I don't remember crying much as a kid. But that was a long time ago, before I left Minnesota for Charlotte, bleached my brown hair blond, and became "Nature Boy" Ric Flair. That's before I let my self-esteem depend on people with power in the wrestling business.
For the last fifteen years or so, I've been told that I'm the greatest professional wrestler who ever lived. Better than Frank Gotch or Lou Thesz, Bruno Sammartino or Verne Gagne, Gorgeous George or Hulk Hogan. Ric Flair can call himself a sixteen-time world champion. Ric Flair went on the road and wrestled every single day -- twice on Saturday, twice on Sunday, every birthday, every holiday, every anniversary -- for twenty straight years. I've spent more than thirty years of my life -- some days good, some bad--trying to prove to myself, to my peers, and to the fans who paid anywhere from five to five hundred dollars that I could be the best at what I chose to do for a living.
When you have no equal in professional wrestling, you have no equal in the sports world. Because -- despite what outsiders may think -- we are not ninjas or warriors. We are a special breed who can withstand pain, exhaustion, and injury without ever coming up for air. There is no off-season in our business, and we're the toughest athletes alive.
In the ring, I've always been at home. It's what lurks outside of it that scares me. For every legitimate punch I've ever taken to the head, every bone I've ever dislocated or every chair that's been bent across my spine, nothing can be as ruthless as the political sabotage inside the dressing room or promoter's office. While fans were saying that I could have a five-star match with anyone at any time, behind the scenes I'd be called an old piece of shit that didn't understand the public, couldn't read ratings, and deserved to be bankrupted along with my family.
These weren't things I heard once or twice; it went on for years. And after a while, it almost broke me. I felt myself losing the Ric Flair strut and, in many ways, my joy for life. When I came to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) in late 2001 after spending most of my career representing the competition, I didn't know if the wrestlers liked or respected me, or knew about my legacy. Hell, I began to wonder if I even had a legacy at all.
So that's why on May 19, 2003, at fifty-four years old, I was standing in the center of a ring in Greenville, South Carolina, in boots and trunks, crying like a little boy. The Raw TV cameras were off. This was something personal between myself, the "boys" -- as the members of our fraternity like to call each other -- and the fans.
"I went through a period where the Nature Boy wasn't the Nature Boy," I started, confessing to people who had watched me trade knife-edge chops with Wahoo McDaniel in 1976 after I came back from a plane crash; take Dusty Rhodes's bionic elbow in 1987 while my cohorts in the Four Horsemen circled the ring; and return in 1998 after my old company, World Championship Wrestling (WCW), tried to sue me out of my profession. Either these fans had been there personally, or their fathers had been there, or their grandfathers or great-grandfathers had told them about it. For nearly thirty-five years, it had been me and them. And when the tears came down my face, I was just letting it out to a group of people who, in some ways, knew me like a part of their families.
But the bad days were over, and here in Greenville, South Carolina, I finally saw it -- by the way the boys had hugged and honored me after my opponent, Triple H, carried me to one of the most satisfying matches of my career, and by the way the fans had stood and screamed and looked into my watery eyes, letting me know that, when the Nature Boy was in the ring, they'd never stopped believing.
"To be the man, you've gotta beat the man," I'd said so many times, taunting my opponents while I shoved my title into the camera. Well, I'd beaten myself, but now -- in my mind, at least -- I won back the crown. I was still "Slick Ric," "Space Mountain," "Secretariat in Disguise," a kiss-stealing, wheeling, dealing, jet-flying, limousine-riding son-of-a-gun.
This is my story. And, as I've proclaimed during many an interview, whether you like it, or whether you don't like it, learn to love it.
My mother probably thought I was stillborn.
That's what they told a lot of the girls whose kids ended up with the Tennessee Children's Home Society in Memphis -- their babies were dead, and they just needed to sign a couple of papers. Adoption papers. Most of these girls were poor and uneducated. Some were even under sedation.
They had pulled the same scam on single mothers, promising that their kids would be kept in a nice, safe place until the girls could come and get them. A corrupt judge had been in on the whole scheme, taking away infants from people on public assistance. One woman in the Western State Hospital for the Insane had a new baby with a different inmate every year. When you handed her a pen, she'd sign anything.
