At a recent press conference in Toronto, “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair couldn’t resist bringing up his l-o-o-o-o-n-n-n-g history in the city.
“I’ve been coming out here since 1978, and they’re the greatest fans in the world. I love Toronto,” he said at the announcement of Monday Night Raw’s move from TSN to The Score.
In 1978, Frank Tunney ran the Toronto wrestling promotion, assisted by his nephew Jack Tunney. A deal was done with Jim Crockett Promotions, based in Charlotte, to promote in Toronto after years of being a virtual independent in the world of pro wrestling.
For the half-decade before Crockett’s arrival in Toronto, the shows at historic Maple Leaf Gardens had been primarily headlined by The Sheik (Ed Farhat).
“The first time I ever came to Toronto, I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t been to Canada except with my family when I was a kid. I knew nothing about Toronto, and nothing about Canada,” admitted Flair. “I can say right now, it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life wrestling here. We came here, I did, with a promotion that was helping Toronto get back on its feet. It had gone through a terrible transition where a guy by the name of The Sheik … it turned out that people were paying a lot of money to watch a guy wrestle for two minutes. It took a long time, but we got Toronto up again.”
Later when questioned by journalists, Flair expanded on his early days in Toronto.
“The Sheik killed this city. He ran it into nothing. He ran it into the ground. The whole promotion, the Tunneys and that, just run into the ground. I came up here with Crockett, but of course I jumped right back in here with WWE. We worked hard. Steamboat and I were wrestling an hour over there in front of 1,500 people. We got it to 3,000, 6,000, 8,000, 10,000. We worked hard. I must have wrestled [Ricky] Steamboat five hour Broadways. Then I wrestled Magnum [TA, a.k.a. Terry Allen] about an hour. Then Dusty [Rhodes] and I came up here. We worked hard… this is such a great town, but the fans got murdered. The come out and pay all this money and they get a two-minute match, somebody throws fire and it would be over. He killed it. It’s sad. It’s thriving now. The fans are so loyal, they know so much about the business that they deserve the best.”
With a huge smile on his face, Flair recalled the enjoyment he used to get out of his trips north, and remembered a late friend.
“I’ve had a lot of fun here. I mean really a lot of fun. I never know how far to go with this. I used to love to come up here. I’d always bring some chick that wanted to go on a honeymoon. ‘I have to go to Toronto, how about Niagara Falls?’ There was a guy named Tony Parisi, who has passed away a few years ago. He owned an Italian restaurant. One of my greatest, one of my favorite hooks, hey, hey, was Niagara Falls from Toronto, that’s all I’m saying. We’d stay at the Hilton … we had a lot of fun here, whoooo!”
The question on a lot of people’s minds is how much longer he’ll be having fun in a wrestling ring.
“As long as the WWE will keep putting up with me, keep me on board. I’m loving it. I’m having a great time. It’s a hard question to answer because I really don’t know. I’m having a great time,” he said. “I don’t know when it’ll be… I was never supposed to wrestle when I first came back. I was there for two months, and they wanted me to wrestle. I’m not hanging on. We’re mutually agreeing to do things. I’m happy with it. I’ve earned the respect of the fans.”
After working ECW-style matches and landing in thumbtacks, is his career complete? “I can say that I’ve done it all,” Flair said proudly. “I think I can say that I’ve done it all before that match. It was one of those things that I needed a change. My thinking is that you’ve got to be ready for any kind of action.”
At age 57, he might just be last wrestler to have a career this long in a world of high-impact bumps and higher-number salaries. “I can pretty much say that I would be the exception to the rule. And I’ve been healthy. I’ve had great health. That’s been huge. I don’t have any physical issues at all. The biggest issue for me is staying in shape, and being able to compete. If I’m competing on a weekly basis, or a nightly basis, or I have a month off coming up, as you get older, it gets harder to keep that edge. When I know I’m going to be put somewhere, when I know that I’ve got something coming up, maybe a great featured role, it’s very exciting to me. It’s very demanding, but it’s all good.”
And age is just a number to Flair. “The truth is, the first time I was in Toronto, our WWE champion — who I want to say is a great champion, a great guy, a great performer — was seven years old. I’m talking about Edge.”
Edge finds the whole age thing amusing as well, but welcomes Flair’s years of experience too. “Ric takes me aside and tells me things that I never thought I’d hear. He considers Hunter and I to be the leaders now, that we are helping guys along,” Edge told SLAM! Wrestling. “He said he was over in Australia doing press, and a journalist asked him what he thought the old guys like Hunter [Hearst Helmsley] and Edge are helping the young guys like Batista, and he went, ‘Wait, Batista’s older than Edge!’ But that’s the way I’m looked at now, which is a compliment. So Ric will take me aside and just to tell me very positive, encouraging things. To hear that from a guy like that, you can’t beat that.”
And how would Ric Flair like to be remembered?
“I’d like to be remembered as one of the best at what I’ve done. All I want is to be respected for what I accomplished.”
Despite writing about pro wrestling for 21 years, this is the first face-to-face between Ric Flair and SLAM! Wrestling producer Greg Oliver. It was no Space Mountain, but it was cool to walk that aisle with the Nature Boy, stylin’ and profilin’. And for the record, he was a limousine-riding son-of-a-gun on this day. (Flair that is, not the TTC-ridin’, water-drinkin’, son-of-an-X-ray technician.) Greg can be emailed at [email protected].