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  • ESPN's 'Nature Boy' looks at the difference of Ric Flair being 'The Man' vs being a man.
By Richard Deitsch
October 08, 2017

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. The terrific journalist David Shoemaker examined this duality in his sensational 2011 piece on Randy (Macho Man) Savage, and if ever someone’s on-screen “Nature Boy” persona blended into his real life, from self-destructive behavior to high living to repeated bouts with legal authorities, it would be Ric Flair, born Richard Morgan Fliehr in 1949. He lived his gimmick, which in his own words, became his disease.

That theme is at the crux of an outstanding ESPN Films 30 for 30 documentary on Flair that debuts on Nov. 7 at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN. “Nature Boy” is titled after the character Flair portrayed in the ring over multiple decades in sports entertainment, a Rolex-wearing, diamond ring-wearing, kiss stealing (Woooooo!), wheelin dealin, limousine riding, jet flying son of a gun. Directed by Rory Karpf, who has multiple ESPN documentaries on his credits including the excellent “I Hate Christian Laettner” and “The Book Of Manning,” the film (which will run 90 minutes, with commercials and the director’s intro and director’s feature) examines Flair’s obsession with being the man inside and outside the ring, and what Richard Fliehr lost in that transaction.

“Ric said he could never live with being a man,” says Karpf. “That is the conundrum that is Ric Flair. That is what Ric Flair is about: The Man vs. a man.”

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I screened the film last week. “Nature Boy” opens with the now 68-year-old Flair in the center of a smoky wrestling ring, narrating the central theme of his life. “Wrestling was my love,” Flair says. “The Nature Boy was my wrestling character. The Nature Boy wasn’t fake. The Nature Boy was me. I have sacrificed everything for wrestling. I always wanted to be The Man. I could never live just being a man. I gave my entire life to the wrestling business. I paid the price. I am the Nature Boy.”

Karpf said he interviewed 46 people for the doc (the filming started in Sept. 2015 and post-production ended this month) and what he pulled from pro wrestling icons such as Ricky Steamboat, Hulk Hogan and Shawn Michaels is particularly compelling. (Karpf said the only people from the wrestling world he wanted for the film but failed to get were Steve Austin, Paul Heyman and The Rock.)

The film includes multiple interviews with Flair over a two-year period, 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 wrestlers including Hogan, Michaels, Steamboat, Sting, Triple H, The Undertaker, Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard. Other interviews include Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross, as well as Flair’s first wife, Leslie Jacobs, who provides in stark reality the damage Flair did to his home life through his infidelity and lack of interest in raising his eldest children. Karpf interviewed Jacobs for two hours at Karpf’s home in Charlotte. She had never been interviewed on camera prior to this film and provides the nexis between Richard Fliehr and Ric Flair. 

Karpf said he screened the film for Flair three weeks ago while Flair was recuperating last month at a hospital in Atlanta. The 68-year-old underwent surgery in August to relieve an intestinal blockage, which required the removal of a portion of his bowel. Flair experienced significant complications during that procedure and was believed to be close to death. Flair has since recovered, and left the hospital. He plans to be at the premiere of the film in Atlanta next month. “He really liked it a lot and feels it is an honest portrayal of him,” Karpf said. “It has the good, the bad and the ugly.”

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Karpf said that he would address Flair’s latest hospital stay in a director’s statement that will run as an interstitial between segments of the film. “We wanted the film to be evergreen,” Karpf said. “While it is definitely newsworthy, it isn’t really what the film is about. The thing with his health is that he made it, he lived. If he had passed away, obviously we would have included that.”

The most dramatic moment of the documentary comes when Flair painfully discusses Reid Flair, his youngest son who died at 25 of a combination of heroin and prescription drugs in 2013. Reid was found dead by Ric in a hotel suite in Charlotte. Asked what he would say to his son today if he could, Flair breaks down and says, “I regret the fact that sometimes I was your best friend instead of your Dad.”

Those close to Flair are honest about his strengths and weaknesses. Triple H discusses forcing him to get help for his alcohol problem and says he uses Flair as an example for young wrestlers that you can have it all but still end up in a precarious spot. Ashley Flair talks about the assuming the burden of Reid’s and Ric’s wrestling dreams (“I am living vicariously through her right now,” says Ric. The greatest moment of my wrestling career was Ashley winning that title.”) Hogan is remarkably honest and deferential about Flair’s influence on wrestling and where he ranks him all-time. (There’s a big reveal that Hogan makes but I won’t spoil it for you here.) The film does a terrific job explaining how Flair developed his in-ring and promotional genius as The Nature Boy.

Few performers were as good as selling for their opponents and this promo is one of the greatest in the history of pro wrestling (start at 3:10).

