I have been a non-fan of pro wrestling for nearly 20 years. However, ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ “Nature Boy,” a brilliant and honest portrayal of wrestling megastar Ric Flair, was one of the most compelling documentaries of its kind because of its storytelling.
I first saw Flair in 1974 during my first weekend at the University of Georgia. I flipped on “Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling” on WFBC in Greenville, S.C. The veteran Rip Hawk and Flair had just won the Mid-Atlantic tag team championship. At the time, I didn’t see anything special about the young upper Midwesterner. During interviews, Hawk—a veteran heel (as villains are termed inside the wrestling industry)—did most of the talking. Flair was a couple of years away from developing the persona that propelled him to the top of his profession in the early 1980s.
When he based his ring character on the flamboyance of earlier star “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, Flair struck gold. His work ethic was unsurpassed in his field. Ed Capral, one of the great announcers of the era between 1955 and 1975, told me Flair was “the greatest showman I’ve ever seen in wrestling.” Capral had seen the original Gorgeous George, the legendary Haystacks Calhoun and Andre the Giant. In his field, Capral knew of which he spoke.
In the microcosm world of pro wrestling, Ric Flair was regarded by people who grew up well before the Hulk Hogan transformation of 1984 as the greatest performer in the genre’s history. However, as the documentary indicated, Flair sacrificed wives, children, his health and relationships to experience the love from entertainment he obviously never found from his adoptive parents. In the early moments of “Nature Boy,” we learned that the Fleiers were major patrons of the arts. Their son Richard was far more interested in the theater of sport. Behavioral conflicts resulted in him being sent away to a boarding school as an older teen. People who only knew of Ric Flair as a master of a figure-four leglock may not have been aware of the juxtapositions of his childhood. He had parents; yet, he conveyed his own emotions that he felt they were never “there” for him.
Flair talked of the difficult year of recovery after suffering a broken back in a plane crash on the way to a Sunday afternoon card in Wilmington, N.C., October 4, 1975. He experienced days rethinking his presentation in the ring if, against the odds, he could physically return to wrestling.
By 1981, he was the consummate star in his profession. He won the NWA world heavyweight championship from his consistent foe of the eighties, Dusty Rhodes. As several of his colleagues related in “Nature Boy,” Richard Morgan Fleier began living the character of Ric Flair. His first wife Leslie detailed how he would come home for a day, say how bored he was, and leave. A world of women, sex, expensive clothes and alcohol to a degree few could fathom became Flair’s environment. He detailed a period of nearly three years in which “I was never at home.” At the end of the documentary, he admitted to being anything but a model husband and father. I was taken back to an interview with one of the late Jack Webb’s associates on “The Stu Shostak Show” a few years back. Webb became a television legend with two successful incarnations of the police series “Dragnet” and developed a television empire. With all that success, Webb had multiple marriages and could not escape his true marriage to television. “Jack was a bad father,” said one of his long-time colleagues to Shostak.
“Nature Boy” revealed the heartbreak of Flair’s son Reid’s death from a drug overdose. Ric obviously had a relationship with Reid that he never had with his own father or his older son David. Reid emulated his father’s alter ego, only the issues with alcohol expanded into drugs.
The documentary portrayed a man who could not leave the stage. In sports, I remember the sadness of seeing Johnny Unitas in a San Diego Chargers uniform. One of the all-time greats of the NFL simply did not know when to quit. In his last year with the New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle could only muster a .236 batting average and took three feeble swings in a final All-Star game in which he should never have been included. Ric Flair in his 60s is far more of a nostalgic figure that in some respects is sad to watch.
The two key lines I took away from “Nature Boy” were from one of his younger colleagues and his son David. Said Michaels: “Ric doesn’t know Richard Fleier. I don’t think he’s ever taken the time to get to know who he is.” From David Fleier, his son from his first marriage: “I don’t want my children to have the kind of life I had.” David was referring to his perpetually absentee father.
Many of Flair’s long-time fans are probably dissecting the documentary for its omissions of some of pro wrestling history they hoped would be included. Those who are miss the point of “Nature Boy” or any other documentary.
I teach a news documentary class at Union University every spring. For five years, students are assigned a semester-long project to develop a half-hour examination of an issue of significant community interest. Some of them have difficulty grasping that documentaries that hit the spot are not just facts and figures, nor are they solely historical. They are stories. Storytelling at its most compelling is what sells a documentary to viewers.
The production of “Nature Boy” was a deep and penetrating character study that showed adulation, fame and so-called perks that go with stardom and the contradiction of the selfishness of a man who never should have married or had children. The emotional pain we saw from his first wife Leslie in her interview and from Ric’s oldest son were clearly evident.
While watching, I was reminded how we all are guilty of putting entertainment stars on pedestals because we love or obsess over how they entertain us. Yet, life away from the stage is often a dichotomy. Many of us paid to watch Ric Flair deliver a textbook performance in sports entertainment on multiple occasions. He always gave us our money’s worth. His life away from the ring and the bright lights was another story.
Ric Flair almost died three months ago. Years of alcohol to the excess finally took a toll doctors and friends had warned him of for years. In an interview on SiriusXM radio three weeks ago, Flair said, “It’s a miracle that I’m even here talking to you. I’m never going to have a drop of alcohol again.” I hope he sticks to that. He may not have another comeback remaining.
“Nature Boy” held my interest because of its depth in a fashion that a puff piece on Flair’s career would not have. Many of those who have showered him with adulation through the decades probably do not see the story through the same glasses as did I. As the tale unfolded, I was reminded of the closing days of Mickey Mantle when he learned cancer was about to take him after years of alcohol abuse. The Mick was one of my childhood heroes. Yet, in the last interview he gave before he died, he said, “Don’t be like me.” Flair did not have to say that in “Nature Boy.” The 90-minute story did.