The superb documentary Nature Boy, about wrestler Ric Flair, made in America as part of ESPN’s reliable 30-for-30 strand, and showing here on BT on Friday, begins thus:
“I always wanted to be The Man. I could never be just a man. I gave my entire life to the wrestling business. I paid the price. I am the Nature Boy.”
Flair was the icon of professional wrestling’s rise from blue collar travelling roadshow to the global mega-brand that became WWE.
He was big, he was blond, he was a showman, a spender, a womaniser and a drinker. Wrestling could not have become the entertainment behemoth it evolved into without him, but he was ultimately spat out of the bottom of the sport, a sad shadow of the legend he had once been.
Richard Fliehr, as he was then, had been adopted into a modest, measured Midwestern home, and says: “I am sure I disappointed my parents every day.”
He wrestled at the University of Minnesota and was sculpted into a magnificent specimen at trainer Verne Gagne’s wrestling camp. The matches might be fake, but my goodness the training sounds very real indeed: carrying a 16st man up 21 flights of stairs in a fireman’s lift, back down again, then wheelbarrowing up the stairs again. The young wrestlers’ faces were constantly bruised because the wheelbarrowing arms would buckle and they would smash their faces on the steps.
Flair broke his back in a plane crash aged 26 and defied medical verdicts to come back. Greatness seemed to be his destiny. Flair became not just the face of wrestling but an avatar of the 1980s. Adopting the persona of the Nature Boy, he had the mane of blond hair, the flashy robes, the “Woooo!” catchphrase, and the patter of a born hype-man.
“If you don’t like it, learn to love it because it is the best thing going today,” he said of himself. He reckons that he “has been with 10,000 women” and saw himself as the embodiment of a sort of American dream: “Every man wanted to be me. I had the nicest clothes, the biggest house and the most women.
“And I was the best wrestler.” The last claim, at least, seems to be a widely held view: he was a 16-time world champion, and this documentary features several former opponents who pay testament not just to Flair’s skills but his generosity in the ring.
Flair had an instinct for the drama needed in wrestling’s confected matches, the faking, the exaggeration, the need to make the opponent look good rather than merely beating him. And he absolutely loved the attention. “Once I realised how good I was at it, it became a disease.”
Some poor career decisions harmed him (he stuck too long with the Betamax World Championship Wrestling rather than switch to the VHS of the World Wrestling Federation, and by the time he was ported over he was past his prime and Hulk Hogan had stolen his thunder).
Drink and decline took their toll. He lost his money. His son died. He had various retirements, each sadder than the last. The wrestling might have been fake, but this story is real, and recognisable, and the fallen hero remains one of the most familiar and poignant yarns in any sport.
This is as good a telling as you could wish to find, and well worth a look. So “Wooo!”, then, Ric Flair. That was your catchphrase.
Nature Boy will be shown at 10 on Friday, on BT Sport 2