By Mike Mooneyham

Jan. 22, 2006

It takes a heck of a bout to upstage the likes of Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Michaels.

Ric Flair provided just that Monday night when the 56-year-old legend battled newly crowned WWE heavyweight champion Edge (Adam Copeland) in no less than a grueling TLC (tables, ladders and chairs) match.

While Angle and Michaels delivered another high-quality performance last week on Raw, it once again was the Nature Boy who stole the show and then some.

While some so-called “smart” fans had questioned Flair’s ability to pull off the hardcore match, the 16-time world champ did what he does best. And that’s make believers out of naysayers.

“I could do anything I’ve ever wanted to do if I wanted to do it,” he joked matter-of-factly Wednesday night while attending a Bon Jovi concert at Bobcats Arena in Charlotte. Escorted to the front row midway through the show, Flair was even stealing some of the rocker’s thunder as onlookers bombarded the packed arena with choruses of “Whoo!” as the town’s No. 1 celebrity passed.

Ric Flair

Ric Flair

“I really feel great. I’m ready for another run,” proclaimed the 34-year ring veteran, who will take over the spotlight at the same arena Monday night when WWE brings Raw to the town Flair has called home since moving there in 1974.

Although widely regarded as the greatest overall performer in the history of the business, Flair has drawn some criticism from a younger group of Internet-age fans who seem to be uneasy about the prospect of a man who held the world title before many were even born still maintaining such a strong presence in the business. The notion that he is still in the world title picture has sparked even more debate on both sides of the spectrum.

“At 56 years old, Ric Flair has three things in his arsenal that are prominent in his matches, that a lot of guys in the WWE do not have,” one fan posted last week in Flair’s defense. “These three things are emotion, storytelling and the ability to connect with the fans. At 56 years old, he shouldn’t be having matches as good as the ones he had against Triple H and Kurt Angle, but he is, and we’re all the better for it.”

Monday night’s performance may have answered some of the questions skeptics had about Flair’s ability to adapt to hardcore wrestling. A more relevant question, however, and one posed before by Flair and other industry experts, is why anyone would want to risk life and limb on a routine basis, or work the type of match that results in your body breaking down long before your prime.

“I could have done that my whole life, but it’s not what I call wrestling,” said Flair. “That style is such a one-dimensional thing. And a lot of those guys (who work that type of match) don’t know the fundamentals of wrestling.”

One particularly visually spectacular albeit high-risk move Flair took in Monday night’s match was a suplex off the top of a ladder.

“To be honest with you, if I were 35, it wouldn’t hurt me at all. I feel great right now,” said the Intercontinental champion, just weeks shy of his 57th birthday.

It hurt Monday night, he says, only because he fell from such a height that it affected an area of his back that he broke 30 years ago in an airplane crash that nearly killed him. Flair insisted, though, that no shortcuts would be taken on that move or other spots during the critically acclaimed bout.

Former wrestling star Rip Hawk (Harvey Evers), with whom Flair shared his first pro title (the Mid-Atlantic tag-team belts) in 1974, was awestruck by the bout.

“Those guys really had to work hard. I thought that was a very dangerous move Ric took. They’re taking a hell of a chance with their lives. One wrong move, and someone could really get hurt. We did a lot of things back in the day that we thought were goofy, but at least we wanted to protect ourselves. I think the business has gone overboard. I just don’t know why they have to go so far.”

The Flair-Edge match drew rave reviews across the board. The rating for the show also came in strong, with both hours of Raw posting impressive 4.3 numbers. The rating was especially impressive since the show aired opposite a live Ultimate Fighting Championship special on Spike TV and the Golden Globes awards gala on NBC. Local fan Jack Hunter was one of many who not only extolled the virtues of the match, but also questioned WWE’s reluctance to pull the trigger and put the strap on Flair for a 17th time. Hunter laid out a scenario that had been discussed before in this space.

“Fact: the title was taken off (John) Cena because WWE’s top investment was being devalued by negative fan reaction. Fact: Edge was at the right place at the right time with the right storyline to enable Cena’s dethroning. Most never envisioned Edge as a world champion, yet he became one thanks to a mixture of luck and storyline practicality.

“Raw is in Charlotte next week. Flair should defeat Edge in his hometown and become the 17-time world champion. Thousands – if not millions – of wrestling fans would have their prayers answered (especially me). It would be the most fitting honor to the greatest of all time, not to mention it would make for great TV, good ratings and added value to the title.”


Hunter also proposed having Edge vs. Cena as planned at the Royal Rumble, but as a grudge match with Cena getting the win (and his revenge). Triple H, as expected, would win the Rumble.

“Keep the title on Flair until Wrestlemania (a whole two months … not long at all) and headline the card with the third installment of Flair vs. HHH (they’re tied at 1-1), with the buildup played out like described in a previous article, featuring compelling vignettes, Starrcade footage, etc. The background story possibilities are endless,” writes Hunter.

” HHH would regain the title at Mania, as I imagine was the plan anyway. Flair would be making the best symbolic ‘passing of the torch’ gesture to the man he has repeatedly stated he feels is the ‘best wrestler alive today’ on the biggest show in the business.”

“The only flaw to this is having Mania end so predictably, not to mention a heel victory, but predictability has never stopped the WWE before,” continues Hunter. “I believe the high-quality match Flair and Hunter would deliver would more than make up for this … But then again I’m just a dumb Southern boy who grew up on the NWA and never really cared about guys like Hogan and Hart. What do I know?”

– One act that needs to be axed before it goes much further is the Shelton Benjamin “That’s My Mama” experiment.

Fingers once again must be pointed at a WWE creative staff that fails to understand what its audience wants and how to give it to them.

In an attempt to give Benjamin some “personality,” the company hired a 49-year-old actress, put her in a fat suit and placed her in a stereotypical role that only the writing team seems to appreciate. Stand-up comedienne Thea Vidale, who starred in the 1993 ABC sitcom “Thea,” is playing the role of Benjamin’s over-the-top mother. Benjamin’s ring ability has been compromised in his new role as a heel who hides behind his “mama’s” considerable girth, and has to bend the rules to eke out a victory. Less than two years ago Benjamin appeared to be approaching main-event status, earning back-to-back wins on Raw over the likes of Triple H, and defeating Ric Flair on a pay-per-view. Now he is mired in mid-card programs with Viscera and Val Venis, with prospects of advancing growing dimmer and dimmer by the week.

The question is whether the Orangeburg native can survive another bad gimmick that only tends to downplay his main attribute – wrestling.

“He’s not over at all. The chick’s got all the heat,” said one WWE performer. “Shelton’s going to have to step up to the plate. He can’t follow her on the mic. This is like his last chance. It’s hard to explain. He’s just a video game guy. He’s just not aggressive enough. A guy with that kind of ability should have led the nation in rushing in college and been a two-time national champion. He just doesn’t want it bad enough. I just think that they feel like they’ve given him every opportunity in the world, and this is the last time around.”