Years later, 60 Minutes would do an exposé on the case. Mary Tyler Moore would win an Emmy Award for her performance in Stolen Babies, a cable-TV movie about the scandal. But until the governor of Tennessee called for an investigation in 1950, five thousand children had been taken away and adopted by parents from all over the United States, including Joan Crawford (whose Mommie Dearest daughter supposedly came from the Tennessee Children's Home Society), June Allyson, Dick Powell, and the people I grew to love as my mother and father, Dick and Kay Fliehr.
My parents were both born in 1918, and had met at the University of Minnesota. My mother, Kathleen Virginia Kinsmiller, was from a town called Brainerd, Minnesota. She was a cultured woman who wrote articles for newspapers and magazines, and in 1968, she authored a book, In Search of Audience, about the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, a place where she introduced me to people like Jessica Tandy, Henry Fonda, and Elizabeth Taylor.
My father, Richard Reid Fliehr, was salutatorian of his high school class in Virginia, Minnesota. Like my mother, he loved the theater, but he ended up taking pre-med courses, becoming a medic in the navy during World War II, and then a successful obstetrician and gynecologist.
I thought my dad was the most intelligent guy in the world. While working as an ob-gyn, he went back to school and got his master's and doctorate both in theater and English. He went on the road, performing in plays, and became president of the American Community Theater Association. Meanwhile, his practice -- Haugen, Fliehr and Meeker -- was one of the biggest in the Twin Cities. My dad probably delivered thousands of babies, among them wrestling promoter Gary Juster, former National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) Heavyweight Champion Gene Kiniski's kids (including his son Kelly, who wrestled in the World Wrestling Federation in the 1980s) and Superstar Billy Graham's daughter Capella.
Sadly, my parents weren't able to start a family of their own. In the mid-1940s, my mother gave birth to a daughter who died so quickly, I'm not sure if she had a name. Afterward, my mother couldn't become pregnant again, so in 1948 she began corresponding with the Tennessee Children's Home Society.
My father's salary was a bit of an issue. He was only making $3,000 a year, but my mother explained that he was doing his residency in Detroit, and that any child they adopted would live a relatively privileged life, and most likely go to college.
On the form the agency sent them, my parents were questioned about their reasons for adopting. "Unable to have one of our own," my mother handwrote, "and our love of children."
"Will you treat the child as a member of your family?" they were asked. "Yes," my mother replied.
"If the child is returned," the questionnaire inquired, "will you pay the expense of bringing it back?" My parents agreed to the condition. But once they laid eyes on the Nature Boy, I wasn't going anywhere.
Depending upon which documents you read, my birth name was Fred Phillips, Fred Demaree, or Fred Stewart, and I was born in Memphis on February 25, 1949. My biological mother's name was Olive Phillips, Demaree, or Stewart. My biological father is listed as Luther Phillips.
Given all the deceit that went on between the Tennessee Children's Home Society and the authorities they paid off, I'll never really know the circumstances surrounding my birth, or what happened to me immediately afterward. The agency reported that, on March 12, 1949, "Olive Phillips and Luther Phillips did abandon and desert said child." A court later ruled that I was "an abandoned, dependent and neglected child," to be placed "under the guardianship of the Tennessee Children's Home Society," which now had the right to find me "a suitable home for adoption."
They didn't keep me around Memphis for long. On March 18, I was delivered to my adoptive parents at 6439 Devereaux in Detroit, just as the agency had dropped off other children at hotels like the Biltmore in Los Angeles -- an extra amenity, I guess, for preferred customers. My parents renamed me Richard Morgan Fliehr, and eventually took me home to Edina, Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis.
Believe it or not, I never bothered looking at my adoption papers until I started researching this book. The documents were sitting in a safe in my house, and I didn't even know my birth name. I was never curious. I'm still not. I'm an only child, and as far as I'm concerned, my parents have always been my mom and dad.
They never kept my adoption a secret from me; in fact, they described it as one of the happiest events of their lives. I'd have a birthday party and then, every March 18, my parents and I would go to an Italian restaurant (I always liked Italian food) by ourselves to celebrate my "anniversary."
In the summer, we'd take vacations that lasted three weeks and drive all over the United States, from Disneyland to the Rocky Mountains to Washington, D.C., and into Canada. My dad would take me camping up in the Great Northwest. He was a strong swimmer and could swim right across the lake. When we were thirsty, we'd drink the water out of the same lake. It was tremendous.
