To be the man you have to beat the man. Richard Morgan Fliehr wanted to be that man to the detriment of nearly everything else in his life including multiple marriages and relationships with his children. He accomplished that goal as Ric Flair, the charismatic wrestling persona that came to dominate his own like something out of a Hollywood script. In Stephen King’s “The Dark Half” a writer is faced head to head with the supernatural personification of his pen name in a nod to King’s use of pen names during his career. For Flair it’s the opposite. He is known and loved the world over by his pen name with the struggle being that he has never seemed to like the real man enough.
“Nature Boy”, the new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary by Rory Karpf, who brought us “I Hate Christian Laettner”, tells the story of Ric Flair through the eyes of those who have loved and respected him the most over the course of his life painting a picture of both a very accomplished yet troubled figure.
Flair’s story plays out much like an old episode of VH1 Behind The Music. It is a story of great heights and accomplishments and great depths. So wrestling fans tuning in for the film and streaming it later on ESPN’s Watch ESPN app hoping to see a greatest hits reel might be disappointed as the film spends less time with clips of his greatest matches, though there are definitely some wonderful segments on them, and more on the complexity of the man’s life and personality. The film explores addiction, but not to drugs, though it does touch on Flair’s regular drinking habits. The real addiction is to Ric Flair. It leaves the audience asking the question penned by Hank Williams Jr in Family Tradition, “Why must you live out the songs that you wrote?”
“Ric is my friend, for better or worse. I knew he couldn’t stay away from this stuff. And again, I knew when they wanted him to go that he didn’t want to go,” says Shawn Michaels in the upcoming film. “Ric doesn’t love Richard Fliehr. I don’t know that he’s ever taken the time to get to know him, or to find out who in the world he is. He only knows who he is through the image and gimmick of Ric Flair.”
At an appearance following a sneak preview of the film in Raleigh NC, Karpf, who has been a wrestling fan since he was a child, said he did not strike out to tell this version of the story in the first place saying this is the third version of the film. Karpf also pointed out that he made a point not to talk to people with an axe to grind with Flair. This means that people who say the toughest things about the man are coming from a place of friendship and respect.”There are some elements of tragedy in Ric’s life he’s incredibly beloved but he’s paid the price for his lifestyle as well,” said Karpf in an interview with the Streaming Advisor.
The film though is not a pitty piece in any way shape or form. The narrative definitely has its lighter moments from personalities that he helped build into giants in the business like Steve Borden “Sting” who shares an interesting story from a flight with Flair and even a surprise appearance by Snoop Dog who talked about how Flair’s style influenced him and the Hip Hop community. Hulk Hogan also spoke with great reverence on Flair praising his work ethic in comparison to his own. And numerous peers glow about how hard Flair worked to “Put them over” which is a wrestling term for making the opponent look good in the ring. Flair as a wrestler and promoter was one of the greatest showmen and salesmen the business has ever or will ever see, because most in the business are not going to spend the majority of their time getting thrown around and seemingly barely escaping with their lives. Karpf’s film highlights this aspect very prominently.
Another angle explored in the film is Flairs way with women. Flair paints himself like a modern Wilt Chamberlain during the documentary seemingly losing count of his sexual conquests with women across the country. He literally lived exactly the lifestyle that made his promos so electric. It made his character more believable yet this is part of what caused Flair and the people around him pain. His first wife Leslie Goodman, speaks about their marriage and how uncomfortable he seemed as his career took off. Despite their past, she did not use the piece as a way to drive the knife in. “I think she’s suffered a lot from that time period I think she’s moved on with her life. She could have taken the opportunity to really bury him but she didn’t do that to her credit,” Karpf said.
The film paints a story of a complex person who lived what some would call the American Dream of starting out with humble beginnings and arriving at the mountaintop, in Flair’s case the “Space Mountain”. And though Flair’s near brush with death took place before the debut of the piece it does not touch on that aspect instead closing on a happier note about the future of the Flair legacy.
“I just want people to be entertained. To me it’s like a piece of music or a song led a diverse life people could think he’s great or greatly flawed I’ll leave that up to the viewer,” says Karpf.
With a subject like this, how could they not?