Ric Flair wasn’t always the showboating, flamboyant, platinum blonde juggernaut we know from the ’80s and ’90s wrestling scenes. He started out a mousey-haired little boy from Minnesota with, according to Ric Flair’s official WWE bio, “a chip on his shoulder,” and natural athleticism. He went on to be a skinny little nightclub bouncer, known to some as “Slick Rick.” From there he was recruited into Verne Gagne’s wrestling school where he was pretty much thrown in the deep end with some of the sport’s most accomplished athletes.
In those early days, Flair had to show his grit by getting in the ring with wrestling greats like the Iron Sheik and Dusty Rhodes. In fact, he was mentored and taught by some of the most successful and well-known wrestlers in the world. Under the leadership of these folks, Flair went on to dominate the wrestling scene in the 1980s and is, arguably, one of the most recognizable and famous performers in the genre. In some parts of the world, when you’re asked if “You wanna take a ride on Space Mountain,” people don’t automatically think about Disneyland.
Ric Flair might be the greatest of all time for some wrestling fans, and you might be showing your age if you unequivocally think he’s the GOAT, but there a few critics that agree he’s a little overrated. In the interest of fairness, here are 8 reasons why Ric Flair is the greatest of all time, and 7 reasons why he might be considered overrated. (Please excuse my lack of journalistic impartiality, as I will always think Ric Flair is the best wrestler of all time.)
Let’s start with the great:
8. He’s A Master Shit-Talker
Ric Flair is the master at giving interviews. Anybody who has even seen a few minutes of wrestling knows how important these interviews are to the overall narrative of the show. They establish who you are as a character within that particular storyline, they do more fan service than any single match and they show your charisma.
Charisma, dear readers, is what Ric Flair has in tons. When he gets a microphone in his hand, look out! He has so many rhetorical strategies for eviscerating an opponent that modern day interviews are almost always derivative of his style. He pretty much invented the wrestling interview paradigm, and he is better than any other performer at riling up another wrestler or giving a fan what they want.
Some of his best lines will live forever in our popular culture:
“I’ve got more cars than most of you have friends.”
“I’m addressing YOU as a punk!”
“You’re standing in front of God, right now.”
“Y’all playing catch up ball to The Nature Boy.”
7. He Invented The Figure-4 Leg Lock
‘Invented’ might be a strong word, but at the very least, Ric Flair made it famous. This move is probably the single most recognizable submission hold in the genre of professional wrestling. If you have never tried to put your friend in a figure-4, or been forced into one, then I just don’t know what you were doing with your life in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The Bleacher Report, in their series about iconic wrestling moves, suggests that the figure-4 is so popular because, “it’s mostly used by heel wrestlers, and it can give a great show when the recipient sells the move well. When a baby faces struggles to get out of the hold, the fans usually become crazy and it makes them get on their feet to cheer loudly for their favorite to escape.”
Although Flair isn’t the first wrestler to use this move, he is the wrestler to make it so infamous. You probably can’t say the words “figure-4 leg lock” without recalling that WrestleMania VIII encounter between Ric Flair and Randy Savage. It’s a truly iconic move, made famous by an icon in professional wrestling.
6. He’s A Champ
He’s the winningest contemporary wrestler ever, having taken home 16 World Championships, but, if you ask him, he’s won closer to 21. He’s the only active athlete to be inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame, and in 2012 became the only TWO-TIME inductee.
He claimed his very first championship in 1992’s “Royal Rumble” by lasting sixty minutes in the ring. That’s an INSANE amount of time for one single match, and shows Flair’s endurance, skill, and ability to entertain a crowd. He won the belt a second time by defeating Randy Savage (RIP), and has described this time as, “the greatest year and a half of his career,” excluding his time with The Four Horsemen.
It doesn’t really matter where or for whom Flair wrestles, he consistently wins matches and wins hearts. He is the self-proclaimed, “Rolex wearing, diamond ring wearing, kiss stealing, wheeling-dealing, limousine riding, jet flying, son of a gun.”
5. He Was TV’s First Anti-Hero
Long before Walter White was Breaking Bad or Dexter was the serial killer with a heart of gold, TV audiences had Ric Flair. Flair played heel in the most narrow definition of the word, and he certainly wasn’t a face, but audiences rooted for him no matter what. Flair was bragging about his Lear jets, $600 alligator boots, and stealing kisses from Playmates even when his most avid fans certainly weren’t doing any of those things.
