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Nature Boy

As a kid growing up in the late eighties and early nineties, there were few things I looked forward to more than Saturday mornings. Not only did it signify the fact that I had the next two days off from school, but it also meant I was going to get to watch THE SMURFS, and of course, the absurd pageantry that unfolded in the WWF. I cheered for guys like The Ultimate Warrior and Bret “The Hitman” Hart, and loathed the heels like Mr. Perfect and Ravishing Rick Rude. Despite the fact that I knew that it was all a choreographed farce, I still completely bought in to the over-the-top melodrama that unfurled in the squared circle. 

Though I was a WWF fan, I had friends at the time who watched the rival company WCW, and I was familiar with some of the bigger names attached to it. So, when Ric Flair made his transition from WCW to WWF in 1991, I was at least vaguely aware of him. He was flamboyant, obnoxious, and someone who was very easy to root against. In other words, he was a perfect addition to the WWF world.

Whether you love or hate professional wrestling, ESPN’s fascinating documentary, NATURE BOY, is an absolute must see. Expertly crafted by filmmaker Rory Karpf it dissects the life and career of Ric Flair, blending classic footage with introspective interviews with Flair, his friends, and his family. Though set amidst the world of wrestling, it is a human interest story that delves deeply into the impossibility of juggling family and fame.

From an early age, Ric Flair (born Richard Fliehr) loved watching professional wrestling. While his parents couldn’t stand it, and in fact never would, the impressionable boy was hooked. He was a rebellious, athletic youth who received multiple collegiate football offers. His playing days were short-lived, however, because he was far more interested in partying than he was with his studies and football. Eventually, he stumbled upon the opportunity to begin a rigorous training regime with coach Verne Gagne to learn the bare bones of professional wrestling. At first, the headstrong young man felt that the training was too tough, and he was set to quit. Realizing that Flair had incredible potential, Gagne insisted his protégé continue, and from that point on, Flair never looked back.Flair describes his early career as “boring,” but soon developed a persona that took flight. He modeled himself after “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, and altered the character enough to make it his own. He began entering the ring dressed in elaborate robes and displayed a grandiose and combative persona that made him stand out amongst all others. He constantly bragged about his wealth, strength, and libido, and his popularity began to skyrocket.

Though his fame was hardly at the level of a Hollywood star, or even that of Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair became a king in his profession. He had a wife and children at home, yet the wrestler lived the life of his professional alter ego. He was on the road constantly, fighting in a different town virtually every single night. He took his matches seriously, but the lavish lifestyle that they provided was the most important aspect of all. He was loose with his money, and the ladies, to the point where there was no separation between the man and his character. He would occasionally show up at home with a present or two for his kids, but he would soon become bored, and would countdown the seconds until he hit the road again. Throughout the film, you witness the damage that the lifestyle reaped upon his family, and yet Flair himself makes no qualms about his choices. 

Through introspective interviews, the viewer discovers that, even to this day, there is still not really a separation between Fliehr and Flair. We watch as each one of his children lament on the fact that he was never around, and they would keep their eyes on the doors at basketball games and birthdays, hoping to see their dad walk through the door. While Flair readily admits that he was hardly the father that his kids needed and deserved, in the next breath he lovingly laughs about memories from the road. With a bemused smirk he estimates that he has slept with at least 10,000 women, and scoffs at the mere idea of monogamy. At the same time, the man was fiercely loyal to his friends, choosing their longevity over his own career advancement multiple times. This is when Karpf’s documentary becomes surprisingly conflicting. On one hand, you have a man that appears to have principals and values, and on the other, a despondent father and husband who cared little about the carnage he caused at home.

Despite living a life that he describes as “every man’s dream,” there is nothing enviable about his existence. His body is broken, his bank account is drained, and he left a trail of destruction in his wake. Each one of his children cried in their interviews, lamenting the fact that their famous father was never there. Flair was a high functioning alcoholic who couldn’t make it through the day without at least 10 or 15 drinks, and as his son Reid entered the wrestling world, the Flair boys would party together. Ric realized, unfortunately much too late, that this lifestyle has its dark side. In 2013, Reid died of an accidental overdose, which left his father utterly devastated. With a lump in his throat, and tears in his eyes, the Nature Boy proclaims that he wishes he could have been more of a father than a best friend.

Rather than a mere collection of celebratory clips and sound bites, Karpf’s film is much more enlightening investigation into the fallacies of fame. It allows the film to become more than just fan-friendly fodder for wrestling fans. NATURE BOY examines what it means to have it all, only to realize, much too late, the cost of achieving it.

Nature Boy: B+

Currently Streaming on ESPN

Brian Miller
Film Critic
Based out of Central New York, Brian Miller is a film critic who works in television, radio, and print. Providing passionate and energetic takes on every movie he sees, he looks for the best in a movie, not the worst.