Why Ric Flair Matters
Go to any wrestling show anywhere in the country, any promotion big or small, and you’re guaranteed to see a few things. There will be a ring. It will have three ropes. And at some point during the night, one wrestler will chop another in the chest, and the entire crowd, without any prompting, will yell one thing in unison:
That’s because of Ric Flair, who made the chop one of his signature moves inside the squared circle, and peppered his promos with enthusiastic howls, hoots, and woooos. During his career, Flair rarely woo-ed while he chopped people, but now people scream “WOOO!” literally every single time someone gets chopped in a wrestling ring as a tribute to one of the greatest wrestlers of all time.
I imagine the “WOOO!”s will be particularly loud and enthusiastic at this week’s wrestling shows. As of this writing, Flair remains in the hospital in critical condition. Last weekend, rumors of Flair falling ill began circulating online. Though his management initially described the situation as a case of “routine monitoring,” it quickly became clear things were much more serious. Sports Illustrated says that “upon medical attention, what was thought to be an intestinal blockage wound up requiring part of his bowel be removed.” According to Wrestling Observer, the initial issues “led to a series of medical problems, including [Flair’s] kidneys shutting down.”
Flair won his first world championship in 1981 and held World Championship Wrestling’s top prize for the last time in 2000, with anywhere between 12-18 additional reigns in between, depending on who is doing the counting. That’s impressive longevity for anyone, much less a man who once survived a deadly plane crash that doctors said would keep him from ever wrestling again.
That was in 1975. Flair didn’t hang up his boots until 2011.
Achieving the highest levels of success in pro wrestling requires a unique combination of skills. Wrestling is a hybrid form — part sport, part performance art — and few men or women in history have ever been as skilled at both of its components as Ric Flair. His matches were legendary for their storytelling, intricacy, and technique. Out of the ring, nobody was more entertaining on the microphone — or talked better trash — than Flair.
Flair rose to prominence at a time when the secrets of wrestling’s true nature were still mostly protected. As the industry embraced its real identity as “sports entertainment,” Flair embraced his gifts as an entertainer. Though he excelled in earnest, intense contests with heavy drama and high stakes, he was also capable of inspired pratfalls — or blending the two in a single match. At least one YouTuber derisively added old fashioned sound effects to Flair’s work as a kind of “proof” that he was overrated. In fact, the video proves the opposite: Flair could deliver a “flop,” a face-first fall to the mat, with the kind of finesse and timing that would make a professional comedian jealous.
(Flair directly inspired at least one performance by a professional comedian: Will Ferrell’s used car dealer Ashley Schaeffer from Eastbound and Down. Warning: This clip has some NSFW language.)
Flair also frequently performed a “flip,” where he would run at a turnbuckle and somersault as he launched himself over the ropes and onto the ring apron, where his opponent would typically be waiting to clothesline him to the floor. In a legitimate fight, this would make a poor tactical strategy. In a pro-wrestling context, it’s pure physical poetry.
At his peak, Flair was a true wrestling polyglot, like an actor who did his own stunts and a standup comic who wrote his own jokes; Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in a single body. The outcomes of wrestling matches may be predetermined, but (at least in Flair’s day) their moment-to-moment content was not strictly scripted, leaving the men in the ring to figure things out on the fly by reading the mood of the crowd and reacting accordingly. Similarly, Flair’s long, brilliant rants weren’t written for him by someone else — or anyone else, for that matter. He delivered them off-the-cuff, as only he could.
Flair also lived his gimmick of a wealthy, hard-partying playboy, spending lavishly on beautiful clothes, jewelry, and ring attire. Naysayers like to call wrestling fake, but the Ric Flair character was as real as it gets. I have absolutely no doubt that Flair was really staying at a Marriott in room 806 when he delivered this promo:
Flair took his work seriously, but he didn’t take himself seriously. One of the clear highlights of the final phase of his career was this hilarious dressing down (literally; Flair takes off his jacket and shoes and throws them into the crowd) on national television by Jay Lethal, doing a spot-on impression of the “Nature Boy”:
Traditional pro wrestling matches are structured around a series of spots, like “the shine” where the hero gets to look good before the bad guy cuts him off, and “the heat,” where the bad guy cheats to take control and torture the hero. After that, there’s typically a comeback; it would be only be fitting for Flair to make one now. Yesterday, Wrestling Observer posted an update saying was “doing significantly better,” although still in critical condition.
Ric Flair wasn’t the original “Nature Boy” of wrestling. Decades earlier, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers entertained crowds with a cocky strut and bleached blonde hair; he even finished his matches with Flair’s favorite hold, the figure-four leglock. But while Flair wasn’t the first, he was still a true original; an innovator who inspired generations of men and women (including his daughter, who now wrestles for the WWE) to copy his swagger, style, and moves. They still do, every weekend of the year, in giant arenas and tiny bingo halls, every time a wrestler chops his opponent in the chest.
After his “woo,” Flair’s most famous catchphrase was probably the one he used for the title of his autobiography: “To be the man,” he’d declare, “you’ve got to beat the man. And I’m the man.” Flair was occasionally beaten in the ring. But as “The Man,” he remains undefeated.