When looking back on the Hall of Fame career of Ric Flair, memories of top-class matches with Ricky Steamboat, Terry Funk, Dusty Rhodes, and Sting come straight to mind. Equally, vivid memories of Flair’s time leading the Four Horseman and the magical retirement angle with Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 24 spring to thought. But what often gets overlooked is the brief but impactful storyline Ric Flair and Triple H had in 2003. Even as a 54-year-old, this flash-in-the-pan scenario showed fans precisely who the real Ric Flair was!
Ric Flair and Triple H – “One Night Only”
With so many career highs and standout moments, a truly great (albeit short) story can sometimes get overlooked. A storyline between Ric Flair and Triple H started in the opening segment of May 19th, 2003’s episode of Monday Night Raw. Just as quickly as it began, it virtually concluded in the same show’s main event. Here we look back on that night Ric Flair walked that aisle once again to challenge Triple H for the World Heavyweight Title.
We start, quite fittingly, in “Flair Country.” This 2003 episode of Monday Night Raw emanated from Greenville, South Carolina, the site of many great Flair and Horseman moments of yesteryear. One day removed from the WWE Judgement Day pay-per-view of that year, the show opened with Stone Cold Steve Austin operating as the Co-General Manager of the Red brand. After spending some time recapping the previous evenings’ exploits, Steve Austin introduced World Champion Triple H and his aide Ric Flair to the ring.
Not amused by how Triple H retained his title the previous evening, Austin declared that Triple H would indeed wrestle that evening. Further to the champion’s protests, Austin states that he will be defending his world title in that contest. After more discussion on the topic, Stone Cold declared he had sympathy for the “beat up” champion and will allow him to pick his opponent with one stipulation: any challenger he decides upon must be a former world champion. Austin even goes as far as to list some available options for Triple H. These include Kane, Chris Jericho, previous night opponent Kevin Nash, and long term adversary Shawn Michaels. It is interesting to note that even in 2003, the mention of “The Heartbreak Kid” is receiving the loudest and most exciting crowd reaction of those listed.
Ever the strategist, Triple H declares he will indeed wrestle a former world champion. He explains further that he will fight “the greatest former world champion,” naming a shocked Ric Flair as his challenger for later in the show. With that one declaration, possibly the best one show storyline in the history of Monday Night Raw began.
Ric Flair and Triple H – The Best One Show Storyline in WWE Monday Night Raw History?
To appreciate further how excellent this angle was, we need to look back at that time with a little more detail. At this point in 2003, Triple H was very much the king of Sports Entertainment. With Steve Austin now retired from in-ring action, The Rock working part-time in Hollywood, and relative newcomer Bill Goldberg struggling to find his feet, the main event scene on Monday Night Raw was quite sparse. The Scott Steiner experiment that started a mere six months prior had already got abandoned as “Big Poppa Pump” found himself slipping down the card. Shawn Michaels had spent most of his time since returning in August 2002 feuding with Triple H, and there were no real options left for further matches between the two. The current number one contender was a recently returned Kevin Nash. Still, doubts remained over Nash’s ability to connect with the crowd in a fan-favorite role as well as concerns over the former nWo member’s injury record. With so few options available, Triple H was seen as “The Man” on Monday nights, and the possibility of him losing the world title very distant indeed.
On the other hand, Ric Flair was not carrying a similar lofty status but rather the world champion’s bags. Despite being recognized as one of the greatest to ever step into the wrestling ring, it seemed that Flair’s swagger and confidence of previous decades had deserted him. At 54 years of age, no-one could reasonably expect “The Nature Boy” of 1989 in the ring, but that was not the issue. The concern with Ric Flair at this time was his on-screen and off-screen demeanor. Gone was the brash confidence of the limousine riding son of a gun, replaced instead by standing almost statuesque alongside Helmsley. Involved in angles yes, appearing at the top of the show each week yes, but still very much in Triple H’s muscular shadow. Flair himself has often spoken about this time in his career and the lack of self-confidence he had, most recently on the WWE Network’s excellent “Ruthless Aggression” series. In this series, Flair explained that it was Triple H, who helped him out of this down period, both on and off-screen. The two distant points these characters were at in their careers back in 2003 just added to the intrigue and story played out on that May edition of Raw.
Later in the show, we see Ric Flair and Triple H entering the locker room backstage. An excited Flair explains how much this opportunity means to him and attempts to thank the world champion. Triple H explains that he has not chosen Ric Flair because “he is Ric Flair,” but instead because he expects his ally to lie down for him. Describing how beat up he was after the previous evening’s match against Kevin Nash, Hunter explains how his choosing of Flair was to stick it to Austin. The plan was after talking a little trash to each other in the ring, Ric would lie down, accept the pin, and the pair can effectively have the night off. In the first hint towards what was coming that night, the Greenville live crowd booed this, and Ric Flair looked disappointed at what Triple H expected him to do.
A short while later on the show, we see Ric Flair backstage again as Shawn Michaels approaches him. In a beautiful example of the real-life respect Michaels has for Flair, a visibly emotional Ric listens as “HBK” explains that Flair inspired him as a youngster, and he has been trying for 15 years to reach the highs that “The Nature Boy” had in his career. As Michaels explains to Flair, he cannot just go out there and lie down, and the Greenville crowd reacted once again towards the supposed heel Nature Boy.