Every year for my birthday, my father would take me to the wrestling matches. I loved watching the old American Wrestling Association (AWA), based in Minneapolis, and remember seeing guys like Verne Gagne, Bobo Brazil, Ray Stevens, and Red Bastien. I liked the interviews better than the matches, especially when the Crusher was on. Reggie "Crusher" Lisowski called himself "the man who made Milwaukee famous," and claimed that he trained by running with a beer keg on each shoulder and dancing with fat Polish women afterward. He was a big, barrel-chested guy who called chubby girls his "dollies," and his opponents "sissies" and "turkey necks." Sometimes he and his tag-team partner, Dick the Bruiser, seemed to get so excited after winning a match -- Crusher liked to use the Bolo Punch and Stomach Claw -- that they'd start slugging each other.
Whenever I saw the Crusher on TV, chomping on his cigar, I'd call my father over -- "Dad, Dad, come watch this interview." He'd look at it for a little while, then walk away and laugh. He knew that wrestling made me happy, but it really wasn't his thing.
This is one example of how I sometimes sensed that I didn't have a lot in common with my parents. I don't know if it had anything to do with biology, or with the things we cared about; it just seemed like we lived in different worlds. They loved the theater and education. I had no interest in anything except sports. My father was incredibly handy; he could build and wire a house. I don't think my wife has ever seen me hammer a nail. And I don't want to.
From the time I was twelve years old, I was Ric Flair. The teachers at Golden Valley Elementary School and Golden Valley Junior High School might have called me "Fliehr," but I was just a younger version of the guy fans later saw stylin' and profilin' on WRAL in Raleigh, then on SuperStation TBS and TNT, and today on Spike TV. I was always a chief, never a follower. I was center stage at every party, and the girls were everywhere. And, just like in wrestling, my craziest friend in junior high school was a guy named Piper.
Dan Piper came to Edina from Nashville, Tennessee. He was at least a year older than us -- I think his parents kept him back -- had a southern accent and rolled-up sleeves, smoked, carried a Zippo lighter, and knew how to drive. I must have been in eighth grade when the two of us stole a car and drove some girls to the dances at the Hopkins Roller Rink. It was something like thirty below zero and I didn't know how to work the car, so when I turned on the air-conditioning instead of the heater, I completely froze the engine block.
Piper was also with me the night I took my dad's car to where some girls were having a slumber party. We sneaked out a few of them in their pajamas and were in the car when one girl hit the brake pedal and a cop came over to investigate. The police had to contact the girls' families, and one of the fathers was so irate that he wanted to press charges. It was Father's Day morning when my dad arrived at the jail.
"Happy Father's Day," I said, a little embarrassed.
"Thanks," he grumbled, and took me home.
I'm sure that if I attended school now, I'd be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD. I was the epitome of the disease. I couldn't concentrate and kept getting into trouble for not listening. No one ever said that I wasn't intellectually gifted. I just couldn't slow down enough to read or study. Even today, I don't really read books; I prefer USA Today, Time, Sports Illustrated, and boating magazines. And back then, there was no treatment for students like me.
Sometimes kids who can't handle academics take out their frustration by getting into fights. Not me, though. I may have had a few fights, but I didn't have a chip on my shoulder. There wasn't much to be angry about. I was an only child with parents who couldn't do enough for me, and a good athlete with a huge wealth of friends.
Looking back, my parents were far more lenient than I am with my younger kids. They were constantly out of town doing plays, and supposedly leaving me under the supervision of family friends. But I could always figure my way around that.
I started having sex when I was about fourteen, and just kept going. The rotation stayed in place; I never went looking for it. My priority was going out and being the party. At the end of the night, when all was said and done and the last bottle drunk, I just let things happen. Pretty soon, I was working on a numbers game, and the numbers piled up fast.
Over time, my little scrapes with the law also began accumulating. I got caught riding our Honda 50 motorcycle around the lake (without a license) while my parents were out of town. Then I got busted trying to use a phony ID at a liquor store. The owner was an ex-football player in a wheelchair, and the cops made me feel terrible, telling me how I nearly caused this handicapped guy to lose his business.
