ORLANDO, Fla. — Saturday night opened with a laugh-filled address from a returning hero, and ended with an emotional farewell from the greatest professional wrestler ever, as WWE presented its 2008 Hall of Fame induction ceremony on the eve of Wrestlemania.

The event, which was held in Orlando’s Amway Center on Saturday night, paid tribute to wrestling’s legends of yesteryear — Rocky ‘Soulman’ Johnson, High Chief Peter Maivia, Mae Young, promoter Eddie Graham, Jack and Jerry Brisco, announcer Gordon Solie — and one who is still active, but possibly only for another day, ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair.

Ric Flair speaks at the WWE HOF. Photos by Mike Mastrandrea

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson returned to WWE for the night, kicking off the ceremonies with a hilarious speech that included all of his patented catchphrases. He entertained the entire crowd — which, as is customary for the ceremony, included the entire WWE roster, including the developmental roster and wrestlers’ families and friends, in addition to fans — with his lengthy promo. Despite not having been an active wrestler for a few years, Johnson hasn’t lost a step on the mic, and for nearly 20 minutes he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand, regaling them with stories about his career, and poking fun at the wrestlers, from John Cena to Chris Jericho to Santino Marella. After thanking the fans once again and noting how much he loved the wrestling business, he switched gears to matters more personal, specifically his father Rocky Johnson and his grandfather Peter Maivia.

Rocky Johnson and his son, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The Soulman provided his own lengthy speech, which was essentially an ode to the wrestling business. He noted his pride in all of his accomplishments, including becoming, with his partner Tony Atlas, the first black tag team champions. “I would like to be remembered not only as a pioneer for black athletes,” he said, “but for all athletes.”

Rock’s mother, Ata accepted the honour on behalf of Peter Maivia. Her speech was as equally emotional as her ex-husband’s, particularly when she thanked her own mother, who was shown seated in the audience, simply “for loving (Peter).” She capped off the induction by noting that her father, a famed wrestler and promoter inspired other wrestlers to aspire to be the best they could be for their fans.

Ata Maivia talks about her father, High Chief Maivia, as her son, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson looks on.

Flair was inducted by a man who himself has referred to the Nature Boy as an inspiration, Triple H. With humility and deference to the man he repeatedly called the greatest professional wrestler of all time, he took little time in introducing Flair to the stage.

“I will never retire!” Flair yelled in his standard bombastic fashion, though it is virtually certain that Sunday night will be the last hurrah for Flair as an active in-ring performer. With this in mind, Flair’s speech was a virtual Thank You card to nearly everyone that he said has had some influence in his life and career.

After two extended standing ovations, Flair went right into the speech, often looking down at his notes, since he said he would cry if he looked directly at the faces in the audience. No aspect of Flair’s career was forgotten, and he paid gratitude not only to his in-ring brethren, but also to the behind-the-scenes production teams, the people responsible for his wardrobe, his personal friends and business associates, and everyone else who helped make him the man he is both in the ring and behind the curtain.

He also pointed out certain wrestlers on the current WWE roster that he wanted to highlight.

“I knew Andre the Giant so well,” he told The Big Show. “You are the best big athlete I’ve ever been in the ring with. If you could only see how good you are, like I see how good you are, there’s nowhere you can’t go.” Chris Jericho, John Cena, The Undertaker and Edge were also pointed out specifically, with a comment or story about each of them.

The list of his industry peers that Flair referenced reads like its own Hall of Fame listing. Ken Patera, Verne Gagne, Wahoo McDaniel, Dusty Rhodes, Blackjack Mulligan and Harley Race were all mentioned, followed by a short anecdote, frequently punctuated with giggles from Flair as he remembered life on the road with those men.

Talking about his Four Horsemen days, Arn Anderson was shown on the screen holding back tears. “Double-A,” he told his best friend, choking on his sentiments more than once, “(you’re) one of the greatest friends I’ve ever had. You were the backbone of the Horsemen. And I thank you.”

