By Mike Mooneyham

May 25, 2003

For seven and a half minutes Monday night, Ric Flair made us believe.
He made us believe that a 54-year-old legend, with 31 years in the ring and 16 world titles to his credit, could overcome the odds and defeat a performer 20 years his junior and the reigning heavyweight champion. He took us back to a time when pro wrestling was built around issues, when angles had a payoff and, more importantly, when fans felt an intimate connection to this unique business.
That special kind of magic resurfaced Monday evening in Greenville, smack dab in the heart of Ric Flair country, where he has held court for three decades and watched the business evolve from rasslin’ to today’s brand of sports entertainment.
It could just as easily have been 1983 with Flair defending his world title against Dusty Rhodes, or 1993 with the Nature Boy putting his belt on the line against Sting. Twenty-two years after winning his first world championship, Flair found himself in the role of challenger Monday night in the Raw main event against Triple H, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, who as a teen-ager idolized Flair and studied his every move and mannerism. Now nearing the age of 34, Triple H (Paul Levesque) claims the enviable distinction of being perhaps the most powerful performer in the business, maintaining a strangehold on the title and preparing to marry into the family business.

Ric Flair

Ric Flair

But it was Ric Flair who dominated Monday’s show and for one special night transformed Raw into must-see TV. That it happened at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville made the event all the more special. Less than five years ago, in that very same building, Flair delivered what is regarded by many as the most memorable interview in pro wrestling history.

“It was real,” Flair declared that September evening, just months after being unceremoniously suspended and sued by then-WCW president Eric Bischoff. That night, before a sellout crowd of more than 16,000 fans chanting his name, Flair provided what may have been the single professional wrestling moment ever captured on film. It was a scene in which real life was played out in the most unlikely of places – a pro wrestling ring.

He proved last Monday night that lightning can, indeed, strike twice. Flair flawlessly set the stage for the classic “teacher vs. student” confrontation, building toward the moment with just the right touches of drama and emotion. Backstage vignettes leading up to the match were classic textbook studies, with Flair confronting Triple H and telling him that never in his career did he need a night off and couldn’t wrestle, alluding to his managerial client’s request that he “lay down” and take a dive.
Jim Ross, whose announcing brilliance rises to the fore when he feels passionately about his subject, was excellent in the Gordon Solie role of conveying the significance and impact of the match. It’s doubtful there was a fan watching who didn’t expect the Nature Boy to pull off the upset as he displayed yet again that there’s still plenty of gas left in the tank, while reminding everyone why he was the greatest of all time.

The Nature Boy worked his magic once more Monday night, but grim reality set in at the seven-and-a-half-minute mark when Triple H scored the crowd-deflating pinfall, spoiling an otherwise brilliant story. It can easily be argued that Flair should have been given the title win. An angle as strong and compelling as the one Monday night could have developed into a storyline that would have ensured fan interest and solid ratings for the immediate future. There is little interest in a Triple H-Kevin Nash rematch, especially since it’s no secret that the Game is just keeping the title warm until he hands it over to Bill Goldberg at Summer Slam. Flair’s position can only be strengthened by last week’s performance; although the two-hour Raw dropped to a 3.6 rating, the final segment with Flair and Triple H drew a 4.4, by far the highest number of the night.

The real highlight of the evening, however, would come moments after the show ended and the live cameras stopped rolling. The locker room cleared and the wrestlers hit the ring to pay tribute to the man considered the greatest performer in the history of the business. With the entire crowd on its feet, Shawn Michaels, Stephanie, Shane and Vince McMahon all came out individually to hug and give props to the Nature Boy. Steve Austin saluted him with a case of beer, followed by Triple H, who embraced his mentor, placed the world title belt on Flair’s shoulder and raised his arm. Then it was time for the crew to hoist the mat icon up on their shoulders and carry him around the ring.

The emotion-packed tribute moved Flair, as well as many of his colleagues, to tears. With the crowd demanding a speech, the Nature Boy obliged, acknowledging that he made many special memories in Greenville, where he wrestled every Monday night at the old Greenville Auditorium for many years.

The emotion of the evening was not lost on Canadian star Lance Storm, who later wrote on his Web site that “it was moments like that and people like Ric Flair” that made him glad be became a professional wrestler.

“Ric gave an emotional promo that gave me goose bumps,” Storm wrote. “When Ric told Hunter that he’d been in a 1,000 matches like that, and never once said he couldn’t wrestle, Ric Flair owned that arena. Ric bumped and chopped his way into all of our hearts one more time. Giving him a standing ovation and the respect he deserves just seemed right. There were no more heels or babyfaces, there was just an arena full of people who love Ric Flair and what he means to this industry. Everyone from Vince McMahon all the way down to the guys who wrestled the dark matches that night, stood in the ring and toasted the Nature Boy. It was one of those emotional moments that you never know when, or if, they will happen again.”

– Henry Marcus, who put Charleston and Columbia on the wrestling map during his half century as a promoter, celebrated his 92nd birthday on Wednesday. Marcus, who made the phrase “Hold your own ticket!” a lasting memory for more than one generation of wrestling fans, resides in Sumter.

– Ultimo Dragon (Yoshihiro Asai) has signed a contract with WWE and should be debuting soon. Asai was one of WCW’s top light-heavyweight wrestlers until being forced to retire in 1998 when a tendon in his arm was accidentally cut during surgery.

– Top matches for next month’s Raw brand Bad Blood pay-per-view in Houston look to be Triple H defending his WWE Raw title against Kevin Nash, Bill Goldberg returning against Chris Jericho, Christian defending his new Intercontinental title against Booker T, and Scott Steiner squaring off with former partner Test.

One match that may be added and could be the show-stealer is Ric Flair vs. Shawn Michaels.

– Kurt Angle has been medically cleared to return to the ring. “I’m ready now, but we’re going to wait two weeks,” Angle told the WWE Web site last week. “I took about 30 bumps and I didn’t have any pain in my neck or head, which is a good sign. That made me feel better. I’ll get in the ring next week when I go to TV and iron out the kinks. I’m going to get a lot of practice at the house shows. I’m going to be working out before the house shows and before TVs. I’m going to go down to OVW. But it’s only been six weeks. I’m going to be a little bit sluggish, but I don’t think I’ll be too rusty. I’ll just take a few days and I’ll be fine.”

– “Dr. Death” Steve Williams was scheduled to work Raw house shows this weekend against Lance Storm.

– Hulk Hogan said in a recent radio interview that he has not spoken to Randy Savage since the death of Savage’s ex-wife, Liz Hulette, and that Savage has chosen to take the low road and not speak with him anymore. He also said that he felt true heat between himself and Shane McMahon, whose appearance at Wrestlemania at the side of beaten father Vince McMahon was totally unscripted, Hogan claimed.

– Sting (Steve Borden) and the WWE are still taking, but the wrestler told a New Zealand Web site that he hasn’t had any conversations with Vince McMahon in more than a year. An offer reportedly is on the table, but the ball is in Sting’s court. He said that he hasn’t shut the door and isn’t officially retired. Sting and his wife are currently developing a property in Southern California as a Christian retreat.

– Brooke Bollea, 15-year-old daughter of “Mr. America” Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea), is on the fast track to become a name in the entertainment business. For the past year she has been taking intense piano, voice and dance lessons, and has even attracted the attention of Orlando-based hit maker Lou Pearlman, the man behind such pop creations as the Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync and O-Town. “I want to start having concerts, people to know me, getting to the big time,” she recently told a Florida news station. “After he’s (Hogan) opened up the door, I have to walk through it and work my own magic.”