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Bruce Mitchell's Ric Flair & Four Horsemen Collection
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"Stolen Moments" - Ric Flair: What did he do to earn Best Ever reputation
By Bruce Mitchell, Torch columnist
Originally published: October 10, 1998
Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly newsletter #515
"That wasn't a great television moment. It was real."
Tears in his eyes, a silver-maned, 49 year old who hadn't been seen for months walked out into an arena one recent Monday to a response that transcended any his sport has ever heard.
The question is: In an era where the only taboos are weakness and sentiment, where icons like Roddy Piper and the Warrior find their legendary status chewed up in a matter of weeks, where Shawn Michaels can set new standards in athletic work and be forgotten a few months later, where Hollywood Hogan spends all of his considerable political capital on emasculating every other star in his company, where every bare breast and two story cage dive is erased by the demands of the next Monday night...
How could this happen?
After all, Ric Flair hasn't won a world title or a pay-per-view main event in years, or had a great match in five. The NWO took his Horseman concept to an only heretofore imagined level of success, and then, as a tribute, ripped the original into humiliating oblivion. Arn Anderson was retired, only appearing on the air when the promotion wanted to hint that he, not Flair, was the heart of the Horsemen. Most weeks the only wrestler holding up four fingers was the inept Mongo McMichael.
And Flair? After months of by-the-numbers interviews Flair got motivated enough to spark his Bret Hart match to a surprising buyrate. As thanks, Eric Bischoff aborted the feud and sued Ric Flair for breach of contract a few weeks later for missing a Thunder taping and attending his son's national AAU wrestling meet.
Which reminds me. Has Kevin Nash done that job to the Giant yet? You know, the one he kept dodging on pay-per-view last year? Anyone sue Goldberg for breach when he missed that show and WCW had to give back a hundred thousand dollar house?
More to the point, is WCW going to do anything about Scott Hall, besides laugh at him on television, before he drives drunk and kills somebody?
Not when he could probably go to work for Vince with a house-arrest beeper strapped around his leg.
Now it may be that Ric Flair didn't tell WCW, as he was contractually obligated, about his night off. Flair is very much the politician who tells his constituency what they want to hear at every moment.
In this era of "What have you done for me now, forget lately?" most fans neither know nor care whether Ric Flair was treated fairly.
None of which explains what happened in Greenville, S.C. that night. By all rights and every rule of the modern "Suck It" wrestling boom Ric Flair should not have meant much to either the live crowd or the television audience.
Instead people in Greenville, and people on couches and in bars and bowling alleys around this country rose and showed Ric Flair the rarest thing of all in the sport of pro wrestling - honest emotion.
The look in Ric Flair's eyes reflected the shock and pleasure of a man just insecure enough to wonder if anyone would remember.
For there is a secret about this aging Nature Boy, this fading athlete with crow's feet who sometimes seems more like, in the words of Chris Rock, "The old guy in the club" than the hippest guy in the room. It's a secret that Hulk Hogan, Eric Bischoff, Vince McMahon, Warrior, WCW booker Dusty Rhodes, wrestlers in and around the Big Two, and even the producers of the A&E special "The Unreal World of Professional Wrestling" desperately wish that fans would never either learn or remember.
The secret is this. Ric Flair is simply, year after year, match after match, interview after interview, gate after gate, the greatest performer in the history of professional wrestling. Ric Flair, not Hollywood "God" Hogan, will be remembered in legitimate wrestling histories as, to paraphrase Bret Hart, the Best.
In an art form that treats history in the opposite fashion of sports like professional baseball, that recreates itself every Monday night, some of you might not know that for over ten years (not a generation in the wrestling business, but several) Ric Flair set a standard for great work that no one in this business will ever equal. Three hundred nights a year, all over the world, in every city and burg and hamlet that claimed a wrestling fan, in stadiums and coliseums and civic centers and high school gyms and television studios, Ric Flair put on four star or better (and many times much better) matches with every name wrestler of the era.
