Ric Flair was on his deathbed. The Rolex-wearin’, kiss-stealin’, wheelin-dealin’, limousine-ridin’, jet-flyin’, son of a gun was nothing but a 68-year-old man filled with failing organs and scant hope for survival. Flair never had a bodybuilder’s physique, but down almost 45 pounds, his neck shriveled to the size of his wrist. His flamboyant robes yielded to hospital gowns over 10 chilling days on life support.
Flair was devoted to a bacchanalian lifestyle during which, he says, he drank at least 10 beers and five cocktails a day to survive the two-decade grind of traveling from town to town with 10 pounds of gold around his waist and a reputation as the best wrestler in the world to uphold. Inside the ring, Flair had few peers as a tactician and a showman; at the hotel bar, he was the undisputed champ of last call.
Maybe it was the stamina he showed as the master of the 60-minute match that somehow came to the fore when he was placed in a medically induced coma at a Georgia hospital. Years of exorbitant drinking caught Flair harder than a Dusty Rhodes bionic elbow to the head — he was in the early stages of kidney failure, on the brink of congestive heart failure, needed a pacemaker and had a section of his bowel removed.
Doctors gave him a 20 percent chance to live. Flair, in professional wrestling parlance, kicked out at the count of 2.
“People say it’s a miracle,” Flair said in an interview this week with The Associated Press.
There was no script for this comeback. Flair went back to his Atlanta home, he walked the red carpet at a screening for the ESPN Films 30 for 30 documentary “Nature Boy,” premiering Nov. 7, and has autograph signings lined up next month. He even hinted he’d like to “style and profile” one more time on WWE’s “Monday Night Raw” on the Nov. 13 show at Phillips Arena, showing the wrestling world that diamonds are forever — as, it truly appears, is Ric Flair.
Let’s hear it from the cheap seats: Wooooo!
“Everyone has a Ric Flair story,” filmmaker Rory Karpf said. “Most of them are when Flair comes out naked under a robe or is dancing on a bar. For that person, it’s as crazy as their life would ever get on that night. But he was doing it every night.”
Karpf had interviewed Flair for a film on another noted heel, former Duke star Christian Laettner. The 40-year-old Karpf grew up a diehard wrestling fan and pitched ESPN on Flair as the subject of the acclaimed documentary series. Karpf got the green light and, in 2015, started a two-year interview process with Flair and those closest to him — from his four ex-wives to the nefarious Four Horsemen.
Hulk Hogan, Triple H, Shawn Michaels — even The Undertaker dropped his dead man gimmick for a rare real-life interview on a man many call “Naitch.”
“He’s one of those guys that contributed to my problem,” Flair said with a big laugh. “He’s tough to hang with, man.”
The documentary wrapped before Flair’s health issues surfaced, so they were not addressed. But his August hospitalization is foreshadowed as Karpf presses Flair on his partying ways, asking on camera if he can have fun without drinking.
“I don’t know. I’ve never tried it,” Flair says in the film. “Why would I?”
Now, Flair said, he has no choice but to stop.
“I wouldn’t even begin to think about drinking,” Flair said. “If you ever hear that I’m out drinking again, say, ‘Ric, you (dummy), you deserve whatever you get.’”
Yes, the dirtiest player in the game swears he is all about clean living.
Flair, who fought retirement for years and returned from a WWE exit to wrestle as recently as 2011, even quit the womanizing that cost him multiple marriages and led him to boast in the film that he slept with 10,000 women.
Flair has been together for several years with former wrestling personality Wendy Barlow (known as the maid “Fifi” from one of Flair’s old WCW talk show segments) and says he’s been faithful since the day they started a relationship. Barlow has tended to Flair as a de facto nurse in his recovery from the ordeal — he’ll soon need at least another week in the hospital and needs an ileostomy bag — and his two daughters are frequently by his side. His oldest daughter, Ashley, is a former WWE women’s champion billed as Charlotte Flair and can talk smack as well as Dad can.
“Nature Boy” takes a peek behind the curtain at the booze, babes and bouts that Flair could not surrender for the sake of a happy family life. His relationship with his oldest son, David, remains strained.
“He’s just bitter about wrestling and bitter about me not being there,” Flair said.
Another son, Reid, died of a drug overdose in 2013. Flair breaks down in the film as he describes the pain of losing his 25-year-old son, who had followed in dad’s footsteps as a pro wrestler. Flair and his fourth wife divorced after Reid’s death.
“No marriage could survive that,” he said. “When you can’t find your son for three or four days at a time and you’re having undercover policemen looking for him all over — I mean, it’s not going to work. He was on life support four different times.”
Flair said his son had a debilitating routine of drug use, getting busted by the police, going to the hospital and soon starting the cycle again. The last time, Reid Flair, a budding star in Japan, mixed heroin with other drugs and never made it home.
“I almost died, right there,” Flair said.
With his son gone, Flair said he nearly drank himself to death over the next year to handle the loss.
Flair, stuck with a hefty six-figure hospital bill after insurance out of the roughly $1 million tab, pressed on in the wake of personal tragedy. His contemporaries and biggest rivals in the NWA and WWE in the 1980s and ’90s died, too, including Rhodes, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
“When I’m gone,” Flair says in the film, “I guess I’ll just have to settle for wanting to be thought of as the greatest wrestler and the most entertaining wrestler that ever lived.”
He has an addendum: “Going forward, I want people to take my advice as opposed to wanting to be or act like me. There’s a lot of 20-year-old kids that want to be Ric Flair. That’s cool if it’s in a good context. But if it’s drinking to relieve stress or cope with life, that’s not the answer.”
His weight is up to 220 pounds — he’d like to add 10 more — even though he can’t yet work out because of the pacemaker. All he can do is watch and eat.
He long ago sacrificed real world life as Richard Morgan Fliehr for the cartoon world of pro wrestling and a persona he could not quit. Alive against the odds, and with a new lease on life, Flair vowed to become the devoted family man he couldn’t be in the past with whatever time he has left.
“Ric doesn’t love Richard Fliehr,” Michaels, a former WWE champion, says in the film. “I don’t know that he’s ever taken the time to get to know him or to find out who in the world he is.”