By Chris Olds | Beckett Sports Card Monthly Editor | Commentary
If you know your professional wrestling, then the name Ric Flair means plenty.
But if you don’t, you should — and it’s got much more to do with life beyond what happens in the ring or on TV.
He’s regarded as the best wrestler, the best talker and, well, the best bleeder in the world — and that’s just for starters.
There were several guests appearing for photo opportunities and signing autographs at the National Sports Collectors Convention this past week in suburban Chicago, allowing fans of many sports to meet their heroes, get some ink and create a moment that will likely carry with them for some time.
While I was busy working the floor talking to dealers and card company reps (and doing what collectors do, too) for much more to come — and Mr. Tolentino was working finding voices from the show — many a moment occurred. For every autograph signed — just like every dealer’s table — there’s a potential story or two.
However, this fleeting story is mine — mere seconds among the hustle and bustle of a show that had thousands of collectors and fans inside the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. And, of course, this moment involved “The Nature Boy.”
For those of you who don’t know the essence of Flair, the gimmick, watch the video above from decades ago. Soak up the subtleties of not being so subtle, driving people into arenas where he could put on a show. The clip is one of countless perfect promos that defined his character, his gimmick, while getting the job done. Flair was the world heavyweight champion 16 times back when holding the NWA belt meant you traveled the world competing against every territory’s (every wrestling company’s) best, allowing all the smaller markets, international markets, promoters and fans a glimpse at greatness no matter where they were.
Flair is a relic from the past of professional wrestling — the days before the WWE ruled the land, forever altering its landscape. Then, of course, one should know that Flair has lived his gimmick for decades — and he’s still going for TNA at age 62.
Beyond all that, though, there’s another reason he’s so highly regarded among the wrestling ranks — and my moment showed a mere touch of that as well. It showed how in-person — when not living the high life at the wrestling crew’s hotel bar — he’s as anti-Flair as can be. Meanwhile, there’s nothing he hasn’t accomplished in his profession, and that’s a rare combination — success and humility — something, again, quite anti-Flair.
And that’s why people love him.
The first time I was ever around Flair was for a news conference for the WWE Hall of Fame inductions before WrestleMania XXIV in Orlando, Fla., in 2008. He was inducted into the Hall on the eve of what was his final WWE match, a loss to Shawn Michaels – an all-around performer just like him. It was a news conference I went to not as a writer but merely a fly on the wall with a small video camera in the front row while international television and print media, who hadn’t had a chance to interview anyone in advance unlike the Orlando Sentinel‘s crew, got their work in.
While several stars talked to the assembled throng — Shane McMahon, John Cena, Randy Orton, Floyd Mayweather, etc. — only one discussion truly stuck with me, and if you watch the clip above (and several others), you’ll see why.
Quite a difference, eh?
I already own a few signed Flair items as well as sigs from the other three TNA Wrestling stars who appeared at the show as part of their relationship with TRISTAR, so I hadn’t planned to stand in the long lines at the show. Instead, I observed once again from the company booth, watching steel chairs 8x10s and more get signed. I watched the fans react and interact with the likes of women’s champ Tara and Mr. Anderson until Flair arrived. He didn’t walk in to Also Sprach Zarathusta, but the woos of the assembled fans in the autograph pavilion and those just crowding around ducking and bobbing for photos prompted a strut from Flair and a woo or two back before he signed.
After an unexpected turn to my Saturday, I ended up with a photo-op pass for Flair, which meant I got a second or two to pose for a photo, which would then be printed for me to take home. Rather than give him a question that I would ask of any wrestler (“What’s more fun — working face or working heel?” After all, “working Flair” is the best of them all … ), I instead quickly mentioned that I was at the Hall of Fame presser and that watching his reaction to the questions was intense.
He initially thanked me and as I finished that quick sentence. Meanwhile I wasn’t watching the official TRISTAR photographer who misfired and had to take my photo twice (proof below). I told Flair that it was emotional watching him nearly break down unprompted several times. He said, again, “No, thank you, brother,” a second time and shook my hand. I could tell that, despite the rush for the assembly line of moments to be made — something that would put anyone into autopilot — he was listening and truly appreciated the moment.
And that made it a moment I appreciated even more.
Chris Olds is the editor of Beckett Baseball magazine. Have a comment, question or idea? Send an email to him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
And here’s one more collector’s (much quicker) tale about the TNA signings and photos…