I was raised on Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen. That was, of course, because of my dad.
My dad was an ardent wrestling fan. He and my mom had me in 1982, one year after they graduated high school. My parents were each 19 when I was born, which meant that as I was growing up my dad was still right in that demographic sweet spot that pro wrestling appeals to.
In March of 1987, when I was 4 years old, WrestleMania 3 happened. Hulk Hogan famously body slammed Andre the Giant in the Pontiac Silverdome and thrust the WWF fully into the mainstream. I didn’t see this happen, though – Hulk Hogan wasn’t even a blip on my radar. When kindergarten friends would come to school with tales of taking your vitamins and saying your prayers, “brother,” I was being treated the NWA and World Championship Wrestling, the home of “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair, and loving every minute of it.
The earliest and best memories of my childhood are of watching wrestling with my dad. And that wrestling always revolved around Ric Flair and his somewhat revolving squadron of tough guys, The Four Horsemen.
At first blush, my dad might not seem like a Ric Flair kind of guy. My dad, now 54, is a hard working guy. He’s farmed with his dad since he was a teenager. Still does. He appreciates hard work and doesn’t suffer slackers or cheaters. That’s why his appreciation for someone like Arn Anderson, one of the stalwart Horsemen, always made sense to me. My dad, to my childhood eyes, was a lot like Arn. Anderson, for those unfamiliar, might not look like the stereotypical professional wrestler. He’s not hulked up or roided out of his mind. He basically looks like a dad (and has for the better part of 30 years), albeit a dad that could beat the hell out of everyone in a barroom brawl. I couldn’t have been older than 8 or 9 years old when my dad told me, and I quote, “That guy right there is tough as nails.” The implication, of course, was that this was a guy to admire.
Then, there was Flair.
Flair was and always will be the self-proclaimed “dirtiest player in the game.” He was a bad guy (or “heel” in wrestling parlance), and he was the best bad guy. People loved him for it. My dad certainly did. Even as he played the chickenshit role, backing away from the guy fans were supposed to cheer, the crowd still popped when he popped Sting or Barry Windham with a low blow. Of course, they popped again when Flair would get his comeuppance. For whatever reason (and I never really have asked my dad why), Flair was my dad’s guy in pro wrestling and, by extension, became mine.
At that point, in the late 1980s and early 90s, Flair was wrestling to me. His battles with Ricky Steamboat and Sting in the NWA and then WCW during that time period made me fall in love with wrestling. I didn’t even care about the supposed big-brother WWF until Flair went there in 1991. Naturally, in true Flair fashion, he showed up on WWF television with the NWA/WCW World in tow.
After a great program with the “Macho Man” Randy Savage and others, Flair would return to WCW just a few years later, his true home. Then, in 1998, I, as a high school sophomore wrestler, went to the Pontiac Silverdome to wrestle in the national AAU tournament. This was the same Silverdome where Hogan slammed Andre, and my dad wasn’t with me. Being the farmer he was and is, he stayed home to tend to the farm. Despite seeing nearly every single match that I would wrestle throughout elementary, high school, and college, he missed this tournament.
After weigh-ins, I retreated to a balcony to take in the spectacle and get my head right before having to wrestle. There, no more than 10 feet in front of me, was the freaking “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. This remains one of the most surreal experiences of my life. To establish some context for this moment, I need to explain a few more things. I was, at this time, an obsessed wrestling fan. I taped (not DVRed, but VHS taped) WCW Monday Nitros, WCW Thursday Thunders, and every pay-per-view. Why? I have no idea now. I can’t explain it rationally, but I did it. I also subscribed to Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter, breaking the “kayfabe” barrier but giving me a greater appreciation for the business and backstage goings-on. Simply put, I loved wrestling.
So to see Ric Flair standing just a few feet from me was like being in a dream where one of your idols casually just wandered in. Strangely enough, no one else was really around him. He was basically just chilling in his sweat pants, t-shirt, leather jacket, and $30,000 gold Rolex. I approached (as only an awkward, star-struck high schooler could approach) and chatted him up for a minute, finding out that his son Reid (now deceased) was also wrestling at the same tournament. Flair was courteous and understated, and he accepted my request for a picture. Then, he autographed my tournament t-shirt.
