Despite retiring from wrestling almost a decade ago, Ric Flair and his brand are experiencing a renaissance.
Just scroll through your timeline, and, whether you intend to or not, you’ll see him—tweeting meditations on the meaning of swag, or tagging images of his new 18-carat gold watch on Instagram to Rae Sremmurd or Post Malone. Flair is experiencing More Life than Drake. And it’s only appropriate, seeing as Flair has been one of hip-hop’s favorite muses for decades. His lifestyle has become the rapper blueprint and his name has become a metaphor for pageantry. In Ric Flair, rap artists have found the embodiment of their brashest selves, co-opting his character’s brand as a stand-in for extravagance and excess.
“The greatest thing I’ve ever did, was all the things I thought up,” says Flair. “The limousine riding, jet-flying, the kiss-stealing, wheeling dealing…all that bullshit. Who would have thought it would all come back?”
Even at age 68, Flair can still pull out that old strut and deliver an uber-audible “Wooo!”—eyebrows elevated, lips pursed—in that vaudevillian tone we’ve come to love. He looks strong in the shoulders and across the chest. Even with his fiancée Wendy Barlow on his arm, Flair’s handshake is so strong, you can tell he could pick you up in a fury and slam you on the mat in a flash.
Known during his early career as the dastardly heel, Flair was despised by the millions, and for good reason. He once looked squarely into the camera and said, “Let me take this opportunity to talk about myself!” He would step to the mic and remind fans of how inferior their lives were in comparison to his. How could they relate to the feeling of walking around in $600 lizard shoes? And how could Flair have known he would become one of the most beloved and quoted wrestlers considering how hated he has been for most of his time spent on the national scene?
But in recent times, as his 1973 debut dovetailed over 35 years, the Flair narrative has changed. Like when his indulgences of the 2000s caught up to his 1980s persona. The way millennials were reintroduced to his character through YouTube videos, Twitter memes, and audio of his classic promos dubbed over rap songs. The way his daughter, Charlotte, ensures the Flair name will reign in wrestling for decades to come. His legend has also become the basis for an ESPN 30 For 30 on his career that drops later this year.
Flair is the most fantastic wrestler of his era, creating a character so dialed up, so cocksure, containing such verbal wit, that none of wrestling’s greatest promoters—including the WWE’s Vince McMahon—can claim credit. He invented himself, and in the process transcended the regional territory wrestling business to achieve global fame.
“Hip-hop is responsible,” says close friend Conrad Thompson, co-host of MLW’s Something To Wrestle with Bruce Prichard podcast. “Hip-hop is a major reason” Flair is at the forefront of the culture and is undergoing a second act in his storied career.
Generally, Flair has been able to carve out space in pop culture by appealing to fans who idolized him in the 1980s. The tenets of his wrestling persona have comeback manifold, paying dividends long after he took his last flat-back bump in the middle of the ring at the hands of Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 24 in 2008. Since that match, Flair’s story evolved. He has held the world title more times than he has fingers, and while his wrestling career will never be matched, it is his promo work, and the way rap culture has embraced it, that has added most to his legend.
For example, Killer Mike’s 2015 video, “Ric Flair,” is littered with Flair’s most braggadocios promos and began with one of his most earnest: “I’m going on tour and I'm gonna show anybody out there that thinks I'm second guessing myself, that I am the greatest of all-time. Forever and ever.”
"The greatest thing I’ve ever did, was all the things I thought up. The limousine riding, jet-flying, the kiss-stealing, wheeling dealing…all that bullshit."
In 2012, when Pusha T rapped, “Woo! That’s rare n***a/Woo! Ric Flair, n***a!” on the “Don’t Like (Remix),” he joined the army of rappers helping to memorialize the legend to a brand new audience. Or when Dom Kennedy included 30 seconds of Flair’s promo work on 2012’s “We Ball,” a different demo was able to enjoy his greatness. When Flair yells on the track, “if you’re a real man, you don’t go down, you just stay up,” Dom just has to sit back and allow Flair’s words to elevate him.
Flair understands this dynamic. “The stuff I did in the ’80s is what is so popular right now,” he says, because “just like Snoop and Ross said, I was ‘bling’ before bling was bling. I love it. It’s a big compliment to me that rap artists of that stature would consider using some of my stuff,” he says.
In the last year, Flair’s management team has made a conscious effort to capitalize on hip-hop’s obsession with his 1980s antics, leading to one the most popular periods of his career since his retirement in 2008. It’s part of Flair’s on-going strategy to continue melding the worlds of wrestling and popular culture, enabling him to traverse the archipelago of demographic boundaries and make money along the way.
These days, Flair is either working a network of sports events, sitting courtside at the NBA Finals (he’s a huge LeBron fan), breaking the internet by deadlifting 400 pounds a few months before his 68th birthday, or antagonizing the Carolina Panthers online, ensuring the brand of Ric Flair continues to thrive by keeping his name out there and using every opportunity to promote ricflairshop.com.
Though he admits to not being as wild as he might have been just a few years ago, Flair keeps a travel schedule on par with his wrestling days when he was on the road 300 days a year.
“When you travel, it’s important to have the right partner. Sometimes you have to be up at 5 in the morning,” he says.
“And be excited to go to cities nobody is interested in,” Barlow cuts in. “He opens a lot of stuff as the grand marshall, does corporate gigs.”
Born Fred Phillips in Jim Crow Era Memphis, Tennessee, Flair was a black market baby, caught in the middle of an orphanage scandal later memorialized in Stolen Babies—a TV-movie that included an Emmy-winning performance by Mary Tyler Moore. According to his autobiography, To Be the Man, Fred Phillips, the adopted son of an author and a physician, would eventually fall in love with wrestling while watching Verne Gagne’s Minnesota-based American Wrestling Association (AWA) every Saturday as a kid.
