The most important moment in Ric Flair’s career happened October 4, 1975, offscreen and out of the ring. A small plane he was riding in—along with wrestlers Johnny Valentine, “Mr. Wrestling” Tim Woods, Bob Bruggers, and promoter David Crockett—crashed just short of the runway in Wilmington, North Carolina. The pilot died, and Valentine was paralyzed; Flair’s back was broken and he was told he’d never wrestle again. According to Flair, he dropped from 255 pounds to 180. He persevered, rehabbed vigorously, and reinvented himself through weight loss and a makeover into the “Nature Boy,” the flaunting, arrogant character who carried the NWA—and later, WCW—on his surgically repaired back for decades. The most interesting part of pro wrestling is almost always what happens outside the ring. In a world of fakery, we thirst for the real.
In Nature Boy, the new 30 for 30 documentary directed by Rory Karpf premiering Tuesday night, we get a survey of Flair’s life and career that leans heavily on the real, or at least the “real” as narrated by Flair himself. This approach presents a narrative problem rather specific to the bullshittery of the wrestling world: Ric Flair is a liar. Maybe you’re feeling generous and want to call him a fabulist. Maybe you see it as part and parcel of kayfabe—that everything is part of the big work of the pro wrestling endeavor. Maybe you think it’s the rose-colored reinterpretations of a 68-year-old man confronting his glory days. Or maybe you’re Ric’s first wife, in her first (surprisingly magnanimous) interview: “Don’t trust him.” Don’t just take it from her—ask Triple H, wrestler, WWE executive, and close friend of Flair: “Ric is a consummate liar. He’ll only tell you what he wants you to hear.”
Much of the “outside the ring” material is told via cartoon animation, a not-unheard-of documentary technique, but one that underscores the inanity of the whole project. What’s “real” is a cartoon, and what’s fake is right there on film.
Nature Boy magnifies this duality throughout. It makes a lot of the distance between Ric Flair and Richard Fliehr, the man behind the sequined robes and alligator shoes, but the glint in Flair’s eye defies that distinction. He’s not a different person when he’s in the spotlight, with the cameras on; he’s more fully himself. “Ric doesn’t love Richard Fliehr,” says WWE Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels. “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.” Despite the coziness of that explanation, I’m not sure there’s much of a distinction, or at least a distinction that matters. Ric himself describes Richard Fliehr as “the guy who made it through one year of college. After that it was the Naitch.”
You can take your pick as to whether the id’s “WOOOO!” subsumed the rational Fliehr’s ego, or whether the latter just, you know, grew up. That he was swallowed whole by an itinerant life of nonstop celebrity is undeniable. That’s the life of a successful professional wrestler. Flair’s indulgence in the more bacchanalian aspects of life—he claims to have bedded more than 10,000 women and to have been drunk every day for decades—was, perhaps sadly, a measure of his success, that he kept the grift going for so long. It certainly had something to do with him “living the gimmick” outside the ring. But to try to delineate between the man and the character isn’t fruitful. The most stirring triumph in the film might be the juxtaposition of his heavy drinking with the symphonic hourlong championship matches that defined his heyday. But again, this wasn’t man vs. God. This is hardly man vs. himself. This is the man, right here, in sharp focus. Flair’s life was one of personal struggle but not intellectual struggle. He was comfortable playing the heel in his own masochism. “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man,” Flair was fond of saying. On that count, Flair had both halves covered.
I first encountered Ric Flair on a TV in my grandparents’ bedroom in Charlotte, North Carolina. When the grown-ups would hang out in the living room, I would decamp for the back TV and turn the channel knob until I found the old Crockett studio, the gritty, low-fi Upside Down to my usual WWF reality. When Flair would materialize on the screen, a flashy suit and aviator sunglasses in a sea of salty, old topless men, I was riveted. His most famous promos on that stage were about his opulence—the price of his suits, his shoes, the limo waiting for him outside. But the most poignant ones for me were when he stuck to sports. When he talked about who he was going to beat up—usually a litany of wrestlers, since he had to publicize every match he’d be wrestling in the next couple of weeks in one monologue—the suits and shoes were even more powerful, because he wasn’t strictly a pretty boy. He didn’t dress like that because he wanted to; he dressed that way because he had earned it. When I grew up, when Flair was wrestling in WWE as part of Evolution at an age when so many other wrestlers would have (or should have retired), Ric never felt out of place: He had earned that too.