Not only did The Nature Boy strut around like he was better than everyone, fans included, he downright told them he was better, and fans cheered even louder. We knew we ought to hate him a little— because he really was kind of awful— but we never really could. You might even say that Flair is a “postmodern wrestler” in that he subverted established norms within the genre, upending what we expected from a “heel” or a “face.”
4. He’s An Excellent Performer
It’s a well known adage that Ric Flair could have a good match with a broomstick. He has showmanship. What he lacks in technical skill, he makes up for in hard work and commitment to entertain. Even at the height of his career, he knew how to give fans what they wanted, and that often included making his opponent look like the better man in the ring— even when that wasn’t close to being true.
Flair didn’t do anything in half measures, so his screaming, strutting, swaggering exploits in the ring were more melodramatic than any daytime soap opera dreamed of being. He constantly reminded fans and opponents alike, “To be the man, you have to beat the man,” and he had a way of whipping everyone into a frenzy, sometimes using only his microphone skills.
3. That Feather Robe
Ric Flair did have a… well… flair for the dramatic when it came to his costumes and wardrobe. Each robe was more elaborate than the last, and those robes with the attached feather boas were pretty much every single thing to me as a kid. I’d never seen a grown man with as much machismo as Ric Flair walk around in dazzling and glamorous outfits with rhinestones. I was awestruck.
In a time in our culture when masculinity fell on the more conservative and traditional side, Ric Flair bucked every single convention. Probably not because he was thinking progressively or trying to perform some sort of social protest, but because he wanted to be bigger, better and louder than everyone in the room. And he always was.
He talked to Esquire magazine last year about some of his more intricate outfits, “I spent more money on one robe than guys spend in five years.” He brags, “Did I come up with the idea? Yeah. But like everything else, I went overboard. If one was nice, then I wanted one nicer. Then I wanted the next one nicer.”
2. He Paid His Dues
Before Ric Flair was the greatest of all time, he was tagging along with Dusty Rhodes and Dick Murdock, carrying their luggage and getting hazed. Flair traveled with Vern Gagne’s company, and as the lowest man on the totem pole, he often had to suffer as the gopher and the nominated little brother, receiving a lot of ribbing and (sometimes not so) good natured teasing. It’s hard to imagine Ric Flair carrying someone else’s luggage, but he wasn’t afraid to pay his toll.
He also struggled to find his wrestling identity in those early years, trying on a few different personas before finding his stride as The Nature Boy. Yup, that’s our Naitch, looking like a dirty hippie in tie-dyed tights and braids. It wasn’t until he approached Dusty Rhodes about becoming “Rambling Ricky Rhodes” that he got the best advice of his career. The Sportster reports that Rhodes told him, instead, “Why don’t you be the first Ric Flair instead?”
1. He’s A Superlative Athlete
He’s not called “the sixty minute man” for nothing. This man, even well into his 60s, goes into that ring and leaves it all there. He works harder than any other wrestler in the business. Even when he’s been out on one of his infamous partying and drinking binges, Ric Flair was always the first one in the gym.
Bret Hart, one of Flair’s toughest critics, even admired his prowess as an athlete, and fellow wrestlers were continually impressed with his commitment to his fitness. No matter how much honky tonking went on the night before, Flair was up and in the gym by 6am every morning. That’s probably why he’s almost 70 years old and is still able to climb into a ring.
7. He Wasn’t The Original “Nature Boy”
Although Flair had to go through several incarnations to finally settle on his “Nature Boy” persona, he wasn’t the first wrestler to hold this name. Buddy Rogers was a very successful wrestler in the early days of the sport; when televised professional wrestling was pretty new, and a very cheap way to fill the airtime. Rogers was blond, loud, charismatic, and frequently used the figure-4 on his opponents. Bob Green of the Chicago Sun called him “the coolest person of the 20th century” and said, “Nature Boy Rogers was to wrestling what Elvis Presley was to music.”
This is high praise for a performer in a little known sport that was only broadcast on Saturday afternoons. Maybe this is what inspired our Nature Boy to enter wrestling and take on some of Rogers’ attributes. They met in “the battle of the Nature Boys” in 1979, and the winner would get to rightfully hold onto the title. At this point, however, Rogers was well out of his prime, and probably laid down for Flair to carry on the namesake. Which makes me feel a little yuck.