After arriving at the AWA training camps in the early 1970s, Flair hadn’t envisioned the amount of cardio required to be a wrestler. He says the two-mile run “nearly killed” him, but it was the 500 free squats, 200 sit-ups, and 200 push-ups that made him quit after the first day. He came back because of the AWAs record of producing the most skilled wrestlers of any territory. After a few months at the camp, he had lost almost 40 pounds before stepping into the ring the first time.
“I did [that workout] every morning for 30 years,” he says. “It didn’t matter if I didn’t sleep, I didn’t miss a workout. I knew how important that was to be in condition.”
Flair took pride in his conditioning because he considered it his dean as NWA champion. And it was. Every day from 1981 on when he first won the world championship, it was Flair’s duty to take the inexperienced local town hero in his hands and tell a story in that ring; to make the people believe, even for a moment, that their guy had a chance to take Flair’s place as The Man and finally walk out with his world heavyweight title around their waist. And when their guy couldn’t pin Flair’s shoulders to the mat, after he had spent the night retreating to the corner just as a chicken-shit heel is supposed to, fans hated him more and would put down cash to see him get what was coming to him. The stories he told in the ring insured that the people would continue to support the babyface—the good guy—long after Flair had left with his championship, on to his next opponent.
“The title meant so much to me the first or second time I won it,” he says. “I really hope the guys—and girls—today still appreciate the gravity of winning a world title.”
Flair talked about his watershed bout against Harley Race in which he won the second of what would become 16 world titles over his career.
"just like Snoop and Ross said, I was ‘bling’ before bling was bling. It’s a big compliment to me that rap artists of that stature would consider using some of my stuff."
It all started with the blaring of a trumpet. On the night of November 24, 1983, the lights dimmed inside the arena as fans heard Flair's theme song, the sound of 19th century classical composer Richard Strauss’ 30-minute tonal poem “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” as it filled North Carolina’s Greensboro Coliseum. Audiences had closely followed his quest to regain the National Wrestling Alliance world heavyweight championship, what he called “A Flare for the Gold,” for six months. He entered the arena as the opening musical flourish ratcheted up. A rear-beaming spotlight illuminated his golden mane while revealing his $10,000 silver-sequined powder-blue robe, its winged cape falling to the floor.
At the time, Flair longed for more, to be the champ, to be the best, to be The Man. He spread his arms as would a peacock displaying his worthiness as a mate, and then with laser focus (and an uncharacteristic air of nerves) in his eyes, he walked to the ring. Women clawed at his face; Flair paid them no mind, split the ropes, and entered the steel cage. He had already captured every major title the business afforded him, including the world heavyweight title he was contending for on this night. It seems his first reign two years earlier may have come too soon. He had wrestled the “Nature Boy” moniker away from it’s predecessor Buddy Rogers by then, but he was only just becoming the flamboyant character we would soon know.
The iconic robes he wore, including the one he wore on that night, have been lost in the ether of time. “Two of my wives stole six of them,” Flair says. “And then WCW lost five of them.”
Robes, along with other forms of pomp and pageantry, are what’s missing in today’s wrestling. “One of the things that hurts the product now is all the guys wear their gear out,” he says. “Whether it’s Seth Rollins or Dean Ambrose, nobody has any investment in gear except my daughter, and Sasha, and some of the girls. But what happened to all the guys in the robes and the jackets and the style? It all a big merch show now.”
Flair still has a working agreement with WWE, where he sometimes makes appearances on RAW or any of their other shows the company wants to help feel special. The deal allows him more freedom and autonomy to license his character while also enjoying opportunities to collaborate with the WWE in exclusive ways. In September, he and Charlotte’s book, Second Nature, will hit shelves.
Charlotte was moved to begin her career in wrestling while witnessing her father’s last bout from ringside at WrestleMania 24. In the final moments of the match, Michaels’ face wore the weight of possibly ending the career of his idol. He retreated to the corner of the ring, head down, like a kid who had been sent to timeout. Flair struggled to stand like a wrestler who prefers to die on his feet at the hands of the better man. The tears began to swell up in Flair’s eyes as he willed himself to put up his dukes. Challenged, Michaels raised his head, looked Flair in the eye and mouthed, “I’m sorry, I love you.” Then he kicked Flair in the jaw for a third time and fell into a pin for the win. Michaels kissed him on the forehead.
“Shawn Michaels gave me this,” says Flair, showing off a gold Rolex with a diamond bezel insert, diamond markers, and a diamond encrusted “24” just above the half hour mark. “After WrestleMania 24, he called me in the locker room, and said, ‘Here.’ Who does that, right? And he’s got the matching one on.”
Michaels gesture on that night crystalized how dear Flair’s retirement was to wrestlers and fans alike. If Stone Cold Steve Austin is the Michael Jordan of wrestling, then Flair is Magic Johnson, responsible for institutionalizing it into pop culture. His retirement was the biggest deal. It would be the cap of his unparalleled career and put a period on the end of his story in the ring.
Eight years into retirement and 16 world titles later, Flair has finally been able to stop and reflect on his life, illustrious career, and how an adopted kid became one of the best wrestlers. Even so, in retirement, he has found relief not having to perform in the ring.
“It takes a lot of pressure off me…just trying to be just as good the next day as I was the day before,” he says, tapping his fist on the table. “I tell you, it’s by the grace of God that I have had the career that I had.”