The most revealing interview of all, though, turns out to be with Michaels, who famously wrestled Flair in a 20-minute “Career-Threatening Match” at WrestleMania 24 in 2008 in Orlando.

“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.”

If you are looking for small quibbles, there’s an overreliance on animation early on and Karpf glosses over a lot of the details in this seminal Grantland piece on Flair’s financial issues. “We definitely touched on it and you know he has had financial problems,” Karpf said. “We don’t necessarily get into the details of the Grantland piece. If you do that, you already have an emotional section with Reid. To me, I made a choice and you can agree or disagree with it. That was the ultimate price he paid. A lot of athletes have financial problems. I think that Ric’s son trying to live a lifestyle that he lived as an example and passing away for it, what greater price can a guy pay?”

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Karpf said one of his filmmaker dreams was to do a wrestling-based 30 for 30 for ESPN, and one of the reasons it happened was that Flair’s interview for his Laettner doc really resonated on social media, according to ESPN’s research. That helped convince ESPN Films executive John Dahl to give the standalone Flair project the green light.

“I love wrestling and I am so in awe of the talent of those athletes—and I do think they are athletes,” Karpf says. “I wanted to give it just due and try to explain a little how it works and what makes a good wrestler. As for Ric, I leave that up to viewers. I don’t want to tell someone what to think of someone. A lot of it is open for interpretation.Two people can watch the same thing and think someone is a villain or hero.”

It’s a compelling watch, and particularly so for anyone who is a fan of professional wrestling.

THE NOISE REPORT

1. Some media thoughts from Week 5 in the NFL:

• Per Austin Karp (who you should follow on Twitter) of Sports Business Daily, here is where NFL viewership stood for each rights-holder after four weeks:

CBS: 15,182,000 average viewers per game (Down 12%)

Fox: 18,219,000 (Down 6%)

NBC: 20,095,00 (Down 9%)

ESPN: 11,904,000 (Up 5%)

• On a second-and-2 from the Green Bay 11 with 1:24 left in the Cowboys-Packers game, Fox announcer Joe Buck did something you don’t often see NFL play-by-play broadcasters do: He questioned the call of an NFL coach. “I don’t understand that play call at all,” Buck said on an incomplete corner fade route to Dez Bryant that stopped the clock. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott scored on a keeper on the following play but it was refreshing to see a play-by-play person offer an opinion, followed by Buck and analyst Troy Aikman recognizing that there’s not a perfect opinion on when to score late in the game if the other team is within a score. With 11 seconds left in the game, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hit Davante Adams a game-winning pass. Buck later referred to the incompletion by Prescott after the Packers’ score. Excellent sequence.

• CBS NFL insider Jason LaCanfora delivered an eye-opening report on Colin Kaepernick during his segment on The NFL Today. In a piece billed as an exclusive,  LaCanfora said he sat down with Kaepernick on Saturday night for a couple of hours and reported that the quarterback said he’d work out for any team at any place. LaCanfora said Kaepernick told him: “I’ll go anywhere to work out for a team. It can be done in private. Just have an evaluator look at me and see if I am a football player.” 

LaCanfora initially said in his report that Kaepernick will stand for the national anthem if given an opportunity to play in the league. That news prompted a number of outlets, as well as some prominent conservative voices, to criticize that decision. LaCanfora later clarified in a series of tweets that "standing for Anthem wasn't something that I spoke to Colin about [on] Saturday. I relayed what had been reported about him standing in the future." Adding to this mess, Nessa Diab, Kaepernick’s girlfriend, tweeted “the reports that Colin will stand for the anthem are completely false! He has never discussed this with anyone.” Nessa’s tweet would seemingly contradict this Adam Schefter story from March where the ESPN NFL reporter said, via sources, that Kaepernick would stand during the national anthem this season if signed.

• “Until he shows me different, this is who he is.” That was Fox NFL Kickoff analyst Tony Gonzalez on Cam Newton, saying Newton will find himself in a similar situation in the future. Fox NFL Kickoff isn’t a compelling football show but Gonzalez and host Charissa Thompson give it at least a shot heading forward to figure something out.

• The Amazon broadcast of the Patriots-Bucs averaged 391,000 viewers (those who watched for at least 30 seconds on Amazon Prime Video). Amazon said each viewer watched an average of 50 minutes, up 127% from Twitter’s average during their first game last season.

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• There are a number of pieces worth reading on the exchange between Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Charlotte Observer writer Jourdan Rodrigue and Rodrigue’s Twitter history, including a couple of posts from 2012 that referenced her father making racist jokes.

- SI’s Jenny Vrentas

- The Charlotte Observer Editorial Page

- Robert Littal of Black Sports Online

• Kind of a cool thing: On The NFL Network’s NFL GameDay Morning this week, every reporter working at a game site was female (Tiffany Blackmon, Alex Flanagan, Aditi Kinkhabwala, Kimberly Jones and Jane Slater).

