Ric Flair’s life, and the “30 for 30” documentary about him, “Nature Boy,” that premieres on ESPN on Nov. 7, implicitly comes with a warning label: Do not try this at home!
So much so that Flair often is held up to young professional wrestlers as an example of what not to do, according to Triple H, Flair’s close friend and fellow wrestler, and a WWE executive.
“You can still have all the fun, you can still have all the benefit, but you don’t have to have the tragic side of it,” Triple H said at the film’s New York premiere on Wednesday night. “There’s a way to do it, and it all works.”
The fact that Flair himself never found a work/life balance – and a way to separate character and real person – has made his life more complicated, but makes for a compelling documentary.
The trick for director Rory Karpf was to inform and entertain the pro wrestling cognoscenti while letting the rest of us in on why Flair remains beloved and admired within that community.
That is why one of the most important moments in the film is an interview with Hulk Hogan, who for many casual observers was and is the face of wrestling’s mid-1980s boom. Hogan makes it clear that Flair deserves top billing.
Partly that was because of the action itself; partly that was because while Hogan was a show, Flair was a lifestyle. Or, as Triple H put it, “Hulk was a fantasy. Ric was real.”
That realness included various excesses, notably weaknesses for alcohol and women to whom he was not married, as well as fancy clothes, jewelry and cars.
He has had a lifelong addiction to action and to the company of others, perhaps born of a lonely childhood as the adopted son of often disapproving parents.
For his daughter Ashley, a wrestler known professionally as Charlotte Flair, watching “Nature Boy” was emotional, especially parts on the 2013 death of her brother, Reid, from an accidental drug overdose and comments critical of her father from two half-siblings by Flair’s first marriage.
“What is so amazing about the film is how honest my dad is,” she said. “Most people aren’t honest with themselves, and he’s not ashamed to be honest, and I love that, and I hope to be like that one day . . . I love that it really showed the triumph and the tragic, and where he ended up.”
Flair, 68, was hospitalized in August with a life-threatening health scare, but Ashley said he is “doing great,” and is set to appear at the Atlanta premiere of “Nature Boy” on Thursday night.
What was his reaction to the film?
“I think as a whole he’s very excited, because to have a ‘30 for 30’ done on you is a huge deal,” Ashley said. “But as with anyone it would be hard to watch your family members or peers, not necessarily judge you, but be so vocal about some things you might be ashamed about in your personal life.”
Many prominent wrestlers appear, some with pointed observations about Flair’s vices as well as his talent. Shawn Michaels offers a withering assessment of Flair’s conflicted psychology.
Wrestler Mick Foley, a Ward Melville High School alum who lives in Smithtown, said at the premiere, “Ric reminds me a lot of the lyrics of the great Bob Seger song, ‘Beautiful Loser,’ where he says he loves his home and security and wants to live like a sailor at sea.
“He led one of the most colorful lives of anybody in any industry and I’m just really happy that ESPN saw fit to give him the royal treatment.”
Did ESPN hesitate to back a film about an entertainer in what is not a competitive sport?
“Ric is an athlete; I think that’s what it comes down to,” said John Dahl, ESPN Films’ executive director. “As we worked on this film I came to appreciate just what a great athlete Ric Flair was, the things he put his body through, day in and day out, year in and year out. We never really had that concern. In the end it was about: Ric is a compelling story.”
He also is a cautionary tale.
“It is a challenge; trying to figure out where the character ends and the person begins can kind of get lost in the shuffle,” Foley said, “especially when you become as deeply committed to the character as Ric was. The other challenge is trying to find something that makes you feel as alive as you were when you were in the ring.”
Said Triple H, “Having done this, like many people who have something that is this all-consuming a passion in their life, I understand it. And also being one of Ric’s best friends, I completely understand it.
“I think there’s a part of Ric that is in some ways tragic when you look at it, just because of loss and all the things he’s been through. But at the end of it I think you can’t come away other than smiling, because he’s OK with it and it makes it OK. He’s this endearing figure because of it.”