The following is just a partial list of wrestlers who Ric Flair had great matches with: Hulk Hogan, Dusty Rhodes, Lex Luger, Sting, Antonio Inoki, Randy Savage, Bret Hart, Brian Pillman, Harley Race, Ricky Morton, Rick Martel, Roddy Piper, Kerry Von Erich, David Von Erich, Vader, Nikita Koloff, Paul Orndorff, Junkyard Dog, Tommy Rich, Ronnie Garvin, Bobby Eaton, Greg Valentine, Bob Backlund, Barry Windham, Dick Murdoch, Ted DiBiase, Eddie Gilbert, Magnum T.A., Terry Taylor, Jimmy Snuka. Many if not most, of the wrestlers had their career best matches against Flair.
Oh, you didn't know?
Flair was so good he had series that set the five-star standard for wrestling worked three different times in two different decades with his all-time greatest opponent Ricky Steamboat. He had arguably the greatest live television match ever with Sting, then he had it with Steamboat, and then with Terry Funk. He was so good he could carry the late Kerry Von Erich to five-star, sixty minute draws.
Hell, he was so good he could carry an unconscious Kerry to a sixty minute draw, like that night he had to do just that when they found the Not So Modern Day Scott Hall passed out in his car fifteen minutes before the main event. He took fat egomaniacs like Dusty Rhodes or juicehead no-talents like Nikita Koloff to great matches every night of the week. He made Lex Luger look like he really was the Total Package instead of, you know, Lex Luger. He and Ronnie Garvin chopped each other so hard you could see the veins in their chests. He went hold-for-hold with Jack Brisco and had classic brawls with the late Bruiser Brody. One Sunday afternoon in the Greensboro Coliseum he made Sting a star and set the archetype for the modern multi-hour live wrestling TV show beside. He had great main events in the always grueling All Japan Pro Wrestling promotion with Jumbo Tsuruta. He had interpromotional championship matches that lived up to their hype with WWF champion Bob Backlund and with AWA champions Nick Bockwinkle and Rick Martel. He went sixty minutes in the only great WWF Royal Rumble. He made little girls cry when he beat the hell out of Ricky Morton and he brought sell out crowds to their feet in two different decades winning world titles in great matches with Harley Race and Vader.
He set gate records in Texas Stadium. He headlined the first of the modern Super Shows, Starrcade. He put WCW on his back and carried it on pay-per-view in the days when a tight budget and inept management kept WCW down. He main evented against pro wrestling's biggest-ever star, Antonio Inoki, in front of the largest live crowd to ever see a wrestling match.
He made it so that no matter how big your pythons were, or how many cartoons or dolls or bad movies or Wrestlemanias you sold, or undefeated Giants you slammed and pinned, there was always going to be some smart ass in the airport telling you that "Ric Flair could kick your ass." And if you were a fan in Greenville S.C. or Norfolk Va. or Raleigh, N.C. or Johnson City, Tenn. or Atlanta, Ga. or Greensboro, N.C. or Charlotte, N.C. you knew the wrestling show would be good because Ric Flair was in the main event. There is no great wrestler, not Shawn Michaels or Bret Hart or Ultimo Dragon or Terry Funk or Jushin Liger or Manami Toyota or Kenta Kobashi or Rey Misterio Jr. who always made an effort to have a great, not just a good match every time he stepped in the ring, no matter the opponent. Ric Flair set a standard no wrestler will ever match.
They can't. It's impossible. In today's wrestling world the best wrestlers simply can't last at the top of their form for more than five years before injuries rob them of their ability. Wrestlers can't afford to put their best out unless the cameras are rolling.
Shawn Michaels only had his great matches every six weeks or so on pay-per-view. At age 33 his days of great wrestling work may already be over. Jushin Liger, Shinya Hashimoto, Mitsuhara Mitsawa, and Kenta Kobashi only really turn it on for the big shows. The physical toll is already beginning to show on these wrestlers, all of whom are only in their mid-30s. Ultimo Dragon, perhaps the best worker in the business, finds his career in jeopardy while only in his 20s.
Ric Flair was the best in the business, night in and night out, for ten years.
And he threw in the best interviews on television in the bargain.
Now, Flair might also have thrown three dropkicks in his entire career, all pitiful, and he probably thinks a pescado is another name for margarita, and well, some of his matches were sorta like some of his other matches. Who could forget the run into the turnbuckle, followed by the flip n' fall or the world's slowest climb to the turnbuckle?
But he made an artform of the two and three quarter kick out, made a simple chop the most exciting move in the game (so much so that fans "Whoo" in tribute at every slap), and built his matches so fans usually thought both wrestlers were champs - Flair because, well, he usually was the champ and the other guy because Flair sold most of the match for him.
