To know the man, read ‘To Be the Man’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

From being born to unfit, unwed parents to a name known to millions of wrestling fans, from a hard-drinking partier to a dedicated family man, from almost dying in a plane crash as a youngster to becoming known as one of the hardest-working men in the sports entertainment world, Ric Flair has jammed several lifetimes into his decades in the business.

And now he’s become the latest professional wrestling superstar to put his life on paper, giving generations of fans the chance to know the man behind the performer. A legend in the wrestling world, Flair has worked with legends from Buddy Rogers to Chris Benoit, that made the Four Horsemen into one of the most well-known stables in history, and who overcame a multitude of injuries, political setbacks and his own self-doubts to carve out a career that continues every Monday night on TNN’s World Wrestling Entertainment program, &uot;Monday Night Raw.&uot;

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It’s all there for the reading in Flair’s recent autobiography, &uot;To Be The Man,&uot; a take-off on his quote, &uot;To be the man… you have to beat the man.&uot; That’s just one of the quotes Flair has made famous: &uot;You can like it, or not like it, but learn to love it, because it’s the best things around!&uot; and &uot;Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat,&uot; are the top trademarks of the self-proclaimed &uot;stylin’, profilin’, jet-flyin’, limosine-ridin’, dirtiest player in the game.&uot;

But, of course, that’s not who Flair is – and his beginnings could hardly foreshadow the extroverted, yellow-backed performer that we’d all love to hate.

Adopted through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society back in 1949 (Flair doesn’t even know his real birth name), the youngster re-monikered Richard Morgan Fliehr was raised outside Minneapolis – until, after repeated trips down the lane of juvenile delinquency, he was sent to a boarding school in Wisconsin. But Flair’s high-partying ways continued until he dropped out of the University of Minnesota, and ran into long-ago wrestling superstar Ken Patera.

Soon, Flair was training with American Wrestling Association head honcho Verne Gagne, meeting Bill Watts, Superstar Billy Graham, Dusty Rhodes (Flair originally wanted to play Dusty’s little brother), and Andre the Giant. A 1975 plane crash killed the pilot and nearly forced Flair to retire, but it wasn’t even in his mind. He became the master of the one-hour draw (sometimes doing two in one day) and the figure-four leglock.

He helped the National Wrestling Alliance become a cornerstone in pro wrestling in the early to mid-1980s, then splashed onto the scene of the then-World Wrestling Federation is the early 1990s (like most wrestlers who have written anything in the last 10 years, Flair makes sure to point out how much more effectively-run the WWF was than the NWA). Then he went back to World Championship Wrestling – and the battles with his own self-confidence began, and these fights would go farther than anything that ever happened between the ropes.

Flair’s book isn’t 250 pages of self-serving sludge (like Hulk Hogan’s &uot;Hollywood Hulk Hogan&uot;), nor is it a tale of darkness that makes us wonder why on earth wrestlers do what they do (like Tom Billington’s &uot;Pure Dynamite&uot;).

Unfortunately, it’s also lacking in the lighthearted humor and attention-carrying storylines that helped Mick Foley’s books become the best-sellers they were. In front of the camera, Flair was a master of creating emotion, spellbinding the audience with his charisma. The book doesn’t really show that – it’s like the reader is sitting with Flair, listening to him talk in a very quiet, reserved manner, even when he is describes his hard-partying, life-in-overdrive way of living that cost him his first marriage. The descriptions of his ring battles don’t really come with the emotion that fans always felt while watching them, which leads us to believe that Flair might not have written these parts of the book himself.

Foley bragged of not using a ghostwriter, and his work, along with the fact that it was one of the first wrestling autobiographies written, ended up setting the trend by which all the other books would be judged. His stories of his past matches made readers feel as though they were sitting there watching them again. As much as Flair talks about the people that he worked with (he points out how underrated Ricky Morton was, for example), he doesn’t spend much time reliving the battles themselves. He also spends a long time blasting some wrestlers that fans have adored for years, like Bret Hart, Randy Savage and Foley himself, who Flair calls a glorified stuntman (remember, Foley may have bashed Flair in his own book, but he was blasting Flair for holding him down behind the scenes through political means, not as an in-ring performer).

It’s in the last chapters that the book will ring the most true for young wrestling fans, for Flair steps behind the scenes of WCW in a fashion that we’ve never before known.

Despite being perhaps the most talented in-ring performer in the game, he was repeatedly buried by the political games of Hogan, Eric Bischoff and Vince Russo. After spending so much time in the gym, dedicating himself to the sport, Flair almost quit, before the WWE’s purchase of WCW in 2001 gave him one last chance to go out a winner.

And that’s when we come down the final homestretch to inspiration and find out why Flair wrote the book. It’s because, after a decade of political excrement, he finally got his due. Someone backstage finally listened to the fans and gave them a real look at someone who carried so many federations for so long, and is still better than about 90 percent of all wrestlers today. Flair was pushed back up into the limelight, the main event, the big time that he always deserved.

&uot;In our business,&uot; Flair says, &uot;you’re only as good as your last match – unless you have a legacy. WWE has given my legacy back. WWE made me realize that I have the respect of my peers.

&uot;The fans are finally getting the Ric Flair they’ve paid to see – not an imitation of Ric Flair, not a Ric Flair who doesn’t want to be there, and not a Ric Flair who no one knows how to utilize.&uot;


Grade: B+