It's Ric Flair's world now: The triumph and tragedy of "Nature Boy"

Director Rory Karpf on his new ESPN documentary about pro wrestling's greatest champ — and why he's still important

By Chauncey DeVega
November 13, 2017 11:58PM (UTC)
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Ric Flair (Getty/Paul Kane)

In many ways professional wrestling has conquered the world. Donald Trump is for all intents and purposes a professional wrestling villain (or "heel") who lies and bullies people, is tacky, obnoxiously rich and proudly ignorant, berates women and is a racist demagogue who does everything possible to earn the ire of his enemies while drawing power from the audience's boos. It is obvious that Trump studied the performance art of professional wrestling during his long-time association with Vince McMahon's WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).

Trump's association with professional wrestling does not end there. Linda McMahon, Vince's wife and the co-founder of the WWE, now leads the Small Business Administration.

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Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is one of the most popular professional wrestlers in the history of the WWE. He is now the highest-paid actor in the world.

The exaggerated narrative style and logic of professional wrestling has also crossed over to the American mainstream. From reality TV to politics and popular culture more broadly, the dividing line between what is real and what is fake has never been so blurry. In total, professional wrestling is a carnival stage and circus mirror for American and global society, where the postmodern and the spectacular have become the normal and the mundane.

In the history of professional wrestling there is arguably no greater personality and talent than Ric Flair. Born Richard Morgan Fliehr, the "Nature Boy" is agreed upon by most serious students of professional wrestling to be the greatest champion and talent in the modern era of the sport. Beginning in the 1970s, Flair's in-ring career spanned four decades. He was world heavyweight champion at least 16 times and toured the United States and the world as the standard-bearer for the sport.

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While Flair's ring talents and verbal skills are legendary it is the persona and personality that he created which resonates across American and global popular culture to this day. His professional success did not come without a cost. Flair, like so many other professional wrestlers, struggled to maintain a balance between the larger-than-life persona which entertained tens of millions and the more quotidian and intimate responsibilities of being a husband and father.

As Ric Flair would so famously observe, "To be the man you have to beat the man" -- but what happens when the lights are dimmed, the stage curtains are drawn shut, the fans are silent and you are left alone to meditate on what it means to be a mere mortal?

In his new ESPN 30 for 30 film "Nature Boy", award-winning documentarian Rory Karpf examines the life of Ric Flair in an effort to answer that question. I recently spoke with Karpf about professional wrestling, the impact of Ric Flair on global popular culture, the dangerous balancing act between the public character and the real person and why Flair remains such an influential and compelling figure.

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A longer version of this conversation can be heard on my podcast, which is available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.

Why do we both love professional wrestling? 

I love the escapism. People can act in wrestling in ways you just can’t act like in real life. You can say and do things and be so outrageous, you can turn on your best friend and hit him over the head with a steel chair. And I remember falling in love with it when I was seven years old on Saturday mornings watching WWF [the former name of WWE] and Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. I grew up in Philadelphia and WWF came to The Spectrum and the NWA came to the Civic Center. Every time they came I’d try to get somebody to take me. I remember being eight years old and sitting there by myself. People would check on me like was I just some vagrant kid, but I’d go to any length to see wrestling.

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What is your favorite era of professional wrestling? Who was the first professional wrestler whose work you really adored? 

The first time I saw Ric Flair in person he wrestled Ricky Morton. I think it was 1986. I loved it all, and I loved the WWF at the time. I also remember seeing ECW [Extreme Championship Wrestling] in person when I was maybe a freshman in high school. They came to my middle school and brawled all around, literally through the hallways, through classrooms. It was insane, there were 300 people there. I went to the ECW arena when I was in high school, so to me it was two great eras of wrestling -- the 1980s and then the 1990s and the WWF Attitude Era.

It was as mainstream as it’s ever going to get. Everybody loved wrestling, everybody was doing the NWO salute, people were doing Ric Flair's "woo" in class and it was very hip at that time. This is like 1996, ‘97, ‘98.

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With the rise of Donald Trump -- who really is just a professional wrestling villain--would you have ever imagined 20 years ago that wrestling would have this type of influence in America and around the world?

