MITCHELL'S TAKE 25 YEARS OF BRUCE MITCHELL - DAY 2: Assessing the beginning of Ric Flair's run in the WWF and why it was an early mess that reflected the politics of the era
Oct 2, 2015 - 5:59:10 PM
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This month marks the 25th Anniversary of Bruce Mitchell becoming a Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter columnist. No single person has influenced the editorial tone and direction of the Torch brand over the years than Bruce, who brought a hard-hitting, supremely well-informed, speak-truth-to-power approach to his writing.
He went after sacred cows out of the gate, such as the beloved among “smart fans” (today’s “Internet fans” or “IWC,” I suppose) Eddie Gilbert and Jim Cornette. He also went hard after people in positions of authority and power who were abusing or misusing that power, or just not delivering a worthy product. He has also applauded and paid tribute to the greatest moments and movements in pro wrestling over the last 25 years, with a style of writing that has yet to be matched anywhere, I contend (despite Bill Simmons’s arrogant and uninformed contention last year that no one wrote at a high level about pro wrestling until his “Masked Man” columnist came along).
To celebrate and highlight Bruce’s stellar 25 years of influential and eloquent truth-telling about this fascinating industry, we’ll be featuring a single column from each of the last 25 years each of the first 25 days this month. His long-form columns (titled "Front Row, Section D" based on where he and his friends sat in the Greensboro Colisuem during Ric Flair's prime years on top in the NWA Mid-Atlantic Wrestling territory) were a pioneer approach to pro wrestling journalism, and over these 25 days you’ll experience a slice of what it is that has earned Bruce Mitchell widespread recognition within the industry over the years as being “Pro Wrestling’s Most Respected Columnist.”
Today's selection is from Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter #153 (cover dated Dec. 26, 1991) looking at the beginning of Ric Flair's run in the WWF right before his Royal Rumble victory.
On a personal note, I want to thank Bruce Mitchell for 25 years of helping define and guide the editorial tone of Pro Wrestling Torch, for being a sounding board for ideas and theories on what is right and wrong about this industry and the way it presents its product on air and conducts itself off-air, and for his friendship that goes well beyond the professional relationship we have had over these 25 years. I'm not sure where PWTorch would be without him, but I know I wouldn't be as proud of what the Torch stands for what the Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter and PWTorch VIP website contains, if not for his contributions, which go well beyond what you read and hear with his byline at the top of it.
NOTE: VIP members can access hundreds of Mitchell columns instantly in the BRUCE MITCHELL LIBRARY here, part of the massive unmatched online archives of insider wrestling coverage from over the past 28 years.
ALSO: Bruce can be heard tonight discussing his 25 years with Pro Wrestling Torch on the PWTorch Livecast with Travis Bryant. Stream it live (or later on-demand) at www.PWTorchLivecast.com starting at 7 ET.
-Wade Keller, editor
HEADLINE: UNDESERVING CHAMPION
“Since they’re holding the belt up, I assume Flair gets the title.”
“Flair draws the last straw at the Rumble and wins when the final two guys eliminate themselves. Flair becomes WWF champ by default.”
-Bruce Mitchell and Wade Keller speculating in a recent phone conversation
“To be the man…”
In the winter of 1979 I walked into the Greensboro Coliseum to see the spectacle of professional wrestling live for the first time. I was there to see one man: Ric Flair. A couple of friends had recommended Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling as a cheap low-rent spectacle for my late-night viewing pleasure. I, like thousands of others, soon learned to live and die with the exploits of the “Nature Boy.”
On this night, Flair was putting up the Golden Mane in a bet with the then-U.S. Champion Jimmy Snuka’s manager, the late Gene Anderson. Flair had to beat Anderson in 30 minutes with the figure-four or he would get his head shaved. The promotion was even savvy enough to have a barber’s chair in the lobby for the more credulous of us to speculate about. Flair, of course, won, but was jumped from behind by Snuka, who at that point in his career was a serious heel. Flair was stretched out.
Watching Flair at this time was akin to watching Bruno Sammartino in New York, Jerry Lawler in Memphis, or Verne Gagne in Minneapolis when they hl their own areas in the plans of their hands. He was the consummate babyface. His word was gold. In series feuds with Snuka, Greg Valentine, Roddy Piper, Ole Anderson, and Harley Race, Flair wrested hard and well. His interviews were not the 30 seconds or less jacked-up rants of today, but employed a wide variety of styles. They could range from a series low-key talk to a light-hearted send-up of the heels to the full-blown emotional soliloquies that made you pull out your wallet and buy a ticket at midnight. If Ric Flair promised someone was going to “;bleed, sweat, and pay the price,” a fan could count on the final reckoning going the Nature Boy’s way. Flair packed the house and ultimately avenged all wrongs, usually on Thanksgiving night in a steel cage. His credibility and charisma during this period were at an all-time peak.
