40 Years of Ric Flair: The Career of the Greatest Wrestler Ever

X VariableCorrespondent IDecember 18, 2012

40 Years of Ric Flair: The Career of the Greatest Wrestler Ever

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    On Dec. 10, 1972, in the small town of Rice Lake, Wis., Richard Morgan Fliehr stepped into a wrestling ring and became Ric Flair.

    Though he only wrestled a 10-minute draw against George "Scrap Iron" Gadaski, that one match sparked four decades of a seemingly never-ending wrestling legend.

    Today, 40 years after his first match, the 63-year-old Flair says that his in-ring career has finally come to an end. Still, he found himself once again roughhousing in a WWE ring Monday night.

    Whether or not Flair will ever have another official "match," there can be no doubt that he is, and forever will be, the greatest professional wrestler of all time.

The AWA Years

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    After wrestling to a draw against Gadaski, Flair's career began. In the first few months, he was wrestling for Verne Gagne's American Wrestling Association (AWA) across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and the Dakotas.

    Some of Flair's earliest opponents included Larry "The Axe" Hennig, Jim Brunzell, Jimmy Valiant, Greg Gagne, Ivan Koloff, and Rene Goulet (the first person to ever beat Flair).

    In the summer of 1973, only six months into his wrestling career, Flair toured Japan for the first time, even competing in a steel-cage match against Rusher Kimura.

    On Oct. 3, 1973, Flair wrestled "Rowdy" Roddy Piper for the first time in a match that was aired on Minneapolis television—though that tape appears to have been lost to the sands of time.

    After that match, Flair wrestled on television again, once more against Piper, as well as Chris Taylor (see video), Joe Guzman, and others.

Arrival in Mid-Atlantic

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    In May 1974, Flair made his way down to Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, a member of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) owned by Jim Crockett.

    Flair was quickly paired with Rip Hawk, and the two became a top heel tag team in the region. The two soon won the NWA Mid-Atlantic Tag Team Titles.

    Within several months, Flair began breaking out as a singles star, and on Feb. 8, 1975, he won his first singles title as he defeated Paul Jones for the NWA Mid-Atlantic Television Title.

    Though Flair lost the belt to Jones in August, he quickly defeated Wahoo McDainel for the NWA Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Title.

The Plane Crash & Return

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    On Oct. 4, 1975, a small plane that Flair was traveling in crashed in Wilmington, North Carolina. The pilot died, wrestling legend Johnny Valentine was paralyzed, and Flair broke his back.

    Doctors told Flair that his wrestling career was over.

    Flair was determined to return to the ring, however.

    After a few months of training, Flair was back in Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, now adopting the nickname "Nature Boy" after the first WWE Champion of all time, "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers.

    On March 1, 1976, Flair made his Madison Square Garden debut when he wrestled Pete Sanchez (see video).

    Over the next few years, Flair became a main draw in Mid-Atlantic, battling men like McDaniel, Andre the Giant, Dusty Rhodes, Ole Anderson, Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, Blackjack Mulligan, Bobo Brazil and even the original "Nature Boy," Rogers.

    By the early 1980's Flair had come to be known as one of the biggest wrestlers in the world.

World Heavyweight Champion

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    On Sept. 17, 1981, in Kansas City, Kan., Flair defeated Rhodes to become the NWA World Heavyweight Champion.

    Though the match was not that much of a classic, and was held at a small venue in a small city, it did cement Flair's position as the top dog in the NWA.

    Flair defended the belt around the nation and the world.

    In some instances, there was controversy surrounding certain matches.

    Carlos Colon, Jack Veneno and Victor Jovica all beat Flair for the belt in the Caribbean, and all three ended up handing the title back to Flair and never having their reigns recognized by the NWA.

    There was also the time when Rhodes defeated Flair for the belt while he was competing as the masked "Midnight Rider." Since Rhodes refused to unmask himself, he handed the title back to Flair and the change was never officially recognized.

    Flair's first title reign finally came to an end on June 10, 1983, when he lost a 2-out-of-3 falls match to Harley Race.

A Flair for the Gold

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    Flair finally had his rematch against Race on Nov. 24, 1983, in Greensboro, N.C., at the first Starrcade.

    Held before the first WrestleMania—and Hulkamania—Starrcade was one of the first pay-per-view events of the modern wrestling era.

    By coming out on top as a fan favorite in the main event and winning back the world heavyweight title, Flair not only made wrestling history, he became a wrestling immortal.

