By Mike Mooneyham

July 4, 2004

Ask a baseball historian to name the greatest player who ever graced the diamond, and chances are Babe Ruth will be a topic of conversation. Talk to basketball experts about their respective sport, and Michael Jordan’s name will be mentioned more often than not.

Ask a professional wrestling authority, and you’re likely to elicit a smile and a “Woooo!”

Perhaps it was Jim Ross who best captured Ric Flair’s essense while describing a match during Starrcade ’88. “If wrestling can be considered an art form, then (Ric Flair) is using oils and the many others merely watercolors.”

“Nature Boy” Ric Flair, who has magically made time stand still during an unparalleled 32-year career that seemingly has no end, talks about his life in a new autobiography due to hit bookshelves Tuesday. It’s a fascinating read and an amazing look at a performer who truly lived his gimmick as the “limousine-riding, jet-flying, wheeling, dealing, kiss-stealing son of a gun.”

Ric Flair

Ric Flair

Even more amazing is that Flair, who heretofore has rarely spoken out publicly against anyone in the business, pulls no punches in this book. It’s as though the writing experience has served as a catharsis for Flair, whose incredible success has at times been tempered by those who sought to tarnish his storied reputation. In “To Be The Man,” Flair takes no prisoners.

Among those absorbing the hardest hits were members of the now-defunct WCW management, most notably Jim Herd and Eric Bischoff, who respectively fired and sued Flair during his tenure with the Atlanta-based company.

On Bischoff: “I had a thousand reasons for never punching out Eric Bischoff in WCW. He was an executive. I had dragged my family through one lawsuit, and didn’t want to get caught up in another – particularly one I would lose. But, when I was alone, I’d think, Why didn’t you just beat the —- of him? And I blamed myself for never doing it.”

(Flair finally dished out a measure of comeuppance, but not until after WCW had folded and Bischoff had been hired by WWE).

On Herd: “Jim Herd was an idiot. This is not defamation. I’m just telling you history. The man had no right to be anywhere near a wrestling company.”

(When you consider that Herd wanted to update Flair’s character from the Nature Boy to a Roman gladiator called Spartacus, with his hair cut, an earring and a shield, most would agree that Flair has a point).

Even mat icons Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart and Mick Foley take solid body shots from the Nature Boy.

Hogan was at the head of a list of power brokers who crossed the 16-time world champion, even though it had been Flair who helped put together a deal that brought the Hulkster to WCW. One particular incident, a Nitro angle in which Hogan whipped Flair’s son, David, 15-20 times with a belt instead of the discussed 3-4 lashes, garnered a passage in the book.

“David didn’t say a word,” writes Flair. “He took it like a man. You had Curt Hennig and Barry Windham, two of the best performers during their primes, and they bounced around for every one of David’s moves. My son couldn’t do anything, and they made him look like a star. And then there was Hogan – with all his experience, and all his celebrity – trying to be cute. He whipped David like a dog. It was sickening, and I’ll never forgive him for it.”

While Flair’s criticism of Foley will no doubt create a backlash among the hardcore king’s considerable following, it’s a sentiment that Flair shares with many in the business, particularly veterans who claim Foley was responsible for raising the bar to a dangerous level inside the ring.

“Foley has a cult following because of his contribution to hardcore wrestling,” writes Flair. “But hardcore is such a small part of the history of this business. When I was training, falling off a ladder was not a prerequisite to making it as a professional wrestler. Being fundamentally sound was. I don’t care how many thumbtacks Mick Foley has fallen on, how many ladders he’s fallen off of, how many continents he’s supposedly bled on, he’ll always be known as a glorified stuntman.”

Flair, whose booking skills were taken to task by Foley in the latter’s first book, “Have A Nice Day,” goes even further by claiming that WWE owner Vince McMahon was responsible for Foley’s success in the wrestling business.

“There’s a difference between being a great performer and being a guy – like Brutus Beefcake or The Ultimate Warrior – who became famous because he happened to be working for Vince,” writes Flair. “It’s the same with Foley. When he hasn’t been working for Vince, there has been no demand for him whatsoever. He’s just another guy.”

Flair also lowers the boom on Bret Hart.

“Bret never regained the fame he’d had in the World Wrestling Federation. Part of it had to do with terrible booking, the other part with Bret’s own deficiencies. What unnerved me the most was the way he used his brother’s death. Through his column in the Calgary Sun, Bret relentlessly bashed Vince McMahon. I sympathize with the emotion – and even the anger – he felt over losing a brother, but I lost respect for him when he made the case into a public spectacle. Why didn’t he take the matter up privately with Vince? It seemed to me that Bret cared more about getting ‘screwed’ in Montreal than he did about Owen’s death, and he used his brother’s death to grind his ax with Vince.”

To be fair, Flair balances his bashing with brutal honesty about his own shortcomings, not the least of which are failed relationships and the acknowledgement that the wrestling business took a heavy toll on his family life.

What will come as a startling revelation to many readers is Flair’s candid discussion of his battles with low self-esteem, worrying about his legacy and feeling at times that he no longer fit in the business he loved so. Flair credits Vince McMahon with giving him the opportunity to prove that he still had what it takes.

Flair doesn’t forget his roots, either, and it’s clear that some of his happiest times in the business were the years he spent working in the Carolinas and Virginia with Mid-Atlantic Wrestling. He calls the late Wahoo McDaniel, with whom he fought hundreds of bloodbaths over the course of a classic rivalry that spanned more than a decade, the single greatest influence in his wrestling career, acknowledging the fact that performers like Ricky Steamboat and Harley Race made him a legend every time he climbed into the ring with them.

Ultimately, though, it was Flair who made a career out of making scores of wrestlers look like stars. It’s an old – but true – adage that Flair could wrestle a broom, and make the broom look good.

The book also gives stars from this generation an opportunity to give props to a performer they’ve idolized for many years.

“Stone Cold” Steve Austin – “As for Ric Flair’s place in the business, in my opinion he’s the greatest professional wrestler in history. If I had to name a guy from the entire WWE that is the best worker in the business right now, who could have the best match with anybody on any given night, working heel or babyface, Ric Flair would be my choice. Right now, at 55. He’s just that good, and it’s just that simple.”

Shawn Michaels – “In my life, I bow down to only one person, and that’s Jesus Christ. But in my professional life, I wanted Ric to know, he is the man.” Triple H (Paul Levesque) sings his idol’s praises in the book’s introduction. “Even as a kid, I could tell there was a quality about Ric Flair that made the people around him look special. He’d get in the ring with somebody and when the match was over, his opponent had become a star. Ric had greatness, and those who came close to him took some of it with him.”

“To Be The Man” is much more than just a book about professional wrestling, in the sense that Ric Flair transcends the wrestling business. Much like another Southern icon named Elvis Presley, the legend of Ric Flair has reached mythic proportion. This page-turner will leave readers wondering how one man could have crammed so much living into 55 years.

The book’s only drawback, if it can be considered one, is that 332 pages is far too short a space to chronicle the life of wrestling’s most enduring superstar. But, then again, who says there won’t be a sequel?

“To Be The Man” will introduce newer wrestling fans to a legend who paved the way for today’s stars with blood, sweat and tears. It will remind longtime fans why they fell in love with wrestling in the first place.