Buddy Landel was living life like there was no tomorrow.

He was at the top of his game, or so he thought, making money hand over fist and headlining shows with the likes of Ric Flair.

Like Flair, whom he emulated, the bleached blond Landel was dubbed the “Nature Boy,” and he was addicted to the big-city lights and the allure of the wrestling business.

The problem was that Landel was only 23 years old and, he admits now, completely unable to handle the fame and fortune that had come his way.

Landel didn’t realize it at the time, but his career was about to plummet into a drug-induced spiral that would take years to come out of.

“I was 23, cocky and had a hundred grand in the bank. I didn’t see that I had any problems,” says Landel, who turns 50 in August.

Unlike most performers from that era, who were just getting their feet wet at that age, Landel had peaked at 23 years old.

“They had put the whole weight of the world on my shoulders,” he says. “I was breaking Elvis’ attendance record, selling out with the world champion every night, doing 60-minute Broadways. It was very tough and the pressure was unbelievable. I just stayed self-medicated.”

It was, as Landel says, a classic case of “too much too soon.” The talented athlete had dropped out of high school his junior year following football season, in the process leaving behind a slew of potential college scholarships, to pursue a career in professional wrestling.

Landel, who was born William Ensor, regrets that he didn’t finish school and get an education, but says he doesn’t regret moving into a career field that made him both rich and famous.

“I couldn’t have made any more money. People would probably be surprised at the money that I actually made. I had some really good years and made a ton of money.”

Landel broke into the business in 1979 after being trained by the late Boris “The Great” Malenko. He also credits Bob Roop and Cowboy Bill Watts with helping him get started.

“I still call those two up to this day because I know they wouldn’t steer me wrong. You’ve got to have accountability in your life. To be successful you’ve got to be accountable to somebody you really trust.”

Roop, he says, was more like his big brother, while Watts was a father figure.

“I’ve always been like a little brother to Bob. I love the guy. To this day I’ll call him up. Because I was so young, Bill was a father figure to me. I know he genuinely loves me and cares for me as well.”

“I think the world of Buddy,” says Watts, a WWE Hall of Famer who ran the popular Mid-South territory during the ‘80s. “But Buddy was always his own worst enemy. I used to fine the hell out of him, and then I’d generally bonus him back because he worked so hard. He always wanted to be like Ric Flair. He’d give you his all in the ring. He was very credible on the cards and could put the key guys over.”

Watts says he saw tremendous potential in Landel, and tried to bring out the best in him, as well as the rest of his crew.

“ I was just a passionate guy who schooled them, and my language was the language that they understood. It was generally about how much more I expected of them than what they were giving. I saw the talent in them and I wanted them to grow into it. Buddy was one of the most talented kids I ever saw, but he had his struggles.”

The no-nonsense Watts was the toughest boss in wrestling, says Landel, and it was no picnic doing 100,000 miles a year driving down the back roads of Louisiana and Oklahoma. But the experience proved to be invaluable.

“Buddy connected with me,” says Watts. “He liked the fact that I cared about him and also that I would discipline him. Most of my guys thought I was a little strict at the time, but most of them later saw how much I tried to teach them about life.”

Landel’s smooth style caught the eyes of promoters around the country, and he soon got the chance to work for booker Tom Renesto in Puerto Rico with newly bleached blond hair and a flashy new nickname — “Nature Boy.”

His big break came in 1985 when he went to Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic territory and joined the stable of manager J.J. Dillon. The budding 23-year-old star was given the opportunity to wrestle another “Nature Boy,” Ric Flair, for the world heavyweight championship.

A main event featuring the two in July of that year broke an attendance record set by Elvis Presley at Dorton Arena in Raleigh. Their feud over the 10 pounds of gold and the Nature Boy name had the potential to be a box-office bonanza.

Winning the National heavyweight title from Terry Taylor at Starrcade ‘85, Landel had quickly emerged as one of the hottest young stars in a territory that was rich in talent.

Landel claims the wheels had been set in motion for a world title run when, not unlike other times in his career, Landel would become his own worst enemy.

Landel, who had been out all night partying, arrived late for a key TV taping that was designed to set up an angle leading to the title change, and was fired on the spot.

“I fell asleep at a hotel and took a bunch of good cocaine that whole night and did a bunch of valiums,” Landel recalls. “Black Bart (Rick Harris) was with me and told me that we had to go TV. I had just bought a brand new Lincoln and threw him the car keys and told him that I would catch a cab and be there later.”

Landel, however, blew what might have been the opportunity of a lifetime.

