There aren’t many arenas in life in which there are undisputed GOATs–greatest of all time, that is. Basketball has Michael Jordan, but LeBron has done more than a little to spark debate. Baseball, football and hockey are all mired in arguments about positions and it’s unclear who holds the title as best ever. There isn’t a music genre with an established best ever, due to the subjectivity of the art forms. And there sure aren’t established bests in everyday walks of life–nobody bothers to decide who the greatest lawyer, teacher or plumber is. But in professional wrestling, there is one undisputed GOAT.
The Nature Boy. Ric Flair.
Flair was rushed to an Atlanta hospital on Saturday and on Monday was put into an induced coma before undergoing an undisclosed surgical procedure. It’s unclear exactly what happened but it’s obvious he’s in a fight for his life. When the news broke, fans immediately started sending out well-wishes and memories. Because Ric Flair was more than a wrestler. He has been a pillar in American pop culture for the past 40 years.
There are two major components to being a great professional wrestler–that is, the staged, rehearsed version of the sport you see in the WWE every week: 1. being an athletic maestro, able to pull off choreographed feats of coordination in front of lives audiences and 2. being able to hop on a microphone and sell a character or scripted storyline effectively enough that fans want to see you either triumph or fail miserably. Ric Flair was a savant at both.
Ric Flair became a household name in the 80s as the National Wrestling Alliance champion. Back in the 80s, wrestling relied on territories, small local companies that would put on wrestling shows. The WWE had not developed a stranglehold on the industry as a national juggernaut yet. So in order to keep many of these companies afloat, Flair would take on the champion’s responsibility of showing up and making their local stars look like a million bucks. He would routinely have hour-long marathon matches, running endlessly around the ring, bleeding and getting slammed from one side to another with the intent on making his opponent look good enough to win before he snuck away with the belt through dastardly means. Dallas. Chicago. New Orleans. Philadelphia. He would do this across the country. Every day. And twice on Sunday.
Flair as a wrestler reconfigured what it meant to experience drama in a wrestling ring. His feuds with Dusty Rhodes, Sting and the Von Erichs, for instance, enraged fans. He infamously avoided riots from angry fans throughout his career.
But beyond Flair’s in-ring brilliance was what he was most renowned for: his ability to talk. Flair was a catchprase machine who made fans hate him. He bragged about his limos, his gators, his women and his jewelry, and his patented “Woooo.” He called his dick “Space Mountain.” When he wanted fans to despise him, he called himself better than them. When he wanted them to love him, he was as passionate a hero ever. As he would say himself, women wanted to be with him and men wanted to be him. In short, Flair was the anti-Hulk Hogan. Some kids loved Hogan for his prayers, vitamins and heroics. The rest of us wanted to be Flair, the badass with the Rolex. And as we got older, we would heap praise on Flair and his legacy.
Ric Flair wasn’t just an 80s sensation. He wrestled as a premier star through the 90s and didn’t retire until 2008. He was 59. By the time he retired, Flair was a 16-time world champion. No one had more titles at the time. He’d cemented himself as the greatest all-around wrestler ever, as no one had been able to put together the string of great matches, iconic moments and unforgettable slogans together in one package. Time has only made Flair more beloved.
Flair’s prominence has been particularly visible in Hip-Hop of all places, where his reliance on jewelry, swagger and shit-talking followed particularly close to the rap aesthetic of acts like Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane, who were finding popularity at the same time. Rappers have come to embrace Flair as they got older–Pusha T and Killer Mike have songs dedicated to him and Flair went on a faux-presidential campaign with Waka Flocka in 2016. Flair helped set the tone for what was “cool” to a generation that would go on to set the parameters for what is hip.
So an entire country felt the ominousness of the prospect of losing Ric Flair, whose personality loomed larger than life. Flair had a knack for the dramatic, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him emerge from his hospital, crack that iconic smile and let us know he was just letting it look like he was on the ropes, on his way to his grand comeback. Flair wouldn’t have it any other way.