Weak by the Packers not to credential iconic NFL writer Bob McGinn.

Sunday NFL Countdown producers Neil Zender, Ryan Kelly and Krys Wong put together a great feature that ran Sunday on a fan attempting to steal the hat of Vince Lombardi after the Packers won the Ice Bowl wearing a hat and long overcoat. The footage of Lombardi is just tremendous and the interviews with the fannow-68-year-old Roy Meulemans— is great.

2. Last Thursday Tiffany Greene became the first African-American woman to call a nationally-televised college football game when she called Alcorn St-Alabama State on ESPNU. Pioneering is something familiar to Greene. As a student at Florida A&M, she called men’s and women’s basketball before moving to Bright House Sports Network (now Spectrum Sports) where she called high school sports post-graduation in 2008. Green called Big East women’s basketball on FS1 in 2013 and 2014 as well as a few college football games on ESPN3 and ESPN Classic in 2015. She has also done college football sideline reporting for ACC, American, MEAC, Sun Belt and SWAC games. This season she has called three college football games on ESPN3. I emailed her to get her thoughts on what this week’s assignment meant to her.

Thank you, Jesus! That’s what I first thought when I finished the broadcast. Let me be clear it was not one of those “Thank God that’s over” type deals, but literally “Thank you for the moment, the journey behind and the road ahead.” I am doing exactly what I set out to do when I was five-years-old. Yes, I was five when I put my dream to paper declaring that I wanted to be a sportscaster. That little girl’s dream has come true some 30 years later, and that is what I thought about after the game and think about all the time.

I always think about my father, Dayle Greene, being the first black anchor/reporter in Tampa at WTVT-FOX 13 and how he laid the groundwork for me and many other journalists of color to have opportunities like the one I experienced. I also think about Jayne Kennedy and how she was a pioneer for African-American women in sports broadcasting in the late 1970s. So it is strange to think about myself in that same line of people who I revere so much. To hold the distinction of being the first African-American woman to call a nationally televised college football game is an honor. However, I hope it will soon become more of the norm for women, especially women of color.

I remember a lesson Robin Roberts, my G.O.A.T., wrote in one her books about what her dad used to tell her. He stressed not focusing on what color you are or gender, religion or whatever. He said, you just need to be concerned with being the best you can be. That being said, I still sometimes fear that my performance as a professional might be taken for granted or even overlooked because I am both woman and black. While I feel it valid to celebrate my accomplishments as part of both groups, my goal is total acceptance as being one of the best in the business, period. I believe that is the actualization of everyone’s dream, to be looked upon as great. Not great because you are doing something that no one else in a subculture has done but because if it wasn’t me it would have been someone else eventually.

I believe greatness inspires all and that is my dream to inspire all. I hope my call is just as inspirational to a young white male watching as it is to a young black woman. Think about it when we watched Michael Jordan play, everyone in the world wanted to play like him not because he was black but because he was great. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Doris Burke, Beth Mowins, Mike Tirico or any number of amazing journalists, they all inspire. That is my hope to be one of those personalities that bring joy and excitement to your living room every time I am on the call.

When I talk to young people, and for any aspiring journalist that’s reading this, I want them to know that putting in the work can pay off. Sounds so cliché but it’s the truth. We all take different paths to get to where we are but we all tend to merge onto the same highway to be successful—while passing mile markers like persistence, rejection, dedication, passion and determination along the way.

We are living in a unique time. The need to belong, to claim one group, one ideal over the other is quite prevalent. I’m delighted to stand in the booth as a black woman and call a college football game. I hope to keep doing more. It shows some people are beginning to change the way they think about minorities and women. I realize not everybody is on board, and that’s okay.

3. Nineteen months after sending Barstool Sports a cease-and-desist letter over the name Pardon My Take, ESPN has decided to partner with the Barstool brand. The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis reported that a show featuring Barstool Sports personalities Big Cat (Dan Katz) and PFT Commenter the host of the popular Pardon My Take broadcast—is being developed by Embassy Row, the production company behind Men in Blazers, Garbage Time With Katie Nolan and the NFL Network’s Good Morning Football. Awful Announcing’s Ben Koo reported the weekly show would air from October through the Super Bowl in Feb. 2018.

ESPN declined to comment on all the reports. Announcements are expected to come this week, with the show likely airing on ESPN2 at 1 a.m. ET.

3a. Episode 141 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Dana O’Neil, a senior writer for The Athletic’s national college basketball site, The Fieldhouse. In this podcast O’Neil discusses why she joined The Athletic; the state of college basketball amid the current scandal; what stories she will work on for The Athletic; her reaction to being let go by ESPN; how ESPN informed her they would not renew her deal; her feelings on seeing ESPN make new hires; the restrictions ESPN put on those who remained under contract but not working; dealing with coaches she has written critical about; the player she is most looking forward to watching in college basketball this year; the percentage of Division I teams she thinks recruit unethically; how she balanced writing a book on Jay Wright and Villanova and then covering the school; whether coaches are praised too much on television; how forthcoming assistant coaches are as sources and much more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.