FLAIR’S ALWAYS BEEN THERE
Since that time, pro wrestling and my understanding of it has grown and changed in completely unexpected ways, but the one constant has always been the presence of Flair. Whether it was watching him win the U.S. belt from Snuka, trade chops with Wahoo McDaniel or Ron Garvin, exchange jobs with Roddy Piper, win the Mrs. from Jimmy Garvin, or carry Dusty or Nikita or El Gigante far past their meager abilities to enjoyable matches, his effort and commitment to entertaining fans could never be questioned.
There were lowlights, of course, more of them in recent years, such as the time Flair, suffering from the flue, did an eight-minute job to Ron Simmons in front of a meager, unenthusiastic crowd. I never agreed with those that harped that Flair always wrestled in a set pattern. How he employed hyssops was always dictated by the quality of his opponent. A no-talent like the Junkyard Dog may’ve gotten the set repertoire with little change, but a great wrestler who could keep up with or challenge the ‘Naitch would find an infinite number of seamless variations to work with. Matches against Tully Blanchard, Ricky Morton, Barry Windham, Terry Funk, or Flair’s all-time greatest foe, Ricky Steamboat, were classics of the improvisational working form.
MOTHER NATURE IN SYNCH WITH FLAIR
Of all the times I have seen Flair wrestle live, one moment stands out. The Champion, as a face, was defending against the imitator Buddy Landel at Raleigh’s Dorton Arena in front of a sellout, truancy crowd. Norton is a small facility on the North Carolina Fairgrounds and was designed by Buckwinister Fuller in an elliptical style with windows all around the top of the building. There was a tremendous thunderstorm that night and, as Flair took landed straight up for a suplex, lightnign lit up the windows to provide a celestial backdrop to the struggle below. As Flair dropped Landel to the mat, thunder clapped in perfect synch with the action.
It was as if Nature herself acknowledged her Boy for his greatness.
For all of Flair’s talent and passion for performing, there is unfortunately a negative side to his persona. Due to the sadly lacking professionalism in almost every big star of the day, from Sting to Sid Justice to the Steiners, has crippled his image and his box office power. Flair’s willingness to sell for and beg away from everyone - from the biggest star to the lowliest jobber - has finally stripped him of any potency in the normal fan’s eye. He is now the very model of the Undeserving Champion.
THE DUSTY RHODES INFLUENCE
This loss has been a long time in coming. Flair started his career as a main eventer in the heel role. Even though he sold for guys like Steamboat and Wahoo McDaniel, there was also a very credible physical threat to anyone who got in the ring with him. Fans were in both awe and fear of the man. That continued after Flair’s turn and subsequent successful quests for the NWA World Title. The worm turned, however, with the arrival of the anti-Flair, Dusty Rhodes, to the booker’s position at Jim Crockett Promotions.
Rhodes knew that he could never maintain his position as the bell and end-all of every show in Flair remained a top babyface. He designed a role for Flair in which Flair used his charisma and position to elevate everyone else in the promotion at his own expense. It would have been more than interesting to see what would have happened if he had been treated the way Titan Sports treated Hulk Hogan. What if everyone in the company laid their shoulders to the mat for Flair… cleanly?
For years, Flair retained the NWA Title by the slimmest of technicalities. It was thought that the Nature Boy was “bulletproof,” that he could be damaged in any way and he could come out on TV the next week and make it right with one of his patented raps. Flair never beat anyone cleanly and had to use the he;p of a gang to accomplish anything in the storyline. It is a tribute to his talent and charisma that after years of this shabby treatment by management that Flair could walk out to standing ovations while Dusty’s value as a performer all but disappeared.
The damage was, in the long run, more than even Flair’s persona and work ethic could withstand. The fiasco of Jim Herd’s leadership led to an open feud between management and their most valuable commodity. The presence of the era’s greatest talent mocked the pettiness and incompetence of Herd and Dusty at every turn. Ric Flair was everything that each man claimed to be and was not, in Herd’s case, a money-making success and, in Rhodes’s case, a man who could truthfully claim to be the greatest wrestler of his time. It was inevitable that Flair came to a parting of the ways with these people.
