He’s the best wrestler of this generation. He’s the greatest in-ring performer in the history of WWE.

These are lofty words, and considering they’re coming from the man widely regarded as the greatest performer in the history of the business, they carry some big-time weight.

But that’s how Ric Flair feels about Shawn Michaels, and the sentiments are genuine.

Saturday night in Atlanta, the “Heartbreak Kid” was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, and the “Nature Boy” was there to cheer him on. Three years earlier Michaels was in the same position cheering on Flair at the WWE ceremony, only to defeat the legend one night later in Flair’s “retirement” match at Wrestlemania 24.

It seemed a fitting finish for the 16-time world champion, in the spotlight of such a grand spectacle, going down in a blaze of glory to one of his most respected and trusted friends in the business. Michaels, like countless others in the profession, had grown up idolizing Flair, who was his inspiration and the reason he became a wrestler. To have his hero’s last WWE match was both bittersweet and the biggest honor of Michaels’ own Hall of Fame-caliber career.

Now it Flair’s turn to show his love for Michaels. It’s also fitting, says Flair, that Triple H was inducting Michaels into the Hall.

“They’ve had their problems but they’ve worked them out. They have a phenomenal bond that has stood the test of time. They truly are two of the greatest performers this business has ever seen.”

Three years ago in this space Michaels put his heartfelt thoughts about Flair into words. Now it’s Flair turn to describe what Michaels has meant to his career and to him personally.

He smiles when thinking about Michaels’ legacy in the wrestling profession.

“He ain’t Ric Flair, but he ain’t bad,” he jokes.

It’s all part of the good-natured ribbing that has gone on between the two for years.

“I went from a young boy who admired him and was inspired by him to a man who’s honored to call him friend,” says Michaels, who says the Nature Boy was an inspiration to him growing up and remains an inspiration to him today.

Flair says it was Michaels’ unparalleled work ethic that initially got his attention.

“Shawn Michaels grew up watching me and idolizing me. I met him at a different time in life. I never really got to know Shawn until I got to WWE, and he didn’t get there until I had been there for three years. I knew he was a great talent, but I didn’t know the person that well. I later discovered that he was a wonderful, caring person that loves our business. Shawn has given so much of himself physically to the business. He has a phenomenal work ethic and was a guy who always gave his best.”

Flair says he misses being around Michaels and the esprit de corps among that group.

“I miss every day that I’m away from him. I miss the camaraderie,” says Flair, who adds that he would have never come out of retirement had he not received his friend’s full blessing.

“There’s no way I would have stepped back into the ring had I not had Shawn’s blessing. I respect him that much. But I called him before I went back. He said, ‘Hey, go out there and have a good time.’”

And would Flair like to see Michaels come back at some point?

The answer: a definitive “No.”

“I hope he’s the one guy who retires and never comes back. He doesn’t need the money. He’s been wise with his money. His dad helped him invest his money over the years. I don’t even think he misses the business in that way. I think he’s so in love with his wife and his kids, and he’s so happy. Besides that, he’s had so many injuries, so why would he want to put his body through any more? He’s been through back surgery and knee surgery numerous times.”

Flair says Michaels, who earned the monikers “The Showstopper” and “Mr. Wrestlemania” for his show-stealing performances on sports entertainment’s biggest stage, has nothing left to prove in the wrestling business.

“What else does he have to accomplish? He’s done it all. He left the ring with The Undertaker that night proving that he’s the best professional wrestler alive today. There’s nothing else to come back for.”

“I came back and I had to pay alimony,” Flair, 62, laughs.

There’s only thing, says Flair, that “upsets” him about his friend.

“He won’t drink enough beer with me, and he only has one or two with me on special occasions,” he jokes. “I tell him all the time: God won’t get mad with you for having a drink.”

And, he adds, there is something else.

“He’s responsible for me dipping again, and if I ever get oral cancer, it’ll be on my tombstone: ‘Shawn started me dipping again!’”

Michaels presented his boyhood idol with a diamond Rolex watch following their classic match at Wrestlemania 24 in 2008. Flair’s watch, with a diamond-faced “24” for Wrestlemania 24, was inscribed, “Richard Fliehr (Flair’s real name) vs. Shawn Michaels. To be the man ...” A matching watch was inscribed, “Richard Fliehr vs. Shawn Michaels ... You gotta beat the man.”

Flair has a special gift for Michaels this time around.

It’s a ruby-encrusted Western belt buckle. On one side it says “HBK.” On the back of the buckle, says Flair, it was going to say "‘Being the man and staying the man are two different things. Whooo!” But, he laughs, it wouldn't fit.

“Shawn Michaels, in my eyes, is the greatest professional wrestler I’ve ever seen in my life. And coming from me, that says a lot,” says Flair. “He says I’m the greatest, but he is right now. And the day that he became someone significant in my life was the day my son, at the age of 10, said, ‘Dad, can you do a moonsault?’ I said, ‘A moonsault? What’s that?’”

Twenty-three years later, says Flair, he not only knows what a moonsault is, but he knows exactly who Shawn Michaels is.

“Shawn is a phenomenal human being and a man with great compassion, I know nothing about what went on earlier in his life, but whatever it was it was confusing for me, because I only see this guy that is one of the most phenomenal guys in the world who at this point in life is very unselfish, a man’s man who is not afraid to stand up for himself, never afraid to express his opinion, intimidated by nobody, a respectful husband and a fantastic father.”

And, adds Flair, “When I see him at Wrestlemania, I’ll be crying.”

-- George’s Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the Wrestlemania pay-per-view at 7 p.m. today. Cover charge is $10.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at (843) 937-5517 or mooneyham@postandcourier.com.