4. Non Sports pieces of note:

• Brilliant, important work from Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic: “Tim Piazza fought for his life for 12 hours before his Beta Theta Pi brothers called 911. By then, it was too late.”

• Make sure you watch Frontline’s “North Korea’s Deadly Dictator” documentary

• From Pro Publica’s Jesse Eisinger and Justin Elliott and Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz of WNYC: Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. Were Close to Being Charged With Felony Fraud

New York Times writer Nick Kristof traveled to North Korea 

• From Politico’s Dan Diamond and Rachana Pradhan How We Found Tom Price’s Private Jets 

• Via The New Yorker: How the elderly lose their rights

• From Washington Post writer Dan Zak: This is what it felt like in Las Vegas after the shooting

• Via Jacob Bernstein of Buzzfeed: Here's How Breitbart And Milo Smuggled Nazi and White Nationalist Ideas Into The Mainstream

• From Rebecca Traister of New York Magazine: Why the Harvey Weinstein Sexual-Harassment Allegations Didn’t Come Out Until Now

• From Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey: Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Cases for Years 

• From Mark Mooney‏: “I just published “My Last Byline

• From Eater.com: Christ in the Garden of Endless Breadsticks

Washington Post writer Geoff Edgers on comedian Darrell Hammond

Sports pieces of note:

• espnW’s Allison Glock profiles Chamique Holdsclaw

• SI’s Tim Layden returned to his high school 44 years later

• From Kevin Clark: Jerry Rice has been quietly crashing weddings every weekend

• Craig Fehrman profiled Reds radio broadcaster Marty Brennaman for Cincinnati Magazine

Buffalo News sports columnist Bucky Gleason on Western Michigan’s 71-68 win over the University at Buffalo

• ESPN’s John Buccigross on missing John Saunders

• Sportsnet’s Gare Joyce on Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews

• From ESPN’s David Purdum:  “My NFL Sunday with a sports betting syndicate

5. Game 5 of the WNBA Finals averaged 902,000 viewers, the fifth most all time among the 230 WNBA playoff games ESPN/ESPN2/ABC have aired. The series averaged 559,000 viewers across ABC (game), ESPN (two games) and ESPN2 (two games), up 15% over last year.

5a. Per Karp: ESPN averaged 996,000 viewers for all MLB games in 2017, up 6 percent from 940,000 viewers last year. Two seasons ago, ESPN averaged 1.2 million viewers. Fox MLB telecasts averaged 2.05 million viewers, down 2 percent from  2.09 million viewers last year. FS1 games were flat (448,000 viewers vs. 447,000). MLB Network game viewership was down 9% this season.

5b. ESPN said ABC drew a 3.9 overnight rating for Michigan State’s win over Michigan, the highest-rated college football game of week 6 across all networks.

5c. The YES Network said its coverage of Yankees games in 2017 averaged a 3.57 TV Household rating, up 57% from the 2.28 average rating from 2016 and the best Yankees season rating since 2012.

5d. Sports Business Daily’s John Ourand and Adam Stern reported that F1 will move from NBC Sports to ESPN in 2018 as part of a multiyear rights deal. NBC had carried races on NBCSN since 2013.  ESPN will televise all 21 races live next year—16 on ESPN2, three on ESPN and two on ABC. ESPN will air the Monaco Grand Prix on May 27 live on ESPN at 7:55 a.m. ET and re-air later in the day on ABC at 3:30 p.m. after the Indianapolis 500. Ourand and Stern said ESPN has also committed to carry all practice sessions, qualifying and races live and in replay on one of its platforms next year. NBC, NBCSN and CNBC have averaged 548,000 viewers for live races to date, up 13% from the same point last season. Per ESPN, Formula 1 made its debut on American television with the airing of highlights from the Monaco Grand Prix on ABC’s Wide World of Sports on June 10, 1962, one week after the race was run. Select races appeared on ABC until 1988. ESPN began televising F1 races in 1984 and ran the package through 1997. Here’s the official ESPN press release.

5e. Per Douglas Pucci of Awful Announcing: The ESPN daily news magazine Outside the Lines averaged 380,000 viewers per day for the week of Sep. 25-29, the program’s most-watched week in total viewers since Jan. 16-20 (394,000 viewers).

5f. The Big East will air a live college basketball online show called Shootaround every Thursday at 3 p.m. ET on Fox Sports Go, Facebook Live, Twitter and Periscope. The show includes interviews and highlights of Big East basketball on and off the court.

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