“They started (the tapings) at 9 o’clock that morning, and by 11 o’clock I had hung up on Dusty (Rhodes) and (Jim) Crockett and told them to not call me again,” says Landel. “I was National champion at the time. When I got there, Dusty told me to give him the belt, and that I didn’t work there anymore. I said OK.”

A crestfallen Landel then took his act to Memphis where he dried out before returning to Crockett. The business, by then, had begun to change, and Landel’s unpredictability and drug issues had become more pronounced.

“I got busted by the IRS. I was making four or five thousand dollars a week, and Crockett paid my IRS tab. He then dropped my check down to $300.”

That was Landel’s cue to take leave again, and this time he ventured into the UWF to work again for Watts.

Despite his out-of-the-ring issues, Landel was a great performer inside the squared circle, and when he was on, few were better.

“Bill Watts and Ernie Ladd would call me a utility guy,” he says. “I was the guy you could bring in and work with Kerry Von Erich after he had been up for a month and make him look good. I was one of the guys in the business who was blessed to have the talent and could do a promo, and they’d just put it on the loop and get heat that way and I’d come in and work with whomever. The promoters took very good care of me.”

Still, says Landel, his life seemed to lack direction and focus.

“I was a gypsy and a vagabond from ‘86 to ’95,” he says.

His unreliability earned him the dubious moniker “No Show Budro.”

“I think I fined Buddy so many times in a week that he owed me more than he was making,” jokes Watts. “But the bottom line is that he took it with a good attitude, and then he’d bust his behind and I’d turn around and bonus him back.”

Jim Cornette, a longtime friend, gave Landel another shot in his Smoky Mountain Wrestling promotion in 1995, and Landel, a grizzled veteran at the age of 33, made the best of it.

“By the time that I had rebounded. I was probably 90 percent clean in Smoky Mountain,” he says.

The company, however, folded in late 1995. But not before Landel and Shawn Michaels set a record at the Knoxville Coliseum in what would be the last sold-out wrestling show in the history of that building.

It remains one of Landel’s fondest memories.

“My wife snuck in, and I looked out, and her face was just beaming with pride. I’ll never forget that. I looked in her eyes and could tell that she loved me, she believed in me, and everything had come full circle. We shared that together in that brief second of looking into each other’s eyes.”

It also marked the beginning of a new chapter in Landel’s career.

“Cornette took me in the dressing room and told me that he was closing it (Smoky Mountain) down and taking me to New York,” recalls Landel. “He said that Vince (McMahon) wanted me, and I agreed to go.”

His WWF run, however, was short-lived.

“When I went up there, Vince told me that the sky could be the limit. But I blew my knee out after a match with Bret Hart. It was like by then that God was telling me that I was done with wrestling and that He wanted me out of it. I just kept ignoring it and trying, but I always seemed to fail no matter how good I looked.”

By that time, says Landel, depression had begun to set in. He started overeating.

“I got fat and became a parody of myself. It was starting to get real embarrassing.”

His star long since faded, Landel briefly returned to the WWF in 1999, but by then, it was a case of what might have been.

A group of WWE performers even lost money betting on Landel in a dead pool.

“A few of them walked up to me and said, ‘Man, I just lost a lot of money on you.’ I asked them how was that. They said, ‘You were on deck.’”

“Man, I’m sorry, I’d like to help you out, but I’m just not feeling it now,” Landel recalls jokingly replying.

It really wasn’t funny, Landel now admits, but today he can look back and point to a self-destructive man who no longer exists.

Landel says he’s a much more private person these days, preferring to smoothly blend into a life of family and friends, but is realistic enough to admit that he’ll probably never be able to completely get the wrestling business out of his system.

“I still kept on trying to do it because a wrestler always wants to have another comeback. My wife and family prayed for me. I finally had to come to the realization that it was over. But it’s like the Mafia ... you never get out. Right when you think you’re out, they pull you back in.”

Rebuilding his life, he says, has been a slow but steady process.

“I’ve been working on my life for some time now. My wife and I have been married for 30 years, and brother, when you break something and really break the hell out of it like I did, it takes years to redeem the times you messed up.”

Landel eventually overcame his demons. But, he admits, it was a hell of a battle.

“I was just talking to Ricky Morton the other day, and the stuff that we did back then was pretty bad. But the stuff the guys were doing in the early 2000s ... Rule of thumb is that if Ricky Morton, Buddy Landel and Tommy Rich told you that you had a problem, you better go get medical help now. That’s bad.”

