RIC FLAIR: The Greatest Wrestler of All Time?

Professionally, Ric Flair is the greatest wrestler of all time.

There are a lot of guys in the discussion. There are arguments to be made for Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Misawa, Harley Race, and Lou Thesz. Hulk Hogan belongs in the discussion, and I mean that unironically. Verne Gagne drew a lot of money in the Midwest. Billy Robinson was a shooter’s shooter. Terry Funk is a war horse. Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales ought to get some votes, too. But the Nature Boy is, simply, The Man and the greatest wrestler of all time.

Ric Flair, the greatest wrestler of all time, with his flowing blond hair in a white wrestling jacket with purple sequined butterflies on it.
Ric Flair – The greatest wrestler of all time?

He shouldn’t have been the greatest wrestler of all time. His gimmick was stolen straight from the original Nature Boy, Buddy Rogers. Sure, there were influences from Gorgeous George and Superstar Graham (and not a little bit of early tag team partner and mentor Rip Hawk). And OK, Flair stole his best bump from Ray “the Crippler” Stevens. But he did what every great artist does: he built on what came before him. He took great bumps. He sold his ass off. He made a career out of making other guys look great. And then still coming away with his heat.

“He always worked hard,”Bobby “the Brain” Heenan wrote about Flair. “He never laid on his ass.”

He was The Man because he spent years telling us so–by talking fans into the building to see him lose. He was The Man because he carried himself as the champion, as the greatest thing going. And because he believed it, he made the fans believe it, too. He’s still the only man to hold the NWA, WCW, and WWF(E) world championships.

Ric Flair is the greatest wrestler of all time because he’s won 16 world titles, and he’s been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame twice: once for his singles career, and once as part of the legendary Four Horsemen.

I’d tell you that Ric Flair is wrestling royalty, but you already knew all that. What you don’t know, maybe, is how goddamned tough Ric Flair was.

Related: RIC FLAIR: Revealed! – His Greatest Stories

How tough he still is. As the Nature Boy recovers from surgery to remove a part of his bowel, wrestling fans need to remember that in 1975, Flair was in a plane crash along with “Mr. Wrestling” Tim Woods, Johnny Valentine, Bob Bruggers, and David Crockett. The pilot, Joseph Michael Farkas, lingered in a coma and died without ever waking up. Three of the passengers suffered severe spinal injuries: Valentine never walked again; Bruggers had a steel rod inserted into his spine and retired from the wrestling business, and Ric Flair’s back was broken so badly that doctors told him that he’d never wrestle again.

Related: Twists of Fate: Two Plane Crashes That Changed The Wrestling World Forever

Keep in mind that this was years before Flair was to find his greatest success as the last of the great touring NWA world champions. Flair not only overcame his injury, but he dropped more of the baby fat around his middle and continued taking risky bumps to his back, like a high backdrop, the press slam from the top rope, and the Ray Stevens bump over the top turnbuckle to the outside. And he took those bumps nightly. He took them in Portland, Oregon. He took them in San Francisco. He took them in Atlanta. In New Orleans. In Pensacola. In St. Louis. In Baltimore. In Japan. In Puerto Rico.

Do you understand yet? Do you get it?

Flair was The Man.

He made himself into The Man by sheer hard work, determination, and a hell of a lot of guts. Ric Flair, the person, has a lot of faults. He’s won and lost fortunes that most of us will never see. He’s conned people out of money, and borrowed funds he never paid back. (I’d originally typed “he never intended to pay back” but there’s probably an eagle-eyed shyster out there somewhere just looking for a lawsuit on Ric’s behalf, so I can’t say that.) By his own admission, he’s been two-faced, at best, with some of his peers. He’s an unrepentant womanizer, and the fact that he still has a functioning liver is all but a miracle. But in that ring, he was something else. Inside the confines of the squared circle, Ric Flair was exactly what he was supposed to be.

The Man – the greatest wrestler of all time!

He refined his style so that he could wrestle anyone. People talk about Flair having formulaic matches, but they forget the wild brawls in Mid-Atlantic with Roddy Piper. They forget the I Quit match with Terry Funk. They don’t recall the matches with Ricky Steamboat, Buddy Rose, or Bobby Eaton. While Flair could carry a broomstick to a great match, he was often called upon to carry less experienced workers in hour-long main events. Lex Luger and Nikita Koloff, just to name two young guys Flair carried for months, became better workers because of their time with Flair. And let’s be honest: They never had better matches against anyone. When the NWA was high on Sting, it was Flair who worked with him to make the talented (but unpolished) young man ready for the spotlight.

Again, Ric Flair–the wrestler–was the greatest wrestler of all time.

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The Time I Met the Greatest Wrestler of All Time

When I was 11 or 12 years old, a year or two before Southeastern Championship Wrestling morphed into Continental, Ric was down on one of his periodic jaunts through the territory. He faced a great array of talent–Ron Fuller, Bob Armstrong, Austin Idol, Jimmy Golden, among others–but this night he was working “Mr. Olympia” Jerry Stubbs, who was (and is) a criminally underrated talent. Flair and Olympia tore the house down in front of 4,500 or so people at the Houston County Farm Center in a match that the Nature Boy won with a handful of tights. But what still stands out to me is something that happened before the match. Back in those days, young kids would go hang around outside the dressing rooms and basically escort the wrestlers to the ring. Security for the babyfaces was largely nonexistent, and you could walk right up to the ring barrier (a strand of rope) with them. On the other hand, the local cops walked with the bad guys. But that night, I saw Flair standing by himself near the heel dressing room, peering around the concrete grandstand and watching the wrestlers in the ring.

If I close my eyes, I can still picture what he was wearing, perfectly: a navy blazer with pewter buttons, a white French-cuffed shirt with a blue-and-gold rep tie, gray slacks and maroon loafers with understated tassels. His cuff-links were gold, and like his Rolex watch, they gleamed in the overhead lighting. Ric Flair was a star. I summoned up every bit of my chutzpah and approached him.

“Mr. Flair,” I said, “may I have your autograph?”

He looked down at me and said one word: “No.”

And even then, I had the temerity to ask, “Are you sure?”

ARE YOU SURE? I still slap my forehead thinking about it. Thankfully, a cop came by at that moment to shoo me away and save me from whatever further embarrassment was about to befall me. That was my one and only real-life encounter with the Nature Boy. And now he’s in the hospital, recovering from surgery. Already in ICU, he was placed in a medically induced coma prior to that surgery. He’s out now, and his family is with him. There’s no word, yet, on what the surgery was, and although there are conflicting reports, I’m not going to comment on it until I know for sure.

What I do know for sure is that Ric Flair is a fighter. He fought his way from a hospital bed to the main event and then to the world championship, and finally to legendary status as the greatest wrestler of all time.

Trivia: “Mr. Wrestling” Tim Woods, who was also in the 1975 plane crash that broke Ric Flair’s back, passed away at age 68, the same age Flair is now.

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Bobby Mathews is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories as well as a veteran journalist whose byline has appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Birmingham News, The Denver Post, as well as other newspapers around the country. He's won multiple awards for reporting and opinion writing, and his sports journalism has garnered several Associated Press Managing Editors Awards. He has covered Division I college athletics and professional sports including MLB and NFL games. He has won awards from press associations in several states, including a General Excellence award from the Georgia Press Association while sports editor at The Statesboro Herald. He currently lives in suburban Birmingham, Alabama and can be reached on Twitter @bamawriter.