I don’t think there’s any arguing Ric Flair and his impact on pro wrestling from the 1980s through the 2000s and his in-ring legacy that continues through his daughter Charlotte.

    Actually unpacking why and how Ric Flair became a mainstay, rose to legendary status and remains as his era’s most important touchstone not named Hulk Hogan is something else.  Ultimately I think the answer revolves around the not-Hulk Hogan approach Flair took to being a wrestling star. For instance, the story other wrestlers tell of Hogan these days comes mostly in the form of unpacking Hogan lies (or asking him outright to stop talking about another wrestler’s legacy as both Randy Savage’s and Ultimate Warrior’s families have asked him to just not discuss the two in his own self-important inflated retellings of history) or in telling of Hogan’s paranoia and willingness to bury anyone to stay in the spotlight.  

    Having spent countless hours watching wrestling documentaries with and about Flair, having read his autobiography, having seen what other wrestlers say in their autobiographies, and listened to many a podcast—the silly and the serious ones—the story is much different.  Its clear Flair is indeed as complicated as his legacy. He is flawed, he is a human behind the persona. However, opposed to Hogan, one comes to the realization that Flair is nearly universally praised by his fellow wrestlers, wrestling media, and promoters.

    First, I think it’s important to note that there appear to be 3 Ric Flairs, and anyone of them is likely to pop up when he gives a talking head on a documentary or interview behind the scenes.  The 3 Ric Flairs are fairly distinguishable by 3 distinct personalities: Honest Flair, Performer Flaaaiiiirrrrr, and Petulant Flair.

    Honest Ric Flair is the one writing the book, whether it’s his autobiography or booking for WCW.  For instance, when Flair talks about Kerry von Erich on the mic for a promo on TV (that’s Performer Flaaaiiiirrrr); Kerry von Erich is a legend, a god, one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. 

    Read about Kerry von Erich in Ric Flair’s biography and you’ll get a much different telling. One where Kerry von Erich couldn’t concentrate long enough to carry a long match, couldn’t wrestle close to the level of his older brother David von Erich, couldn’t have put on the show that was put on in Texas Stadium in 1984 to win the NWA World Title had the opponent not been someone like Flair himself who could carry long matches.

    As WCW booker, honest Flair was the guy who spotted the up and comers. He also championed guys like Brian Pillman and Alex Wright as future torchbearers. Flair the booker would lose to Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage when it made sense. In other words, as booker, Flair didn’t let his own ego and performance persona get in the way of scouting those that would come after (even elevating them given the mainstay of the mid-card Alex Wright was) or creating threads that wouldn’t come back together in storylines just to get a W.

    As WCW booker, honest Flair was the guy who spotted the up and comers. He also championed guys like Brian Pillman and Alex Wright as future torchbearers. Flair the booker would lose to Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage when it made sense. In other words, as booker, Flair didn’t let his own ego and performance persona get in the way of scouting those that would come after (even elevating them given the mainstay of the mid-card Alex Wright was) or creating threads that wouldn’t come back together in storylines just to get a W.

    You damned sure can’t say that about the other megastars that got the book. Dusty Rhodes continued to book himself in with hot young babyfaces long after he himself actually fit that mould. Creative Control Hogan just plain wouldn’t lose to anybody clean in the WCW, which led to WCW fans turning on him in a way WWF fans never did (or maybe, only just began to in the Sid Justice rivalry).

    And, occasionally, honest Flair does show up in the documentaries and tell-all backstage stories on podcasts.  However, there you’re far more likely to see the Performer or the Petulant.

    Most of the time, I’d say, you can trust the honest tone of his biography and when you catch hints of it in a talking head or podcast.  The Performer Flaaaiiiiiirrrrr is a part of him that’s never going to grow up, that’s always somewhere in his mind, that no matter how old he gets, wants to do, or at least pretend he does, what the cool kids do.  The Petulant Flair seems to have mostly gone by the wayside with age, as it seems most of his wrestling rivalries are buried hatchets, be it with Bret Hart or Mick Foley.

    But, he’s still there a little too—within the last year he attacked the WWE and Becky Lynch, seeking payment or recompense for both using the “The Man” moniker as he claims it is part of his pat “to be the man, you gotta beat the man, and I am the Man” line.  As several snarky Tweeters put it, no word on how “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers feels about all this….

    Petulant Flair, by the way, isn’t always bad.  When former Pizza Hut executive cum wrestling executive producer Jim Herd suggested Flair adopt more of a comic book style gimmick and become a gladiator named Spartacus in the early 1990s in the WCW, Flair said F off and took the WCW World Heavyweight Championship with him to the WWF.

    There we got, I would argue, the best year of WWF television in the pre-1997 where Flair’s arrival through his departure played a major part in every storyline, from Hogan and Undertaker, to Savage, to the Ultimate Warrior, to Mr. Perfect, from the Royal Rumble through the main event of of every major pay per view that year (okay, so there were several “co-Main Events” that year, but still).  

