The unmistakable strut. The over dramatic flop. The flagrant low blow. The… “Woooooooo!”Such an animated performer like Ric Flair can’t be encapsulated in words. He’s a man of vibrant actions and endless sound bites. If Dean Malenko is “The Man of 1,000 Holds,” then Flair is absolutely “The Man of 1,000 Faces” – each one more flushed red with intensity than the last.
There was a time when Flair didn’t blaze through arenas like a fireball of charisma, but that was before he found his calling as “The Nature Boy.” Prior to stealing kisses, flying on jets and riding in limousines, the 16-time World Heavyweight Champion was an adopted, brown-haired kid in Minnesota with a chip on his shoulder.
Flair showcased his athletic ability early in life, competing in wrestling, football and track at a boarding school in Wisconsin. After winning the state private school wrestling championship in both 1966 and 1968, he was recruited to the University of Minnesota on a football scholarship. But it wasn’t until he dropped out that he got his first big opportunity as a sports entertainer.
Working as a bouncer at a nightclub, Flair met Olympic weightlifter Ken Patera, who introduced the young “Slick Ric” to legendary performer and tough-as-nails trainer Verne Gagne. The 10-time AWA World Heavyweight Champ had quite a class in 1971 for his wrestling camp, which also included Patera, The Iron Sheik and Jim Brunzell. From there, it was simply a matter of time before Flair would start to turn heads with his colorful personality and in-ring prowess.
There were no cakewalks in the American Wrestling Association, only battles that tested Flair’s endurance against combatants like Dusty Rhodes, Andre the Giant and Wahoo McDaniel. Leaving for the Mid-Atlantic region of the National Wrestling Alliance in 1974 looked like a promising choice until a serious plane crash in North Carolina broke his back in three places. At just 26, he was told by doctors that he would never perform again. If Flair was going to defy the odds, he’d have to not only rehab, but adapt. He’d have to wave goodbye to the hefty brawler he resembled in the ring and learn how to be a crafty son of a gun – the “dirtiest player in the game.”
Remarkably, Flair returned to NWA after six months of physical therapy. He won the NWA United States Championship multiple times and picked fights with future legends Ricky Steamboat, Roddy Piper and Jimmy Snuka. In 1978, “The Nature Boy” was officially born when Flair challenged the original “Nature Boy,” Buddy Rogers. Three years later, he reached new heights by defeating Rhodes for his first NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Along with the title, Flair’s signature look started to fall into place: designer suits, outlandish robes, and of course, shoes that cost more than your house.