And therein lies both the problem and the key to why fans react the way they do, despite Eric Bischoff's and Hulk Hogan's best efforts. With the exception of six months in 1989 when a babyface Flair feuded with Terry Funk on top and drew sellouts for a company that couldn't even spell its own wrestlers' names right, for my money the only time Ric Flair has ever really been promoted right was for about three years in the late-'70s and early-'80s. During that time Flair, not Dusty Rhodes, or Sting, or Lex Luger, or Hulk Hogan, was pushed as the top star in the Mid-Atlantic promotion as the babyface U.S. Champion against Jimmy Snuka (w/Buddy Rogers), Greg Valentine, and Roddy Piper.
Then came the NWA Title and a sallow-faced fat boy with enough charisma and smarts to ride Ric Flair to the most lucrative run of his career and to become the only booker to make a competitive run at the then Walt Disney of wrestling, Vince McMahon. Dusty Rhodes paid Flair back for his hard work in 1988 when he told TBS executives "We don't need him."
Ahh, the good ol' days.
The next boss, Jim Herd, was so incompetent he thought Lex Luger could make fans forget Flair (I know it seems preposterous today to think that Lex Luger could make anyone forget Ahmed Johnson, much less the Nature Boy, but back in those days it almost seemed reasonable) and let Flair traipse off to the WWF, championship belt in tow, originating the now famous chant "We want Flair." Actually this was the time WCW averaged 1,500 people at house shows that Bischoff keeps bringing up. Bischoff, like Hogan and McMahon, has his own fantasy about how he created modern pro wrestling and it too has no room for Flair.
And, of course, Hulk Hogan - who despite his game, power, and hours of TV face time knows in his heart of hearts that he'll never get the response and respect Ric Flair received that night in Greenville - has beaten him for his title, beaten him in every arena in the country, beaten him for his career, beaten him in his home arena at War Games, kept him off TV, and let other wrestlers humiliate him.
Flair's flaw has always been his "Get along to go along" style of politics, his inability to see the screw coming, take the hard stand, and do something about it. It's too late now. Wrestling fans know that the greatest performer in the sport is constantly cut off, that they are constantly denied the guy the way they, not the promotion, want to see him. Paradoxically all the attempts to kill off Ric Flair over the years have added to the emotion of that moment in Greenville. If WCW doesn't want it, the fans will make it happen anyway.
The Nitro moment was one of the most emotional in the sport's history, because "It was real," right up until Eric Bischoff walked out and Flair started yelling "Abuse of power" at him.
Whether or not Flair was supposed to call Bischoff an "Asshole," it then became just another worked shoot angle. Ric Flair is back working with those who want to cut him down to size, just like always.
While some in the locker room seem surprised with how little civility Bischoff treats Flair and some think the jealousy must be a work after all this time, Flair chose to come back to WCW only because, at this stage of the game, he's a businessman and he'll make more money there. If that money is right Flair will go along, reluctantly, with Bischoff and Hogan's attempts to strip him of his respect. If he lets Bischoff wrestle him in a match where he sells a middle-aged wanna-be wrestler's moves the way he sold everyone else's over the years Flair may actually find himself irrelevant.
Like Bret Hart, Sting, and the rest - irrelevant and well paid.
And for all of his Hulkean efforts Hogan finds himself getting that "You suck!" booing again, his hand-picked, million-dollar babyface opponent laughed at before the remote gets flipped, and his boyfriend, I mean, his best friend, getting booed despite his key babyface turn. Ric Flair's best friend, the retired guy with one arm, keeps winning the quarter hour ratings.
Sadly, Flair and the Horsemen are going to have to deal with the consequences of an angry, insecure Hollywood Hogan. Because no matter how much Hulk Hogan, Eric Bischoff, and Vince McMahon want to be Masters of Reality fans who have watched wrestling for years - Ric Flair fans - know the truth. They know it's their job to steal Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, and themselves another great moment.
Because sooner rather than later (like last week) Bischoff and Hogan are going to schedule a Horsemen segment in the middle of the second hour, with no buildup, and then cut off Flair thirty seconds into the interview, guaranteeing a bad quarter hour rating so they can say "I told you so" and fool themselves that Hulk Hogan is anything more than a fading gate attraction.
