Legendary pro wrestler Ric “Nature Boy” Flair would be the first to tell you that the job’s demands on one’s body, mind and personal life are brutal. Throw in an unquenchable passion for self-promotion and an epic good time, and you have the makings of disaster.
The 68-year-old superstar and I sat down at the Television Critics Association press tour in late July to talk all things Flair, wrestling and this month’s ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Nature Boy, which chronicles the Memphis-born grappler’s personal triumphs and tragedies throughout his four-decade career. Though he would suffer a near-fatal health scare just weeks later, Flair looked tanned, fit and characteristically dapper and was in an amiable, almost introspective mood — until the film’s director Rory Karpf (I Hate Christian Laettner) joined the conversation and spurred Flair into sharing tales from the wilder side of his over-the-top career.
Still, what came through most is a thoughtful guy who owns his active role in abusing his body and his culpability in his children’s rancor, and is intent on making the most of life with his fiancée (and former WCW manager) Wendy Barlow and the joy of watching his daughter Ashley—ring name, Charlotte—take the wrestling world by storm.
On setting no boundaries for Nature Boy
Ric Flair: There’s a sadness in it like everything. I’ve been married four times. Wrestling 42 years, there were times where I would go out on the road for six months and never come home, so I didn’t see my older kids at all. To this day, they still resent it. It’s interesting, when I watch this, to hear what they all had to say. They all cracked on me pretty hard—and that’s OK. I deserved it. But it wasn't ’cause I was neglecting them. I just worked every day.
On the evolution of the industry
Now it’s perceived pretty much exclusively as entertainment. But when I started, nobody cared—I mean, about anything. I’d wrestle till eleven o’clock at night and then I’d be out all night until the bars closed, and then get up the next morning, work out and fly to the next town. Or, when I was younger, drive. We were driving 3,000 miles a week in the seventies. And you had to literally fight sometimes to stay alive in the ring. A big, tough guy would try to eat you up if he didn’t like what the promoter told you to do.
Can't wait for ESPN’s '30 for 30' on Ric Flair? Here are seven other pro-wrestling documentaries to hold you over.
On being bad, but looking good
When I was a good guy, I never got to work with anybody that gave me what I gave them. I like being in control of my own destiny. If I’m a bad guy, they can beat me all night long, but they can’t stop me from looking good.
Speaking of which … that wardrobe
I never wore the same suit on TV, ever. I spent a lot of money on clothes! I called it “image enhancement,” right? [Laughs] When you see the film, you’ll see that — and Rory probably looked at 500 interviews.
On his playboy rep
The flight attendants were great back then. I’ve taken more flight attendants home. Well, not home, but to another town with me. … I’ve only slept with one girl wrestler in my entire career: Sensational Sherri. She was sensational.
On his sons’ time in the ring
I always knew David wasn’t made for the business. He’s always blamed me. Could I have gotten him a job? Yeah. But that’s not the way to come in the business. I got him a couple nice contracts when he was just 21 years old, but he didn’t take it serious enough. He started dating Stacy Keibler. He didn't even tell me, he came home one day and he moved to Baltimore and lived with her. He spent all this money, but instead of working out when we were at the arena, he's up sitting in the steps with her. He never took time to learn. When WWE came along, she left him when she started making it big time. He was devastated. We were at Myrtle Beach and I had to walk him around. He was just dead.
The thing I didn’t discuss, which I've talked about with Rory, is with Ashley’s success and Reid [who fatally overdosed in 2013]. He wasn’t battling like she is. Before he died, he was just so upset, and every day he would say, “I can’t believe she thinks she knows more about wrestling than me.” I knew I was carrying a time bomb around with me, and as proud as he was of her, it just killed him not to be there.
On his own return to the ring
You know, the ratings tell me right now that they got plenty of space for me. I could definitely manage somebody. But it's actually better that I'm not in there with Ashley there, ’cause it’s her time. I don’t want to have them compare her to me. But this opportunity that Rory is giving me here will propel me into a whole different era, I think. I'll become a hero to men. And women are gonna hate me.
30 for 30: Nature Boy documentary premiere, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 10/9c on ESPN