Of course, nobody remembers whether he beat all the wrestlers he called out back in Charlotte, and, in WWE, his record took a backseat to his rejuvenation. Nature Boy examines how that last run pulled Flair out of a funk of self-doubt. One of the most stunning realizations that comes out of the film is how much more tangible the real-life triumphs and losses are than those in the choreographed ring. Flair’s triumph over the plane crash is a more straightforward story than his years-long feud with Dusty Rhodes. The sad saga of Flair’s truancy as a father (at which Nature Boy takes a stark, honest look) is a plainer morality tale than that of his eventual move from WCW to rival WWF in 1991 to battle Hulk Hogan in a clash of the gods. The dream match never materialized in the WWF, though it did back in WCW in 1994—and again in 1999, and again in 2009 in Australia and in 2010 and 2012 in TNA. For what it’s worth, Flair “retired” at WrestleMania XXIV—in 2009. When your entire life is in kayfabe, even a sincere retirement ceremony is only part of the never-ending script.
All of this is covered in Nature Boy, and if the wrestling fan thirsts for more of Flair in his prime, he is at least accustomed to the over-reliance on a wrestler’s WWE years as a trope of the pro wrestling documentary form. Much of pro wrestling history is chronicled in competent documentary form on the WWE Network and almost uniformly presented through the lens of WWE’s eventual triumph over the rest of the industry. Nature Boy thankfully avoids the more propagandistic tendencies of those works, but the influence—not of WWE over the film, but of WWE over the way we talk about wrestling—is indelible.
If nothing else, Flair’s honesty about his outside-the-ring lifestyle—and the fact that all-night boozing and womanizing isn’t brushed aside under the subheading of “demons”—is refreshing. (Has he ever had fun without drinking? “I don’t know. I’ve never tried. Why would I?”) The way the camera lingers on his face in quiet moments is as revelatory as anything that’s said, and, when Flair contemplates his own mortality, his trademark laughter strains like the stitches on a worn-out robe. When Flair discusses the death of his youngest son, Reid, and his daughter Ashley’s (a.k.a. WWE’s Charlotte) entrance in the wrestling world and eventual rise to the top, he seems less emotional than exhausted. By life, by agony and ecstasy, by 40-plus years of living the gimmick, or being himself, or whatever. He calls Charlotte’s first title win the highlight of his career, and it’s as sweet as it is effective, and it’s impossible to separate the doting father from the wrestler mid-promo. It doesn’t matter if it’s real; it’s the truth people want.
Of course, the wrestling fan is accustomed to the self-adulating historicism of its idols, with slanted first-person retellings making up the bulk of the podcast-shoot, video-memoir pro wrestling industrial complex. And if the documentary feels slight or superficial to the dedicated fan, it’s unsurprising: In a world of infinite two-hour podcast interviews, there’s always more ground to mine. But this isn’t a documentary for the dedicated fan; it’s a brief history of a subcultural hero for a broad audience. Inasmuch as it is for the die-hard, it’s self-congratulatory: the old wrestling trope of the underdog (pro wrestling) winning out in the end (mainstream approval). And on that front it succeeds. “When I’m gone,” Flair says in the film, “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.” Just as Flair’s onscreen opulence was self-actualizing—he played rich until he was, and then he kept going—the existence of Ric Flair in the 30 for 30 canon is evidence that he—and the pro wrestling business at large—deserves to be there.
That “when I’m gone” line, though, is more poignant than that. Much of the latter part of Nature Boy is consumed by Flair’s mortality, and much of the rest of it is spent building a case for the surprisingness of that. When asked by Karpf if he’s surprised that he’s still alive after all he’s been through and, more significantly, after all he’s put himself through, Flair says, “I think about it every day now, and it’s not a happy thought. There’s no way I should be alive after some of the stuff I’ve done.”
The most striking omission from the documentary was circumstantial. On August 14 of this year, after filming was complete, Flair had a piece of his bowel removed, which led to kidney failure. He spent more than a month in the hospital and emerged a frail, emaciated version of the man interviewed at length in the documentary. According to numerous reports, he was placed in a medically induced coma and nearly died.
In 1974, Flair rushed back after the plane crash and worked with a broken back despite doctors’ orders. In similar fashion, Nature Boy itself is Flair working hurt, giving the appearance of health while on the verge of collapse. The question that the documentary begs is how this man survived the life he led. And the answer comes outside the ring in which Flair’s interview takes place, outside the frame, after the cameras are off and the crew has gone home.
Ric Flair is an icon of pro wrestling, and Nature Boy does an admirable job of elevating him to a higher tier of sports significance. He deserves such validation, and you can tell that with every word he says, he needs it. “I’ll just have to settle for wanting to be thought of as the greatest wrestler and the most entertaining wrestler that ever lived” may be framed as a joke, but there’s defeat in his voice. The will to live, the desire for the ride to keep going, the compulsion of Ric Flair to keep being Ric Flair, is the most palpable emotion in the film. If, like me, when the end credits roll, you think, “I wish there were more of this,” rest assured, the Nature Boy agrees with you.