There are rock stars, there are movie stars, and then there are stars whose celebrity status transcend the profession that made them famous.
Ric Flair is that guy.
“Nature Boy” — as he’s known in the ring for professional wrestling — hyped himself in a way that made him a household name worldwide, and subject of many squealed-about celebrity sightings in his chosen home of Charlotte.
“Wooooooo!!!!!!!!” Say it with me. “Wooooooooo!!!!!!!!!”
And the man who got to make a long-awaited documentary for ESPN, Rory Karpf — who now calls Ric Flair a friend — joined Bill Bartee on the Jesse Brown’s Carolina Outdoors podcast shortly after that “30 or 30” episode aired on ESPN.
You can listen to the entire 3-part podcast here: soundcloud.com/jessebrownsclt
(start with “intro” and work up from there)
Karpf says he aired the story of Ric Flair as he saw and understood it, warts and all.
“I’m not a journalist, I’m a story teller,” he told Bartee, explaining he had no journalistic obligation to tell hard truths — but did anyway. “I don’t whitewash it.”
Viewers tuned in in record numbers. Overnight ratings show the first showing of “Nature Boy” averaged 1.8 million viewers — 78% more viewers than “30 for 30” premieres usually get.
Jesse Brown’s owner Bill Bartee is one of millions who watched Flair’s rise to fame on TV as a legendary professional wrestler. Bartee drove to Greenville, SC, to watch Flair at the Greenville Memorial Coliseum. In 1986, Bill, was one of more than 7,000 people turned away from the Charlotte Coliseum (now Bojangle’s Coliseum) when Ric Flair visited with the NWA.
Bartee recalls that Flair’s lifestyle — fame, money, women, robes — was his own “Boy Scout, churchgoing, farm boy teenager’s alter ego.” Yet Flair was accessible around Charlotte — often seen in restaurants, at parties, any high-profile event, and even tanning booths. It was all part of what Bartee calls Flair’s “grass-roots appeal.”
“He had IT,” says Karpf. If you flipped through channels and saw The Nature Boy on TV, you stopped flipping. “He just got your attention.”
And Flair knew how to hold your attention and make the most of it too, says Karpf. Flair set a “lifestyle standard” of success.
“Ric was promoting a lifestyle back in the mid-80’s — his lifestyle being ‘the man,'” says Karpf. It’s an aspirational lifestyle now popularized by hip hop artists, many who hold Flair up as a model. “We live in a culture now where being ‘the man’ is what everybody wants.”
The fame Ric Flair sought and held onto for an unprecedented number of decades (5 and counting) comes from setting his own standard as the “cool bad guy,” according to Karpf.
“He’s anti-establishment, he does it his own way, and he’s successful — he’s the best,” says Karpf about Flair’s enduring popularity. “A certain part of us want that. He represented doing it your own way, and being ‘the man.'”
It hasn’t endured without a cost, however. Four divorces and a son lost to a drug overdose are among the darkest times in Flair’s life. Karpf believes Flair’s laser-like focus on his own goals — fame included — cost him dearly.
“If you want to be great at something, you have to sacrifice something else,” remarked Karpf.
Karpf believes Flair’s recent near-death experience — and prolonged hospital stay — have changed his outlook some.
“For the first time in forever, he’s living without alcohol,” says Karpf. Doctors told Flair if he didn’t quit drinking, he’d die. Only then did Flair make public the extent of his drinking problem — consuming dozens of drinks a day, for years. It all had to stop, cold turkey.
“It’s gonna be a process for him, even at 68 years old,” says Karpf.
Since leaving the hospital, Flair stood triumphantly in the ring once again — with daughter Ashley, known as “Charlotte Flair” in the wrestling world, as she held up her own championship belt. Wooooooooo!
Karpf says he often becomes friends with his documentary subjects, because the trust that develops allows a closer look into his subjects’ lives. But writing hard truths can be difficult with friends, and Karpf understand that.
“It’s okay to meet your heroes sometimes,” says Karpf. “I guess I can always differentiate. I can appreciate someone’s talent, and realize it doesn’t necessarily make them a good human being.”
But the friendship endured.
“When he went in the hospital, I was more concerned for him as a friend than a filmmaker,” says Karpf. “Becoming friends with Rick was good, and I do consider him a friend.”
You can watch or download the 30 for 30 episode “Nature Boy” on ESPN.com: www.espn.com/watch/collections/1601/30-for-30-nature-boy