As the watching fans are still unsure of Ric’s intent at this stage, we cut to Flair backstage once again. The ever irrepressible Jim Ross on commentary declares, “I think Flair’s feeling it, King!” as “Slick Ric” stands before a mirror in full Nature Boy garb. Still looking a little emotional, Flair poses and “WOOOO!”s in typically extravagant style before turning to leave the room as the live crowd cheers.
Eventually, we see Ric Flair approaching a very relaxed looking Triple H in the trainer’s room. Hunter sat chuckling at Freddie Blassie’s book, which he was reading (highly recommended book), seems surprised by Flair wanting to speak with him. In your author’s opinion, what then follows is one of the best promos of this era on WWE television. Again, blurring the lines between the story they are trying to tell on this night and the real-life feelings of the players involved, Flair starts explaining how Hunter helped him get back on his feet while experiencing his crash in confidence months previously. With each sentence “The Nature Boy” delivered, you can see the Ric Flair of old returning more and more. Declaring he wants to see if he can still compete with the best, Flair makes sure Helmsley knows he is not going to lie down for anyone.
If you decide to re-watch one thing from this episode of Monday Night Raw (which I highly recommend you do), the obvious choice is the match to come. However, this verbal performance by Flair is a very close second. Referencing his issues and how Triple H helped get him back on his feet, he builds to a crescendo in a way only Ric Flair can. Even the most non-believing fans may have started to think for a fleeting moment, “Perhaps Flair might be able to pull off the unthinkable?”
The Match – Does Ric Flair Pull Off The Upset?
The match itself between Ric Flair and Triple H is everything you could wish it to be. Flair’s entrance is greeted by an excitable South Carolina crowd, daring to believe that their aging hero could possibly have one last big win in him. This is not a Ric Flair lacking confidence, but rather “The Nature Boy” in all his glory as he saunters to the ring in his glorious robe and requests for the referee to hold the ropes open for him. On commentary again, Jim Ross provides the perfect soundtrack as he declares, “Flair has his game face on,” and stands to watch the former champion make his way to the ring.
During the match, we get treated to all the old Flair tricks; The fake handshake offer, a thumb to the eye, a low blow, and of course, the Figure Four Leglock. In a hugely entertaining ten minutes, Flair and his younger foe put on a great contest. The Greenville crowd lapped it up and even thought at one point Flair had the three count on one very close near fall.
This was not just the Flair show, however. Triple H was fantastic throughout, selling his injuries from the night before and making Ric’s offense look as good as it did in the 1980s. And to add to the soundtrack of this exceptional moment, J.R. was incredible on commentary. His enthusiasm and sports metaphors backing Ric Flair helped make the match even better — only one example from the hundreds available of why Jim Ross is the voice of wrestling.
Despite all this, the outcome was fairly standard for world title matches of this era as Triple H hit the pedigree and pinned his challenger. Despite the pedestrian finish to this match, WWE showed an ability to create excitement and build emotional investment quickly. An often-heard criticism is that there is a considerable absence of long term storytelling in modern wrestling. However, this brilliant tale shows that maybe the long term is not always a link to being better. Starting in the opening segment of Raw and finishing in the show’s main event, this well-told underdog tale only spanned the 90 minutes of the episode. Yes, there was a little spill over to the following week where Flair turned on Shawn Michaels to realign himself with Triple H, but that was to return to the status quo of before. The story told by Ric Flair and Triple H, with the brilliant supporting roles of Shawn Michaels and Jim Ross, made for great television. However, as Raw went off the air that night, the show continued after the live broadcast ended.
As Flair stood in the ring, Kevin Nash beside him, Shawn Michaels’ music played. Michaels led a collection of wrestlers from the back to applaud Flair in his efforts that evening and triumphs in his career. Michaels and Nash were followed by Steve Austin, Stephanie, Shane, and Vince McMahon, and lastly, Triple H himself coming to the ring and embracing Flair. Ric himself, unaware this was going to happen, was again visibly and understandably moved by his peers’ respect shown to him.
The following week’s Monday Night Raw placed Ric Flair, Triple H, and a returning Randy Orton together. Shortly afterward, Dave Batista joined the group, forming Evolution. Flair went on to have some solid matches with his Evolution teammates, winning tag team gold and even having an Intercontinental Title run before starting the excellent retirement angle with Vince McMahon and Shawn Michaels. Despite being slightly older and slightly slower, “The Nature Boy” was indeed back. This one fantastic night in Greenville, where aspects of Flair’s real-life crossed into a beautiful one show story, played a massive part in the on-screen return of the Ric Flair.
WATCH: Ric Flair and Triple H Faceoff for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship on Monday Night Raw, May 19th, 2003
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss the following articles on our site:
- Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat – The Story Behind The Magic
- Triple H and His Injuries: Overcoming Ring Adversity
- THE FOUR HORSEMEN: You Can Imitate, But You Can’t Duplicate!
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