These days Landel is a devoted family man, comfortable in his skin, and likes playing the role of elder statesman.

“The kids look at me and are so nice and respectful. They call you a legend and give you all the accolades that you would want in your later years in the business. But I try to dissuade people from trying to replicate anything that I did outside of the ring. You just can’t do it. It’s not conducive to a family man or for having any kind of a life whatsoever.”

Landel readily admits his failings of the past, and he’ll tell you there were many, but says he sometimes grows tired of continuing to apologize for something he did when he was 23 years old.

“I was just too young to handle it. It was too much too soon. But I’m not going to wear it on my shoulder.”

What might have been

Fortunately Landel made some good investments along the way, and working in the wrestling business became a hobby, not a necessity.

“It’s not the money. I made some really good investments that would surprise a lot of people. It’s afforded me to where I don’t have to work anymore. It’s not that we’re multimillionaires. It’s just that we live very frugally. We drive very nice cars and have a nice home, but we don’t live extravagantly.”

The drugs, the womanizing and the late nights are all things of the past, says Landel. He believes he’s always had an addictive personality.

“I always wanted to be great in everything I did. Whether it was to be great in sports or whether it was to be a great drug taker.”

Landel says he started smoking pot in high school.

“I left this one mostly white high school and went to a mostly black school to play football and baseball because they had really good sports teams. All the black guys were smoking dope in high school. I was already pretty much in the business when I was 16. I was already hanging around all the guys. There was the cocaine, the pills, the Quaaludes.”

That addictive personality would eventually derail a promising career.

“The bottom line is that I was just selfish and it was all about me.”

Pro wrestling, by its very nature, fed into Landel’s distrust of those around him and the world outside the squared circle.

“I became so jaded at the world. I was taught by all these veterans that everything was a work and that everything was an angle ... that everyone was marks but us. You get indoctrinated into that and you get cynical. You find yourself talking carney to your wife in a car lot. You become jaded. After a period of time, when wrestling’s gone and the paychecks are gone, you become very bitter.”

Landel points to a Bible verse.

“The Bible says that life is in the blood, and you can change the structure of your blood by becoming bitter. I am thoroughly convinced, not only through scripture but through medical books, that you can chemically change the makeup of your blood and cause yourself to have cancer. When you hate somebody, that’s the cup of poison you’re serving up, hoping that they get sick, and it winds up killing you.”

Wrestling fans, he says, often don’t see the less glamorous side of the business.

“People only talk about and see the good things and the good times, but the bad times are bad paychecks, marriages busting up, adultery. Just a myriad of things that would kill the normal man. Never mind living in it 24/7 for 365 days a year.”

Landel recalls an incident in 1982 following a show at the Metroplex in Baton Rouge.

“I got through with my match, got in my car and left the building. The next day Jake Roberts comes up to me and asks, ‘How did it go last night?’ I told him it went great and asked him how did his go. He said he had a great time and asked me if I forgot anything last night at the building.

“Oh, my God, I said. I left my wife at the building. Jake and Paul Orndorff wound up taking her home.”

Obviously there have been some rough patches along the way, says Landel, but his wife never gave up or gave in.

“It’s like she’s Loretta Lynn — ‘You’re not woman enough to take my man,’” says Landel, alluding to a popular song by the country music legend. “Of course she said that to three thousand of them. I was notorious on the road as far as that went. I’ve heard her tell several women, ‘Honey, you ain’t the first, and you probably ain’t gonna be the last, so don’t flatter yourself. He ain’t never left me, and he ain’t going to now.’ She was just headstrong and told them point blank that they weren’t taking her man.”

Landel tries to remain positive these days, but still thinks about what might have been. There were more than a few professional disappointments.

“You know that Hank Williams song where it said when they fired him from the Opry it caused his greatest pain? I guess the day that Dusty fired me would be rock-bottom for me,” he says.

“That even hurts me today. Back then I didn’t realize what I was doing. I won’t name any names, but I had some of the guys who were competing for my job telling to me to (forget) Dusty, that I had a hundred grand in the bank, I didn’t need them. I didn’t know any different. You show me another 23-year-old kid that was put in that situation, unless he was second or third generation, that knew better. I didn’t have a clue.”

Landel maintains, as he always has, that promoters had intended to put the NWA world title on him before he was fired. Flair was going to take some time off when the decision was made to put the strap on Landel.

“I wish somebody would flat-out ask Dusty if my story was the truth or if it’s just a bald-faced lie,” he says. “They were going to put Baby Doll with me, and J.J. with Tully. I was going to do a run with Tully and a run with Magnum and one with Dusty in there somewhere, and I was going to drop the belt back on Flair. That’s the whole truth.”