    And yes, sometimes, the three Flairs make things a bit muddy.  The ESPN 30 for 30 sports documentary series has had quite a few gems in its run, including the Ric Flair episode “Nature Boy.”  The focus of that particular documentary is more on Flair’s early career: his time as part of the first class of wrestlers trained in a wintry barn in Minnesota in Verne Gagne and Billy Robinson’s AWA wrestling “school,” a class that also included Greg Gagne and Ricky Steamboat and the Iron Sheik, and the infamous plane crash that left Johnny Valentine paralyzed and was reported to have ended Flair’s career before his courageous comeback.

    That particular episode also has a pretty cool set of splice-ins that animate important moments in the wrestling history it tells. And all that is great to watch. What’s not great to watch is how close the multiple Flairs come into contact with each other in the short episode, and how Flair doesn’t seem aware at all of when they contradict each other.

    At one point in the documentary, the open-buttoned gold chain-wearing Flair is bragging nonstop about how much he could drink, how many rum and Cokes he could throwback, how much partying and how many women his success lead to.  And, of course, how he could get up every day and work out and sweat it out and go wrestle like magic, no worries. This is the Performer, the one who always has to talk about how cool he is, has to brag about the wild lifestyle and his ability to handle it all—this is, after all, a behind the scenes documentary, not kayfabe, not one where Flair is meant to be in the “Nature Boy” character, he just can’t help it.

    Yet minutes later, as the documentary tragically runs through the death of his son Reid, we get Honest Flair again, as he cries and laments how being away from his family so much cost him time with his son he can’t get back now. It’s made sadder by the fact that the viewer can’t help but put the two side by side and say, “Which is it, man? Do you really laud the party-boy lifestyle, or do you see the damage you did?” 

    Another example is his infamous bashing of the “hardcore” style (calling Mick Foley at one point a “glorified stuntman” as the Petulant Flair), yet his open and oft bragging about his willingness to blade and bleed and put on a “show” for the fans.  Again, we have to ask, “Which is it, Ric?”

    So, sometimes you get the story straight from Flair, and sometimes you gotta hack through some bullshit.  This is wrestling after all. No matter which Flair you get, or which one is being told about, one thing emerges as an absolute consistent: he was one of, if not the best, in-ring performer of his generation who, while not necessarily the best at any one particular element of technicality or psychology or showmanship, was the best at putting all three together in a wholistic performance from the opening promo on the microphone to the match in the ring to the sweaty after match interview.  

    For me, what separated Flair from every other wrestler of his time was his sense of historicity on the mic in the build to the match.  I know that sounds nerdy, but in practice, it was brilliant. No other wrestler could list off a resume of matches like Flair, and he did it with a specificity of dates and places and attendance numbers while putting his opponents in those matches over huge.

    As a kid I hadn’t seen Harley Race or David von Erich or Dusty Rhodes in his prime or Magnum T.A. wrestle. But by gawd I thought they were the absolute greatest ever because of the way Flair put them over. And yea, I know Hulk Hogan did this with Andre and the Pontiac Silverdome, but that was the only drum he ever really beat like that.  Ric Flair did it constantly in putting down his current opponent of the time (as in, son, you can’t hang with me because I wrestled in front of 60,000 in Texas Stadium against Kerry von Erich god rest his soul and on and on in the Flair manic style) and its effect is two-fold.

    It put Flair over huge that he could just rattle off legends and dates when he beat them, and it made young viewers like me interested in the larger history of wrestling, which keeps us fans (and if you’re me, retro wrestling columnists) long after we outgrow the wrestling of our childhoods.

    While some, coughBretHartcough, over the years have tried to bury Flair’s in-ring style as too pat, there’s no doubt that the larger conversation around Flair’s in-ring talent was his ability to hold live crowds for long matches with a variety of differently-styled opponents over the years, from brawlers like Harley Race and Dusty Rhodes to high flyers like Steamboat and Sting to the strongmen like Lex Luger and Hulk Hogan.

    If Flair, like any great wrestler (see, LOL, Bret Hart’s “Five Moves of Doom”), has a “pat” set of moves it’s because those standard moves or reactions to moves worked with a variety of audiences over the years. They therefore become incorporated time and again because like with any version of storytelling or entertainment there are things that recur continuously because they quite simply grip and entertain a wide variety of people.

    It’s funny to me that some would criticize Flair for “having the same match over and over” or “always doing the same thing,” but we don’t tend to criticize rock music for “always having guitar” or scary movies for “always having a sudden camera cut where the killer appears” or reflect negatively on the fact that most of us are perfectly happy listening to a particular song or single album in the car hundreds of times. That by way of saying, this argument against Flair’s greatness is simply an argument of convenience, not one anyone actually believes because we all engage in entertainment that does the same thing over and over.