Like most fans, I was excited when Flair made the jump to the Fed and that he was allowed to bring his championship belt and history with him. History had been stripped from every other wrestler ever to walk through the Whiff’s golden arches. Ric Flair was different.
Bobby Heenan did a superlative job of setting the stage for his arrival with serious, heated interviews reminiscent of the glory days of Nick Bockwinkel. The Nature Boy’s introduction on Prime Time was the best interview in years and an awe-inspiring piece of television. Flair hitting Roddy Piper with the chair was also the best angle of the year and shocking in its intensity, particular for a promotion that aims at an eight year old audience. Flair was poised to top his career with what should have been the biggest money feud of the decade. A series with Hulk Hogan, the most successful box office attraction in the history of the sport, should have meant the kind of attention and exposure from the mainstream media that he had always deserved.
This was easy enough that the average reader of Apter magazines could have successfully booked it; Ric Flair comes out of nowhere with his championship, challenges Hogan to a match at the Royal Rumble, shocks the world by kicking out of the legdrop, and forces Hogan to submit to his devastating figure-four leglock after being locked in the figure-four eight grueling, intense mignonettes. Flair then lays waste to every other challenger and, in his spare time, fires up on the Arsenio Hall Show. Hogan vows to retire if he cannot beat Flair in the rematch at WrestleMania.
Everyone goes to the bank. Simple, right?
Only if Titan is in the business just to make money. It is obvious that Flair’s impacts been deliberately destroyed to somehow illustrate the WWF’s superiority to their unacknowledged competition. Anyone who recalled Flair and Piper’s legendary feud in the Carolinas felt a chill run down their spines when Roddy walked out and spoke the catchphrase from a decade earlier: “I scare Flair.” But Piper had no intention of rekindling his career by working with his favorite opponent. He just knew that if he wrestled Flair, he could work the top of the card with a guy who would do all the selling and work while he laid back and played Mr. Invincible. Sure, he would get pinned in some flukey way, but he would even get to beat the guy up again after the match.
Bobby Heenan also is a cleverly disguised undermining of what Flair’s career has been all about. Keenan started out as an asset to Flair, but his silly comedic persona has taken away from Flair’s credibility. Keenan, though, does not want to travel on the road, so a new manager is needed. Without a manager, Flair might actually get credit for one of his victories. A manager can always be there to interfere and share credit in every Flair victory. Otherwise, a manager net to Flair, one of wrestling’s greatest talkers, is excess baggage.
Originally, in the NWA, J.J. Dillon managed Flair because Rhodes believed it would lessen Flair’s appeal a little and Dillon could be trusted to talk more favorably toward “The American Dream” than his own man, “The Nature Boy.” Dillon, several years later, set in his WWF office position, would not be Heenan’s replacement.
Jim Cornette was offered the position to manage Flair. Cornette, who for some reason still believes in the integrity of professional wrestling, turned down the job.
The next choice was “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig. Perfect is as great a talent as any wrestle, but has no idea how to put heat on anyone else. He is also younger and larger than Flair. He dresses more like a jock than a manager. He spends as much time talking about his own greatness as he does talking about Flair’s. As a manager, he far from Perfect.
WWE SNEERS AT FLAIR’S CREDENTIALS
At least Heenan and Perfect acknowledge Flair as a champion. Everyone else in the Federation, from Shawn Mooney to Vince McMahon, is constantly sneering the words “alleged real world champion.” Titan acknowledges Flair’s history in the most disrespectful fashion possible because they want to destroy it. Ric Flair is the personification of the history of the old NWA. The digitalization of his belt beyond what was legally required only underscores the disrepute of Flair’s championship claim. The mix of his character with lesser lights like The Warlord and Flair’s place in chains of ten second interviews with all the worn out Fed cartoon characters have erased any aura of uniqueness Flair might have had when he came in.
The most galling aspect of the misuse of his character dovetails with Flair’s seemingly pathological need to put over any and all wrestlers he faces whether they deserve that treatment or not. Flair “won” the Survivor Series by the most ridiculous fluke that the Fed could design.. He only pinned one guy, British bulldog, and that thanks to outside interference. The only thing a casual fan would ascertain from the Series about Flair is that he is a lucky guy who gets beat up a lot.
NO LIMIT TO FLAIR’S DEGREDATION
The worst case, so far, should have been a shining moment: Ric Flair vs. Titan’s best worker, Shawn Michaels. After a glimpse of what this match could have been, Michaels leaped over the top rope and “knocked himself cold” on the ring barrier. Marty Jannetty tried to revive him and then tolled his unconscious body into the ring. Flair then pinned him… with his feet on the ropes!.