Until the next time Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, and wrestling fans around the country can steal another moment for the ages.
"Nature Boy" Ric Flair - The Echoes
Originally Published: PWTorch Newsletter #1020
Printed: April 2008 (four years ago)
"You know you've got a man right here. You've got Mr. Charisma, Mr. Excitement, Ric Flair…"
"To be the man you've got to beat the man."
"That robe costs more than your car."
"Too tall, too tan, too rich, and too much man to ever back down to a punk like you…"
"They're having a picnic and I'm the roast."
"Diamonds are forever."
"I specialize in big, tough guys."
"Now we go to school!"
"When I walk that aisle, looking as only I can look…"
"You're going to bleed and sweat and pay the price of a wrestling lifetime."
"Styling and Profiling..."
"Custom made from head to toe…"
"A limousine riding, jet flying, son of a gun, who kissed all the girls and made them cry…"
"You know, Gordon, I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Anything in life I wanted - I bought it, and if I couldn't buy it, I went out and got it. This is mine, the NWA World's Heavyweight championship…"
"I think if you'll search your soul, Bob Backlund, you'll admit to yourself and these people out here that you already know who the better man is."
"Yeah, the neck hurts, and I've paid the price, but I'm back and I'm going to stay. Orton, you and Slater will go to your grave because of me. Bob Caudle, line 'em up because it'll be a cold day in hell when someone can come out here and make fun of me and put me in the hospital, try to break my neck, try to end my career, and most of all try to take the greatest sport in the world from me; it's mine. And Race, before it's all over, I promise you, Race, for paying those guys $25,000 I’ll have a piece of you and it's going to be that gold belt! Slater, Orton, it's only just begun, NOW, you're going to face Ric Flair one more time! Whoooo!"
"Atlanta, Georgia; Greensboro, North Carolina; Charlotte, North Carolina: Chicago, Illinois, Miami, Florida; and on the fourth the big time comes to the Boston Gardens…"
"There goes the Champ, there goes Slick Ric!"
"Learn to love it, because it's the best thing going today."
"Very nice, Valentine, very nice, I threw her number away last year…"
"The bottom line is…"
"This is mine, the World's Heavyweight Championship…"
"I am championship material, I am the blood and guts of this great sport."
"The whole world knows, when Blackjack and I are right, there ain't nothing in this great sport to hold us back. Mulligan and I, we're going to walk that aisle just like we used to. I remembered back to when we ran things around here,. A lot of people didn't like it, but they understand an eye for an eye…"
"You keep your mouth shut, punk!""
"I'll tell you how it goes. Never one moment of my life goes by that I don't know I'm the very best at what I do…"
"The most prestigious trophy in our sport, ten pounds of gold, diamonds, and silver…"
"Wahoo, I used to be scared of you, but now when I think of you, I get goosebumps! Goosebumps!"
"Those shoes cost more than your house…"
"Fire me! You already fired me!"
"If you start getting those butterflies, don't worry, it's only natural…"
"Precious, remember, you'll be coming round the mountain when you come…"
"So proud to be with the NWA, so proud to be with Jim Crockett Promotions, so proud to be one of the Four Horsemen…"
"Like the little lady said last night, just before she closed her eyes and took that last deep breath, 'Nature Boy, you are the man, the myth and the legend all rolled up in one.'"
"Did I happen to hear the Fruitbirds out here? Are the Fruitbirds back in Atlanta? The boys are back in town? The Horsemen will take care of that."
"Never let it be said we don't monopolize the female population…"
"One of my big girls with big sweaters told me, "Tell Ricky Morton, if you may, to give this to one of his teeny-boppers." In other words I like the big girls and you like the teeny ones…"
"Wherever I go I don't care if they love me or hate me, I love myself and I know I'm the best there is."
"In the words of the infamous Arn Anderson, what's causing all this?"
"With a tear in my eye…"
"Hulk Hogan sucks!"
"A lot of people around the world are under the misconception that professional wrestling is made up of a bunch of clowns. This is the greatest sport in the world. No games, no Hollywood, no rock 'n' roll wrestling; the name on the marquee is professional wrestling, it's a man's world, and you've got to be a man to be a part of it. Nobody is going to claim to be the world's heavyweight champion until he goes through me."
"There goes the champ, there goes…. Slick Ric."