It all became too much for my parents, so they decided that I'd be better off in boarding school. After the ninth grade, I left Minnesota to go to Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, an exclusive school that was founded in 1855 and, according to its promotional material, "seeks to foster the development of personality, responsibility, self-discipline and friendship" among its students.
The school has a reputation for sending its graduates to places like Wellesley, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Northwestern, and Duke. The kids who went there for the academics got their money's worth -- we were in accelerated math programs, and had to take Latin and French. But the students I hung around with were mainly wild rich kids with family problems, or they'd been in trouble at school or with the police, and this was an alternative to military school. We were fifteen-year-olds, the school was coed, and all of us were players. I was there about two months when I realized that my parents had sent me to heaven.
My academics still sucked, but I lettered in three sports. I played middle linebacker and fullback on the football team, threw the shot put, and wrestled, first at 181 pounds and then as a heavyweight. Since the drinking age in Wisconsin was eighteen, it was easy to get into bars with a fake ID.
It only made sense that my friends would become a bigger part of my life than my family. During the school year, I came home only for Christmas and a couple of other days. My parents would attend one of my football games every season, but they never saw me wrestle, so I felt like I was on my own. Today, I could never imagine sending a child away like that. My youngest boy, Reid, is an accomplished high-school wrestler, and one boarding school has tried to recruit him. But I won't let him go. How could I recapture that time apart from my son?
Sometimes my best friend, the General, would invite me to his family's house for the weekend. His family was very wealthy, and just being around them accelerated my taste for the finer things in life. Don't mistake me -- my father was a doctor, and we were anything but poor. But while my father may have been earning $65,000 a year -- a great living in the 1960s -- the General's dad was literally one of the wealthiest men in the Midwest. And my parents were frugal; they saved every dime and didn't live large -- which was the complete opposite of where I wanted to go.
Every spring break, the General and I would hitchhike to Florida. I'd come home to Minnesota and tell my parents that I was going to stay with the General's family for a few days. Then, after my parents dropped me off at the train station in Minneapolis, I'd start hitching in twenty-below-zero weather until I ended up in Fort Lauderdale. When we were sixteen, we rented an apartment upstairs from a beauty salon. For the whole week, the General did the owner, while I did her daughter.
One summer, I got a job as a lifeguard at a local pool in Minnesota and had my first interaction with pro wrestlers. Maurice "Mad Dog" Vachon, a former AWA Champion with a bald head and a beard and mustache that weren't quite connected to each other, would stomp and bite his opponents, then growl into the TV camera, baring his bottom teeth. I'd see him at the pool with his brother, Paul "Butcher" Vachon, and their sister, Vivian, who also wrestled. Paul and Vivian were friendly enough -- not that they had much to say to a seventeen-year-old kid -- but it was impossible to strike up a conversation with Mad Dog. He was very much the character he played.
I was working on becoming a water safety instructor, giving little kids lessons, when I struck up a friendship with one of the mothers. She was thirty-five and stunning. Her husband traveled a lot. We enjoyed each other's "company." This was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me in my teenage years. This beautiful woman introduced me to new experiences in the bedroom. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
When I got back to school, the dean of students called me into his office to tell me that my "aunt" had driven three hundred miles to take me off-campus for the day. She gave me some advice I've never forgotten: "Ric, you're going to learn that older women like a little appetizer before dinner." I was only too happy to oblige.
I thought our arrangement was great -- beyond great -- but she apparently felt guilty about cheating on her husband with a minor. One day she broke down in her doctor's office and confessed everything. The doctor excused himself, went into the next office and told his partner, my father, that it would probably be best if I stayed away from their patient. My father was irate with me for what he deemed to be inappropriate behavior.
It took me five years to graduate from high school, but thanks to my athletic credentials, colleges were still interested in me. In both 1966 and 1967, I was state private school wrestling champion. A lot of people have asked me if that's when I knew that I was going to become a professional wrestler. Well, I didn't think that far ahead. I was having too much fun, and I couldn't imagine anything past college football.
The University of Michigan wanted to recruit me, and I decided to go to Ann Arbor with the General to check out the school. We started out with $110 between us. After two nights at the Michigan Union, we were running low on cash. I heard a knock at the door and opened it. There was a black girl who worked for the hotel; she was there to collect the money we owed for the room. Knowing we didn't have the cash, I issued her a challenge. "You see my friend over here?" I said, pointing at the General. "His balls are bigger than any black guy's you've ever seen."
