‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair returned home on Sunday night, when he made his return to the National Wrestling Alliance. The 16-time world champion had made his name in the NWA in the 70s and 80s, his classic bouts with Ricky Steamboat, Harley Race and Barry Windham forming an essential part of wrestling folklore. Flair last appeared under the NWA banner in 1990, when his employers at the time, Jim Crockett Promotions, seceded from the organisation and became WCW. His return to the Alliance after over three decades away was an emotional one.
One of wrestling’s greatest-ever orators, ‘The Dirtiest Player In The Game’ gave a career-spanning address that touched on previous battles, his future in the business and his return to the NWA. Most interestingly of all, Ric Flair praised Vince McMahon and several past and present WWE talents. Flair asked for his release from the company last month, and as is often customary in wrestling, many expected him to say negative things about the company having left. However, Flair said, “Vince McMahon, I love you. Thank you.”, as well as praising Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Undertaker. He spoke of how those talents in particular had “picked (him) up” during his tenure with WWE.
There is a reason for Flair’s grateful comments to the WWE and a group of its legendary figures. When he rejoined the company in 2001, nine years on from a brief spell there in the early 90s, Flair was in a bad place. ‘Naitch’ endured several years of backstage unrest, mismanagement and terrible storylines as WCW meandered towards an early grave. Flair’s self-confidence had been so eroded that when headlining the company’s final ever show in 2001, he wrestled Sting while wearing a t-shirt to hide a physique he could no longer bear to display. As the Hall of Famer told me when we spoke in 2019, “People just took it for granted. All the other wrestlers didn't know I had these self-confidence issues. They just assumed 'that's Ric Flair, that guy can do anything' when actually I was struggling.” While Flair was synonymous with a braggadocious ring persona, mentally he was confronting great uncertainty.
Flair would wrestle his first match back in the WWE at the 2002 Royal Rumble against Vince McMahon. The match would be a street fight, allowing the pair to utilise blood, weapons and other shortcuts to reduce the amount of technical wrestling on display. However, Flair still had his misgivings, and admits to trying to pull out of the match before being talked round by Vince and the McMahon family. McMahon told his opponent that facing him would be an honor, and did everything he could to convince the faltering Flair. Ultimately, Flair-McMahon was an entertaining spectacle, but the spectre of failing confidence still loomed.
The veteran’s friendship with Triple H would be crucial in finally lifting Flair out of his funk. Hunter idolised Ric during his heyday as NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion, and ‘The Game’ made it his mission to revive the career of his hero. The duo would combine with promising young talent Randy Orton and Batista to form Evolution, a cross-generational stable patterned after Flair’s own Four Horsemen group of the 80s. Wrestling and travelling alongside his close friend, and two hungry up and comers, reignited Flair’s love of sports entertainment.
Incredibly, after being reluctant to have even one match upon his WWE return in 2001, Flair would wrestle for another seven years with the company. Before his 2008 retirement match with Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XXIV, the influence of Triple H was once again invaluable. Ric told me, “Hunter walked me through the steps of getting myself ready to work. I had the luxury of the two best performers in the business. One I was wrestling and one was counselling me.” The match would go down in history as a classic, with Michaels’ “I'm sorry, I love you” dialogue before finally defeating Flair becoming a cultural touchstone for fans.
When Ric Flair finally walked the aisle of the NWA once again, he spoke from the heart. The 72-year-old was never going to follow the path of many ex-WWE talents by burying the company. As he did so often during perhaps the greatest wrestling career of all time, Flair walked his own path. When you hear him speak about what Vince McMahon, Triple H, Shawn Michaels and the WWE did for him, you can see why.