Donald Trump is so much of the era of "being the man" -- which is exactly what Ric Flair personifies. But when you look at today, Ric Flair is more relevant, and arguably just as popular as he’s ever been. What other wrestler can you say that about? I think it’s because in our culture, athletes, musicians and our president always want to tell you how great they are. They want to tell you they got the most stuff, they’re the coolest, they got the best clothes, the nicest car, the prettiest woman. That’s what Ric was doing in the 1980s. That’s what he personified before Gordon Gekko [of Oliver Stone's film "Wall Street"] with his famous saying, “Greed is good.” There was Ric Flair and he was really living it. That is why he’s such a fascinating subject for a film, because what wrestler from that era is still relevant today in popular culture to that extreme?

What was the elevator pitch like for this project?

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ESPN wanted to do a project on Andre the Giant. As a wrestling fan I didn't feel that was the best story to tell. I just don’t know how multilayered and multifaceted a character he would be.

We then did a film called “I Hate Christian Laettner," and I wanted to interview a pop-culture villain on what makes a great villain. We interviewed Ric Flair and he appeared in one interview for the film. There was a buzz about it on social media. John Dahl of ESPN noticed. I wrote a one-page treatment, sent it to ESPN and then reached out to Ric's management at the time. That got the ball rolling and it really wasn’t a hard process at all. The Laettner film aired in March and we were filming the Ric Flair movie in October that year.

How many hours of footage do you usually have to shoot and then edit down?

It’s not so much what you shoot, but also the archival footage. Ric Flair has had a 40-year career which means there are thousands and thousands of hours of his matches and promos. Then we did 46 interviews for the film -- about a little more than half made it in. I interviewed Ric on two occasions, the first interview and the very last interview done for the film. Those were each about four hours long. They set the tone for everything.

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The documentary is not a chronology of Ric’s greatest moments, it is something that tries to encapsulate who Ric Flair was and is, and at the same time what wrestling was and is. That’s not that easy to do so you have to make tough choices.

Most serious fans of professional wrestling would agree that Ric Flair is the greatest in-ring performer of all time. He is a larger-than-life figure. What is he actually like in person?

Some documentarians don’t believe you should be friendly with your subjects. But I’m not a journalist, I’m a storyteller. I think part of that is you have to earn the trust of your subject. And I think you can earn trust through friendship. That doesn’t mean I sugarcoat things -- sometimes a real friend tells you a hard truth. I think that is where you get meaning. With Ric, he’s very much like his character when you meet him, he really is the character "Ric Flair" turned down a little bit. He is extremely generous and never let me pick up a tab. I found him to be very kind, and we got along very well. I also felt … it’s hard to explain, that there’s a little bit of a detachment there.

Ric has lots of acquaintances. When he got sick and I went to visit him, he was out of the hospital ICU and he was in physical rehab. I enjoyed that actually more than partying because, first of all, it was just him and me, there were no airs about anything. He’s in a hospital bed, he’s not trying to put up a front. We were watching football and he was giving me advice about my personal situation and he got on the phone with my son. Ric told my son, “I hope you’re proud of your dad, your dad loves you.” I just found him to be a very sweet and kind gentleman.

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There is an energy to Ric Flair, I don’t want to say sadness, but something akin to deep vulnerability. I can only imagine being in his position and always being suspicious that people want something from you. Did you detect that?

Well I think it goes to [the fact that] he always needed adulation. He says in the film that he always wanted to be “The Man." He could never live of just being “a man." What does it mean to be just a man? To me, a man goes to work every day, pays his bills, takes care of his kids, drives them to school. I think Ric couldn’t have that ordinary life, there’s maybe something missing there, some sort of hole that always needs to be filled. I think everybody laughs and jokes when he says he slept with 10,000 women. I got to tell you, I actually find that sad, that he always had to be with a different woman all the time.

What I've found with really big celebrities is that usually what makes them so great, the greatest, can also be their greatest weakness; it’s a two-sided coin. I think it’s that way with Ric. What made him the greatest wrestler of all time may have made him not the greatest father and definitely not the greatest husband.