"I don't think so," she replied.
The General pulled down his pants. The clerk comped our lodging.
After spending the weekend at the University of Michigan with the football coach, Bump Elliot, and players like Jim Mandich (who ended up on the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers) and Dan Dierdorf (one of the NFL's greatest offensive tackles before he became an announcer on Monday Night Football), I was ready to become a Wolverine. All I needed was a letter from Jim Fierke, the dean of students at Wayland Academy, stating his confidence in my ability to pass college-level classes. But he refused to cooperate. He told me that I would get into college and just blow it. He was right, but I had hoped he would do me a favor. After all, I gave five years to that school.
Eventually I was recruited by my parents' alma mater, the University of Minnesota, by the Golden Gophers' offensive line coach, Mike McGee. I started there in 1968, playing freshman football as an offensive guard. We'd scrimmage with the varsity squad, and the coaches evaluated us. I was definitely good enough to make the team. It was just a simple question of getting my grades right.
Of course, I had other concerns. I joined a fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, and began hanging around with a football player named Mike Goldberg. Mike was a year older than me and helped give the place its Animal House flavor. There was another Goldberg brother, Steve, who began playing football at the school the year after I did. And on September 21, 2003, their baby brother, Bill, defeated Triple H for the WWE World Championship.
No one was really surprised when I was told that I'd have to attend summer school in order to play my sophomore year. I had been there about two weeks when the General invited me out to his house for the weekend. I told my girlfriend, Leslie Goodman -- who'd later become my first wife and the mother of my kids Megan and David -- that I'd be gone for about three days. It ended up being more like two months, and when I returned, she had another boyfriend. I eventually succeeded in winning her back, and the pattern of our relationship was set.
Unfortunately, that was the least of my problems. Because I cut out on summer school, I couldn't play football. I ended up hanging around campus for a couple of months with Mike Goldberg and some of my other friends, then dropped out after the fall semester.
My parents were beyond freaking out. They'd seen this kind of thing happen with me again and again, and they worried that I'd never get my feet on the ground. I understood their fears, but didn't share their apprehension.
Somehow, I sensed that the party was only getting started.
Copyright © 2004 by World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.
Ric Flair: To Be the Man
With that triumphant cry, "Nature Boy" Ric Flair surpassed his predecessors and his peers to become one of the greatest professional wrestlers in history.
To wrestling fans, the Nature Boy is a platinum-blond deity. A sixteen-time World Champion, "Slick Ric" could convince television viewers that a momentous life experience would pass them by if they missed an upcoming match. His opponents were challenged with this simple taunt: "To be the man, you have to beat the man."
From the moment he was born, Richard Morgan Fliehr was enmeshed in controversy. Like many of the other children adopted through the Tennessee Children's Home Society, he had apparently been stolen from his birth parents. Raised just outside Minneapolis, Ric was a distracted student, a brilliant athlete, and a wild party boy. Then, a chance meeting with Olympic weightlifter Ken Patera, directed Flair to the world of professional wrestling.
In 1974, Flair relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina, igniting the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling promotion. He was almost forced to retire a year later when his back was broken in a plane crash. Flair recuperated, and in 1981 he would win his first National Wrestling Alliance championship. As the most traveled champion ever, he once wrestled eighteen hour-long cards during a fourteen-day stretch.
Before purchasing World Championship Wrestling in 1988, Ted Turner was given assurance that the Nature Boy would come with the package. But Flair's clashes with WCW management would drive him to World Wrestling Entertainment. When he later returned to WCW, Flair collided in and out of the ring with Hulk Hogan and -- as the company disintegrated -- began losing his self-esteem.
Arriving back at WWE in 2001, Flair was a broken man. What he didn't realize was that wrestlers who'd grown up idolizing him now inhabited the locker room. With their support, he was finally able to claim his legacy and receive the credit he so richly deserved.
To Be the Man traces the rise of one of wrestling's most enduring superstars to the pinnacle of the sports entertainment universe, and is a must-read for every wrestling fan.
- World Wrestling Entertainment |
- 480 pages |
- ISBN 9780743491815 |
- May 2005