Landel also is truthful about where his place might have been among that revered group of NWA titleholders.

“I think that I could have won the title. But as far as carrying it ... I’ve never admitted this, but I doubt very seriously that I would have been a great world champion. I could have worked with anybody and had great matches. I was just so undependable. They would have had to have somebody with me to baby-sit me. It would have been paramount to have a baby-sitter with me.”

Landel’s firing also was significant in that it set the stage for the ascension of the legendary Four Horsemen.

“Had I stayed there, there would have been no need for a Four Horsemen,” asserts Landel. “It would have never materialized.”

But for the grace of God

Buddy Landel realizes he has dodged his fair share of bullets during his lifetime.

He looks at the long list of names who didn’t make it. And some, like Scott Hall, who continue to struggle.

There but for the grace of God goes “Nature Boy” Buddy Landel.

“It’s probably nothing more than people praying for him that’s keeping him alive,” Landel says of Hall. “ I had a ton of people that were praying for me. It’s just really sad. My wife and I pray for him every night.”

Landel says Hall, who has battled substance abuse issues for years, desperately needs accountability in his life.

“I think that’s some of Scott’s problems. He’s just not accountable to anyone ... not even to himself. It’s all about Scott. It’s not about his kids or anything else. The choices that you make are going to affect other people’s lives, and you’re not even seeing it.”

Landel speaks from experience. Lots of it.

“My heart goes out to Scott. He’s worth more to all of us than what he’s doing right now. It’s by the grace of God that he’s still alive.”

His advice to the 53-year-old Hall is straightforward.

“Get on your knees and repent and ask God to forgive you. Throw your cell phone away. Get rid of the numbers and all the data. That’s just a conduit for the same thing you’ve been doing. Repent and have a broken spirit and a contrite heart. Be accountable to someone.”

Landel says he knows all too well what it was like to be surrounded by “marks and enablers.”

“My fame was nowhere close to those guys, but even being Buddy Landel, there were so many enablers out there. People couldn’t believe I was in their house. But you learn how to work that angle. You can get anything, anywhere, at any time.”

Landel says he’s blessed to have accountability in his life.

“To this day my wife will watch me when I get up to go the bathroom at a truck stop or anywhere else. But that’s a good thing. You can make it a good thing because you have to be in agreement with each other. The Bible asks in Amos 3:3 how can two walk together if they’re not in agreement. I agree with my wife that she has to watch my back. I don’t trust me. I might have to live the rest of my life like that, but you know what? I’m going to be alive doing it.”

Landel says he’s also blessed to have survived the business.

“It just breaks my heart because this business doesn’t have a safety net at the bottom — just a high wire. And it was never set up for guys like us to live long. It’s a crying shame that we’re so expendable to these people that they never set up any kind of retirement or medical or anything. We were just meat.”

A new Buddy Landel

Buddy Landel couldn’t be happier these days. He’s embracing life, and for once, he’s actually taking part.

“I feel like I’ve had another opportunity at life. Except this time to actually participate instead of watch it go by.”

A series of events had to happen, he says, for him to get to that place.

Landel holds back tears when he painfully recalls an incident that occurred at a low point in his life.

“I was hiding out at a friend’s house. My wife and little 7-year-old daughter had taken a cab up to the house, and nobody would open the door. I’ll never forget the blank stare that my daughter had as they left the driveway in that cab. I’ll never forget that look on her face. It’s hard to forget that.”

He then thinks back to a time when his daughter was 15 years old, unwed and pregnant, and battling a drug problem of her own.

The irony was not lost on Landel.

“I started seeing that the sins of the father were visiting upon the children. That was a lot of guilt as well. If you’re religious or not religious, you’re thinking that if just that one scripture is true, then it’s my fault that she’s in that shape. I was all my grandson had, so I had to stay home and raise him.”

Landel and his wife, Donna, secured full custody of the child.

That word that Landel uses so often — accountability — took on an even greater meaning.

“That’s what did it for me. A day turned into a week, turned into a month, turned into a year, being with him. Instead of being selfish, now I cared about someone else, and threw my life into theirs instead of making it all about Buddy Landel. I think God’s ultimate plan for me was to let us have that baby. That baby saved my life.”

Landel’s grandson is now 7 years old. His daughter, now 23, is doing much better, he says. Another daughter is married and recently graduated from Radford University.

