Ric Flair’s first wife flatly says this about her famous ex in a new documentary, premiering Nov. 7: “Don’t trust him.”
At another point in the ESPN’s “30 for 30” film, titled “Nature Boy,” his longtime friend Paul Levesque (aka pro wrestler Triple H) brands Flair “a consummate liar.”
So when the 68-year-old WWE Hall of Famer calls the Observer to chat about the upcoming film, his recently released book and the health scare that almost made him miss both, it’s hard for those statements not to echo in an interviewer’s mind.
One thing seems fairly free of exaggeration, though:
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“I could never drink again,” he says. “I mean it. Never.
“I made a joke about it to my doctor recently. He said, ‘So what have you been doing?’ I said, ‘Eh, just been laying low, and healing up. Had a couple beers the other night.’ He looked at me and said ‘What?’ I mean, I could tell. He was pissed. I said, ‘No, I’m just kidding.’
“He said, ‘Ric, let me tell you something: I can’t get you through something like this again.’ ”
A Charlotte resident for decades, Flair – born Richard Morgan Fliehr (rhymes with “clear”) and raised in a Minneapolis suburb – lorded over professional wrestling in elaborate fur-lined, sequin-covered robes, and left countless foes crying for mercy with his signature Figure Four leg-lock. He is the only wrestler to have been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame twice, as an individual in 2008 and as a member of The Four Horsemen in 2012.
He was almost as legendary for his drinking. In the ESPN documentary, he boasts of pounding 10 beers and five cocktails per day for decades.
Now? That’s all history, it seems.
The last drink he had – the last drink he’ll ever have, Flair says – went down his throat at 4 o’clock in the afternoon on Friday, the 11th of August. Two hours later, he was checking himself into Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville, Ga., just down the road from the home he shares with his fiancee, Wendy Barlow.
He initially thought it was merely an upset stomach, he says, but it turned out to be far more serious.
After decades of hard-core alcohol abuse, both his kidneys and heart were beginning to fail. Three days later, doctors removed part of his bowel (to relieve an intestinal blockage) and installed a pacemaker; Flair then spent 10 days in a medically induced coma.
Doctors gave him just a 20 percent chance of ever waking up, he says.
“Miss drinking? No. Not at all. Ten days of not knowing where you are and being on life support? Even a guy as irresponsible as I have been, and can be, would never subject himself to that again.
“So yeah. Diet Coke, man. Starbucks coffee. Venti bold. And a lot of Gatorade. Actually, when I first got out of the hospital ... I couldn’t twist the top off a bottle of Gatorade. That tells you how weak I was.”
‘Everybody has their own truth’
If not for his near-death experience, Flair would probably be amid celebrations filled with champagne toasts, double martinis and cold beers.
Sept. 19 saw the release of “Second Nature: The Legacy of Ric Flair and the Rise of Charlotte,” the book he co-wrote with daughter Ashley Fliehr – aka WWE Superstar Charlotte Flair.
(Though it leans heavily on Flair’s first induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2008 and his legendary 2008 “retirement” match against Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 24, the memoir made waves for accusing his daughter’s first husband, Riki Johnson, of a pattern of abuse. “I like knowing,” Flair says, “that he’s having to read that and weep.”)
By sheer coincidence, the wraps are about to come off another high-profile look at the legacy of the self-described “Rolex-wearin’, diamond-ring-wearin’, kiss-stealin’, wheelin’-dealin’, limousine-ridin’, jet-flyin’ son of a gun”: Premiering at 10 p.m. Nov. 7, the ESPN documentary is the first feature-length “30 for 30” about a pro wrestler.
And whereas the book offers his side of his story, the film presents his side plus the sides of dozens of people from his past and present – everyone from his first wife (Leslie Jacobs, doing her first on-camera interview ever) to a long line of wrestling personalities (most notably Hulk Hogan) to rapper Snoop Dogg (talking about Flair’s influence on African American culture).
It paints a full-bodied portrait of a uniquely gifted entertainer addicted to wrestling, alcohol and women, and who is for the most part unashamed to admit to those addictions.
The film’s biggest jaw-dropper, arguably, is his claim that he slept with 10,000 women over a period of several decades that included four failed marriages.
“You know, everybody kind of has their own truth,” says Rory Karpf, the Charlotte resident who directed “Nature Boy.” “He’s telling stories of how he remembers them. Did he really sleep with 10,000 women? I mean, I wasn’t there. They’re his answers. It’s not necessarily the gospel, or journalistic truth.
