The new documentary examines Ric Flair’s obsession with being the man inside and outside the ring.
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 Tuesday, 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.”
I screened the film last month. “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 last 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 in September while Flair was recuperating 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 was at an Oct. 26 premiere of the film in Atlanta. “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.”
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 over-reliance 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?”
There’s also Flair’s claim that he has been with 10,000 women. (Those with a mathematics degree can figure out the validity of that one.)
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.