    In the subsequent years, Flair won and lost the belt against a wide variety of opponents: Kerry Von Erich,  Rhodes, Ron Garvin.

    Yet, time and again the belt found its way back around Flair's waist.

    There was no denying it: Flair was THE man.

The Four Horsemen

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    By the mid-'80s, Flair had become such a dominant force in the NWA that he was given his own faction. What's more, all the men were champions.

    Along with world heavyweight champion Flair, there was United States heavyweight champion Tully Blanchard, and the tag team champions Arn and Ole Anderson—with Arn also holding the world television title.

    These men, managed by J.J. Dillon, dominated the NWA at the time. Their feuds with Rhodes, Magnum TA, and the Road Warriors were nothing short of amazing.

    Over the years, the ranks of the Four Horsemen would change—though pretty much always included Arn Anderson in some capacity—but they remained Flair's go-to guys and always got the job done.

The Flair-Sting Rivalry

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    On Dec. 6, 1987, in Flair's adopted hometown of Charlotte, the man called Sting first faced the world heavyweight champion.

    In the coming years, Sting would face Flair time and time again.

    What evolved was an enduring and always-exciting rivalry between two "franchises" of the newly-forming World Championship Wrestling (WCW).

    Years later, when men thought of which match embodied the whole spirit of the company, the answer was easy:

    Ric Flair vs. Sting.

The Greatest Match Ever? Something with Flair in '89

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    In 1989, The Nature Boy was at the top of his game. He was a perennial world heavyweight champion, a man who embodied an entire sport, a living legend.

    That year, Flair had three matches against Steamboat for the world title. The events, in order, were dubbed Chi-Town Rumble, Clash of the Champions VI and WrestleWar.

    Each of these three title matches are considered to be the "greatest wrestling match ever" by some fans.

    Others point to one of a series of matches held during Flair's very next feud, against former NWA World Heavyweight Champion Terry Funk.

    For instance, there was the famous "I Quit" match between Flair and Funk at Clash of the Champions IX (see video).

    In any case, the fact that so many matches from 1989 are considered the greatest ever (and that they all involved Flair) should tell us something.

The "Real" World Champion

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    By 1991, the company that Flair had been with for nearly two decades was a mess.

    After Ted Turner purchased Jim Crockett Promotions and re-branded the company World Championship Wrestling, the company faced a lack of leadership. Several men took over with disastrous results.

    Fed up with what he perceived to be bad ideas and a lack of respect, Flair finally jumped ship and joined the World Wrestling Federation.

    Flair brought with him the NWA title belt and proclaimed himself to be the "Real World Champion" to WWE fans.

    The impact Flair made was unquestionable, and what happened next astonished pretty much everyone.

WWE Champion

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    Almost immediately after Flair entered WWE, fans expected him to face longtime WWE Champion Hulk Hogan.

    Flair wrestled Hogan at a series of untelevised  "house" shows—the first being in Dayton, Ohio, on Oct. 23, 1991.

    As the two began feuding in these matches, The Undertaker also rose through the WWE ranks to challenge Hogan for the belt.

    What ensued was Flair interfering in at least one title match and the WWE belt being held up. Eventually, it was put on the line at the 1992 Royal Rumble, with the winner of that battle royal to become WWE Champion.

    Remarkably, Flair lasted nearly an hour in the ring without being eliminated and did come out on top.

    Yes, Flair had proven that he was not simply a NWA star—he was wrestling royalty.

A Short Stay

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    Flair's time in WWE was memorable.

    He feuded with Hogan (though not at WrestleMania), won the belt twice, dropped the belt to Randy Savage and Bret Hart, and faced other WWE talent such as The Ultimate Warrior.

    Flair's time was short, however.

    On Jan. 18, 1993, only a year-and-a-half after coming to WWE, Flair lost a "loser leaves town" match against his former protege, "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig.

    Though Flair wrestled for about another month for the company, a few months later he found himself back at home in WCW.

Back Home

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    Flair's first match back in WCW was on June 6, 1993.

    On July 18, he defeated Barry Windham for the NWA World Heavyweight Title, which was in its final months of being recognized in Turner's WCW.

    On Dec. 27, Flair faced one of the biggest matches of his career when he wrestled Vader for the WCW World Heavyweight Title at Starrcade.

    The match, held in Charlotte, was also a retirement match if Flair was to lose.

    To the crowd's delight, however, Flair did win the WCW belt and showed that he was still THE man.

