Ric Flair?'"
"You don’t have to be a wrestling fan," Dahl added. "I knew who Ric was growing up in Charlotte during his heyday in WCW and NWA. When that Laettner film was done and Ric was in it talking about sports villains, it was just his presence and the way he spoke about it--that’s the guy I want to know more about. I think the 30 for 30 audience is a great fit for his story."
It’s probably safe to say Ric Flair was one of the greatest heels in the business. His presence in and out of the ring, which was famously inspired by wrestling great Buddy Rogers, was terrifying, enigmatic and electric. But speaking to Flair about his career, which spans four decades, it became clear that the there wasn’t ever a line between Richard Fliehr and his "Nature Boy" persona.
"That’s my problem. I never could separate them," Flair admitted, after a long pause. "Pros and cons, man. I was pretty wrapped up in it. I couldn’t stop being Ric Flair, which is the truth. It takes a unique person to be a professional wrestler. It’s very difficult and very demanding, physically and mentally. You have to be able to separate yourself from family. You work four days a week and have three days off. I worked every day! The amount of travel is ridiculous. The work is tough. 300 mile drives between shows at night."
But as he mentioned, he couldn’t stop being Ric Flair. And as soon as he put on the robe and got in the ring, all his real world personal drama seemed to disappear into the ether. Taking a walk through his varied injuries--Flair admits he was a "bleeder," cutting himself almost every night in order to make more money because "red means green"--it’s evident he was completely committed to his craft.
"It’s amazing. I’ve got a genetic gift, I think," Flair said. "In the length of my career, I cracked C5 and 6 in my neck, but the technology wasn’t such back then. That was like ’89, so there was no surgery for it. But I was lucky enough it healed itself. What people will never understand is I had to wrestle every night...There was no going home on vacation. And then, I broke myself in an airplane crash, in three places, in 1975. That laid me up for a while, about six or seven months. I was lucky enough to come back from that. And then, I’ve had two rotator cuffs. You know, I’ve had my knees drained and that, but otherwise I feel great. It’s funny. I could wrestle right now. They won’t let me, but I’m ready for any kind of action."
Speaking of action--these days, it’s impossible to discuss Ric Flair and not bring up the incredible work his daughter Charlotte is doing. As a WWE performer, Charlotte continues the "Nature Boy" legacy in her own epic, unique way. "She’s not just the best woman, she’s the best athlete in the company," Flair exclaimed. "She’s a level 10 gymnast. She’s a four-time All-American cheerleader. She can dead-lift 300 pounds. She can bench press 200 pounds. Have you ever seen her? She looks like a runway model! The things she can do, Rey Mysterio can do...and she’s 5'11" and 155 pounds! She’s amenities strong, I didn’t even advise her of this--with her robes and her outfits. She dresses immaculately and when she’s on the road, she’s phenomenal. The guys know that, too. There’s no better athlete in the company."
And speaking of companies, Flair took a moment to revisit a classic moment in his career--his original move from WCW to the WWF in 1991: "I left WCW because I couldn’t get along with a guy named Jim Herd. Ted [Turner] liked wrestling, thank god, but he put his best friends in charge. You had somebody who didn’t know anything about wrestling running a wrestling company! And that’s just not the way it works, you know?"
Flair continued, "The guy came in and said he wanted to cut my hair and give me an earring and then call me Spartacus. The guy sitting next to me, Kevin Sullivan, said, 'Well, why don’t we just kill Mickey Mantle and change his number, too!?' It was that drastic. I was outta there. And one week later, Vince [McMahon] made me the champion. So that’s one of my greatest promos. 'With a tear in my eye, y’all can kiss my a**!'"
"The guy came in and said he wanted to cut my hair and give me an earring and then call me Spartacus...It was that drastic. I was outta there."
Flair spent a lot of time discussing career moments from his past during his sit-down with GameSpot. But as he mulled over the differences between NWA, WCW and WWE, the topic soon turned to the evolution of the business, and most notably, those he believes to be the best performers in the game today. "It’s one of four people: Randy Orton, A.J. Styles, my daughter, and Seth Rollins. I didn’t even have to think twice about that," Flair said.
When pressed about those choices, Ric laid out the qualifications to be the best: "Orton is just one of the most gifted guys I’ve ever seen. Orton brings the whole package. He’s 6’4", phenomenal body, he’s a good talker and a phenomenal in-ring performer. Seth Rollins is the same, just a little bit smaller. A.J. is close to being Sean Michaels in terms of work ethic. He’s really good and his interviews have gotten better. And then, my daughter...I’m not pushing her. She doesn’t need me to push her. You’ve seen her, she’s real good. The other girls just have a hard time keeping up with her."
Is it possible professional wrestling will be the next frontier in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series? Ric Flair may be the first wrestler to be featured in the ongoing documentary project, but there’s a sneaking suspicion he won’t be the last.30 for 30 "Nature Boy" will premiere later in the year on November 7 on ESPN.