MacAulay Culkin could have pinned this guy cleanly, but Ric Flair the record-setting greatest World Champion of all time, had to put his feet on the ropes to pin a dead man.
There seems to be no limit to degradation that the Nature Boy is willing to endure in order to have a chance to win the WWF belt. The stage is set for Flair to win the belt in the biggest fluke in the sport’s history at the Royal Rumble. Vince McMahon and gang really had to squeeze their creativity glands to come up with a scenario in which Flair could win the WWF World Title but actually credibility. They’ve done it.
Flair can win the Royal Rumble without even toughing a fly. Every other champion in the WWF’s history at least got to pin someone for credibility sake. Ultimate Warrior, a guy whose unprofessional behavior got him kicked out of the spot - and imagine how unprofessional that must be - got the courtesy of a pin over someone to win the belt… not just any “someone,” but the immortal Hulk Hogan.
Washed up old Sgt. Slaughter even got to pin someone to win the belt.
But not the wrestlers of the ‘80s as voted by Torch readers.
ONLY FLAIR CAN STOP THIS INJUSTICE
There is only one man who can stop this travesty. Ric Flair can stand up and demand to pin Hulk Hogan or even bother star - Randy Savage, for instance - to win the Royal Rumble. If Flair does not, he will be the worst, most undeserving champion in the history of all sports in the eyes of the WWF’s customers.
Flair is not going to get the chance to carry Hulk Hogan to a great match for several reasons:
Hogan no longer cares about work in the ring. He knows now that he is not going to be a major movie star for Disney or anyone else. The steroid scandal is inevitably going to bring his All-American image to a disgraceful end. By WrestleMania, Flair might be lucky to get a three-star match out of Hogan before resting his shoulders on the mat as Hogan leg drops him and the referee counts to three.
Flair presumably took a substantial pay-cut as he entered the WWF. Only Flair and his family know his financial situation and whether he can afford to make another stand. He obviously takes pride in his craft. He has built a tremendous reputation and it is his right to sell out that reputation at any time for any price.
THE HERITAGE OF WRESTLING AT STAKE
But Ric Flair should remember he is not only repudiating his own heritage, but that of a hundred-year-old pro sport. He is selling out Billy Robinson and Verne Gagne, who trained him, Johnny Valentine, who took him under his wing and taught him to be a real heel, Wahoo McDaniel, who taught him that trademarked chop, and the Crockett Family, who brought him back from bankruptcy and gave him the opportunity to be a star.
He is selling out all of the promoters who believed in him enough to make him the World Champion. he is selling out Stranger Lewis, and Lou Thesz, and Gene Kiniski, and Dory Funk, and every other champion who sacrificed to make the NWA belt mean something. He is selling out the scores of great wrestlers whom he faced during his title reign. He is selling out every person in the business who was inspired by his work ethic to be their best.
This year, the man who was Flair’s peer and ultimate counterpart, Rick Steamboat, took off his clown costume and said, “Enough!” If Ric Flair does not do the same, and soon, he must take the responsibility and blame for his own degradation.
A year from now, though, if nothing changes, his credibility in the business will be all but finished. The career that should have ended with a flourish will end like many others - sadly.
THE TORCH REACHES MORE COMBAT ENTERTAINMENT FANS THAN ANY OTHER SOURCE
PWTorch editor Wade Keller has covered pro wrestling full time since 1987 starting with the Pro Wrestling Torch print newsletter. PWTorch.com launched in 1999 and the PWTorch Apps launched in 2008.
He has conducted "Torch Talk" insider interviews with Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Steve Austin, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Eric Bischoff, Jesse Ventura, Lou Thesz, Jerry Lawler, Mick Foley, Jim Ross, Paul Heyman, Bruno Sammartino, Goldberg, more.
He has interviewed big-name players in person incluiding Vince McMahon (at WWE Headquarters), Dana White (in Las Vegas), Eric Bischoff (at the first Nitro at Mall of America), Brock Lesnar (after his first UFC win).
He hosted the weekly Pro Wrestling Focus radio show on KFAN in the early 1990s and hosted the Ultimate Insiders DVD series distributed in retail stories internationally in the mid-2000s including interviews filmed in Los Angeles with Vince Russo & Ed Ferrara and Matt & Jeff Hardy. He currently hosts the most listened to pro wrestling audio show in the world, (the PWTorch Livecast, top ranked in iTunes)
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