How Ric Flair helped invent modern sports
The 16 time world champion is currently in recovery after a bout of recent surgeries. Here’s how the “Dirtiest Player in the Game” help bring about the hype and bluster of modern sports.
One summer in the 1961, a young boxer wanted to get tips on how to improve his game. The boxer, already an Olympic gold medalist, ended up in Las Vegas to fight a man called Duke Sabedong. It was the seventh fight the boxer’s professional career, and while he had all the makings of one day becoming a world champion, he was still missing that certain special something to take him to the next level.
The boxer would eventually become Muhammad Ali: he went on to defeated Duke Sabedong on June 26 1961 comfortably on points after ten rounds. The certain special something he found to take him to the next level was professional wrestling.
In the same fight weekend of Ali (then Cassius Clay) vs Sabedong, a professional wrestler called Gorgeous George was in town for a match against “Classy” Freddie Blassie. George and Muhammad Ali met that weekend for the pre and post media rounds of Ali’s fight, and their interactions set off a lightbulb in the the future heavyweight boxing champions head.
“I saw his [George’s] aides spraying deodorant in the opponent’s’ corner to contain the smell. I also saw 13,000 full seats. I talked with Gorgeous for five minutes after the match and started being a big-mouth and a bragger.
“He told me people would come to see me get beat. Others would come to see me win. I’d get ’em coming and going.”
And so professional wrestling helped birth the branding of modern sport.
Sport as we know it needs heroes and villains. It’s all well and good having a few talented athletes out there doing some impressive things with a ball/bat/boxing gloves, but to truly grab the populace, there has to be a storyline. And there are few narrative more relatable than “humble good guy needs to defeat shit-talking bad guy, David vs. Goliath style”. As such, more and more sports stars have positioned themselves as baddies in order to bring eyeballs and money to their sport.
Or as Gorgeous George told Ali in 1961, “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.”
Gorgeous George was good at bragging. Muhammad Ali was great. But no one, no one, is as good as flipping shit-talking into money-making in sport as one Richard Morgan Fliehr. Or as you might know him: Ric Flair.
Professional wrestling has always lived at an unusual intersection of sport, soap opera and stunt work. With match endings predetermined, wrestling at its best is always about the journey to sporting catharsis. Football fans get their dose of dopamine after their team wins. Once you know who wins the World Cup, you can go backwards and spin the narrative of how they did it. In wrestling, most fans know the hero will (probably win) the big prize at the biggest event of the year, so it’s all about creative narratives that make you forget that.
“The money is in the chase” is a common wrestling idiom. And there was no one better at getting in money than Ric Flair.
Starting out in 1972, Ric Flair took elements from Gorgeous George and Muhammad Ali and ran amok with them. Following a serious plane crash in 1975, Flair completely revamped his power brawling wrestling style (think Stone Cold) into the methodical, dramatic style wrestling fans remember him for today. Following feud with classic wrestler Buddy Rodgers in 1978 feud, Flair perfected his persona and became The Nature Boy, the prototype for all modern sporting bad guys.
A bleached blonde, extravagantly dressed villain, Flair perfected the outlandish and extravagant figure you love to hate. He’d talk about driving the finest cars, flying on private jets, having access to the best clothing and jewellry and going home to the most beautiful women. He constantly punctuated his points with a “Woo!” had would laugh in his opponent’s faces while beating them. And if he couldn’t beat them, he’d cheat, distracting referees, using weapons and hitting them in the crotch when things got too hairy. Ric Flair was better than you, until he wasn’t and then he’d be smarter than you. He was the Dirtiest Player In The Game and racked up 16 wrestling titles on his way to the top of the mountain.
Flair’s constant use of extravagance to excess created professional wrestling most captivating figure. As he repeated over and over again “To be the Man, you gotta beat the Man”, and so it became the wider mantra of professional wrestling, and sport in general.
Sports fans like to root for the underdog, Flair positioned himself in such a manner than identifying the “goodie” was child’s play. To really hammer home his “I’m better than you” style, in 1985 he teamed up with wrestlers Arn Anderson, Ole Anderson and Tully Blanchard to form a group known as “The Four Horsemen” — Flair gave himself three nasty fighters that good guys like Dusty Rhodes and Ricky Steamboat would have to defeat before they could face Flair. Flair understood great sport was about the journey, so added as many twists and turns and red herrings to his tale to keep fans hooked.
Retiring in 2008 *does the Michael Jordan Washington Wizards handwave*, Ric Flair’s style and persona has reverberated through modern for the best part of 30 years. As sport’s Id made flesh, he is there any time someone is described as a “Bad Boy”. He is there any time an athlete does something motivated by monetary rather than “moral” motivations. He is there in every outlandish tattoo or hairstyle that gets tongues wagging and articles written. He is there in basically anything Sergio Ramos does. He is there in any athlete who attends a press conference and is then described as using “mind games”. Here is there when Conor McGregor says “These custom-made suits aren’t cheap. This solid gold pocket watch, three people died making this watch. I need to put people away. I need those big fights. I’m going to end up in debt pretty fast.” He’s there when Floyd Mayweather chucks a bunch $100 bills about and calls himself the leader of The Money Team.
He’ll be there this weekend as the two face off, about to have the biggest boxing match of the year, purely because of hype artifice and bluster.
Ric Flair is there, tongue wedged firmly in his cheek, styling and profiling and laughing as we all get scared of the sporting villain, yet still tune in to watch their defeat.