Ric Flair Remembers Blackjack Mulligan at the NWA Fanfest & one-time-only Four Horsemen Reunion notes
Originally Published: PWTorch Newsletter #1101
Printed: August 2011
In 1977 Ric Flair first proved he had what it took to main event at the highest level when he turned on his real-life neighbor and massive tag-team partner, Blackjack Mulligan. Flair and Mulligan were so close they lived in houses on the same street and bought a tricked-out party van together, one that Mulligan's-son Barry Windham once took for a joy ride. Flair said that he left the Mulligan house as soon as Barry returned it, because he didn't want to hear all the noise.
The betrayal came when Flair mocked his fellow bully Mulligan for losing the U.S. belt, the top title in the area, to Bobo Brazil. He won the belt from Brazil himself, then ripped up a leather hat that Waylon Jennings had given Mulligan while the Texan was wrestling in the ring.
Ric Flair, let me tell you something. You knew what this hat meant to me, and you know who gave it to me, a very dear friend of mine. There are pieces of it all over the place here. You gutless little wonder, I stood behind you so many times, we've been in so many places, and the bad were there and they said, "Let's get Flair."
And somebody said, "No, he's backed by the Jack. Let it be."
Nature Boy, it's over. You've gone too far. You've insulted me. You've embarrassed me. I want you to take a look at me real good. Because if you think I'm over the hill, I think I've got just enough, just enough left, to muster one more great big push. Somewhere, sooner or later, you're going to pay for this, and that U.S. belt is going to be mine again.
Blackjack Mulligan – Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling 1977
What can I say, Mull? We've been up and down Broad Street, every which direction, every hour of the night! We've driven the women wild, from one end of Richmond to the other! From The Black Cat to Caesar's Salad to The Bee Hive we've done it all, side by side! We've demolished The Giant, we've demolished Wahoo, Paul Jones, and Rufus! Now, here we are, the biggest match of all time! The Nature Boy and The Blackjack looking at each other, one corner to the other! Richmond Coliseum, the people, the building's not big enough! Blackjack, be ready! The Nature Boy is going to show you why I'm the greatest of all time! Whooooo!
Ric Flair – promo for a scheduled match at the Richmond Coliseum, 1977
Mulligan paid Flair back on TV for his ruined hat by swiping one of his favorite peacock robes and tearing it to shreds. The now-fabled Hat and Robe angle sold out all the major arenas in the Mid-Atlantic, the first time in Ric Flair's career he accomplished that.
Blackjack Mulligan helped prepare Ric Flair for what was to come.
At the NWA Fanfest last weekend, Ric Flair inducted the absent Blackjack Mulligan into the Hall of Heroes at their annual banquet. Ric Flair, with tears in his eyes, spoke directly to Mulligan's son, Barry Windham. Flair's own son Reid looked on from the Flair table.
"Blackjack Mulligan taught me what it meant to be a man. 'Nature Boy,' he told me on one of our rides together, 'you need to know something. You've got what it takes to go all the way. Our business is full of backstabber ands thieves. There's going to come a time when Wahoo McDaniel won't be there to help you. You're going to have to be a man. There's going to be a time when Terry Funk won't be there to help you, when Harley Race won't be there to help you. There's going to come a time when I won't be there to help you. You're going to have to be a man.'"
Other notes from the 2009 NWA Fanfest that I attended Aug. 8-9...
•The once in a lifetime reunion of The Four Horseman drove the financial success of the Fanfest. The picture and autograph time was extended more than an hour past its scheduled time.
•Fans paid $100 a pop to get their picture taken with either the four, five, or six original members of the Four Horsemen (Ric Flair, Tully Blanchard, Ole Anderson, Arn Anderson, J.J. Dillon, and Barry Windham).
•Ole Anderson, who holds court in the Hilton lobby every year, makes it no secret to anyone who will listen that he hates Ric Flair and Arn Anderson. He asked to be seated as far away from the two as possible. When the five came together for the shoot, Ric Flair (who doesn't care for Ole much, either) reached down and put his arm around him, and then whispered something in his ear. Ole responded with a brief grab of Flair's arm.
Bruce Mitchell of Greensboro, N.C. has been a PWTorch columnist since September 1990, covering Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen's careers as extensively as anyone who covers wrestling over the past 20+ years.
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