In a recent bit of Twitter discourse, famed pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer sparked a minor debate over whether Ric Flair was as big a pop cultural icon as Hulk Hogan.
Flair, the platinum blonde, leather skinned, one percenter cosplayer who holds the record for world championship titles, inarguably reigns in the fictional sport. If you’ve ever seen a man old enough to be your grandfather shouting “woo!” surrounded by women young enough to understand Snapchat, you’re familiar with Ric Flair. And so, the Twitter back and forth hinged on a matter of scale.
Hogan is the most famous professional wrestler of all time and his ascension to the national stage with Vince McMahon Jr.’s World Wrestling Federation in the early ‘80s was nothing less than sports entertainment monomyth. Flair, then the face of the National Wrestling Alliance’s less expansive Jim Crockett Promotions, was by contrast a regional player, a performer known the world over who primarily catered to the south.
As two heads of the pro wrestling Mount Rushmore, the philosophical battle of who was bigger and better will rage in perpetuity, but “Nature Boy,” the ESPN’s recent “30 For 30” documentary from filmmaker Rory Karpf, certainly tips the icon scales away from Hogan’s favor.
It’s a matter of legacy. Hulk Hogan, by design, was a figure aimed at young children. It was the joint brainchild of McMahon and Hogan himself, recasting the ultra tan, muscled up lunk as a patriotic Venice Beach Superman. He was a colorful, cartoon branding machine designed to sell t-shirts and lunchboxes.
But Ric Flair wasn’t aimed at children. In his tailored suits and alligator shoes, Ric Flair was meant to be a villain, to engender jealousy and hatred in the common man viewers of his promotion’s product. But he became a hero nonetheless, because Flair was every straight male’s fantasy self made flesh. He was rich, feared by men, and desired by women. Kids who grew up loving Hulk Hogan still know his name, but Flair is who they wish they could be as adults.
His influence is readily apparent in any major athlete’s locker room or in the verses of many lauded rapper’s swaggering rhymes. When Karpf’s documentary isn’t outlining the simple throughline of Flair’s history, it’s busy making space in the film’s tight runtime to show scene upon scene of men from the worlds of sports and rap music as disciples of Flair’s singular strand of self belief and peacocking style. Flair was a man who began as a bland collegiate athlete, became a decent professional wrestler, then came back from a near life-ending injury in a plane crash to become the greatest pro wrestler of all time. The way the documentary shows it, this was largely through sheer force of will and a monomaniacal focus on wrestling and wrestling only, much to the detriment of his personal life, wives, and children.
The “real” Richard Fliehr (his government name) was such an unremarkable person that Flair has lived decades inside his gimmick. He was adopted by upper middle class parents who sent him to boarding school, scoffed at his athletic achievements, and, despite their love of the theater, never understood or admired what Flair did in front of a crowd. It’s not shocking, then, that in the absence of that real affirmation, he chose to live not as their son, but as his own creation.
As the film gleefully portrays, both from the horse’s mouth itself and charming animated interludes, Flair wasn’t just getting on a microphone and making up clever shit to sell a character. He literally became that character. For wrestling fans, “Nature Boy” is a fun if slight portrait of a man whose life story is too stuffed with show-stopping anecdotes to ever fit neatly into a televisable runtime. Karpf shot tons of interviews with his subject and other industry types, but whittled the tale into a digestible feature that lets Flair’s penchant for embellishment lead the way. Imagine Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” if Billy Crudup’s dad really was a giant fucking fish.
“Nature Boy” seems to completely sidestep viewing some of Flair’s actions with anything resembling a critical eye. In particular, an animated recreation of a story that’s repeated itself several times throughout Flair’s career stands out, wherein he walks up and down the aisles of an airplane in nothing but a robe, flailing his dick around. It’s a signature parlor trick Flair has performed many times, to the dismay of decades of flight attendants, no doubt. These sequences, as told by Flair, are meant to be hilarious. He’s basically bragging about being a self destructive mess, and much of what people love and admire about the Ric Flair persona is inexorably entwined with questionable behavior we’re having a renewed conversation about. What value is a film like this in today’s climate if it shies away from the difficult questions?
But the film hides from those questions because Flair does too. He’s no stranger to blatantly acknowledging the damage he’s done in life, to all his spouses and his family and friends and acquaintances. He just refuses to truly face certain hard truths. While Karpf’s film doesn’t take a confrontational tack in the way it engages Flair, it doesn’t have to do so to make a point about the inherent toxicity on the flipside of his fantasy life coin. All it has to do is hinge its third act around the 2013 death of Flair’s professional wrestler son, Reid, by overdose.
While Hulk Hogan was telling kids to say their prayers and eat their vitamins, Flair was largely absent from the lives of his actual children. If Hogan, like most superheroes, was an adolescent power fantasy of being impervious to pain and being able to “hulk” up to defeat life’s ills, then Flair was a post-adolescent one, a gifted man whose talent made it possible to have whatever he wanted without ever having to deal with the consequences. Without having to say much, the film draws a direct line from the Flair who saw the opportunity to unpack his emotional detritus with a trained professional as an excuse to brag about drunk driving to his young son’s hard partying ways. When Flair recalls putting his son to bed after a night of debauchery and questioning why he was living this way, all that’s missing is the refrain, “I learned it from watching you, Dad.”
As an aging man with no shortage of health issues and a mountain of debt, it’s no surprise that “Nature Boy” ends with Flair finding redemption in the superstardom of his daughter Charlotte, herself a big champion in McMahon’s WWE. Charlotte, like Reid, were the two of his four children he was actually half around for in life, so of course they would follow in his footsteps to the ring. But unlike Reid, Charlotte didn’t have Ric’s IMAX sized masculine ideal to inhabit. Her father’s legacy cast a shadow, sure, but she’s been able to walk in her own shoes. The film doesn’t outwardly criticize Flair; it just lets his tall tales reach their own inevitable, tragic conclusion.
“Nature Boy,” directed by Rory Karpf, is currently airing on ESPN and streaming on amazon.com, ESPN.com, and elsewhere.