Hulkamania Arrives in WCW

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    On July 17, 1994, WCW changed forever.

    On that day, at Bash at the Beach, Hogan arrived in WCW and defeated Flair for the World Heavyweight Title.

The Bischoff Feud

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    As Hogan, Hall and Nash took over WCW, not just in storyline but also in actuality, Flair soon found himself in a real-life feud with Executive Vice President Eric Bischoff.

    Due to the nature of the industry at the time, the situation was played up on screen as Flair battling for his life against the heel Bischoff. This eventually culminated in a match on the Dec. 28, 1998 edition of Monday Nitro, where Flair defeated Bischoff for control of the company. In the ensuing months, Flair played the role of crazed leader of the company. Alongside the Horsemen, Roddy Piper and his son, David Flair, Ric supposedly ruled WCW with an iron first—or at least an open-handed chop.

Vince Russo and the Death of WCW

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    In the fall of 1999, WWE writer Vince Russo came to WCW, supposedly to save the company.

    What ensued was a storyline involving the established talent (Millionaire's Club) facing the up-and-comers (New Blood). During this time, Flair held the WCW title for his last two times, the last of which lasted only a matter of hours. As the months wore on, WCW's ratings continued to plummet, and eventually the company was sold to Vince McMahon. On March 26, 2001, Flair wrestled in the last match on the last WCW Monday Nitro. His opponent? Sting.

Flair Returns to WWE

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    In late 2001, Flair finally appeared on WWE television again. The storyline involved Stephanie and Shane McMahon selling their WWE stock to Flair, making him co-owners with Vince.

    Over the following years, Flair had a remarkable run in WWE. The Nature Boy battled The Undertaker at WrestleMania, challenged Hogan for the Undisputed WWE Title at Madison Square Garden, founded the group known as Evolution, had an epic "I Quit" match against Mick Foley at SummerSlam 2006, won the tag team titles with Piper, and even won the intercontinental title in his own right. During this time, Flair also helped to "put over" young talent, effectively passing the torch to a new generation.

The Final Matches

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    On Nov. 28, 2007, Flair returned from a hiatus to make an important career announcement. He proudly proclaimed: "I will never retire!"

    This upset Flair's rival, Vince McMahon, to the point that he said Flair would be forced to retire after his next loss. Over the ensuing months, Flair built an impressive undefeated streak, besting WWE superstars like Randy Orton, Triple H, Umaga, MVP, and others. Then, at WrestleMania XXIV, one day after being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, Flair lost a match to "The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels, and was forced to retire from WWE.

The Hulkamania Tour

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    After retiring from WWE, Flair did convince himself that he could wrestle outside WWE and outside the United States.

    In late Novemeber 2009, Flair wrestled Hogan in matches across Australia as part of the Hulkamania Tour.

    Over the course of one week, Flair wrestled four matches in Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Sydney. All four matches were versus Hogan, and Hogan won all four.

The TNA Run

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    A little over a month after the Hulkamania Tour, Flair accompanied Hogan and numerous other wrestling icons to join TNA as its flagship show, Impact, went head-to-head against WWE Raw.

    Though Impact eventually retreated back to Thursdays, Flair did have numerous matches in TNA over the next two years.

    While taking on AJ Styles as a protege and helping found both the Fortune and Immortal stables, Flair also competed against the likes of Abyss, Jay Lethal, Kurt Angle, Mick Foley, Matt Morgan and Doug Williams.

Ric Flair's Last Match?

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    On September 15, 2011 TNA Impact featured a "Legends Match" between Ric Flair and his longtime rival, Sting.

    The match was actually held as part of hype for Hulk Hogan's last match the following month. The idea was that, before Sting got to Hogan, he had to go through Flair.

    Main-eventing yet another show, the two put on an epic battle. One of the highlights of the match was a super-plex that legitimately injured Flair. Yet, always the professional, Ric wrestled on.

    Whether or not this match was indeed Flair's last remains to be seen. Yet, if one had to come up with a perfect last opponent for Flair, one would be hard-pressed to come up with someone better than the man who he faced at the first Clash of the Champions and the last Monday Nitro, the man called Sting.

The Future of Flair

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    With Flair returning to WWE on the 40th Anniversary of his career beginning, one can only wonder: What does the future hold in store for The Nature Boy, the man who already has the most storied wrestling career of all time? Whatever may happen in the coming days, one can rest assured of the truth in an old adage: "Diamonds are forever—and so is Ric Flair."