The Ric Flair era has ended in WWE.

Four months after getting one of the biggest send-offs in wrestling history at Wrestlemania 24, the 16-time world champion has left World Wrestling Entertainment and, with it, his role as "goodwill ambassador" for the company.

The official announcement from WWE headquarters last Sunday night was short and sweet. "WWE and Hall of Famer Ric Flair have mutually agreed to contractually part ways."

Flair’s official statement also was straight and to the point.

"WWE and I parted on the best of terms. This gives me the chance to pursue new opportunities … corporate speaking engagements, product sponsorships, autograph shows for my loyal fans (who made me what I am today) and film and television roles. My agent and I are very excited about what the future holds."

So much for the press releases. The bottom line was that while the relationship was a mutually advantageous one, Flair was subject to the company’s slow trigger on deals that could have made both parties big money, including a potential reality show.

"I just can’t leave the money on the table anymore," said Flair, who was forced in recent months to forego a number of business opportunities, including a 30-city autograph signing tour of old NWA towns that would have netted him in excess of $300,000.

There’s no hard feelings, according to Flair, who optimistically is looking to the future. It’s the first time in his 35 years in the business that the wrestling icon can be a true free agent and test the waters.

"I’m 59 years old and I’ve never stood on my own two feet without wrestling. I need to find out if I can. Vince can’t prop me up forever," says the Charlotte resident, who once considered a run for governor in North Carolina.

Although Flair will lose WWE’s far-reaching promotional power and the perks that go along with it, his long-awaited entree into the open market is expected to be a highly lucrative one. Flair said he has been flooded with offers since the announcement.

"Everything’s worked out great. It’s awesome. The offers I’ve gotten have been amazing. My phone won’t stop ringing," says Flair, who retained rights to his intellectual property.

Earlier this year Flair signed with The Gillespie Agency, a full-service advertising, media and public relations firm based in Columbia.

"After handling his bookings for the past year and learning the wrestling industry, I’m beginning to think The Gillespie Agency has a unique perspective," said Elaine Gillespie, who also handles bookings for wrestling stars Mick Foley and Roddy Piper. "Here we are, a bunch of women booking the greatest, most popular wrestler of all time. We handle the multitude of tasks … negotiate deals, research the quality of the offer, time out the appearances, juggle his calendar … we organize, prioritize and make it all work. Organizing is just something most women are born with the ability to do. After all, we know that women rule the households, right?"

The initial response to Flair has been so great, she says, that the crew has been working overtime to process all the requests.

"Ric respects our hard work and appreciates all the late nights we spend trying to keep opportunities rolling in," said Gillespie. "On the flip side, we work so hard because we are in awe of his amazing ability to relate to everyone. He has an incredible fan base and it would be easy to take that for granted … but who knows, the teenager who sends fan mail to Ric now, might be the marketing executive who hires him for his staff’s motivational session 10 years from now."

Even with his absence, Flair remains one of the hottest commodities on the WWE roster, with his current DVD, "Nature Boy Ric Flair: The Definitive Collection," ranking second on the list of hottest-selling sports videos. And TV ratings have yet to reach pre-Wrestlemania levels when Flair’s program with Shawn Michaels and his imminent retirement spiked numbers on a weekly basis. Flair also recently started doing a popular video feature on WWE’s Web site called "Stylin’ & Profilin’ with Ric Flair."

Ironically enough, Flair is the featured performer on next month’s WWE 24/7, which now owns most of his archived footage, and will be a panelist on the next Legends of Wrestling show on the same channel.

Flair said he will always have a special place in his heart for the company and everyone who works there.

"I want everybody in the world to know that I love and respect the WWE. They’ve helped me through so much of my life and have made me a better person. They recognized me and my family at Wrestlemania, and have propped me up and helped me as long as they can."

"We are also very grateful for the time we had working closely with the WWE," says Gillespie. "The training that they provided us over the past year has given us insight into how the industry works and allows us to hit the ground running now."

Like many of his WWE colleagues, announcer Jim Ross was caught by surprise by Flair’s abrupt exit, leaving a job he presumably could have had as long as he had wanted.

"When I last spoke to Ric in person we were in Charlotte for Smackdown, and I spent several hours with ‘Naitch’ that lasted well into the middle of the evening/early morning. He had several family members with him, and Ric seemed really to be having fun. Ric’s schedule with the WWE had been somewhat ambitious in Ric’s view as Ric was one the road as much or more than he had been with his wrestling schedule in his later career. Nonetheless Ric said he was having a great time as a ‘goodwill ambassador’ for the WWE when we spoke."

Ross said he was aware of several projects Flair was interested in doing that were "beyond the parameters of WWE."

