This past day was February 25th, the birthday of wrestling’s second, and arguably most successful and enduring, “Nature Boy.” So it seems fitting that on “The Man’s” birthday, I review the 60 minute man’s memoir.
Most knowledgeable wrestling fans can’t concur on any two facts. But most will agree that Ric Flair is the greatest man to ever don the spandex. That is almost an indisputable fact, as Flair delivered a career that most mere mortals in the wrestling game would dream of accomplishing. Flair is one of those truly transcendent superstars; there are Hogan’s, there are Buddy Rogers; there are “Superstar” BIlly Grahams; there are Lou Thesz’s. Never before has a wrestler molded the characteristics of all of these all time greats quite like Richard Morgan Fleihr.
His is a different path to greatness. He was born either Fred Demaree or Fred Stewart in a children’s home in Tennessee renown for their shady business practices. Flair never knew his birth mother, never even sought the responsible parties out. The agency responsible for the birthing and adoption has gone down in history as quite the hotbed of corruption. Flair was adopted by a down on their luck Minnesota pairing. Dr. Richard Morgan Fliehr, and his wife, were having a difficult time with the birth process, and, through, not stated in the book, nefarious means, obtained the young Fred Stewart or Demaree through the hands of the Tennessee Childrens Home Society.
What wasn’t nefarious was the Fliehr’s raising of the boy they renamed Ric, after the father. Ric had solid ground with this family. They raised him as their own, yet didn’t sugarcoat anything. They celebrated both his birth day AS WELL as the day they adopted him. They made sure the young lad was in the loop. Flair’s parents were a well known, well respected OB-GYN, his father, and a brilliant Shakespearean actress, his moms. But Ric Flair was not born of their DNA. He was a rebel that eventually found his way to a Boarding School. His life’s goals, his beliefs and tendencies, were raised there under the tutelage of a man Flair calls, in his bio, the General. Sexual trysts ensue, and Fliehr, under dubious circumstances, with a varsity letter in football, is recruited to the University of Minnesota.
Flair was not one for the academic rigors, and soon dropped out. By circumstance, bouncing at a club in Minneapolis, he ran into a champion strongman named Ken Patera. Longtime wrestling fans will be familiar with the name. You see, Flair had a little hobby as a young tyke: He was infatuated with pro wrestling. Patera had an in: he was training with Verne Gagne, who ran the then big time promotion AWA. Flair was recruited at Patera’s insistence, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Not that it was easy. The AWA’s, and more specifically, Gagne’s, camps were notoriously tough. Flair actually quit twice before being coerced back into the physically demanding camps. But it paid off. Flair, on the eve of his in-ring debut, wanted to be monikored “Rambling” Rickey Rhodes, a brother of Dusty Rhodes. Gagne set young Richard Morgan Fliehr straight, stating his given name, Ric FLAIR, was perfect for wrestling. Whew, thank you Verne. That may have been the best advice in wrestling history. Can you imagine the best wrestler of the last thirty years running around a ring in polka dots imitating his greatest influence, bionic elbows abound? Good, neither did I.
Anyway, those are the best chapters of the book. The author(s) do delve into the plane crash in 1975, and it is very interesting, to say the least, as Flair makes no bones in his disdain for the pilot, Mike Farkas. And for the old school mentality he met when rehabbing from his broken back. Cruel and unusual would be understating the manner in which old school wrestling promoters handled their talent, and Flair is not an exception.
Obviously, Flair went on to a long and decorated career. The best parts of his book involve his feud with Rickey Steamboat, his arch-nemesis. The three match series they had in 1989 is wrestling at its finest, simply put. My particular flavor is the 55 minute broadway they had at Clash Six in New Orleans. You cannot, as a wrestling fan, got wrong with any of the matches. Aside from, maybe, Austin-Hart in 1996-97, there is no better series of angles and matches than Flair-Steamboat in 1989. Period. And the book definitely fills out form here.
Alright, this review isn’t about ripping through the legendary career of a master craftsman. It is about the BOOK. And the biggest problem with it is the sheer obsequesoity (yeah I made that word up. Look up obsequious.) of Flair regarding both HHH and Shawn Michaels. Flair may as well be the newest member of the “Kliq.” He raves and raves and raves on the abilities of Shawn Michaels and Triple H. Which is fine: both are really good professional wrestlers, particularly Michaels. The butt-sniffing of Trips is less pleasing. Flair calls HHH “This generations Ric Flair” which is just plain damning. Not with faint praise, just damning. HHH is a head honcho in WWE, married to Vinnie Mac’s daughter, and Flair comes across as such a suck ass sycophant at times that it is nauseating. This is Ric FUCKING Flair, the best to have ever done it, and he is reduced to sucking HHH’s ass? It is mindboggling, and a recurring theme throughout “To Be The Man.”
Even worse is his thoughts of Bret Hart.
Make no bones about it: the entirety of this book is Flair putting over the WWE agenda. Vinnie Mac’s propaganda. It gets sickening at points, and no more sickening than the stuff about Bret Hart. The book was published in 2003, before Bret and Vince had come to terms. Bret, in this authors mind, is one of the greatest performers the industry has ever seen. As good as Flair? Probably not, but, on his best nights, yes, yes he was. Flair totally trashes him (as Bret does in his book as well). His insistence that Bret used his own brothers death as further ammunition against the WWF comes across, Flair’s insistence that is, is just WWE propganda at its nadir, and just flat out despicable. Flair was looking for a paycheck, received it, and toed the company line. It is downright despicable to use a very real tragedy, with very real repercussions, to bury an ax, and Flair is completely wrong in doing so in his book. For a man that would turn any joke offense into gold inside the ring, for the man to try to make a mockery out of the worst thing to ever occur in wrestling is nothing short of a joke. But there is one more indignity lying within.
That is Flair’s evaluation of one Mick Foley. Cactus Jack. Mankind. Dude Love. Flair was the primary WCW booker in 1994. The guy who creates and decides what will unfold on-screen. Foley, as Cactus Jack, was a totally compelling figure. Trust me. I WAS WATCHING. But Flair didn’t think anything of Foley, and cast him off to the competition, WWE. Foley proceeded to become a huge star with WWE as Mankind. Same as WCW losing a guy named “Stunning” Steve. Foley was a once in a lifetime talent, and he eventually realized it, even though in his book Flair describes him as a “glorified stuntman.” Foley was, WAS a glorified stuntman, but also a ring general. Flair is wrong in hid assessment here, and wrong about a great deal in general.
Overall, “To Be The Man” is a fantastic read. Pick it up. The biggest reasons, though, to read it, are negative. But doesn’t that make it a fun ride?