Ric Flair’s text arrives Wednesday at 7:35 a.m.
Are you up early or did you stay out late?
“Up early, always,” says Flair, 68.
Well, not always, not in the old days.
On Tuesday night, ESPN televised Flair’s Biopic, “Nature Boy,” as part of its “30 for 30” series. A man I know and respect ran for an at-large City Council berth Tuesday, and I wanted to head to his victory party. But I couldn’t risk missing Flair, whom I also know and respect. I didn’t want to tape “Nature Boy.” I wanted to be there when the biopic arrived.
The show is powerful and emotional and so well done. Flair held nothing back.
“It was hard but really the only way to approach the project,” Flair says by text.
I’ve known Ric since the 1980s. We grew up in the same place, him in an affluent suburb of Minneapolis, me in the city. But we met in Charlotte.
Walk into a bar with him and suddenly nine out of 10 heads exchange their neck for a swivel. Women look, men look, and somebody will invariably shout Flair’s trademark “Whoooo!” The guy shouting loudest might be a cardiologist. Flair’s appeal has long superseded fans of wrestling.
When the Carolina Panthers went to the Super Bowl in 2004, I asked Mike Rucker, the team’s fine defensive end and a wrestling fan, who was a bigger deal in Charlotte – Flair or Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme. Find me a winning NFL quarterback in any city who isn’t among the biggest names in town.
Rucker considered the question for two seconds.
“Flair,” he said.
Flair and I have gone out over the years, and I never was able to buy. I’d signal the bartender not knowing that Flair already had. The world fears his figure-four leglock. Nobody fears mine. It was as if he paid because he wanted everybody in the bar to be as happy as he seemed to be.
Flair says he no longer drinks. So if I see him again, it will be breakfast, lunch or dinner.
I was with my kids at Charlotte Douglas International Airport one afternoon more than 25 years ago, and Flair was with two of his. We were all heading to Minneapolis. The flight was canceled so my kids and I took a connecting flight. Flair and his children went home. He stopped on the way to say “hi” to my kids. My younger son had fallen asleep, and when he awoke Flair was there. Flair said “hi.” Peter looked at him for a few seconds, closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
Later I asked: “Peter, you love wrestling. That was Flair. Why didn’t you say something?”
“I thought I was dreaming,” Peter said.
I get it. The greatest wrestler in history stands before you and says hello. What are the odds of that?
We all have a currency, and Flair’s is attention. He wants to be noticed and he wants to be liked. He has that. He talks about the respect that Dwayne Johnson, the Rock, then a wrestler, showed him.
But there are qualities he lacks. He acknowledges in “Nature Boy” that he was neither a great father nor a great husband. Four years ago he lost his son, Reid, to drugs, and says he thinks about Reid every day. I attended Reid’s funeral and spoke briefly to Ric afterward. Flair was a broken man.
Burying a child is the greatest fear for many of us. When it happens, what do you do? Fortunately, most of us will never know.
I suspect you do the only thing you can do. You remember what your child stood for. And minute-by-minute and then hour-by-hour and then day-by-day, you slowly grind on.
Flair is engaged to Wendy Barlow, whom he met in wrestling long ago.
I ask him via text how his story will end.
“Fairy tale ending,” Flair writes. “I’m with Wendy. And finally AT PEACE.”