Jul 27, 2022
Marc RaimondiESPN Staff Writer
TAMPA, Fla. — Ric Flair stepped between the ropes and into the ring at The Wrestling Lab three weeks ago. The pro-wrestling legend had been doing private workouts with his trainer, Jay Lethal, for several months. But on that early July day, Flair and Lethal had a visitor at the St. Petersburg, Florida, gym.
Charlotte, Flair’s WWE star daughter, was in attendance ringside to watch her 73-year-old father go through the paces. At one point, Lethal called for Flair to do a “blow-up drill” — an exercise designed to test a wrestler’s cardio and respiratory system. Flair was told to run the ropes, hitting each of them 10 times each, and then lay down on the mat and get up quickly (and technically) 10 times.
Flair was five years removed from being on life support for two weeks and intensive care for a month, the result of several devastating health issues. He told ESPN he was given about a 15% chance to survive. A year after that, he underwent four heart surgeries and had a pacemaker installed.
Flair told Lethal that he would do the drill, only with double the reps. Charlotte was watching, after all.
“He was pushing so hard for me,” Charlotte told ESPN. “I didn’t know whether to cry or be happy.”
Charlotte knows the blow-up drill well. It’s the same exercise trainers at the WWE Performance Center have their young wrestlers execute. But in many cases, those are wrestlers in their early 20s, fresh off Division I college athletic teams or experiences in other wrestling schools across the country.
Charlotte watched her septuagenarian father execute the drill flawlessly.
“That was very much a ‘Rocky’ moment, seeing my dad like that, pushing so hard,” Charlotte said. “To do what he was doing and to know the wind that it takes and the conditioning and him going at it, I was just like blown away. It was mind over matter.”
Flair is one of the greatest wrestlers in the history of the profession, a man whose fame has transcended the business from the 1970s to today, when he is still featured in the music videos of hip-hop artists. He is a former 16-time world champion and two-time WWE Hall of Famer; was the leader of the influential Four Horsemen faction; and his classic matches and work on the microphone are lauded as iconic for any generation. Flair’s style and swagger, complete with expensive suits, robes, eye-catching jewelry and crocodile-skin shoes, have been emulated well beyond the wrestling world.
On Sunday, Flair will perform in what he says will be his last match and his first one since 2011. Flair will team up with his son-in-law, Charlotte’s husband, Andrade El Idolo, to take on Lethal and Jeff Jarrett, a wrestling legend in his own right, in the tag team main event of an independent card in Nashville.
For the past three months, Flair has been preparing for the match in Tampa with Lethal and his strength and conditioning coach, Rob MacIntyre. Flair, healthy now, believes he was gifted a new chance at life and for him, this match is another opportunity: to depart pro wrestling, the business he left an indelible mark on, on his own terms. Why does he want to do it?
“Ego and glory,” Flair said, explaining his motivations. “And family.”
The challenge now for those around him is to make sure Flair, whose real name is Richard Fliehr, doesn’t push his 73-year-old body past its limits, which has been no easy task.
“He just has to go out there and do what’s called ‘the greatest hits’ — strut, ‘Woooo!,’ chop someone,” Lethal said. “And the people would be OK with that. But that wouldn’t be OK with him. So, you’re gonna see him attempt and deliver on a Level 10 match. Whatever he can bring, he will bring. “
FLAIR HAS LONG been known for his hard-partying ways. Nightlife is part of the “Nature Boy” persona and that has not ceased even in his 70s. But those around him saw him deteriorate with regard to alcohol use and mental health after Flair’s son Reid died in 2013 at the age of 25 from a drug overdose. Flair found Reid deceased in a North Carolina hotel room. At the time, Flair was also dealing with the end of his in-ring WWE career and a divorce. Those around him believe these things all led up to Flair’s major health issues later in the decade.
“I think that was his biggest trigger,” Charlotte said of her brother’s death. “I don’t really like the word self-medicate. I think he was masking or trying to feel numb from the pain with however he was doing that. It was just a downward spiral.