“She’s doing great. Thank God she pulled out before I did. All it took for me was opening my heart and loving this little boy and raising him. The next thing I know, two or three years had gone by, and I was drug free. I could think. I could sleep. I could tell the truth every time I opened my mouth. I could love. I could receive love. My grandson is what saved my life and, of course, the prayers of my family.”

Landel, who once ballooned up to 310 pounds, is back down to 240, only about 10 pounds away from his prime working weight. He last performed in a match in 2010.

His wrestling days, he admits, are over.

“I’ve had my neck broken, both knees done, I don’t have a lot of fluid in my spine. I’ve got some medical issues. Although I look good physically on the outside, the inside has been microwaved.”

It wasn’t always pretty, but Landel doesn’t regret his times in the business, particularly the days working in the NWA.

“I am so proud that I got to be a part of the NWA. The older I get, I realize that the biggest fans in the world are the NWA fans. You had Eddie Graham in Florida, the Crocketts in Charlotte, that’s when wrestling was wrestling. I thank God that He allowed me to live through that era.”

“There was not a more talented performer when I first became a Buddy Landel fan,” says Dick Bourne, operator of the Mid-Atlantic Gateway site. “I always thought there was a story still to be written there.”

Landel laments the fact that aspiring grapplers today, for the most part, don’t get the type of training that wrestlers of his generation did. It was nearly six months of grueling training — running five miles, doing 500 pushups and 500 squats in one sitting — before Landel’s trainer, Boris Malenko, would even teach him how to lock up. He began his career setting up and tearing down rings and riding in the back of a ring truck.

I’m not knocking or taking anything away from the guys now,” says Landel. “The sad thing is that guys don’t learn the craft anymore. The rule of thumb was that you had to have three thousand matches before a veteran would look at you as an equal. Back then it took 10 years of working three hundred-plus days a year.”

Landel, 49, says he feels “like a million bucks.”

“It’s wonderful to have a woman who loves you and believes in you, and has always believed in you when you didn’t believe in yourself or in anything. She always believed in me.”

He says he now realizes what’s real.

“You just have to make it about something else besides yourself. People look at their marriages as a work, and everything as a work. I was the flag bearer. But it’s the total opposite. Life is real. Getting up in the morning and cooking your grandson breakfast, going to bed with your wife at night at a decent hour, that’s real. That other stuff isn’t real.”

Landel even attended Bible college and gave the ministry a shot, but says he was dismayed by some of the things he witnessed. He is critical of those who preach the good word but fail to live up to their reputations.

“I saw some things in the ministry that really upset me. It upsets me when a guy takes a gimmick table to the matches ... he goes up and speaks and then sets a gimmick table up. It’s become a business. I know I shouldn’t be so judgmental. I’m nobody’s judge. But it seems that guys either become used car salesmen or ministers. It’s not a far stretch — the ministry and the wrestling business. There are a lot of common elements. But I was sincere as I could be when I did it. I just made a promise to God.”

These days Landel says he’s “actually retired,” gets up every morning and goes to the gym.

“I really don’t do anything,” he jokes, which could be the premise of his latest venture, a Knoxville-based radio show.

“The show will be about nothing. It’ll be like Seinfeld. Just some funny stuff.”

Landel, who still does commercials for car dealerships, got into the stock market about eight years ago and made a tidy fortune investing in penny stocks. He says he doesn’t have a clue what he’s worth and lets his wife handle the finances.

“I’ve always let my wife take care of the money. That’s her anointing. My anointing is not money. I’m like Hank Sr. I’ll spend a thousand dollars on a hundred-dollar show. I’m a giver. There are two types of people — the ones that come to you with a closed fist or an open hand. I’ve always been open-handed.”

He also gives credit without hesitation.

“Whatever I’ve got or whatever I’m worth is because of my wife.”

Buddy Landel has packed a lot of living into his 49 years. But he’s excited about the future.

“My life’s just beginning. It makes me feel bad that I’ve wasted a lot, but it makes me feel good that I’ve got a lot of life yet to live.”

Old School Championship Wrestling fans are in for a special treat tonight when Reid Flair, son of 16-time world heavyweight champion “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, makes his local debut.

The 23-year-son of arguably the greatest performer in the modern era of pro wrestling will meet “The Manscout” Jake Manning in the main event of a show at the Hanahan Rec Center. Other top bouts include John Skyler vs. Bob Keller in a hair vs. career match. Bell time is 6 p.m.

Adult admission is $10 (cash at door); kids 12 and under $5. For more information, call 843-743-4800 or visit www.oscwonline.com.