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Fame and fortune came at a high cost for 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair

Fame and fortune came at a high cost for 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair

Posted: Nov 12th 2017 By: Mike Mooneyham

Ric Flair says he lived his gimmick in an account of his personal life on ESPN’s “30 for 30.” Provided by ESPN Films Few professional wrestlers and sports entertainers in the modern era have enjoyed more mainstream appeal than Ric Flair. An icon in the wrestling business for several
decades, Flair made a career out of generating excitement and dazzling crowds with his impeccable athletic ability and in-ring skills. His charisma and rapport with his fans endeared him to a devoted following from coast to coast.

It was Flair’s out-of-the-ring exploits, though, that earned him a reputation as the “limousine-ridin’, jet-flyin’, kiss-sttealin’, wheelin’-dealin’ son of a gun.” It wasn’t just a wrestling catchphrase. Flair walked the walk, talked the talk and truly lived the life he boastfully advertised.

But it came with a heavy price.

Fast-forward 45 years from the night he made his pro debut in Rice Lake, Wis., in an undercard match against an aging veteran named “Scrap Iron” George Gadaski. That’s when he would leave Richard Morgan Fliehr behind for good. He not only became Ric Flair, adding “Nature Boy” soon afterward, but he became Ric Flair outside the ring as well, and all the extremes and excesses that image stood for. And that included more booze and more women than would seem humanly
possible.

It was a lavish lifestyle of designer clothes and fast cars, sequined robes and glittering jewelry. The “Nature Boy” wasn’t just a gimmick for Flair. It was a glamorous life he led outside the ring. It was an outrageously extravagant persona he couldn’t quit. Ultimately, he concluded, the fame and fortune that he sought so desperately would become a “disease.”

Widely regarded as the greatest wrestling performer of all time, Flair was a role model for a new generation of superstars. It was a heady list, for sure, that included names like The Rock, Shawn Michaels, Triple H and Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Through thousands of matches, millions of miles on the road, and a career like no other, it all appeared to come to a tragic end earlier this year when the 68-year-old old Hall of Famer, with organs failing at an alarming rate, went on an operating table with little chance of coming off of it
alive. But, like the self-proclaimed “dirtiest player in the game” had done in the past, surviving lightning strikes and airplane crashes, he found a way to cheat death once again.

A lifetime of alcohol abuse, though, had exacted a heavy toll. Part of his bowel was removed and a pacemaker was inserted after he nearly died of congestive heart failure. He was put on dialysis and spent 10 days in a medically induced coma. Ric Flair had survived, but the Nature Boy, not as much. He was so weak he couldn’t twist the top off a bottle of Gatorade. He had to re-learn how to walk.

Doctors warned that his next drink might be his last. It was sobering news for someone who boasted of pounding 10 beers washed down by five drinks per day for decades.

“I never drank at home alone. I liked to be amongst the people. But I drank 20 vodkas a day easy,” Flair recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I spent almost $1.2 million on drinking last year alone.”

He vows now that the last one he’ll ever have was the fateful August evening when he was rushed to the emergency room of a Georgia hospital.

Ironically, in the wake of his brush with death, Flair finds himself as one of the top-trending names on social media, with a new book that was released in September and a profile on ESPN’s “30 for 30” that premiered last week (the series’ first about a pro wrestler).

Blessing or curse?

Ric Flair is back in the spotlight. But there’s more than a little sadness this time around.

While he’s celebrated as arguably the greatest performer in the history of the game, a pop cultural icon who transcended the wrestling industry, he’s also depicted as deeply flawed in his personal life. The book and documentary reveal the conflict between “The Man” (Ric Flair) and the man (Richard Fliehr). There were hard truths to tell in both.

Decades of heavy drinking nearly cost him his life.

“I want people to take my advice as opposed to wanting to be or act like me,” Flair said in a recent interview. “There’s a lot of 20-year-old kids that want to be Ric Flair. That’s cool if it’s in a good context. But if it’s drinking to relieve stress or cope with life, that’s not the answer.”

It’s a new industry and a new generation, says WWE executive Paul “Triple H” Levesque who, though idolizing the Nature Boy as a fan and young talent in the business, brands Flair a “consummate liar” who will tell you what you want to hear and uses his longtime friend as a cautionary tale to today’s aspiring superstars.

“His legacy will also be probably what not to do in the business, in some ways,” Levesque says in the ESPN piece. “I use Ric as an example sometimes with young talent — of ‘You can have it all and end up in a really precarious spot.’”

No one, though, is more brutally honest about his journey than Flair himself. His legendary drinking and relentless womanizing were badges of honor in a past era. “'I’ll become a hero to men. And women are gonna hate me,” he said of the ESPN film.

His success would take a heavy toll on more than just his body. Multiple wives and children also were casualties. Personal relationships suffered.

Flair’s new book, “Second Nature” (St. Martin’s Press), whose story he shares with daughter Ashley (WWE star Charlotte), reveals many facts heretofore known only to family and close friends. Penned by New York-based writer Brian Shields, it’s a candid look at Flair’s life outside the ring, complete with sobering truths.

The book, which like the ESPN film had been put to bed prior to Flair’s recent health ordeal, includes a painfully gut- wrenching chapter on the passing of youngest son Reid, who died at 25 of an overdose from heroin and prescription drugs in 2013.

