For one special night last week, all seemed right with the wrestling world.
There was the Nature Boy, holding court, styling and profiling with the elite of today’s generation of superstars.
The thousands of fans who packed the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia and the millions of fans watching on network television no doubt popped in unison when the opening strains of “Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey” began playing.
Ric Flair, the 16-time world heavyweight champion, returned to the ring last week on WWE’s flagship Monday Night Raw show.
“It’s like Babe Ruth returning to Yankee Stadium,” proclaimed commentator John Layfield as Flair made his way down the aisle.
The statement wasn’t a stretch.
Ric Flair’s legacy has long been etched in stone.
Flair, who turns 64 in February, began his career in December 1972. Richard Nixon was president, gas cost 36 cents a gallon and the original “Godfather” was a box-office blockbuster.
That’s a lifetime ago for most, but in the Ric Flair timeline, it’s just part of a fabulous career that has spanned generations and shows no signs of stopping.
Flair, the only performer to have been twice inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, has been the constant during those many years, bridging the different generations of fans and styles.
He has spent the better part of the past three years working for TNA, although he will admit that his heart never really left WWE.
Flair’s appearance Monday night seemed to not only energize the crowd, but the WWE roster as well. On hand to present John Cena with a “Slammy” for Superstar of the Year, Flair was given the award by Cena as a show of respect to “the greatest of all time.”
It may sound a little clichéd, but everyone loves to be around the Nature Boy. As one announcer aptly noted, whenever Flair shows up, a party isn’t far behind.
Truth be told, there’s probably not a performer in the WWE locker room who isn’t awed by Flair and his amazing volume of work.
For years critics claimed Flair wouldn’t fit in with the younger, hipper image projected by the new generation of pro wrestling. Those same critics, however, forgot the fact that Ric Flair invented wrestling hip.
The Nature Boy was cool when guys like Dwayne Johnson (The Rock), Michael Shawn Hickenbottom (Shawn Michaels) and Paul Levesque (Triple H) were mere youngsters emulating the Nature Boy.
“Ric Flair is the icon,” says The Rock, who patterned his style after Flair.
For older fans, watching Flair in the ring brings back memories of a special time when the Nature Boy was the brashest, the cockiest and the coolest, a limousine-riding, jet-flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin’ and dealin’ son of a gun and the dirtiest player in the game.
For younger fans, it was a magical moment seeing Flair in the ring alongside Punk, a 21st-century wrestling superstar who carries some of that Flair-like panache.
The visual of Flair applying his vaunted figure four leglock to Paul Heyman was a Kodak moment.
The Nature Boy was the highlight of the show, and the ratings backed it up. The hour that featured Flair drew Raw’s highest number of the fall season.
Flair was — and remains — the showstopper.
‘What’s causing all this?’
Flair isn’t perfect, and he’ll be the first to admit it. He’s been through four failed marriages, and his financial setbacks over the years have been well documented.
“Lucky in life, unlucky in love,” he laments.
His once-flowing bleached blond hair has thinned, he carries some extra weight around his midsection, and he’s a few steps slower than during the days when he was going 60 minutes a night with the best in the world and burning the proverbial candle at both ends.
No one these days is expecting him to go Broadway with performers half his age any more than they’re looking for Michael Jordan to come back and score 40 points in an NBA championship game or Joe Montana to lead the 49ers on another Super Bowl-winning drive.
But there’s nobody in the world better than Ric Flair at creating magic in a wrestling ring.
He’s one of the greatest showmen in the history of sports entertainment (even though he will always proudly proclaim it professional wrestling). He can still talk smack with the best of them.
He proved it once again Monday night.
How long will Flair stick around?
As he said last week, “I just came here for a good time.”
If Monday night was any indication, he’ll be back for a long time.
During his passionate speech to the crowd Monday night, Flair said while pointing to the ring, “If I die, I want to die right here or with a woman from Philly.”
Business, as Jim Ross might say, is about to pick up.
“I love working here ... I love being part of it. It’s the best place in the world to work,” says Naitch.
It’s where he belongs.
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