Triple H raising the Hand of his Idol "Nature Boy" Ric Flair
Credit on the article below goes to Mike Mooneyham who has been a writer and editor with The Post and Courier since 1979.....www.mikemooneyham.com
They say time flies when you’re having fun, and nobody’s had more fun over the past 35 years than “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.
All good things must come to an end, though, and so it goes with a career that’s been unparalleled in the wrestling profession.
Each match, each show, each town now takes on added significance as the Greatest world champion of all time begins his final run in the business. Flair, who turns 59 next month, is expected to lace up his boots for the final time at Wrestlemania 24 on March 30 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
Flair has wrestled throughout the world many times over. Few towns have been more special to him than Greensboro, N.C., and few arenas more memorable than the Greensboro Coliseum.
Flair worked what most likely was his last match at that storied coliseum on December 29th against Triple H. It was the same building where Flair won his first major regional championship, the Mid-Atlantic tag-team title, with legendary Carolinas heel Rip Hawk. Gas cost 50 cents a gallon and Richard Nixon was still president when the rookie first captured gold on July 4, 1974.
His first bout at the Coliseum had come only seven weeks earlier, on May 16, as he teamed with Chuck O’Connor (later known as Big John Studd) against veterans Abe Jacobs and Danny Miller. It was a dramatically different period in the business, and most of the performers from that era have long since retired or are no longer with us.
Since that time, though, Ric Flair has been the constant, bridging generations of fans and styles.
Few have followed Flair’s career more closely over the past couple of decades than Greensboro resident Bruce Mitchell. Mitchell has been a regular at Coliseum wrestling shows since the late ‘70s and was a member of a vocal ringside group known as “Front Row Section D” during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The dozen or so members of the group had a collective eye for talent and gained a measure of notoriety by cheering on the charismatic heels of the time, most notably the infamous Four Horsemen featuring Flair, and unmercifully jeering some of the more inept babyfaces.
“We had the signs at ringside, and people would be furious. We’d yell at the fans, and the fans would yell at us. We had great fun interacting back and forth,” says Mitchell.
But one performer stood head and shoulders above the rest. He was the brashest, the cockiest and the coolest, a limousine-riding, jet-flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin’ and dealin’ son of a gun and the dirtiest player in the game.
“He was the best,” says Mitchell. Pure and simple.
All those special feelings Mitchell had felt as a longtime wrestling fan resurfaced when Flair took to the ring for his match with Triple H on Dec. 29. The bout, the main event of a Raw taping that was nationally aired two nights later on New Year’s Eve, took Mitchell back more than a quarter of a century when he first saw Flair headline at the Coliseum. Now, all these years later, the Nature Boy was again in the spotlight, the emotional focus of a wrestling show.
“Everything else changes, and here he is, in the main event. And looking pretty darn good in the ring,” says Mitchell, an elementary school teacher by trade who also serves as senior columnist for the Pro Wrestling Torch newsletter and Web site. “It brought back a lot of memories for me. I was really anxious to see if the crowd would pay him the respect he was due and there would be the emotion in it. I thought it came through, even though WWE now draws mostly kid crowds at its shows.”
Those kids, however, were just as vocal in displaying their affection for the performer who’s called North Carolina his home for the past 33 years. No doubt many, says Mitchell, heard the stories about the legendary Flair from their parents and grandparents.
“Greensboro had everything there. The emotion was there. To see him and the expressions on his face ... it was something,” Mitchell enthuses.
Flair’s final match at the Coliseum took on special meaning for Mitchell.
“It really closed a chapter in my life. He’s always been that connection. He’s literally the guy who made me a serious fan. He’s always been there, and he’s always putting on a great performance. Him not being around is going to be a big jump for me. There was a time in our lives when things just seemed better if Ric Flair was on a show.”
Mitchell says he was disappointed there wasn’t a bigger buildup for Flair’s last bout at the Coliseum.
“From 1974 to now ... it was an amazing accomplishment. I wish it would have been promoted here in the area as Flair’s last match at the Greensboro Coliseum because there have been so many signature points in his career.”
Flair won the match by disqualification.
“When Triple H broke the figure four, the fans booed. They wanted to see him pass out and get that happy ending. As much as I didn’t like that finish and some of the things with Triple H, I thought Triple H worked hard to give a Ric Flair match. That was nice.”
For many years during the heyday of Jim Crockett Promotions and Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, the Greensboro Coliseum was the most lucrative stop on the circuit. The Coliseum, at one time the home of the ACC men’s basketball tournament, has undergone several renovations since it was built in 1959 when it held more than 9,000 and was one of the largest auditoriums in the South. Expansion over the years brought the capacity to more than 20,000.
But during the ‘70s and ‘80s, pro wrestling was a major ticket, and Ric Flair was the draw.
Bruce Mitchell can literally open his door and see the Coliseum. A UNC-Greensboro grad, Mitchell has many memories of the Coliseum, including graduating from college, But it’s the memories of wrestling, and particularly Flair, which stand out most.
Mitchell can almost still hear the knife-edge chops Flair traded with the likes of Ronnie Garvin and Wahoo McDaniel at the Coliseum. There are so many great Flair moments from the Coliseum, he says, that’s it nearly impossible to pick a favorite one.
“The Flair-Steamboat series, Flair vs. Funk, Flair-Sting at the first Clash. I saw Flair beat Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka for the U.S. title in 1980. I had the privilege of being in the front row when he wrestled Vader (in Charlotte in 1993). That may have been my favorite of them all. It really was the whole continuum of going back and seeing the joy he took in being the best.”
