By Mike Mooneyham

Dec. 21, 2003

Diamonds are forever. And so, apparently, is “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.

Regarded by most wrestling historians as the greatest performer in the history of the business, Flair is as current today as he was 20 years ago when he defeated Harley Race for the NWA world title at the inaugural Starrcade in Greensboro, N.C. That the 31-year mat veteran will be turning 55 in February makes his accomplishments all the more amazing.

Last Sunday night Flair, who has held the world title more times than any performer in wrestling history, teamed with Batista (Dave Bautista) to win the WWE tag-team belts. With the victory he became the first wrestler in history to have won the NWA world tag-team title, the WWE world tag-team title, the NWA world heavyweight title and the WWE world heavyweight title.

Ric Flair

Ric Flair

Prior to his performance at Sunday night’s pay-per-view in Orlando, Fla., Flair spent five days with the Smackdown crew on a tour of South Korea, Singapore and Australia. Flair, who narrowly survived a plane crash 28 years ago in Wilmington, N.C., had another harrowing flight experience on the WWE tour when the company-chartered Boeing 757 encountered a blizzard on the way to South Korea and was forced to make an emergency landing in Russia to refuel. With the plane flying sideways due to severe turbulence and cross winds, the craft finally was able to land following two aborted attempts.

“I was sitting in the back and didn’t realize that the pilots were having an argument about how to land, recounts Flair. “We missed the runway twice. Most turbulence just knocks you up and down; this was the kind of turbulence that was tipping the plane sideways. That’s what scared me. And believe it or not, an hour later we took off in the same (weather). It was a brutal flight all the way around. We had to stop four times for fuel and couldn’t get off the plane until Hawaii. We were on the plane for almost 20 hours without being able to get off.”

Flair’s new WWE-produced DVD is sky-high in sales.

Since its recent release the three-set Ultimate Ric Flair Collection has become the hottest seller in company history, overshadowing even those of Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin. The disc already has been heralded as the greatest wrestling video ever made.

While Flair has taken on a more reserved, but certainly no less active, role in WWE over the past year, he continues to be a ratings draw and an inspiration to the entire crew. When he’s given the green light, he can still cut the most compelling promos in the business. If he were allowed, he could deliver those classic Flair moments every week of the year, but that would create a problem. There wouldn’t be anyone who could follow him. WWE management learned that early on, with one of the results being a temporary ban of his trademark “Whooo!”

That same management, however, is keenly aware of Flair’s value to the company. Triple H has patterned his ring persona after the Nature Boy. The Rock and Shawn Michaels idolize him. No less than Olympic gold medallist Kurt Angle calls Flair the greatest performer in the history of the business. WWE owner Vince McMahon considers his 2002 match with Flair at the Royal Rumble the most rewarding experience he’s spent in a wrestling ring.

And when he gets the chance, Flair can still conjure up some of that magic inside the squared circle. His match with Shawn Michaels on Dec. 12 at Madison Square Garden, the first-ever meeting between the two at the world’s most famous wrestling arena, tore the roof off the house, according to many in attendance. Like two old-school pros, Flair and Michaels had the crowd in the palm of their hands, bringing back for one night the emotion and passion that fans once had for the business.

Flair went straight from the Garden to Greensboro, N.C., on a six o’clock flight in order to attend son Reid’s high school wrestling meet. He returned at 9:30 p.m. after the all-day tournament, and got up at 7 a.m. to go to Orlando for the Armageddon pay-per-view, where he was featured on the show five times.

– Ric Flair will make a special local appearance at a South Carolina Stingrays game Jan. 10 at the North Charleston Coliseum.

– The newest WWE book to hit the shelves, “Unscripted,” is described as a lavishly illustrated tribute to the men and women who climb over the rope day-after-day for the roar of the crowd.

It’s that and much more.

“Unscripted” ($40, Pocket Books/WWE Books), edited by Ken Leiker and Mark Vancil, is a 240-page coffee-table gem that features hundreds of exclusive behind-the-scenes photos of WWE performers at home and at work. The book is from the creators of Michael Jordan’s best-selling “Rare Air: Michael on Michael” and “NBA at 50.”