“My favourite combination of the Horsemen was Arn, Tully (Blanchard), J.J. (Dillon) and Barry (Windham, who was also in attendance). I also had a lot of fun with (Dean) Malenko, Mongo (McMichael) and (Chris) Benoit. Arn and (those three) were the reason I came back to WCW.”

Bobby Heenan, Gene Okerlund, and Jim Ross were also given praise and thanks.

Mean Gene Okerlund.

Punctuated several times by applause from both the fans and the wrestlers in attendance, Flair’s speech unfortunately had to get somewhat rushed towards the end. A few times, to the disappointment of the crowd, a stagehand appeared to whisper something into Triple H’s ear, presumably to ask Flair to speed things up.

In the last few minutes, Flair quickly summarized his last few WWE years, giving kudos to Evolution members Randy Orton, Dave Batista, and his friend Triple H, who Flair said reminded him of himself.

Saving his comments for his Wrestlemania opponent until the end, he had one message for Shawn Michaels. “Shawn, you’re one of the greatest of the history of this business. Tomorrow night, you’d better bring everything you’ve got.”

Before closing, Flair addressed his family, noting that his children are the true blessings of his life and the legacy that he is most proud of. He thanked his current wife, as well as his two ex-wives, and apologized to them all if his work kept him from seeing them as much as he’d have wanted. It was a truly sentimental moment, and tears could be seen in the eyes of many a fan in attendance as well as in Flair’s.

The speech, the emotional weight behind it, and the thought of what it represented was a perfect way to remember the legacy that is Ric Flair, and as it would have definitely been edited for broadcast on the USA Network special on Saturday night, will hopefully be shown in full on a future DVD.

Though these highlights of Flair and the Rock somewhat overshadowed the rest of the night, the accomplishments of all of the other 2008 inductees were certainly given appropriate respect and tribute.

Jack and Jerry Brisco.

JBL inducted the Brisco Brothers with a raucous promo that had the crowd in stitches. He shared stories of being stretched by Jack and Jerry Briso, calling them collectively the greatest team of all time. The Briscos were humble and succinct in their comments, with Jerry even getting in a comical plug for the Brisco Brothers Auto Body shop.

The family of Gordon Solie.

About the ‘Dean’ of announcing, Gordon Solie, Jim Ross said that inducting him, “is one of the greatest honours of my professional career. In a golden era of voices, there will always be one voice in wrestling that will live forever.” Solie’s children accepted the award for their late father.

Mae Young with Kelly Kelly.

Pat Patterson ended his induction speech for Mae Young with a few lines from the song “My Way.” Young beamed while accepting the honour, promising to live up to the promise she made to her friend the late Fabulous Moolah to wrestle on her hundredth birthday, before dancing off-stage.

Mike Graham and Dusty Rhodes.

Promoter Eddie Graham was credited as the man who helped create the legend that became Dusty Rhodes, so it’s only fitting that the American Dream inducted him. “My mentor was Eddie Graham,” Rhodes said, in an engaging speech that included several stories from his time in Graham’s Florida Championship Wrestling. “I looked at him as a father.” Mike Graham, Eddie’s actual son, received the honour for Graham.

If there was a negative to the ceremony, it had to be the conduct of the fans. Though wrestling is an industry based on its fan base, the crowd often broke out into chants, or the occasional shout out from the audience interrupted the flow and thoughts of the speakers. While this was fine for The Rock’s opening promo, it became an annoyance during the delivery of speeches by the inductees themselves. For their part, the wrestlers sat politely and listened with respect to the speakers; similar conduct from all of the fans in attendance might have been more appropriate.

In all other aspects, though, the 2008 Hall of Fame ceremony was a rousing success, and offered fans both the opportunity to say hello once again to a future legend, say thank you to a number of past legends, and farewell to perhaps the biggest legend of them all.