“He found my brother. Imagine finding your son dead in a hotel room. It’s easy for people to say he has a problem. Yes, he also found his child dead. That haunts you for the rest of your life.”
In 2017, Flair suffered a totally ruptured intestine, total kidney failure and became septic with his body fighting off infection. That led to respiratory heart failure and pneumonia, he said. He said he has no memory of six months of his life during that time and had to learn to walk again through rehab. A year later, Flair had four heart surgeries in a span of seven weeks and doctors installed a pacemaker, which helps him regulate the rhythm of his heart.
“There comes a time when they put you under, you never know if you’re gonna wake up,” Flair said. “Every time, I’ve woken up.”
Flair said he’s spoken to about 15 doctors about this comeback match and most have told him something like, “Oh, Jesus. Do you have to?” To which Flair said he replies that he does. His favorite doctor, though, has cleared him, which Flair said is all he needs.
“No,” Flair said on whether he has concerns regarding his health. “But I’ve been dead. Fourteen days. Life support.”
His pacemaker, Flair said, doesn’t have a defibrillator, so that won’t affect him with a jolt during the match. He did say that the pacemaker could become unplugged on a bump in the ring, but it wouldn’t be difficult to fix it afterward and “it wouldn’t kill me.”
MacIntyre joked that he has asked Flair for his doctor’s phone number on several occasions, but he “finds a way not to give it to me.” Flair is also dealing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, which has been addressed with a cortisone shot. But Flair’s family and those around him aren’t concerned about his health. Their feeling is that even at his current age, Flair knows his way around the wrestling ring better than anyone and he is safe there.
“From an outsider looking in, it doesn’t look like the best idea,” MacIntyre said. “But that’s like saying to Michael Jordan, ‘It’s not a good idea to shoot some hoops or play some basketball.’ I think Michael Jordan knows better than I do. There’s that thing like, if there’s any professional out there, it’s this guy. If there’s any world he knows, it’s the ring.”
CONRAD THOMPSON IS married to Flair’s daughter Megan. He’s a mortgage broker by trade, but he’s better known in the pro-wrestling world as the founder of the most popular podcast network in the industry. Thompson has also run several wrestling conventions over the past three years, bringing legends, current-day stars and podcasters together under one roof for events, stage shows and autograph signings.
Though he vowed to be done with putting together his convention, called Starrcast, Thompson saw there was an opening during WWE SummerSlam weekend in Nashville. WWE didn’t plan on running its own tertiary expo, which it had typically done during past major events, and SummerSlam was slated for Saturday, July 30. It left a free Sunday with fans in town and no WWE events on the docket.
In May 2019, Thompson had scheduled a comedic roast of Flair for his second Starrcast. But Flair was ill that week and it had to be canceled. With Flair healthy and a ripe date on the calendar piggybacking off a major WWE show that would bring tens of thousands of people to Nashville, Thompson saw an opportunity to do one more Starrcast, headlined by the Flair roast.
Starrcast never featured live wrestling cards before, but again Thompson felt there would be enough fans in the city to run some actual in-ring shows. When chatting with his friend David Crockett, a longtime former wrestling executive and broadcaster, the idea came about to run a show under the Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) banner, an homage to Crockett’s father and the classic promotion that went on to become WCW.
That’s when another thought popped into Thompson’s head. There was one wrestler synonymous with Jim Crockett Promotions, from the 1970s into the 1990s: his father-in-law.
“I’ve known Ric for nine years now and every few months whenever we’re hanging out or having a few beers, in our just spare, free time, he would just occasionally say, you know, ‘What if?’ and would kind of freestyle [the idea of] one more match,” Thompson said.
In early April, Thompson made the call and the pitch to Flair: Would you come back for one more match, headlining a JCP show in Nashville?
“I barely got the sentence out of my mouth before Ric goes, ‘Let’s do it,'” Thompson said. “And I kind of expected that.”