Readers see “The Dead Man” cuddling with wife Sara at home, Billy Kidman and Torrie Wilson sharing some downtime on their sofa, and Triple H and Stephanie McMahon exchanging flirtatious looks backstage. There’s “Big Red Machine” Kane (Glen Jacobs), a former substitute schoolteacher who has a bachelor’s degree in English, sharing a special moment with a youngster. Shane McMahon and wife Marissa take a breezy stroll down a street in Manhattan.

Unlike the business that takes place inside the ring, the book’s photographs appear to be all unscripted, with the eye of the camera catching these unique characters in settings unfamiliar to most fans of the genre.

Not only is the photography stunningly vibrant, the text is refreshingly candid considering the book was written under the auspices of WWE. Fans should get a kick out the many interesting tidbits scattered throughout the book. Among them: Vince McMahon is a redneck – straight from the mouth of the silver-tongued Jim Ross.

“Contrary to what people may perceive, Vince is a North Carolina redneck,” Ross, an admitted “Oklahoma redneck,” declares. He goes on to relate a bit of McMahon’s early history: “He was raised in an eight-foot-wide trailer, his mom had multiple husbands, and the majority of them used to beat the hell out of Vince with wrenches and tools and belts and their fists. He’s the only person I’ve ever met that was court-martialed in military school as a kid.”

McMahon, who Ross says had WWE attitude before there was a WWE, reveals that he has a much stronger work ethic than his dad, promoter Vincent James McMahon, ever had.

“He did everything possible to keep me out of the business – and I did everything possible to get in … He wanted me to get a government job, be an attorney, be a professional, something with some security where I would have a ‘pension.’ But those weren’t my values at all. I think I was born to promote; the risk-taking element is exciting.”

There’s a whole chapter on the body, of course, and that includes the many body-piercings and tattoos of WWE performers such as The Rock, Brock Lesnar, Lita and The Undertaker. One of the more interesting designs is sported by Taker (Mark Callaway), who proudly displays his wife’s name, as a way of showing her how committed he was to her in their relationship.

Confiding that he doesn’t wear turtlenecks, Taker deadpans, “If something happens between us, I’ll just have to find another woman named Sara.”

Not surprisingly, Triple H (Paul Levesque) reveals that his favorite all-time wrestler is Ric Flair, “the guy I grew up loving and my dad grew up hating – we used to fight about that all the time. Flair was the consummate worker, always brought everybody to the next level, had the best matches. He had the entire package – the flamboyance, the personality, the charisma, plus his unparalleled work ethic.” Rounding out his top 10 are Buddy Rogers, Ricky Steamboat, Shawn Michaels, Ray Stevens, Nick Bockwinkel, Pat Patterson, Dory Funk Jr., Superstar Billy Graham and Arn Anderson.

Triple H conveys his passion for the business, a trait that has earned him the nicknames “The Game” and “The Cerebral Assassin,” and tells how he devours old wrestling tapes – not to look for moves, but to watch for the story the wrestlers told between the ropes, known as ring psychology. “The guys that make the most money in our business have never been the guys that do moonsaults and jump off the rope and do big dropkicks. It’s the guys that tell the best stories that are in the main events, that are on top. We tell guys that all the time, and it’s almost like the more we tell them, the more they try to go the other way.”

Shawn Michaels (Michael Hickenbottom) speaks openly about his religious convictions and his previous wild lifestyle. That all changed when his wife (former Nitro Girl “Whisper” Rebecca Curci) left a Bible and a book called “Straight Talk” by Christian psychologist Dr. James Dobson under the tree for him one Christmas.

“Everything that was once there in my life is gone, and it wasn’t even a struggle,” he says. “I was never really a drinker, but I haven’t touched a drink since … Once I realized that the Holy Spirit and God’s son are living in my body and that my soul is a temple, I won’t do anything to compromise my health.”

Eddie Guerrero also discusses his personal demons, admitting that he still has them but is learning to handle them. Painkillers and alcohol were his drugs of choice, and landed him in rehab and cost him his job.

