Instinctively, you watch from the seats, and you can’t help but grow concerned. Heck, you’re trying not to be terrified.
Here’s this 73-year-old icon who stepped off pro wrestling’s Mount Rushmore and into a ring in Nashville, bringing a pacemaker and a history of serious health scares and now he’s not moving. As the melee continues, you’re still eyeing the ropes to make sure Ric Flair gets up from underneath.
It’s all just part of the show, right?
Right. Minutes pass before he crawls far enough to extend an arm across a lifeless opponent. But this being pro wrestling, the referee has been knocked out, of course. There is no one to count to three.
Spoiler: It works out. A new referee sprints out and is authorized to officially close a legendary career in glory. Purple confetti – see, Flair was wearing purple – sails through a raucous Municipal Auditorium. Flair, face bloodied earlier during a nasty sequence outside the ring, is honored by family and friends. He walks off and blows kisses to an adoring public and then exits, bound for Kid Rock’s bar, he tells the crowd.
One more time, with feeling:
Only one Nature Boy
Nashville got lucky. There’s only one Ric Flair, y’all, and on Sunday night and the days before, he treated this city to a slice of history.
The Nature Boy promised this would be his “last match” – a tag-team affair meant to both feature and safeguard a legend who nearly died five years ago. That wasn’t necessarily a great idea, but the limelight is tough to relinquish.
"Everybody says, 'When does that ever get old?’ ” Flair said. “It doesn't get old. I mean, that's the honest-to-God truth. I love the people's respect, and that's all I get these days. In the old days, we had to fight for respect."
A personal admission: I’m not a wrestling guy.
I haven’t followed this closely since I was a pre-teen. Of the WWE wrestlers at Saturday night’s Summerslam at Nissan Stadium, I might have known a few names.
Knew all about Flair, though. Who doesn’t?
When he spoke to the Tennessee Titans after practice on Thursday, famous NFL players – as well as their steely coach, Mike Vrabel – briefly reverted into adolescence at Flair’s presence. These are men who don't get starstruck.
“It’s kind of surreal to meet people like him.” Running back Derrick Henry said that, acknowledging the difference between his own celebrity and someone like Flair.
The wrestler talked to the Titans about family and distractions and how “you blink and a long career is over,” said Vrabel. “I don’t know how you couldn’t be (a fan of Flair).”
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The visit to Saint Thomas Sports Park was clearly designed to promote Sunday’s match, but Flair made a solid point.
“There's nobody from the WWE here,” Flair said. “I'm here. And the WWE is in town. So that's a big deal for me. Nothing against the WWE, but I'm the guy that coach invited over. Don't think that everybody in WWE wouldn't want to be here.”
Some shade perhaps, though it’s hard to believe there’d be much offense taken on the WWE side.
“I mean, it’s Ric Flair,” Titans linebacker Zach Cunningham said.
Exactly. What else needs to be said?
An authentic legend
The line between sports and entertainment gets blurred with pro wrestling. But we all know that it’s a performance. The athletes are certainly athletes, but their work is choreographed and scripted.
Here’s what made Flair special: There’s never been anything fake about him.
When pro wrestling took off in the 1980s and early 1990s, it seemed everyone – even its top performers – had a gimmick. They wore elaborate costumes and used props and were basically cast as a character, some more cartoonish than others.
Hulkamania was wrapped in an American flag. Rowdy Roddy Piper carried bagpipes. Jake Roberts had a snake. Even “Macho Man” Randy Savage had Miss Elizabeth.
But Flair was Flair. No gimmick. The Nature Boy grew pro wrestling and built his own unmatched popularity on one thing: His swagger. In a realm geared mostly toward a blue-collar clientele, Flair went out of his way to brag about wealth and status, his sex appeal and his flamboyant lifestyle. Then he went and did it.
"Nature Boy was my wrestling character. The Nature Boy wasn't fake. The Nature Boy was me,” Flair said during the film “Nature Boy,” an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary. “… If I said it on TV, I did it. I lived my gimmick.”
By God, you believe him, too. That authenticity was different. It's how a “bad guy” attained unprecedented popularity and a pop culture impact that persists to this day.
Flair wasn’t the heel Sunday, obviously. A delightful prematch storyline – Flair had been accosted in a parking lot by Nashville-area native Jeff Jarrett (himself no youngster at age 55) – built the drama. From the moment Flair arrived in his standard, showy robe, onlookers were firmly backing him and his wrestling son-in-law partner. After it ended, grown men shed tears.
It might not have been real.
But there wasn’t much fake about the risk of an old man putting himself through such an ordeal. That’s what made this tribute so enticing for thousands who’ll always remember the excitement and emotion of being there in person.
So much about it was human. And genuine.
And showy. And fun.
And oh, so fitting.
The Nature Boy surely would have had it no other way.
Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at email@example.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Ric Flair's final wrestling match was oddly authentic, much like him