An article by Mike Mooneyham
Published Aug. 30, 1998
Pro wrestling is hotter than ever, ratings have never been higher, but something is wrong. Terribly wrong.
Pro wrestling’s icon – a performer who has meant more to this generation than any other – has been removed from a landscape in which he has been “the man” for the past three decades.
Ric Flair, through no fault of his own, has been on the shelf since April. That’s when WCW boss Eric Bischoff banished him from WCW and threatened to sue him “into bankruptcy.” Why? For missing a hastily scheduled appearance on a TBS Thunder show that Flair found out about only three nights earlier while viewing Monday Nitro at his home, long after he had asked for that date off to watch his 10-year-old son compete in a national amateur wrestling tournament in Detroit.
To be blunt, Bischoff’s allegations hardly deserve a response. Ric Flair, the consummate professional, has been the most loyal employee that company has ever known. It’s the same company in which Hulk Hogan takes time off to make movies, Scott Hall is granted weeks off for his rehab stints, Kevin Nash calls in the day of a pay-per-view to cancel because he doesn’t want to do a job, and all these performers make more money and get bigger pushes than the 13-time world champion and the man regarded as the greatest pro wrestler of the modern era.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]The magnitude of this injustice is mind-boggling. Even more perplexing is the lack of response and involvement from higher-ups in the Turner organization. WCW is a company whose sphere of influence has increased dramatically just in the past year. It’s not just another wrestling promotion, in the traditional sense, but a company that produces one of the hottest properties on cable television, a Ted Turner-owned organization that should be governed by a higher set of rules and principles.
It’s certainly true that Eric Bischoff is president of the wrestling operation. But what about Dr. Harvey Schiller, esteemed Citadel graduate, ex-Southeastern Conference athletic commissioner, former director of the United States Olympic Committee, and current president of Turner Sports? A longtime military man, he’s certainly no stranger to controversy or taking charge, and this is a case in which a serious injustice is being carried out at will.
Better yet, where is Ted Turner is all of this? After all, it was Flair who helped make wrestling the top-rated television show on the cable TV pioneer’s SuperStation. Turner, whose original cable outlet was built around the Atlanta Braves and Georgia Championship Wrestling – with Flair as its flagship performer – is now the vice chairman and largest single shareholder of Time Warner Inc., the world’s biggest media and entertainment company. Nevertheless this situation should warrant his attention. Turner, if no one else, could put an immediate stop to this. Ric Flair has meant too much to that organization to dismiss his case as just “another contract dispute.”
It’s no secret that WCW is trying to prolong Flair’s return to wrestling, and he will return to wrestling, it’s just a matter of time. Perhaps the company underestimates his staying power, but the real losers in this scenario are the wrestling fans. For the past quarter century Ric Flair has represented what’s good about the sport of professional wrestling. Performers like Hulk Hogan are their own biggest fans. Hogan has mentioned on numerous occasions that he’s bigger than the business. Wrestling is merely a vehicle by which he’s able to achieve fame and fortune. For Ric Flair, wrestling is the greatest profession in the world, and he’s forever indebted to the sport for what it has given him. What he has given to the business is immeasurable.
It’s also no secret how Hogan and Bischoff feel about Flair. Hogan, despite his indelible mark on the profession, has always been envious of Flair’s immense and lasting popularity. Hogan has convinced Bischoff that he’s the reason behind WCW’s success, and that without him, WCW would immediately return to being the number two promotion in the country.
Although pro wrestling in general is booming, morale at WCW is low. There is a feeling of uneasiness among many WCW performers who see their positions in the company being compromised at the expense of a select group with a privileged connection to Bischoff. If Hogan wields the power to dispose of a legend such as Flair, where does anybody stand in the company? Perhaps Bill Goldberg, who has been labeled the future of WCW, would have wiser to have considered a one-year contract rather than the four-year deal he signed.
Hogan, behind the promotional machinery of WWF owner Vince McMahon, helped transform the business in the mid-’80s. Bischoff, who has built WCW around Hogan, made the decision to downplay Flair and remove him from any position of power in the company. Hogan is the highest-paid performer in the industry and a master manipulator who has strategically neutralized any threats to his position. But he has never been able to erase the memory of Flair, who as a heel or a babyface, has captured the hearts of a generation of fans.
The reason is simple. Ric Flair is loved, adored and admired by the wrestling public. To many of those fans, he’s not bigger than pro wrestling, he is pro wrestling. Few wrestlers in the history of professional wrestling have meant more to the business than Ric Flair. No one has worked harder. Although he migrated to Charlotte from Minnesota nearly 25 years ago, Ric Flair is truly a Southern phenomenon, not unlike Elvis, and his character has become a part of the culture. The word “icon” is loosely used in many circles, but it’s no exaggeration in the case of the “Nature Boy.”
It takes a lot of guts to stand up for what you believe. Ric Flair has plenty of guts. He finally said no to a management that wanted him to play second fiddle to Hulk Hogan and every other WCW superstar whose exorbitant salary needs justifying. WCW – namely Bischoff and Hogan – wanted Flair to job his legacy right out of existence. Yet it had been Flair who had followed the company line more than any other performer. He put over Hogan, Bret Hart, Roddy Piper, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and any other megastar whose career needed a boost at the expense of Ric Flair. At the insistence of his company, which ultimately never reciprocated for the loyalty Flair had shown, he even went on national television to proclaim Hart as “the best there was, the best there is and the best there ever will be,” a move that hurt Flair personally but hurt his legion of fans even more. Those same fans may remember that Hart barely acknowledged Flair’s forced declaration. Hart, who had been exiled from another company for being the antithesis of Ric Flair, ironically had once called Flair the most overrated wrestler in the business.
WCW mostly likely would be more than willing to take him back, but Flair is not comfortable with allowing his legend to be tarnished any more than it already has. If he returns, he wants to come back as “champ,” not “chump,” as WCW has less-than-subtlely portrayed him the past couple of years.
Meanwhile the company wants to string out the litigation and financially bleed him. Flair, feeling the crunch of fighting a very expensive lawsuit, reportedly has already spent more than a hundred thousand dollars waging his legal battle against the seemingly unlimited financial resources of the Turner outfit.
This situation has gone on far too long. It’s time for someone to intervene and for reasonable heads to prevail. There are many questions that need to be answered.
It’s not too late for Eric Bischoff to do the right thing and make things right with Ric Flair. Nothing would bolster Bischoff’s approval rating more than sending Flair a sincere message of apology along with an ironclad guarantee that his future at WCW would be a reflection of his worth to the industry. It was never about money. It was about respect. Sometimes money can’t buy that.
Ric Flair deserves better. Pro wrestling deserves better.