“Nature Boy” Ric Flair, the 73-year-old professional legend who, in 2021, was one of the focal points of the docuseries Dark Side of the Ring‘s episode on the infamous WWE “Plane Ride From Hell,” most notably for allegedly sexually assaulting flight attendant Heidi Doyle, will be coming out of retirement for one more match on July 31.
What a thrill.
Flair, whose habit of exposing himself to women without their consent were, before Dark Side of the Ring, considered charming enough anecdotes to be included in both an ESPN 30 For 30 documentary and the WWE-produced cartoon Story Time, teased at this return on May 13 by posting a minute-long montage of he and Jay Lethal running spots to some public domain-sounding Jock Jams. In that video, you get to see Flair on offense, Flair on the sell, and Lethal on everything going “NYAAA” like he’s added Lex Luger to his stable of wrestler impersonations.
— Ric Flair® (@RicFlairNatrBoy) May 13, 2022
All of this is fine, I guess? Ric Flair is free to do as he pleases, there’s obviously a promoter who wants to make it happen, and if he’s wrestling Jay Lethal and not just training with him, he in his opponent someone he displayed a pretty easy chemistry with 12 years ago in TNA. Watching those montages, it’s Lethal’s enthusiasm that’s palpable, and he’s doing his absolute best to protect flair when he bumps. There’s no high backdrop taken on the hip, no throw from the top rope — there shouldn’t be, but everything the two show is nice and easy, a suplex, a bodyslam. I can already hear Flair taking one of those in the match screaming “Oh God, my back!” the way he did when he was selling his age on Monday Nitro.
Any argument against this match taking place doesn’t matter. If you’re the kind of wrestling fan who cares about the legacy of aging stars, I’m sorry, but Ric was touring Australia to eat pins for Hulk Hogan, his worst major rival, within a year and a half of Shawn Michaels retiring him at WrestleMania 24. If fans care for you and there’s enough money on the table, the door is never fully closed — see the once-thought-improbable returns of Steve Austin, The Rock, Bret Hart, CM Punk, Edge, and Sting, as well as the multiple retirements of the likes of Terry Funk, Atsushi Onita, and Mick Foley. As a fan, you either roll with this or you don’t. As a worker, you know that there are more than enough people who will support you for the sake of tying up loose ends or reliving their own youth that the crowd that doesn’t like it gets lost in the adulation of those who do.
There are a lot of people who like Ric Flair, even in the face of the allegations against him. Last year, when he appeared in Andrade El Idolo’s corner at AAA Triplemania against Kenny Omega, the Internet flipped out over the spot in the match where he and Andrade ping-ponged Kenny Omega back and forth with chops, culminating in twin figure four leglocks on Omega and his second, Konnan. I watched a fan-shot clip of that spot, and while it was enthusiastic, Flair was slow on Omega feeding into his chops, and there were a couple of hitches in the figure four, most noticeably Flair having trouble getting his leg over Konnan’s to seal the deal on the figure four.
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That’s fine, he is in his 70s and I am admittedly nitpicking. Flair is a smart wrestler, one of the smartest in the history of the game, and if there are things his body can’t do in 2022, he will compensate for them, like his kicking at Lethal’s knees, which saves him the strain of kicking higher and replaces a lot of the legwork he used to do, like the kneebreaker, that would be stupid, frankly, to attempt now.
I am sure that the point of his final match, whoever it’s against, is to prove that he can still do the things he’s known for. I have no doubt that he will, though it’ll be pared down to what the crowd will be happy to go home with at a bare minimum — chops, struts, a Flair flop, and the figure four. I’m not concerned for his safety, but I’m not so ghoulish as to want to watch a 73-year-old do a knee drop — what’s on sale here, I imagine, is less the self-destruction of the man than it is the last dying breath of someone who knows the time for a last hurrah was likely a decade ago. You’ll see Ric Flair get beat up until he begs and hits an eye poke, you’ll see Ric Flair do some hip tosses and chops, and you’ll see Ric Flair go out the way he wants to (unless he wants another match).
Turning Back the Clock
But that’s what sucks the most about this whole endeavor. The video that Flair posted to advertise his last match is awash in nostalgia. The show begins at 6:05 eastern, “Turner Time,” like every iteration of TBS’ pre-AEW Saturday Wrestling Shows. The screen announcing that looks like WCW Thunder-era screen graphics. The theme music is (curiously) borrowed from WWE’s versions of Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling. The “We want Flair” chants recall either the period WCW went through when he wrestled for WWF, or when he was getting screwed by Eric Bischoff. The vast majority of the still images and (heavily blurred, given that it’s also borrowed from WWE footage on Peacock) video footage are from Flair in his absolute prime. The show is brought to you by Jim Crockett Promotions, classic logo and everything.
The Rumors Are True! I’m Going To Walk That Aisle, Style And Profile, One Last Time! July 31st! Nashville, Tennessee! Jim Crockett Promotions!
I Will Prove Once Again, That To Be The Man, You’ve Got To Beat The Man!
Now We Go To School!
— Ric Flair® (@RicFlairNatrBoy) May 16, 2022
In short, what Ric Flair’s Last Match wants to do is take you back to a time when it was okay for Ric Flair to be Ric Flair.
This show, this match, is about a man trying to reclaim his legacy after facing consequences in the wake of Dark Side of the Ring. To go out his way rather than be told that he isn’t wanted. This is the first time in his life as a performer where that has been the case. The “We want Flair” chants in the Ric Flair’s Last Match promo are a rebuttal to that notion, even if they were captured over 30 years ago.
Wrestling has yet to figure out what to do with long legacied, important wrestlers who do or are accused of doing terrible things. I’ll try to illustrate this with a metaphor. A wrestler stands on one side of a canyon. On the other side is his legacy. Dividing the two is an event that breaks the artist from his art, that separates him from the spoils that made him famous. On the side of the wrestler there are fans and supporters milling about — imagine them tweeting shitty things at women or discrediting abusers on his behalf. There are plenty of these people, but across the canyon, with the art, there are way more, either because the work stands up or it’s just passively there.
The goal being to get people from one side of the canyon to another, a wrestler tries to build a bridge between them. The Ultimate Warrior did this with his return to WWE, for instance, and Ric Flair is doing it now with this tribute to himself. Will it work? Given the spate of articles about The Ultimate Warrior’s racism and homophobia that crop up every time the company trots out the Warrior Award, not always to the degree one imagines they desire. But what’s important about this bridge isn’t the fan’s ability to cross it; it’s the performer’s ability to go back and forth at will, to regain clout, to dress themselves in the past to convince as many people as possible that they’re still fun.
But Ric Flair isn’t really fun anymore, for any one of a dozen reasons. More than his age, ability, predilection to telling the same four stories about women, Rolex watches, and wrestlers he got in trouble with, or penchant for capitalizing the first letter of every word in his tweets, this is it for me: He got accused of sexual assault, was deemphasized by WWE, and had his spokesperson deal with CarShield paused, posted one circumspect response to to that allegation and is now, a year later, hoping to pump wrestling fans up for his emotional farewell, aided by a contracted AEW wrestler. I cycled through 12 major sites that reported on Ric Flair’s Last Match, and Sports Illustrated was the only one that mentioned the allegations.
I guess that’s how this shit works. Ric Flair gets his third last match, we get whatever that looks like, and it all happens without the difficult conversation as to whether or not Flair has done any of the reparative work the allegations against him suggest he should undertake before taking his final bow. It sucks. It really does. And if his work from a decade ago is any indication, Ric Flair’s last match will, too. Who will that satisfy? The first time he retired, it was to Shawn Michaels saying “I love you.” What can anybody say now?