BOTH THOMPSON AND MACINTYRE said Flair had brought up the idea of doing one more match before, but Flair said he wasn’t serious about it until he got the call from Thompson. Just a few days prior, Flair watched WrestleMania 38, which featured matches involving 57-year-old “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and a 76-year-old, now former WWE CEO and chairman Vince McMahon. Flair said it helped get him the itch again.
“I still didn’t think about wrestling, but I really enjoyed watching that,” Flair said. “Steve came out and did a lot more than I thought he would do. Austin competes. That’s what makes him who he is. And Vince? What can I say about Vince? He’s the most competitive guy in the world.”
Competition is exactly how Flair is looking at this. In his mind, he has been competing with himself in the training room. He had already been doing strength and conditioning for a year with MacIntyre, who also trains the likes of John Cena. But after committing to a final match, Flair reached out to Lethal, who wrestles for AEW, has a history with Flair from the TNA promotion a decade ago and teaches at a wrestling school in the area.
Since mid-April, Flair has been training four times per week. He’ll leave his Tampa home and head to MacIntyre’s Hard Nocks South gym in Land O’Lakes to get stretched out and pushed physically, and then head to St. Petersburg to jump into the ring with Lethal right after.
MacIntyre said he’ll stretch Flair out to start the session. Then Flair will spend some time on a bike or a rowing machine, with workouts focused either on short bursts or endurance. After that, Flair will lift some light weights in a circuit routine and engage in neck-strengthening exercises. If Flair is feeling really good, MacIntyre said, they’ll go outside and Flair will do work on the battle ropes and push a weighted sled. Every workout ends “Ric Flair style,” the trainer said, with 100 crunches and sometimes 100 squats, based on the workouts Flair did as a young wrestler. “I have to hold him back,” MacIntyre said. “That’s the case with a lot of athletes, but especially with him.”
Lethal has had the same challenge. In the ring, Lethal said he has Flair run the ropes (and jump over lethal while running) and do the blow-up drills. They have also done some chain wrestling, lockups and other fairly basic moves. But Flair, Lethal said, keeps wanting to push the envelope. Lethal called Flair’s will and determination inspiring, even though he sometimes has to rein in the legend.
“Sometimes he’d want a private [workout] in the morning and he’d wake up before me,” Lethal said. “I’d look at my phone and I’ve got a voicemail. ‘Wake up, m—–f—er. I want to get in the ring. Suplex me off the top.’ I’m like, ‘What?!’ And that’s the end of the message.
“One of the first things he wanted to do was a suplex off the top or a clothesline over the top to the outside. I’m terrified. I’m like, ‘Why do you need to do that?'”
Talking Flair out of these ideas hasn’t been easy, Lethal said. But the one person who was able to get through to him was Charlotte. She said at one point her father wanted to do a dive during the final match — from the top rope to outside the ring — and she had to put her foot down.
“A lot of our men and women in all companies miss those all the time,” said Charlotte, whose real name is Ashley Fliehr. “I was like, ‘No, not needed, not necessary. Wasn’t necessary in your prime, isn’t necessary now. So, no.'”
Charlotte said she’ll be in attendance for the match and is not worried at all about her father, especially since her husband, Andrade, will be there for him as his tag team partner.
“Are we gonna see a Kenny Omega, Ricky Steamboat, Shawn Michaels type match?” Thompson said on what type of match Flair could deliver. “No. But we’re gonna tell a story, we’re gonna have some fun. And I can’t think of a better partner for him to have than Andrade.”
Lethal isn’t so sure. He said he feels like Flair is going to push hard to perform at the highest level he possibly can and he has some minor worries about overexertion.
“I’m very nervous, because I’ve got to perform,” Flair said. “I need to walk out to the ring and be regular. I have to do some stuff I used to be able to do.”
FLAIR HAD A COLD. It was July 14, just over two weeks until the match. Flair had to skip training with Lethal and MacIntyre that day, which frustrated him. The clock was ticking and, though confident of his conditioning and ability after three months of training in the ring with Lethal, he was hoping to turn up the pace even more in the final few days.
