A Case for Ric Flair
It was mere coincidence, of course, that the next phase of Ric Flairís seemingly unending wrestling career should take place in the city where he "officially" retired on March 31, 2008.
The same town, a different promotion and a new outlook on a career that started, believe it or not, the same year President Richard Nixon opened talks with Communist China, 11 Israeli athletes were slain by Arab gunmen at the Munich Olympics, and Nike running shoes first hit the market. That year, 1972, saw the original "Godfather" become a box-office blockbuster, and "Sanford and Son" make its television debut.
"One door closes and another one opens," Flair said after making a "debut" of his own ó with TNA ó last Monday night.
Nearly 1,000 miles away, in Dayton, Ohio, Flairís former employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, was presenting a special edition of Raw that featured the return of Bret Hart after a 12-year absence.
The Hitman in a WWE ring. Naitch in a TNA ring. The lure to come back was too strong for both.
The 52-year-old Hart hasnít wrestled in nine years, and suffered a stroke in 2002. He supposedly has some old business to clear up with Vince McMahon and Shawn Michaels. Heís looking at a major payday at Wrestlemania 26.
Flair, whose career began 37 years ago, turns 61 next month. Naitch had the biggest send-off in pro wrestling history 21 months ago after being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Itís unlikely that WWE would ever be able to match a farewell of that magnitude again.
Not for Shawn Michaels. Not for The Undertaker. Not for Triple H.
Flair has been basically on his own since then, enjoying the many personal appearances and speaking engagements heís been able to make, along with corporate sponsorships and affiliations with the likes of Coca-Cola, NASCAR, Wal-Mart and Krogers. Heís the face of the North Carolina State Education Lottery, and the popularity is spreading to neighboring states.
But, as he has said many times in the past, "Thereís nothing like wrestling."
Flair says he loves WWE and always will, but that he needed this opportunity with TNA for himself.
Forget the notion that Flair is in it merely to pick up a paycheck. Itís a matter of pride, of belonging, of feeling that old familiar adrenaline rush.
Flair says he is excited and energized by the positive vibes coming reverberating throughout the company.
"Itís been great. It couldnít be better. Iím loving it here."
The entire operation, he says, has been very professional.
"I never heard that it wasnít, but until you see it, you donít know what to expect. I couldnít be more impressed."
Wrestling fans love heroes. And thereís never too many Rocky stories out there.
Flair remembers being overcome by emotion when Bret Favre tearfully retired from the Green Bay Packers.
"When the Vikings came around, I couldnít have been more thrilled for him," says Flair. "And look how heís played. My God ... how dare they attack Bret Favre (in the press)? And he did it again last week."
Flair admires the grit and toughness that hearken back to another era. Itís a greatness measured partly by skill and talent, partly by drive and guts.
"He had a couple of bad games, but a bad game for him is a good game for most," he says of the golden-armed gunslinger. "Look at his stats. Thirty-three touchdowns, four thousand yards for the sixth time in his career. These talk show hosts kill me when they say heís going to fall apart at the end of the season. He hasnít fallen apart yet. He was getting killed the last couple of games until last week. But he got right back up and demanded to be in the game."
Thatís what Flair is doing.
Like Favre, Flair is not looking to end his Hall of Fame career going gently into the night. Not that he has anything left to prove, but the Nature Boy feels like he just might have a little more gas left in the tank, and is willing to give something extra to an organization that needs a little more swagger, a little extra confidence.
He possesses commodities ó his star power and his talent ó that still retain immense value in the wrestling business.
"Iím going to give them everything I have," says Flair.
Like Farve, who turned 40 in October and has enjoyed a career rebirth in his 19th season, itís time to let Flair step back into the pocket.
Flair has been loyal. But a Ric Flair deserves better than to be left on the bench.
Flair says he believes TNA will only get better.
Iím really excited about this company. Iím very happy with the way theyíre doing things. Theyíre doing it the right way. I can see them getting better and better."
And, he adds, itís nice to be wanted. A happy Flair is a productive Flair.
Flairís not promising to bring his vintage form to the ring. Deep down inside he knows itís a race against Father Time to hold on for as long as possible. Itís a feeling of unfinished business, a fire in the belly that has not quite extinguished, a yearning to prove he can still make a difference.
Yesterdayís dreams sometimes die hard, but Flair isnít about reliving past glories. But what he brings to the locker room and on camera is priceless. He makes people around him better by his mere presence.
"I think I certainly can add something to the show. And the nice thing is ... they want me."
Perhaps nothing made Flair feel more at home than when Sting, whose career Flair made in 1988, walked over to him in a locker room full of TNA talent, hugged him, and told the 16-time world champion: "Youíre the reason Iím staying."
"Itís that kind of respect that Flair thrives on, that makes him want to hang on just a little longer before that final walk into the sunset.
And heís feeling great ó mentally and physically. Too good, he says, to not be doing what he does best on Monday nights.
"What am I going to do? Sit around and watch two shows at home?"
If Ric Flair is guilty of anything, itís loving a sport that heís grown old in, while never losing the passion for it. Heís remained the one constant in a world of change.
One door closes. Another one opens.