Mitchell first saw Flair at the Coliseum as a newly turned babyface against veteran Gene Anderson. Flair put his blond hair on the line if he failed to defeat Anderson, then manager of Snuka, within the 30-minute time limit. Flair, of course, won.
“It was great,” says Mitchell. “Snuka, who was the U.S. champion at the time, jumped him and left him laid out. There was blood all over the place. You could just see the charisma Flair had. I just learned so much — and I still have more to learn — from watching Ric Flair. All the little subtle things he did ... he was amazing.”
There was, of course, the emotional world title win, Flair’s second, against Harley Race at the inaugural Starrcade on Thanksgiving night 1983 at the Coliseum. Despite a blizzard that night, 16,000 fans packed the Coliseum, with another 12,000 in the adjacent annex, to watch Flair defeat Race in a steel cage match with former NWA world champ Gene Kiniski as special referee. The show, billed as “A Flair for the Gold,” was the first modern closed circuit pro wrestling event in history and started what we now know as Pay-Per-View.
Strangely enough, it would mark Flair’s last title win in that building, a venue where he had won numerous belts including the U.S. title against Snuka in 1980 and against Ricky Steamboat in 1979, the U.S. tag-team belts with Blackjack Mulligan in 1979 and with Greg Valentine in both 1977 and 1976, the Mid-Atlantic title against Wahoo McDaniel in 1976, and the Mid-Atlantic tag-team belts with Hawk in 1974.
As many Flair matches as there are on videotape, says Mitchell, what’s even more incredible about Flair’s career is the fact that so many great moments were never captured on film and took place at house shows when there were no cameras running.
“It always drives me crazy when people complain about him having the same matches,” says Mitchell. “And you start naming the opponents from all over the world that he didn’t have the same match with, or anywhere close to it. He just reacted to the crowd and worked off the opponent. The business has changed so much. I don’t think anyone will ever again have that variety of opponents and great matches.”
Going out on top
Mitchell would like to see Flair go out as champ — one last time. But he’s not betting on WWE giving him such a send-off.
“When I watch him and he’s winning by slipping on a banana peel and it’s by accident, I just think Vince McMahon has mixed feelings about putting Ric Flair over the way he should be. Ric Flair is the greatest performer in the history of this sport, and I think he should go out with a win and an emotional scene in the ring.”
It’s not all about sentiment. Mitchell also believes there’s money in a clean Flair win for the title. It could be a storybook ending right out of a Rocky script.
“It just makes sense. It would give the fans an emotional lift for Flair to win the title one last time. I think there’s money in that as long as people are behind it.”
“There’s money in saying this is his last match at a pay-per-view, and then doing it and that’s it,” adds Mitchell. “They’ve got these extra off-brand pay-per-views that they could get additional buys off if they really made it seem clear that this was going to happen. Titles change all the time. They have two world titles on television every week, and there are a number of ways they could do it.”
Mitchell, though, has doubts that WWE will send Flair out as 17-time world champion.
“I really don’t think that’s going to happen. It’s just the way this thing is unfolding. There are so many angles that they know they have to do, and they don’t really want to go all the way with it.”
Title or no title, he says, Flair will forever be “The Man.” His legacy is etched in stone.
“At this point, no matter what happens, he’s got that resume and body of work that nobody can ever take away from him.”
Mitchell also wishes the WWE creative team, headed by Stephanie McMahon, would give Flair more freedom to cut his original, trademark interviews. McMahon has said in the past that Flair’s interviews are “too 80s” and outdated.
It was Flair’s unique ability to cut promos that first captured Mitchell’s attention as a young fan.
“I very much wish he would have the freedom to do his type of promos. He’s also the best talker the business has ever seen. It’s an art, and he was and is the best at it. There are things he says now on TV that just don’t have the voice of Ric Flair.”
End of the road
Mitchell admits there have been times in the past when it looked like Flair’s career was coming to a close. But something always seems to pull the Nature Boy back in the spotlight.
“There’s always another great moment,” says Mitchell. “The one in Greenville when he came back to WCW, the one in Charlotte where he came back against Vader. There have been a ton of them.”
Flair, who made his pro debut in December 1972, first teased a retirement 24 years ago when he put his career on the line against Race’s title at the first Starrcade. And again 10 years later when he vowed to hang it up if he didn’t dethrone Vader at the 1993 Starrcade in Charlotte. Then-WCW boss Jim Herd dismissed Flair as being too old back in 1989. It turned out to be one of Flair’s greatest years in the ring, and no successor as world champ would come close to matching Flair’s drawing power.
But it now appears that Flair, seven weeks shy of his 59th birthday, is calling it a day.
A part of Mitchell doesn’t want to see the day Flair’s career comes to an end. But another part wants to see him enjoy a successful life after wrestling.
“What I really root for is for those guys who have entertained me so much to get out with some happiness and have a normal life. I think he can now. I worried about him for a long time now, but I think he knows where he stands. He sounds like he’s having fun. It seems like he’s at a point in his life where he’s happy, and his family is happy for him.”
Ric Flair has come a long way since making his Carolinas debut in the spring of 1974 against Abe Jacobs. “Green as grass” is how Jacobs remembers Flair’s first match in Charlotte. “Even screwed up the finish,” recalls Jacobs, who put the rookie over.
A long way indeed.