“I have to look for spiritual strength to do it, because when I’ve tried to do it on my own, I can’t,” he says. “God has blessed me with 17 months, 18 when this one is over, of being sober and drug-free. I used to count by days, and then weeks. Now, I go by months, and I look forward to when I can go by years. I’m just thankful because I have today.”

“Unscripted” is an all-access pass that transports readers backstage and behind the scenes. It’s a real look at real people in what sometimes seems an unreal business. Their stories are funny, sad and everything in between. After you read this book, you’ll feel like you know these larger-than-life characters personally. At the very least, you’ll know what it feels like to be a WWE “superstar.”

– Brock Lesnar is scheduled to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his knee and elbow. Lesnar is expected to be back in time for a probable WWE Smackdown title defense against Bob Holly at the Royal Rumble in January.

– The regular Smackdown crew, minus Brock Lesnar but including Steve Austin, left Wednesday for Iraq. The trip will include a television taping for servicemen that airs Christmas night. Main event was scheduled to be Big Show vs. John Cena. The Smackdown crew will then be off until Dec. 30 when they return for an event in Laredo, Texas.

– This week’s Raw will be a best of 2003 show. Raw brand performers will have a two-week holiday vacation before returning to work for Raw on Dec. 29 in San Antonio, Texas.

– Raw’s rating last week slipped slightly to a 3.5. The Eagles-Dolphins Monday Night Football game this week was the third highest-rated game of the season. Smackdown did a 3.4 broadcast rating, down from last week’s 3.6.

– Shawn Michaels was honored Thursday by San Antonio mayor Edward Garza and members of the city council. Michaels, a San Antonio resident, was awarded a Certificate of Commendation at the city council meeting to recognize his efforts in organizing a major fundraiser for the families of soldiers killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Michaels spearheaded the initiative that raised $80,000 via autograph sessions with WWE performers this summer and fall at FYE stores around the country. The money went to the Armed Forces Family Scholarship and Assistance Fund, which provides scholarships for higher education of children of all fallen personnel in the war operations.

– Dennis “Mideon” Knight, who worked a dark match prior to Monday night’s live Raw, may return to WWE to play a character in the upcoming Undertaker-Kane feud.

– “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s name was mentioned during last week’s New Orleans Bowl game between North Texas and Memphis. Austin was named as a famous alum from North Texas State. No mention was made of Kevin Von Erich (Kevin Adkisson), son of late mat star Fritz Von Erich, or longtime Dallas-based wrestling announcer Bill Mercer.

– Among those we said goodbye to in 2003: The Wall (Jerry Tuite), Dec. 5, age 36; Joey Rossi (Joseph Rositano), Nov. 29, age 51; Moondog Spot (Larry Latham), Nov. 29, age 51; Dick Hutton, Nov. 24, age 80; Gentleman Ed Sharpe (Saul Baragiiola), Nov. 18; Crash Holly (Mike Lockwood), Nov. 6, age 32; “Pretty Boy” Floyd Creatchman (Floyd Creatchman), Oct. 25, age 46; Road Warrior Hawk (Mike Hegstrand), Oct. 19, age 36; Stu Hart, Oct. 16, age 88; Boris Volkoff (Frank Zela), Oct. 15, age 76; Pitbull No. 2 (Anthony Durante), Sept. 25, age 36; Babs Wingo (Marva Goodwin), Aug. 18, age 64; The Great Antonio (Antonio Barichievich), Sept. 7, age 77; Freddie Blassie, May 30, age 85; Miss Elizabeth (Liz Hulette), May 1, age 42; Kurt von Poppenheim, May 1, age 89; Bruiser Brian Cox, March 23, age 33; Sailor Art Thomas, March 20, age 79; Ray Mendoza (Jose Raymundo Diaz Velazquez), April 16, age 73; Tony Altimore, Feb. 18, age 74; Curt Hennig, Feb. 9, age 44; The Sheik (Ed Farhat), Jan. 19, age 76; and Ox Anderson (Don Anderson), Jan. 18, age 71.