“As a matter of fact, I’m not even going to drink today or until I get better,” Flair said. “That’s a big f—ing deal. I’m not going over to the bar.”
The following week, Flair was feeling better and back in training. It’s hard to keep him down for very long, a constant pattern over the course of his life. In 1975, Flair survived a plane crash that nearly ended his wrestling career. His umbrella was struck by lightning in 1982, with the bolt ricocheting and killing a man behind him. Then, of course, there were the serious health scares of 2017 and 2018.
“God gave me a gift,” Flair said. “I almost feel like He wants me to do this [last match]. Why bring me back from so much?”
Flair said he lost his confidence in wrestling when WCW executives told him that they were going to phase him out in the late 1990s. He had what was supposed to be a final run in WWE, culminating in an excellent retirement match against Michaels at WrestleMania 24 in 2008. But Flair ended up doing 16 more matches after that, mostly with TNA.
“I think everybody agrees in a perfect world, he wouldn’t have wrestled after WrestleMania 24,” Thompson said. “But the reality is, he did. And now if he can sort of put his hands on the steering wheel and take control and say, ‘This is how I want to finish it, this is how I want to end it,’ I think that’s a great story.
“He’s lived a pretty hard life, this Richard Fliehr. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him wanting to be Ric Flair one last time.”
This is pro wrestling, after all, so there is a storyline accompanying Flair’s last match, which has been told through high-quality, cinematic videos on the Starrcast website. In the story, Lethal is furious at Flair for not including him on the card after Lethal took the time to train him. Jarrett has decades of history with Flair and was equally mad at Flair, in the story, because he didn’t have a place on the card in Nashville, Jarrett’s hometown where Jarrett and his father Jerry helped put pro wrestling on the map. Andrade, an AEW wrestler, is joining Flair as backup.
“Trust is a big word in the wrestling business,” Flair said of the importance of his partners and opponents. “You’re going upside down and s— like that.”
Thompson described Flair as “polarizing” to many. He’s had his fair share of controversies, including allegations that resurfaced last year in a documentary about inappropriate behavior by him and other wrestlers on a WWE flight in 2002, a civil case that was settled out of court in 2004.
But Flair still resonates with today’s generation, recently being featured in music videos by popular recording artists like Bad Bunny. The song “Ric Flair Drip” by the rapper Offset was a massive hit in 2017. Flair’s 1985 wrestling promo about wearing Rolexes and riding in limousines is one of the most oft-repeated to this day. Flair also inspired many of his successors in wrestling, including Lethal.
“He’s literally my idol,” Lethal said. “[Training with him] is like capturing lightning in a bottle. A dream come true is an understatement. I’m in awe.”
Lethal said he’s never asked Flair why he wanted to come back and do one more match. He doesn’t think he needs to.
“They don’t understand Ric,” Lethal said. “They don’t understand what it’s like to be a wrestler. Once you get in the wrestling business, you never leave. Once you’ve had a match, there’s nothing like it.
“I believe that a lot of wrestlers get addicted to drugs and stuff looking for some type of high that simulates being in the ring and having people cheering your name and want to reach out and touch you. There’s nothing in the world like that.”
When Flair pictures the match, he sees a sold-out Nashville Municipal Auditorium with more than 9,000 people in attendance. But more than that, he sees his family in the front row, cheering him on. Flair beamed when asked how Charlotte reacted when he told her he’d be wrestling again. Flair adores his daughter as a person and thinks the world of her as a performer.
“[She said,] ‘I’m proud of you, Dad,'” Flair said, getting emotional. “How big is that, right?”
Some of those family members, such as his grandchildren, have never seen Flair perform in the ring before. But they will be able to Sunday.
One last time.
“It’ll be part of my life forever,” Flair said of wrestling. “Some people could walk away from it. I wasn’t one who could.”