At that point, my trip to Detroit was a win, regardless of what happened in the tournament. Except that my dad, the freaking Flair fan of all Flair fans, wasn’t there. This was before widespread cell phones (and I honestly don’t remember the particulars), but I found some phone somewhere and called my dad. Being almost 20 years ago now, I don’t remember the contents of the conversation, but there was a sense, at least on my end, that an opportunity was missed. As happy as I was to meet Flair, my dad was really the one that should have been meeting him.
Fast forward to just over two years later, and it’s May of 2000. I’m a senior in high school, and I feel like I’ve hit the lottery. On the weekends, I’m working on a radio show out of Des Moines, Iowa, called Saturday Night Slam. I don’t know this for a fact, but this had to have been one of only a handful of radio shows focused strictly on wrestling. We had guests from the amateur wrestling world, but we also talked to stars from WCW, WWF, and ECW on a weekly basis. For a super-fan like me, it was catnip. We’d also travel to pay-per-views, where the promise of backstage passes (and interviews) was too good to pass up.
So, the first weekend in May of 2000, I went to my high school prom, went to the after-prom-party, got home at roughly 6 a.m. Sunday morning, and set out for Kansas City and WCW Slamboree. Once backstage, Flair, unlike most wrestlers, was out and about and willing to chat. Again, I conversed with the Nature Boy. Again, my dad missed the boat.
That was my last hurrah with the wrestling world for a long time, as college came and wrestling didn’t really have a place in my life anymore. The radio show stopped, and my Monday nights were filled with other things besides Nitro and Raw. Hell, WCW, the company I grew up with, fell apart so badly that they were bought by WWF. It seemed like a good time for me to get out and move on, and it really happened that quickly for me.
Then, in late 2015, an opportunity unexpectedly presented itself. Ric Flair was going to be a special guest at an Iowa Energy (NBA D-League) basketball game. In addition to that, he was doing a meet and greet backstage before the game. This was it, man. My wife and I purchased the tickets for my mom and dad as a Christmas present, all the while acknowledging that there will never be another gift that we could get that would probably ever top this. I don’t know that I can quantify how happy I was to buy that VIP ticket package for my dad. Then, when he opened that gift at Christmas, it was like a repayment for all of the years that I watched and enjoyed Ric Flair, most of which he was at my side for.
In addition to the meet and greet, Flair did a Q&A with the VIP ticket holders and, based on reports from my parents, was personable and very open, answering questions about a match in Kansas City from 30 years ago, or this angle, or that person, or whatever. They were even able to get that picture of myself and Flair from all those years ago in Detroit signed by the legend himself. It was a night that, in many ways, brought my experiences and interactions with Flair full circle.
Honestly, I went into writing this piece with every intention of writing about the Ric Flair “30 for 30” on ESPN. There’s plenty of stuff there to talk about, to be sure. In the end, though, whatever that show says or could say about Ric Flair ends up just being part of the story.
Fields of interest like sports or entertainment (or “sports-entertainment” as the WWE now calls wrestling) is about connections made. Unfortunately for Flair, the connections that he made with fans like myself and my dad came at the cost of his familial connections. He’s made some amends for that now, but he’ll be the first to admit that he destroyed any family that he had during the course of his wrestling career. It was all about “The Naitch.” While that is a hellacious way to treat your wife (or wives, in his case) and kids and other loved ones, he gave himself over to his gimmick. This total buy-in from his perspective damn near imploded his personal life but, ironically enough, probably contributed to the authenticity of character that my dad and I connected with.
There’s plenty of stuff that my dad and I have in common, from our love of sports to some of our verbiage to our hairline (not ideal, in case you were wondering). In my mind, though, there’s no common touchstone between us that can really compete with Ric Flair.
So, as Ric Flair experiences a sort of cultural renaissance here in 2017, from the documentary to appearances at the University of Michigan and with the Atlanta Falcons to mentions in hip-hop songs, I feel pretty lucky to have been watching this guy in action for the last 30 years. While other people may look at him and see his boastful interviews or blonde hair caked in blood or a cautionary tale of how not to parent, I look at Ric Flair and see my dad in his chair and my 8-year-old self sitting next to him.
And with that, there’s only one thing left to say. If you’ve made it this far in this piece, then you know what’s coming and can say it along with me: