With professional wrestling boasting millions of fans over different generations, ESPN’s upcoming “30 for 30” presentation on the life of Ric Flair—the Rolex-wearing, diamond ring-wearing, kiss stealing (Woooooo!), wheelin dealin, limousine riding, jet flying son of a gun—promises to be one of the most anticipated sports documentaries next year. Titled “Nature Boy” after the character Flair portrayed in the ring over multiple decades in sports entertainment, the doc, directed by Rory Karpf, who has directed multiple ESPN documentaries including “I Hate Christian Laettner” and “The Book Of Manning,” is scheduled for debut in 2017, possibly as early as the spring or summer. The film is expected to run 90 minutes with commercials.
What is always interesting about professional wrestlers—and particularly the stars of the 1980s and 1990s—is where the distinction lies (if any) between the in-ring character and the real man. Karpf told Sports Illustrated this week that he continues to interview people for the documentary, including journalists outside of wrestling and ESPN personalities who are wrestling fans. The interview subjects for the film already banked include multiple interviews with Flair, all three of Flair’s living children including daughter Ashley, who wrestles in the WWE under the name of Charlotte, and a host of retired or active wrestlers including Sting, Triple H, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley, Ricky Steamboat, and Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, the pair with whom Flair and Ole Anderson formed The Four Horseman. Other interviews include Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross, former WCW head Eric Bischoff, as well as Flair’s first wife, Leslie. Karpf said his production group had interviewed 43 subjects as of this writing.
“It was great to hear from Ric’s family, mainly his three children, to get an entirely different side of Ric beyond the ‘Nature Boy’ persona,” Karpf said. “Ric’s first wife Leslie was interviewed and to my knowledge this is the first time she ever granted an interview on camera. She was able to provide a great deal of insight into Ric’s college years and who he was before he was the ‘Nature Boy.’ I think Shawn Michaels and Triple H provided the best insight on Ric in and out of the ring. They seem to know him better than anyone and were very forthcoming. It was also awesome to get an interview with The Undertaker (real name: Mark Calaway) out of character.”
Karpf said there are still a few more shoots to do with Flair. The one interview subject that has eluded him so far is Dwayne Johnson, better known as “The Rock.” As for unearthing never-before-seen images, Karpf said Flair’s former wife Leslie provided photos and video of Flair prior to his Nature Boy days. “There are so many incredible promos from Flair,” Karpf said. “He was a better talker than I even remembered. From about 1984 to ‘87 he seemingly cut a five-minute promo every single week on television. They’re all good. I have a sequence of just my favorite moments from his promos and that alone was 70 minutes long.”
When I spoke with Karpf about this doc in May, we discussed how there is a lot to digest on Flair’s life, and much of the underbelly was covered in this Grantland feature by Shane Ryan in 2011 under the header of “Ric Flair’s long, steady decline.” On the subject of Flair’s openness in answering questions, Karpf said Flair answered all his inquires and that he found his lead subject “very open, for the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve seen a lot of Ric Flair interviews, and in my opinion, I’ve never seen a better one than the one he did for our film.”
Flair has had some of his stories questioned—one of the most recent being Flair claiming he slept with actress Halle Berry and Berry flatly denying it. I asked Karpf what structure was in place to fact-check his subject. “When it comes to facts, ESPN has strict standards and provides independent fact-checking support,” Karpf said. “We do diligent research too. If it’s a story told by Flair and only involves him, we take it more as his “perspective.”
Karpf said the 1980s will be the main era of the doc to coincide with the prime of Flair’s career, as well as the explosion of pro wrestling into the pop culture. “We want to take the time to get this right,” Karpf said. “We want it to appeal to wrestling and non-wrestling fans alike. I want to make sure I do Ric’s story and the sport of wrestling justice.”
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable stories)
1. Geopolitics is not something that ordinarily concerns ESPN executives prior to an NFL broadcast but it’s a subject that has been impossible to ignore for ESPN’s NFL group this week. On Monday, the company will broadcast the first-ever “Monday Night Football” game played outside the United States when the Raiders and Texans meet at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
The game is sold out and given the rhetoric about Mexico from President-elect Donald Trump, ESPN officials are preparing for multiple news contingencies, booing inside the stadium during the U.S. national anthem and anti-U.S. demonstrations outside the stadium. There will be close to 300 ESPN staffers between “Monday Night Football,” “SportsCenter” and ESPN’s NFL studio shows in Mexico City working the game. The studio shows will be setup in Chapultepec Park, one of the city’s most famous park grounds.
In an interview with SI last Wednesday, “Monday Night Football” executive producer Jay Rothman, who has experience producing games in Mexico including the Oct. 2, 2005 game in Mexico City between the Niners and Cardinals, said ESPN and Disney officials have been working for months on plans, including ESPN’s security working with NFL security. “When our national anthem is played, there is a chance we will have 70,000 people booing there,” Rothman said. “We have gone through many what if’s and if there is any kind of significant demonstration going on, we will not avoid it and report on it in full.”
The key on-air staffers for the network when it comes to news away from the game will be field reporter Lisa Salters, who has ABC News experience, and ESPN Deportes commentator John Sutcliffe, who is based in Mexico City and hosts a well-known show there. Rothman said Sutcliffe will be in the mezzanine of the stadium for what he describes as the “Jim McKay” role (after the late and famed ABC announcer), meaning he’ll provide the larger context on Mexico and the nexus of politics and sports.
1a. NBC’s debut of “Thursday Night Football” (Carolina’s 23–20 victory over New Orleans) averaged 13.3 million TV-only viewers. That’s an interesting number because it’s the first non-Sunday game since the election. CBS and the NFL Network averaged 14.7 million for its Thursday games this season, down 16% from 17.6 million viewers a year ago. This is a number to watch for some data about what the NFL will do post-election during the regular season.
2. Some CFB overnight ratings:
Ohio St-Michigan State (ESPN): 4.2
Indiana-Michigan (ESPN): 3.2
Tennessee-Missouri (CBS): 1.9
UCLA-USC (ESPN): 1.8
Alabama-Chattanooga (ESPN2) 1.2
ESPN said the Ohio State at Michigan State game was ESPN’s (does not include games airing on ABC) highest rated overnight this season.
2a. ESPN’s telecast featuring Houston upsetting No. 5 Louisville 36–10 drew 2,509,000 viewers and a 1.8 overnight rating for the most-watched Thursday night college football telecast across all networks this season, according to ESPN PR.
3. Episode 89 of the “Sports Illustrated Media Podcast” features Paul Finebaum, who hosts “The Paul Finebaum Show,” which airs on ESPN Radio and is simulcast on the SEC Network. Finebaum is also part of the SEC Network’s “SEC Nation” and regularly appears on ESPN.
In this podcast, we discuss how Finebaum’s relationship with Alabama coach Nick Saban and what happened at SEC Media Day when the two got into a heated discussion; how he prepares for his show, especially when college football is not in regular season; how to take a regional show and make it popular nationally; what he thinks of Greg McElroy and Tim Tebow as analysts; what his relationship is with some of his well-known callers (e.g. Phyllis from Mulga, Ala., Jim from Tuscaloosa); what finding success later in his professional life meant for him; how he thought his professional career had stalled before The New Yorker profiled him; his advice for young people who do not consider themselves TV people, and much more. A reminder: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
3a. Episode 88 of the “Sports Illustrated Media Podcast” features free agent NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz, the co-author of “Eat My Schwartz: Our Story of NFL Football, Food, Family, and Faith,” along with his brother Mitchell, who plays offensive line for the Kansas City Chiefs.
In this episode, Schwartz discusses how a pro athlete approaches making the transition to working in the sports media; how big city media is different than smaller city media; the impact of talking about religion and politics on Twitter; why he and his brother decided to write a book; being one of the greatest Jewish offensive lineman ever (yes, it is a small list), navigating being honest with viewers as a former player and much more.
4. Non-sports pieces of note:
•Incredible work by Monica Hesse of The Washington Post on a Texas doctor who works to identify migrants who died trying to cross the border from Mexico. This was the best piece I read this week.
•From Julia Ioffe: Why many young Russians see a hero in Putin.
• The New Yorker’s David Remnick spent time with Barack Obama before and after Election Day.
• Via Christina Xu: What I found on Weibo on Monday, and what the US needs to understand about post-truth.
• From The Week’s Thomas Linker: Beware the liberal thought police.
• This, from Sapna Maheshwari, was an eye-opening and scary look at how fake news spreads on social media.
• Jose Antonio Vargas, for The Washington Post, on being an undocumented immigrant post-election.
• Via The Globe and Mail: Cancer made two men brothers under the skin.
• Thomas Lake has written the first-ever book from CNN Politics.
• Via The Chicago Tribune: An investigation on how Illinois hides abuse and neglect of adults with disabilities.
• From The Wall Street Journal: In their coastal Citadels, Democrats argue over what went wrong.
Sports pieces of note:
• From SI’s David Gardner: He’s the son of a sharecropper and the father of a Green Bay Packer. And at 55, he wants to play college football.
• Via Darren Sabedra of The San Jose Mercury News: No arms, no legs, no problem: San Jose coach defies the odds.
• From ESPN.com’s Tim MacMahon: A remarkable tale of Mark Cuban, Chandler Parsons and the friendship that threatened the Mavericks.
• Via The Guardian: A black women’s team bucking rodeo team is bucking trends.
• SI’s Football in America package.
5. ESPN’s Buster Olney argued that baseball writers should get out of the business of voting for awards and honors.
5a.The Boston Globe’s Chad Finn on whether sports media figures should stick to sports on social media.
5b. From Michael Farber of TSN Hockey: The story of Terry Harper, Bob Pulford and ‘The Stink that Changed the Rink.’
5c. ESPN said Five Thirty Eight had 14.9 million unique visitors in the month of October, a record for the site.
5d. The Washington D.C. to ESPN connection.
5e. R.I.P, longtime Los Angeles sportswriter Joe Resnick.