"Since the memorable Hall of Fame/Wrestlemania retirement weekend that really sent Ric off in style, Flair’s popularity is arguably at an all-time high. There is no doubt that Ric can stay very busy over the next several months and earn significant money in the process.

"On a personal level and after knowing Ric for parts of three decades, I would submit that Ric needs business structure in his life and hopefully his management team can provide that all-important element. It would be like my pals ZZ Top handling all phases of their business including the financial end, tax planning, travel, scheduling, etc. and still be expected to be ‘on’ and perform as is expected of them. Secondly, I hope that Ric doesn’t succumb to a big-money offer to actually wrestle. Anyone who would pitch that idea doesn’t have Ric’s best interests at heart."

Gillespie says her company will offer Flair exactly what he needs at this point in his career — boundaries and structure.

"I started this agency with nothing 25 years ago and the business has had ups and downs financially through the years, but we always survived and I think that’s because of a sound foundation of ethical business practices. We aren’t in this to exploit Ric. We are here for the long haul and our goal is to carry Ric from famous wrestler to famous celebrity."

Some, including former WCW president and ex-Raw figurehead general manager Eric Bischoff, have questioned Flair’s motivation to leave WWE. In a recent blog he compared Flair’s retirement and departure from WWE to former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre’s current situation in the NFL.

"In May I wrote in my blog ‘Finally’ about how happy I was for Ric, that he could retire on a grand stage like Wrestlemania with the love, support and respect from the people around him. To have the opportunity to retire in a way that put a proud period at the end of the last sentence of a great book that was Ric’s career is rare and should be appreciated.

"If Ric asked for his release from WWE in order to pursue a career as a public/corporate speaker, I wish him the best. Ric is great in front of a crowd, and if charm and charisma were publicly traded commodities on the New York Stock Exchange, Ric would be a walking Fortune 500 company.

"But if Ric is being driven by his ‘sense of self,’ and is contemplating a return to the ring as a result, I fear that the special moment that was Ric’s retirement, and in many respects his legacy, will be diluted forever in the process."

Ross also made the obvious comparison between Flair and Favre, a pair of sports icons who both changed addresses within the same seven-day period, urging the Nature Boy to resist the temptation to return to the ring.

"Ric sees that there is an immediate opportunity to brand himself to not only the wrestling community in a variety of ways, but perhaps also to the corporate world as a spokesman. The opportunities are apparently abundant, at least for the time being, for Ric to use his reinvigorated name identity to his advantage and accumulate, potentially, a significant amount of money by essentially using the ‘striking while the iron is hot’ theory."

"Ric Flair never needs to wrestle again," added Ross. "Period. End of story. That also means not even as a tag-team partner to his son, Reid, who apparently has aspirations on becoming a pro wrestler ... I would rather see the young Reid get an education before embarking on a challenging career in the wrestling business, but that’s just my story and will continue to stick with it."

Rumors, meanwhile, have circulated about a possible "dream match" between Flair and Hulk Hogan.

Flair, though, maintains he will respect the sanctity of the retirement bout with Shawn Michaels and is moving on to the next phase of his career.

"I’m 59 and running wild," he chuckles.

"Ric loves the social scene in any form and loves being ‘The Nature Boy’ as much as any wrestler I have ever known has loved living their perceived, TV persona," said Ross. "I have never been sure where the Nature Boy persona ends and Richard Fliehr begins, and I’ve known Ric for 25 years and have enjoyed every moment of it even though some all-nighters with ‘The Naitch’ might have taken a year or two off my life or at least my liver. Let’s hope not."

"Ric’s approach to life is just like his approach to wrestling … this guy goes all out," adds Gillespie. "He’s a 24/7 force of positive energy to be reckoned with."

One of Flair’s first independent forays will be at a previously scheduled NWA Fanfest appearance in Charlotte on Friday where fans will pay $100 apiece for photos and autographs.

The three-day, four-night event, which kicks off Thursday evening and concludes Sunday, features a star-studded array of wrestling legends from the golden era of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. Fanfest activities will be held at the Hilton University Place Hotel.

For more information on Fanfest, visit NWALegends.com.

- Flair-Steamboat II? Reid Fliehr, son of Ric Flair, and Richie Steamboat (Richard Blood Jr.), son of Ricky Steamboat, have been training under veteran George South. A source said the two recently locked up in the ring and called the session "intense."

The two, who both competed in the amateur ranks, could be squaring off again sometime in the future and quite possibly in a WWE ring. Reid’s next likely destination is Florida Championship Wrestling, while Richie, whose interest in race-car driving has taken a back seat to a wrestling career, is headed for Harley Race’s wrestling school in Eldon, Mo.


                Credit on this article goes to Mike Mooneyham and the "Post and Courier"



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