    Post-match, nobody could capture the moment, or establish the pitch of emotion for where the storyline needed to go, more than Flair.  I could go to the post Wrestlemania VIII match with Savage where he is absolutely psychotic having lost the belt, I could go to the post Royal Rumble 1992 win when he uttered the famously Minnesota-tinged “this is the greatest moment of my life” line.  But the absolute greatest for the child-me was, believe it or not, a WCW Uncensored where Flair (having been storyline retired by Hogan at Halloween Havoc 1994) came out of the crowd cross-dressed as a woman to beat the hell out of Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan at different points in the evening.  His interview with Vader after the Hogan-Vader main event where he is still half in drag, with makeup and nail polish, is completely unhinged.

    Before that, I had no sense of the psychotic lengths Flair could drum up for his character (you know, the guy who starts stripping naked in the ring). It set up a months-long rivalry between he and Savage where both continued to act at their absolute most crazy (saying something for those two).  THAT became the storyline that finally put WCW on par with the WWF for a time as it was during this storyline, not the nWo invasion a year later, that WCW Monday Nitro first began to beat Raw in the ratings.

    It wasn’t the incoming Hogan, it wasn’t my favourite Sting, the “franchise” of WCW (a moniker bestowed by Flair, by the way). It was the guy who had been carrying the company since the first Starrcade, that headlined 10 Starrcades, that won the NWA/WCW world title more than anyone else: Ric Flair was the reason the WCW started competing with the WWF in the mid-1990s.

    In many ways, that’s terribly ironic too.  You wouldn’t think the stalwart being the stalwart involves some level of uncertain events, but the fact is Jim Herd wasn’t the only head of the company that tried to reinvent and downplay Ric Flair over the years.

    While the first few Starccades did showcase Flair as the youngster, by the late 80s, just as Vince McMahon looked continuously for the “next Hogan” out of fear of when Hogan left him or became unpopular, Crockett/WCW wrestling executives continuously sought to have Flair, the now veteran heel, replaced by something more like an all-American Hogan babyface to carry the company.  And it never worked out. Sting kept vying for that spot, but a couple of unfortunate injuries over the years kept derailing what should have been longer title pushes. By the time Hogan himself came in 1994, Sting would never, never get a lengthy run with the belt (only Hogan got to do that in the era of Hogan).

    Lex Luger kept vying for that spot, but, as in the WWF in the mid-90s, Luger proved to be Luger on the microphone.  He never could sustain momentum from in-ring success because his interviews and promos were either so gawd awful or so lackluster that fans couldn’t stay with him. Dusty couldn’t hold that spot because he’d slowed down too much and pissed off too many people with his own self-important booking by the late 80s and early 90s. Flair, on the other hand, just stayed on top.  

    When Flair did go for the famous 1991-1992 run in the WWF the WCW couldn’t fill the void.  The ever intriguing Vader as champion was phenomenal in it’s own way, but outside of Vader matches, the WCW crowds everywhere chanted “We want Flair!” all year long.  When the WCW put the belt on face Ron Simmons, he hadn’t yet become popular enough to overcome the void left by Flair and fans mercilessly chanted for Flair’s return throughout his run.

    Flair did eventually go back, and, as I said, it was really he and Savage that ignited WCW’s late 1990s popularity (I was already a fan having been drawn more to Steamboat and Sting and Vader than any WWF stars not named Jake Roberts) that the nWo boom took over (and in some ways destroyed).

    All along the way, Flair was the anti-Hogan.  Where Hogan refused to lose clean like ever (I can only recall 1996’s Starccade loss to Roddy Piper which was announced afterwards somehow as a non title match), Ric Flair lost all the time.  One reason Flair is a 16 time champion of his main promotion and Hogan was only a 5 time champion of his is that Flair understood the importance of other wrestlers being important. Flair knew that it was better overall for he and Steamboat to be strong, so they traded wins.  Same with Sting. Same with Luger.  

    Hogan’s booking was always to destroy one heel after another, relegating them to the mid-card after the Hogan storyline (think Orndorff, Earthquake, or King Kong Bundy).  Anyone not named Piper or Savage or Flair over the years that engaged in a long feud with Hogan wound up lesser in standing afterwards. It even happened with Andre the Giant, who never got a main event or anything outside of a slapdash tag team championship with Haku after Wrestlemania IV and his year long rivalry with Hogan was done.  

    The exact opposite has been true with Flair, who elevated every person he had a rivalry with, before, during and after.  Sting, Steamboat, von Erich, Luger… everyone single one of them came out more revered, more popular, more accomplished as in-ring performers after ultimately losing rivalries with Ric Flair.  

    Flair wasn’t the most important wrestler of his generation or the last forty years because he was the best at what he did, or because he did the best job of putting himself over, or because he drew the most money.

    • Ric Flair is the most important wrestler of the past 40 years because he made sure the business was better too.
    • Flair is the most important wrestler of the past 40 years because his popularity made other’s popularity.
    • He is the most important wrestler of the past 40 years because he understood that his strength was only made stronger by stronger opponents, not weaker ones, not by unblemished W-L records. 
    • Ric Flair is the most important wrestler of the past 40 years, period.

    You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.