6. The Excess And Lavish Waste
Yes, Ric Flair looked good and he was THE MAN. But those robes were insanely expensive and some cost more than a mid-sized car at the time. Not to be a total bummer, but can you imagine how many hungry mouths just one of his costumes could feed? UpRoxx talks about the sheer excess wrapped up in Flair’s robes, reporting “During the 70s and 80s almost all wrestling robes, including Flair’s, were made by a lady named Olivia Walker, who charged thousands of dollars for the things. Flair’s in particular could cost up to $8,000, which translates to well over $20,000 today.
He was committed to his brand, and all that talk about Lear jets and diamond rings was absolutely true. He would famously walk into a bar and buy rounds of 100 drinks at a time, just to hand them out to the other bar patrons. Although this makes Flair sound like a baller, the amount he spent over the years could probably solve the gross national debt of a small country. It’s really kind of shameful if you think about it.
5. He Prioritized The Persona Over The Athleticism
Ahead of innovating new fight sequences or unusual matches, Flair relied almost solely on his “Nature Boy” persona. At the height of his success and fame, and then increasingly so in his later years, his brand became his only thing. Granted, this brand was one of the most universally recognized and profitable in all of popular culture, but it was one-dimensional.
Perhaps if Flair had been more occupied with his in-ring skills, and less concerned with Lear Jets and alligator belts, there might not have been a need for the second half of this list. We could all just agree that he’s the greatest of my time, if not all time.
4. He Wrestled Too Long After His Prime
As a man with as much bravado and swagger as Ric Flair, retiring might seem beneath you. But it takes a certain amount of courage to admit that you just aren’t the man you used to be, physically, and just step down. Flair has done enough in his day to cement his legacy as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, but the longer he drags out the career, the more tarnished it becomes. There is something to be said for leaving on a high note.
When Flair returned to WWE in 2001, he was already well into his 50s. Still a man in incredible shape, he held his own in plenty of matches against younger men, but the gimmicks were less sustainable for a man of his age. I’ll admit, it’s hard to watch a man in his 60s get bladed and have his pants pulled down. At some point it stops being fair play and ventures into plain ol’ mean.
3. He’s A Family Feud Champion
I don’t want to get too petty about this because there’s a long history of professional wrestlers appearing on Family Feud. But I like my legends to be pristine, and appearing on a daytime game show just waters down the legacy a little. Besides, watching Flair out of the context of the elaborate productions of the weekly shows was like watching a dog walk on its hind legs.
Although he did fairly well and held his own with the flow of the show, it felt awkward and a little sad. I kept hoping he was punking us all and would turn heel on the host and fellow contestants. He didn’t (and the episode was the worst for it, trust me) and a little part of my Ric Flair-loving heart died as whispers of “sell-out” floated around the professional wrestling universe.
2. He’s Kind Of A Creep
Not that long ago, news broke about Flair claiming he had a past sexual relationship with Halle Berry. Yes, Bond-girl, X-(Wo)Man Halle Berry. Most of us were surprised, and some of the lesser evolved among us were high-fiving and secretly congratulating Slick Ric. Flair claimed on his radio show that Berry “had taken a ride on Space Mountain,” which is just code for had sex with him.
FOX News reported the story back in October, quoting Flair’s conversation with partner, Conrad Thompson. FOX reported, “‘She was in Atlanta and just got divorced from David Justice,’ Flair said after claiming he had slept with ‘several dozen’ stars.When asked by his co-host Conrad Thompson if he was making the story up, Flair replied: ‘Would I have to make up a lie?’” Except, according to Berry’s publicist, it is a lie. When asked to comment on Flair’s claims, Berry’s rep said, “His claims are not true.”
It’s also rumored that Flair would use his title belts as collateral for loans, since they were the only thing of real value he had in his possession. He would waltz into a bank, ask for money, and if they dared to decline him, he would flop the belt down on the desk, and walk out with a check. This is a story among many about Flair’s financial problems during his career.
1. He Has Limited In-Ring Skills
For as much showboating and hot doggin’ Flair did outside the ring, he relied on a uniform checklist for almost every match. Although he gave it his all and made his opponents look good in every match-up, Flair didn’t have a substantial playbook and his detractors list this as the number one reason why he’s overrated.
His routines followed a pretty predictable pattern: he starts with his infamous chops, “wooing” with each one. Then look for the Flair flop, maybe with a blade job and a crimson mask. Then we’re on to a back body drop, a failed attempt at some top rope move, and then we’re finishing up with the figure-4 with optional reversal by the opponent. Sometimes we’ll get a little bare ass, depending on what channel we’re watching.
All this makes for a signature Ric Flair performance, but it doesn’t really go a long way to prove his diversity and invention inside the ring.