You hear that all the time with professional wrestlers where it’s, "I've got to be on the road, but then when I’m on the road I want to go back home.” Do you think Ric Flair will always be involved with professional wrestling in some way?

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I think he’s got to be. As Ric said in the film, it’s his lady. It’s his No. 1 love.

Professional wrestling has everything. It is performance art. It’s almost Shakespearean and a Greek tragedy as well. To that point, is Ric Flair a tragic figure?  Because he has the loss of his son and there are also the family issues. He has the public face, he has the money but then he loses it. He seems happy but then he seems sad, you have substance abuse issues. Do you think that’s overstating it? Is he tragic or is he a hugely dramatic figure and not necessarily tragic?

Well, I think that’s up to the viewer, to decide if somebody is tragic or not. If you asked him, I don’t think Ric would tell you that he’s tragic. But in my mind losing your son because he’s trying to emulate your lifestyle is a tragedy. What is actually worse that could happen in your life? We cover financial issues a little bit but we don’t get that deep into it because a lot of athletes have financial problems after they retire. But Ric paid the ultimate price, he lost his son. Reid wanted to be Ric and very few people, less than 1 percent, can be that guy.

There is the film that makes the final cut and there is the film that was edited out. It has been rumored that Ric Flair has serious anxiety issues. He is also supposedly hard of hearing in one ear which means he calls the matches with his opponent. Those parts of his life were not commented upon. Why?

Well Ric mentioned going to a sports psychiatrist. It’s crazy that a guy who is so over the top and flamboyant -- so much about me, me, me -- actually has a very fragile sense of self that other people can influence so that he doesn’t feel good about his performances and who he is in the ring. That is the two-sided coin nature of Ric Flair: For all his boasting and for all his bravado, there is a fragile ego there. Ultimately that is more for a psychologist to analyze, but I think it’s all part of who he is.

Going back to his promos, Ric Flair is such a master of language. In professional wrestling and other creative work, they talk about the “It” factor. How do you think he embodies that intangible?    

If people could explain what that intangible factor is, it would be bought and sold. Rick had a quality that when you see him on television you don’t want to change the channel. He was so entertaining, he was such a good talker, he was so funny with his catch-phrases and improvisation.

Then he could flip a switch and be so intense. Hulk Hogan was great but he was pretty much one-note when he would do his promos. Ric Flair had many notes and he came out every Saturday and was fantastic. Usually somebody is not as good as you remember from your childhood. Ric was better, I said to him, “Man, it’s crazy you never crossed over and did acting, TV hosting or something other than wrestling.” He just always wanted to be a wrestler.

Who are some of the other professional wrestlers that you would like to feature in a documentary?

I would love to do a documentary on Hulk Hogan. He is the biggest name in professional wrestling. There are very few people who don't know who Hulk Hogan is. He’s just a fascinating character and individual. To my knowledge there has not been a definitive Hulk Hogan film. If I had a choice and I’d pick another wrestler, I’d stick with him.

As a documentary filmmaker, how do you choose what arc of a life to feature?  

Those are really tough decisions. In my opinion you don’t want to edit your film on paper before you actually see the whole project. I just try to go with the best material. I let the material drive me and then it’s like a puzzle, you have to fit things together. In the documentary I think about how four of Ric's rivals each represented something different. Dusty Rhodes was all about personalities in wrestling and characters. With Ricky Steamboat it was more about the athleticism of wrestling.

With Sting it was about how Ric was very selfless and giving in the ring and how he helped people. Ric could be very selfish in his personal life but was the opposite in his professional life. Then, finally, with Hulk Hogan it was really about two pop-culture icons. It is a constant balance between doing something that appeals to wrestling fans like you and me, but will also appeal to non-wrestling fans too.

What were the emotional notes you were trying to hit with this film?

First you make you them laugh and then you make them cry. Because when you make someone laugh it gets their guard down, so they’re very much open to showing emotion. I think there is a lot of humor in the documentary and during the screenings there has been more laughter than I anticipated. Then I think that leads to having some bigger tears shed in the final act of the film. At the end of the day it sounds simple, just try to keep it entertaining so that the viewer doesn't change the channel or get out of their seat. For a little while maybe they forget about their troubles and you give them something else to think about.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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