Accepting blame and saying that he would never be able to forgive himself, Flair spiraled into depression after his son’s death. To handle the loss, he nearly drank himself to death.

“Did I push him too hard as an athlete? Did I let him see too much of the partying lifestyle? Was I too much of a best friend? Should I have brought myself to do what the experts recommended and administer tough love? Would he still be here if I had? ... I’ll never recover from not being able to
save my son.”

Flair also expresses guilt over the fact that he loved being the “Nature Boy” far too often at the expense of his children. He was obsessed with being the best, no matter the price.

“I won’t go down in history as the greatest father,” he admits in the memoir. “I was so consumed with being the ‘Nature Boy’ that nothing else mattered.”

Triumph and tragedy

Several telling statements and tough insights also shone through in the unfiltered 90-minute ESPN biopic.

Shawn Michaels, who fought the 16-time world heavyweight champion in a retirement match at Wrestlemania 24 in 2008, calls the “Nature Boy” a myth.

“Ric doesn’t love Richard Fliehr,” Michaels says. “I don’t know that he’s ever taken the time to get to know him or to find out who in the world he is. He only knows who he is through the image and gimmick of Ric Flair. Because when everything is said and done, The Nature Boy Ric Flair is just a myth. Richard Fliehr is a real guy.”

Coincidentally, it was after his match with Michaels that Flair expressed serious misgivings about his ability, or desire, to completely give up the business. He tried it briefly, but soon returned to the ring.

“Wrestling was my life,” wrote Flair. “It was all I’d ever known. Now it was gone. My God, what had I done?”

First wife Leslie Jacobs, doing her first on-camera interview ever, speaks candidly about her ex-husband’s marital infidelity and absence in raising his eldest children.

David Fliehr, his 38-year-old son, says: “I think you could be great at what you do and be a good husband and a good father. How could you ever neglect your kids like that? ... I don’t want my kids to grow up the way I did. That’s for sure.”

“Most of the time I would get things from my dad instead of time,” echoed eldest daughter Megan. “He would bring me back like 16 to 20 Cabbage Patch Kids at a time. He would say, ‘I’m gonna come to your basketball game next Friday,’ and he wouldn’t come. Things like that. So yeah, as a kid, it’s disappointing.”

Flair admits as much when he looks back on his life and how he’ll be remembered.

“It’s easy to say you want to be thought of as the best father that ever lived, but I wasn’t. And I certainly wasn’t the best husband. So I guess I’ll just have to settle for wanting to be thought of as the greatest wrestler and the most entertaining wrestler that ever lived.”

And that he has. Even Hulk Hogan, who was the mainstream face of a changing business during the ‘80s, defers to the legend that was Ric Flair. “Ric’s just so much better,” admits Hogan in the ESPN documentary. “Some people point to me and go, ‘Oh my God, you changed the business, you did this, you did that.’ But ‘No,’ I said, ‘You guys, you mean the guy next to me: Ric Flair.’”

While wrestling serves as a colorful backdrop for the book and the documentary, it’s harsh, cold reality that sometimes rears its ugly head in these candid profiles of a man, a myth, a legend who shed “blood, sweat and tears” for generations of fans. There were soaring highs and crushing lows. For every high, there was a bill that came due.

“Flair is a combination of Roman Gladiator and Greek Tragedy,” tweeted one fan. Triumph and tragedy, happiness and sadness, were never far apart.

Warts and all, Flair openly admits his damaging missteps along the way. There are regrets, but no excuses. In a life filled with questionable decisions, the truth sometimes hurts.

“I paid the price,” he laments.

Ric Flair got the legacy he wanted. The connection between the man and that legacy will never be broken.

The real story of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair could have had a heartbreaking ending. But he has lived to tell it, and life is all about second chances.

The other side

On a personal note, having known Ric Flair for most of his professional career, I’ve seen not only the Nature Boy, but the man behind the gimmick, and how that individual has positively impacted the lives of many others in his considerable orbit. It would be impossible to thoroughly portray such a complex character in a 90-minute film.

What the ESPN documentary failed to show was the wrestler’s heart. Generous to a fault, Ric Flair is a man who would give a stranger the shirt off his back if he needed one. Without fanfare or publicity, he’s often gone the extra mile to help someone in need or just give a word of
encouragement.

A week rarely goes by without at least one fan sharing a personal story or recollection regarding Naitch. I’m never surprised when I run into fans talking about how he impacted their lives.

This week I was told the story of a retired Columbia-area priest on staff at a local school who was a beneficiary of the wrestler’s kindness some years ago. Pregnant with her first child, she was waiting to board an airplane. During her pregnancy, she recounted how she was having a very difficult time with morning sickness.

“The plane had already boarded, and we had waited until the last minute to board. I was getting sick, and the people at the gate were not just telling me that I had to get on the plane if I was going to leave, but were just being very rude about it.”

Enter Ric Flair, who was rushing to get on the same flight. “He obviously had observed what was going on, and he literally stood in the doorway of the plane and said, ‘Y’all aren’t closing this door without her on it.’”

Consenting to Flair’s strong request, the crew agreed to wait on her. While they were waiting, Flair walked over to a gift shop near the gate. Noticing that the woman was having severe morning sickness, Flair bought her a sweat suit to have something clean to change into on the plane. When he got on the plane, he gave her his first-class seat. He sat with her husband so she would be close to the bathroom and the attendants to take care of her.

That’s the Ric Flair I know.

 

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