“That’s why it’s important for me to have those (sound) bites from his first wife, and from Triple H. So maybe you do have to watch what you’re listening to with Ric. I believe he believes it, but he’s a storyteller by nature,” Karpf says, chuckling. “No pun intended.”
‘He’s throwing back vodkas’
Karpf sat down with Flair to show him the film for the first time in early August, just days before his star would wind up in the hospital. The two were in a hotel room in L.A., and Karpf says he actually felt a touch nervous – because he knew there might be uncomfortable moments for Flair.
A couple of examples:
At one point, there’s a clip of Flair’s now-38-year-old son David (from his marriage to Jacobs), talking somberly about how his father seemed to never want to be home: “I think you could be great at what you do and be a good husband and a good father. How could you ever neglect your kids like that? ... I don’t want my kids to grow up the way I did. That’s for sure.”
Later, WWE Hall of Fame broadcaster Jim Ross tells a story of going to a hotel bar with Flair after a match, where the wrestler insisted on buying 137 Kamikazes for 10 bar patrons. The story is decades old, and Ross still seems genuinely exasperated by it. “ ‘Can’t we just go in and order a couple of drinks?’ ... But it’s gotta turn into a party. But the more I got to know him, I think it was just that he needed companionship. He needed somebody with him, even if it was another guy, just to shoot the breeze. So he wouldn’t be isolated.”
Says Karpf, recalling the hotel-room screening for Flair: “They’re talking in the film about his drinking and how he is a functioning alcoholic. And while we’re watching that, he’s drinking! He’s throwing back vodkas. That’s an interesting experience. I don’t know if he’s gonna turn around and slug me over some of this stuff.”
But Flair said grace over the film and hugged Karpf afterward.
“It’s tough,” Flair says. “I mean, there’s some very emotional things in it. ... Anything with my son is always gonna be fragile” – and here he’s talking not about David but about younger son Reid (with second wife Elizabeth Harrell). Reid died of a drug overdose in a SouthPark hotel in 2013, at age 25.
In a life full of questionable personal decisions, Flair seems to shrug off most of them over the course of the documentary. But when Karpf asks Flair near the end of it whether anything was left unsaid between him and his late son, Flair barely able to form the words as his voice breaks and his green eyes well with tears.
‘You think I’m gonna make it?’
“Even as sick as I’ve been, I feel like I’m 20 years old,” Flair says.
What’s ironic about this statement is the fact that – for perhaps the first time in his life – “Nature Boy” seems to be acting his age.
Alcohol is out for good, yes. But so, he says, is the sleeping around.
Flair says his fiancee, Wendy Barlow – with whom he’s been for several years – is a good influence, a calming influence, someone he feels he can truly be himself with. She’s also a devoted caretaker, he says; while he was in the ICU, she only left his side for about six hours total in 10 straight days and nights.
“Being honest and truthful with everybody around you? I never was, not with a woman in my life, until I met Wendy,” Flair says. When he was about to go into surgery, he says, he gave her his phone and “I realized that I didn’t have anything to worry about. No anxiety. And I thought to myself, ‘Boy, this is a nice way to live, not worrying about some chick from, you know, Pluto calling your phone to...” ... and he can’t finish his sentence, because he’s laughing so hard.
“ ‘Can I speak to Ric, please?’ ” he continues, feigning a woman’s voice. “I hate to put it like that, but it’s a nice feeling not to have that discomfort.”
When he left the hospital, Flair weighed 206 pounds, down 43 from when he was admitted. He had to go to “a rehab place” (he’s careful to clarify that it was for physical rehab – he’s never publicly admitted to being an alcoholic), where he had to re-learn how to walk.
He recently weighed in at about 220, and hopes to hit his target of 228 soon. Because of the pacemaker and because he’s still recuperating, he’s limited to light cardio and nothing heavier than a 10-pound dumbbell per arm when working his upper body.
But – wooooooooo! – he’s getting there.
“I used to say to Wendy every day, ‘You think I’m gonna make it?’ And there’s Wendy, the total picture of positivity: ‘Ric, of course you are. You’re gonna live to be 80. You’re gonna outlive me.’ Well, I used to think that, too – until August 14th. S---.
“Yeah, I thought I was invincible.”