The strains of the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey" pierce the arena darkness. Fans rise to their feet as a figure steps into the spotlight.
As the music swells, a man with perfectly coiffured golden locks and a sparkling robe basks in the adulation of the crowd before stepping into the ring.
"Ladies and gentleman," an announcer bellows. "From Charlotte, North Carolina, the 13-time heavyweight champion of the world -- 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair!"
It's a grandiose entrance that's been replayed thousands of times over the past 25 years. Years that have seen the "Nature Boy" become a middle-aged man two months shy of his 49th birthday. But Ric Flair, who has survived both pro wrestling's volatile nature and his own outside-the-ring excesses to become the oldest main-event wrestler on the circuit, remains a fan favorite and a top attraction.
Tonight, the master of the "figure-four leg lock" will hear his fans in Baltimore scream out his trademark high-pitched "Woooooo!" as he arrives for TNT's live broadcast of World Championship Wrestling's "Monday Nitro" at the Baltimore Arena.
Hobbled by an ankle injury, he'll be in street clothes tonight and make only an interview appearance. The ego that has helped him live up to his stage name, however, appears as healthy as ever when he's coaxed into talking about himself.
"That's what makes greatness: being able to do it year in and year out," Flair, whose real name is Richard Fliehr, offers in an interview. "There's nothing that replaces the notoriety or the longevity of someone that's good at what they do for a long period of time."
So, just as the Rolling Stones continue to play to sold-out stadiums and hockey's Wayne Gretzky continues to score goals, wrestling villain-turned-icon Flair continues to "style and profile" almost 200 nights a year.
Not that he isn't constantly aware of the years going by.
There are nagging reminders like the bum ankle, hurt when he leapt out of the ring recently and landed on a camera cable. There is the desire to spend more time with his family, which has meant cutting back his number of appearances dramatically.
And, ironically, there are the accolades that come the way of any "ironman" in sports -- even a sport that is as much staged soap opera as real mayhem.
Other big-name wrestlers like Hulk Hogan have often overshadowed him in the eyes of the general public, but Flair may well be the most popular wrestler among other professional athletes. Everyone from Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley of the NBA to Lawrence Taylor, Bruce Smith and Kevin Greene of the NFL have spoken admiringly of Flair.
"It's mortifying to think how many athletes have told me they were watching me wrestle when they were 10 years old," Flair says with a laugh.
Within his own "sports entertainment" world, Flair also gets his due.
"There's never been a guy, night after night, to put on the performances he has," says Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "When you factor that in, he is the greatest in the history of the sport, without question."
Likes to be the 'villain'
Such kudos don't always sit easy with Flair, partly because he'd rather still be the underdog "villain" he portrayed most of his career rather than the revered icon.
"It's a lot easier for me to work in the role of wrestling against the so-called good guys. I feel in that aspect that I do not have a peer," he says. "But now, being perceived as a fan favorite, it's not a role that I'm comfortable with."
But, he adds quickly: "I am, however, comfortable with the level of respect that I get."
Respect isn't always easily earned in the strange, fickle world of professional wrestling, where stars have to survive not only nightly physical pounding but also backstage politics in what can be a cutthroat business.
The Cal Ripken of wrestling isn't kidding when he says he did not have a day off between 1976 and 1988, even after he became a major star.
"We worked 365 days a year, sometimes wrestling twice a day," he said. "Holidays were our biggest days. ... And if you weren't booked, you were mad, because there wasn't any guaranteed money in the early days."
Flair's career was nearly over only two years after it started. In October 1975, he broke his back when the small plane he was riding in crashed near Wilmington, N.C.
Doctors told him he might never wrestle again. But Flair was back in action within 6 1/2 months. Since then, aside from the recent ankle injury, a cracked disc in his neck and a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, he's managed to avoid serious injury.
"I've never been to a chiropractor in my life," he says. "I've been a very fortunate man."
And popular. Early in his career, Flair wrestled almost exclusively in the Carolinas and Virginia. But in September 1981, when he became heavyweight champion of the National Wrestling Alliance (renamed WCW when Ted Turner bought it in 1988), he suddenly was in demand across the country, as well as in far-flung places like Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and the Caribbean.
Fans responded immediately to his athleticism and flamboyant ring persona, modeled on 1950s-1960s wrestler "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers.
"So much goes into our business to be successful, from being a great in-ring performer to being able to convey your real-life enthusiasm for what you do and send it through the television monitor," Flair said.
