A long-lived flair for spotlight glare Performer: Ric Flair has survived the poundings and politics of the pro wrestling world for 25 high-profile years.

December 29, 1997|By Kevin Eck | Kevin Eck,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

The strains of the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey" pierce the arena darkness. Fans rise to their feet as a figure steps into the spotlight.

As the music swells, a man with perfectly coiffured golden locks and a sparkling robe basks in the adulation of the crowd before stepping into the ring.

"Ladies and gentleman," an announcer bellows. "From Charlotte, North Carolina, the 13-time heavyweight champion of the world -- 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair!"

It's a grandiose entrance that's been replayed thousands of times over the past 25 years. Years that have seen the "Nature Boy" become a middle-aged man two months shy of his 49th birthday. But Ric Flair, who has survived both pro wrestling's volatile nature and his own outside-the-ring excesses to become the oldest main-event wrestler on the circuit, remains a fan favorite and a top attraction.

Tonight, the master of the "figure-four leg lock" will hear his fans in Baltimore scream out his trademark high-pitched "Woooooo!" as he arrives for TNT's live broadcast of World Championship Wrestling's "Monday Nitro" at the Baltimore Arena.

Hobbled by an ankle injury, he'll be in street clothes tonight and make only an interview appearance. The ego that has helped him live up to his stage name, however, appears as healthy as ever when he's coaxed into talking about himself.

"That's what makes greatness: being able to do it year in and year out," Flair, whose real name is Richard Fliehr, offers in an interview. "There's nothing that replaces the notoriety or the longevity of someone that's good at what they do for a long period of time."

So, just as the Rolling Stones continue to play to sold-out stadiums and hockey's Wayne Gretzky continues to score goals, wrestling villain-turned-icon Flair continues to "style and profile" almost 200 nights a year.

Not that he isn't constantly aware of the years going by.

There are nagging reminders like the bum ankle, hurt when he leapt out of the ring recently and landed on a camera cable. There is the desire to spend more time with his family, which has meant cutting back his number of appearances dramatically.

And, ironically, there are the accolades that come the way of any "ironman" in sports -- even a sport that is as much staged soap opera as real mayhem.

Other big-name wrestlers like Hulk Hogan have often overshadowed him in the eyes of the general public, but Flair may well be the most popular wrestler among other professional athletes. Everyone from Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley of the NBA to Lawrence Taylor, Bruce Smith and Kevin Greene of the NFL have spoken admiringly of Flair.

"It's mortifying to think how many athletes have told me they were watching me wrestle when they were 10 years old," Flair says with a laugh.

Within his own "sports entertainment" world, Flair also gets his due.

"There's never been a guy, night after night, to put on the performances he has," says Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "When you factor that in, he is the greatest in the history of the sport, without question."

Likes to be the 'villain'

Such kudos don't always sit easy with Flair, partly because he'd rather still be the underdog "villain" he portrayed most of his career rather than the revered icon.

"It's a lot easier for me to work in the role of wrestling against the so-called good guys. I feel in that aspect that I do not have a peer," he says. "But now, being perceived as a fan favorite, it's not a role that I'm comfortable with."

But, he adds quickly: "I am, however, comfortable with the level of respect that I get."

Respect isn't always easily earned in the strange, fickle world of professional wrestling, where stars have to survive not only nightly physical pounding but also backstage politics in what can be a cutthroat business.

The Cal Ripken of wrestling isn't kidding when he says he did not have a day off between 1976 and 1988, even after he became a major star.

"We worked 365 days a year, sometimes wrestling twice a day," he said. "Holidays were our biggest days. ... And if you weren't booked, you were mad, because there wasn't any guaranteed money in the early days."

Flair's career was nearly over only two years after it started. In October 1975, he broke his back when the small plane he was riding in crashed near Wilmington, N.C.

Doctors told him he might never wrestle again. But Flair was back in action within 6 1/2 months. Since then, aside from the recent ankle injury, a cracked disc in his neck and a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, he's managed to avoid serious injury.

"I've never been to a chiropractor in my life," he says. "I've been a very fortunate man."

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