After days of speculation, 73 year old Ric Flair confirmed via press release on May 16 that he plans to wrestle “one last match” in July.
In case you missed it, Flair plans to have his last match on July 31 at the Nashville Fairgrounds as part of his son-in-law Conrad Thompson’s Starrcast V event. Somehow, this event will be promoted by Jim Crockett Promotions, which ceased to exist in 1993.
Flair’s opponent has yet to be confirmed as of writing, although perennial opponent Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat (himself 69 years old, with a history of health issues) has been floated and since declined, as has a six man tag involving the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express and current ROH champions and AEW highlight factories FTR.
Flair has recently posted a series of videos showing him working out in-ring with Jay Lethal, who probably does a better Ric Flair imitation than Flair himself these days. He has also published photos of himself at the gym, looking in great shape.
— Hard Nocks South (@HardNocksSouth) April 29, 2022
This announcement has attracted staggering coverage in wrestling and mainstream media. Sports Illustrated, People and CNN (which at one time shared space with World Championship Wrestling under Ted Turner’s media umbrella) have all devoted space to it, and the online wrestling commentariat is predictably divided. Most fans seem to be in favor of Flair’s return to the ring, even if it’s just for one night. They want Flair to be Flair, to do what makes him happiest even as he’s acknowledged his desire to “die in the ring.”
Despite not wrestling publicly in over a decade, Flair has remained in the public eye. He’s figured into WWE storylines when not suing them for appropriation of his “The Man” catch phrase. He’s shown up in music videos and been name-dropped in rap lyrics. He’s launched podcasts and signed on to finance companies, and most recently lent his name to a cannabis company alongside Mike Tyson. For Flair, bad publicity often follows good. He married and divorced his fifth wife, Wendy Barlow, who worked with him briefly in WCW. He was the subject of speculation for a viral video set aboard an Amtrak train (which he denied) and his conduct on overseas WWE tours was featured on Vice TV’s Dark Side of the Ring. Events which took place 20 years ago, which were accepted at the time as part of Flair lore and ignored outside wrestling’s bubble of bad behavior have attracted new criticism by current mainstream standards. This has cost Flair reputationally and financially, as some endorsement deals have fallen off.
Flair’s supporters (enablers?) would argue that he’s hardly the first superstar to step into the ring at an advanced age. Pro wrestlers have always hit their prime a bit later than most athletes, and a cursory look at WWE’s and AEW’s roster finds plenty of 40-plus veterans. One of WWE’s hottest feuds features Edge and AJ Styles, with a combined age of over 90. Chris Jericho still anchors AEW broadcasts at 51 years old, and he’s in the best shape of his life, too. Undertaker only recently retired at 54, having headlined WrestleManias well into the twilight of his career.
Better comparisons might be Lou Thesz, who last competed publicly in Japan at 74 years of age against Masahiro Chono, or Buddy Rogers, who was going to fight off-brand Nature Boy Buddy Landel at age 71 (though that fight was later scrapped and Rogers passed away the next year). Terry Funk retired and returned on a loop since the early 1980s. Like Flair plans to, he wrestled until he was 73. Older brother Dory only stopped two years ago, at age 79.
The Sheik, Edward Farhat, wrestled until age 72, while Abdullah the Butcher wrestled until 69 — both men’s careers ironically extended by the hardcore style they worked, where they didn’t even have to enter the ring but could instead walk around it, stabbing people with forks. Mexican wrestling legend Mil Mascaras wrestled until 77, extending his career by famously refusing to sell or bump or put anyone over.
The Fabulous Moolah retired at 81. Mae Young beat them all; her last match took place when she was 87 years old.
Even WWE Chairman Vince McMahon made a return at this year’s WrestleMania in an impromptu match against announcer Pat McAfee, taking a terrible-looking bump off a Stone Cold Stunner in the process. McMahon is 76.
With these examples at the ready, it’s hard to argue against letting Flair style and profile. Let him “be the man” one more time. What’s the harm?
The harm is potentially serious to anyone sharing the ring with Flair at this stage, traumatic for anyone willing to pay for a ticket to watch Flair suicide publicly, and grave to Flair himself.
Understanding that Flair is a grown man and responsible for his own actions, some, like former WCW announcer Christopher Cruise, are appalled that someone Flair’s age, with his history of health issues, would try to wrestle again. Cruise has written to licensing bodies in his home state of Maryland and in Tennessee, begging them to cancel any proposed match. Cruise sees Flair at this stage as a danger to himself, much less anyone who consents to be in the ring with him.
Cruise’s approach has merit. At this point nobody is going to talk Ric out of his plan… and those who would be best positioned to do so like Mr. Thompson, are actively promoting this match, either to advance their notoriety or to try and help mitigate what could be a catastrophic decision by couching Flair’s final in-ring hurrah in the safest possible terms. Most states do have licensing boards or athletic commissions, which either oversee wrestlers directly (and often require proof of physical fitness) or control the venues where matches take place. Venues themselves often require promoters to post bonds, or to have adequate insurance and safety personnel on hand in case the unthinkable happens. Cruise is holding these entities accountable. If Flair wrestling poses an acceptable risk, so be it. At least someone is pushing for a measure of accountability.
One would hope that whoever Flair’s opponent turns out to be, that he is even more careful. It’s hard to reconcile the idea of an enjoyable match with the worry that comes with Flair’s participation. Good wrestlers are taught from the beginning to protect their opponents’ bodies even before their own. The responsibility that comes with protecting Flair at this stage is immense.
In his autobiography To Be the Man, published back in 2004, Flair acknowledged that he had alcoholic cardiomyopathy, essentially damage to his heart caused by decades of heavy drinking. In 2017 Flair underwent surgery to remove an obstructive piece of his bowel, which resulted in complications including kidney failure, and forced doctors to place him in a medically induced coma. Flair has a pacemaker. He may look better than he has in years, but the toll on his body suggests that he is not well.
Flair has been open about his love for professional wrestling, and acknowledges that despite some serious personal insecurities, the ring is the one place he feels like he belongs. He has admitted in graphic detail his limitations as a family man, his addictions and poor financial choices (covered at length by the old Grantland website as far back as 2011), all of which have led him to this point.
Putting aside the innumerable reasons why Flair returning to the ring is a terrible idea, the fact is fate has cheated us all out of the swan song that we as fans and Flair himself deserve: a tag match between Ric and his son Reid, who died in 2013 from a drug overdose, vs. Ricky Steamboat and his son Richie, who’s own promising career was derailed by a serious back injury.
I admit, I have a low tolerance for risk when it comes to pro wrestling. I love wrestling, but as I’ve grown up I’ve come to hate the idea that performers are legitimately hurt or worse for my amusement. Far too often the comments associated with Flair’s comeback come back to Darren Aronovsky’s movie The Wrestler, where the screen cuts to black just as we’re to believe the title character is about to die in the ring, doing the only thing he felt he was good at. When The Wrestler came out, veteran grapplers found it moving and sadly accurate. Those who defend Flair’s decision today are romanticizing that ending. And, whether he wants it or not, a fate like that isn’t fair to Flair.
TOP PHOTO: Ric Flair (right) at the Hard Nocks South private gym on May 16, 2022. Twitter photo