"I knew that every time I got in the ring, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there was no one that was remotely close to me."
Although he has never had a body-builder's physique, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Flair attributes his longevity in wrestling in large part to physical conditioning. For most of his career, he has exercised and lifted weights religiously. His current regimen includes 30 minutes on the StairMaster five days a week.
"He really took pride in his conditioning," says Rick Steamboat, a former wrestler who had many matches with Flair throughout his 20-year career. "I was also a big conditioning nut, and we got to be very competitive against each other as to who was in the best condition."
A party animal
Flair's stamina outside the ring also was legendary. For years his real-life lifestyle matched that of his wrestling persona -- a limousine-riding, jet-flying party animal whom no one could keep up with.
"I did that for 18 years," says Flair. "As a matter of fact, one of our most legendary stays was at [Baltimore's] Inner Harbor Marriott. Man, we had a suite in the hotel and it was just a huge party. But I tried to quit that around '92. I had to slow down."
A Minneapolis native who has lived in Charlotte for the last 23 years, Flair says he began to cut back his schedule in 1989 because his priorities had changed.
"Physically, I could still wrestle 300 times a year, but mentally, I'd have a difficult time now," he said. "As much as I love wrestling, I'd rather be home with my wife and kids. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn't get to spend time with my older children."
Flair and Beth, his wife of 14 years, have two children, ages 9 and 11. He also has two children (ages 23 and 18) from a previous marriage.
For an aging wrestler to have the sort of clout Flair has at this stage of his career is unusual. In a sport where promoters decide nightly who wins and who loses, a wrestler's status is often tenuous.
Flair, who broke into wrestling in 1973 after playing college football for a year at the University of Minnesota, developed into a logical choice for world champion not only because of his colorful personality, but also because his bouts, even with lesser opponents, are almost always entertaining.
"I've always been able to bring the best out in every opponent I ever wrestled," he says.
Between 1981 and 1989, Flair "lost" his world title several times, mainly to build interest for the inevitable rematch, in which he would regain it. As wrestling grew in popularity during the 1980s, Hulk Hogan, then champion of the rival World Wrestling Federation, was more of a household name, but Flair was widely regarded as the best in the business.
In 1990, when Flair was 41 -- still not old by wrestling standards -- the WCW brain trust decided it was time for a younger champion. But when his successor proved to be a less-than-popular champ, the title went back to Flair.
A year later, though, promoters wanted Flair to give up the crown and take a pay cut. He refused, was fired and defected to the WWF.
The defection was major news in the wrestling world. Insiders say that Ted Turner's purchase of WCW only a few years before was contingent on Flair's staying with the organization.
"If Flair had gone to the WWF in 1988, wrestling as we know it would not exist," Meltzer said. "It would be a monopoly by [WWF owner] Vince McMahon."
Flair returned to WCW in 1993, and once again became its champ. But six months later, WCW also signed Hogan, and set up a showdown between the two stars billed as "The Match of the Century."
Given Hogan's higher profile with fans, the result was a foregone conclusion. Hogan kept the title through several rematches.
Still, fans wouldn't allow Flair to be sent to stud. He would return as WCW champ at the end of 1995 and again early in 1996.
"There have been guys who were as popular as Ric in their late 40s, but they were never put in a position where they put people over like Ric did, and remained over with the fans," says Meltzer. "It's surprising how many times his own company has tried to bury him that he can rise from the dead as many times as he has."
And it looks as if Flair is still far from done. He recently renewed his contract with WCW for three more years, though he may actually wrestle for just the next two.
"I will wrestle for as long as I want to, and as long as [the WCW and I] both are comfortable with what I'm doing," he says.
And when his wrestling days are over?
"I think that I will always have a place with Turner broadcasting," says Flair, who also owns eight Gold's Gyms in Charlotte. "I'd love to go that next step and be involved in the corporate structure of things."
Politics, especially in Charlotte, where he is a local celebrity, may be an option. He has been asked to run for mayor several times, and has actively campaigned for Republican candidates such as Sen. Jesse Helms and former President George Bush.
Whatever happens, Flair already knows that he wants to leave his sport the way he came in -- with flair.
"I'd like to come out to my music of '2001' in the year 2000. Of course, I'd have to beat Hulk Hogan with the figure-four," he said, chuckling. "I think that would be a good way to end it."
Pub Date: 12/29/97