You instinctively watch from the seats and can’t help but worry. Heck, you’re trying not to be terrified.
Here’s this 73-year-old icon who came down from professional wrestling’s Mount Rushmore and into a ring in Nashville, bringing a pacemaker and a history of serious health issues and now he’s not moving. As the scrimmage continues, you’re still watching the ropes to make sure Ric Flair is getting up from underneath.
It’s all part of the show, right?
Right. Minutes pass before he crawls far enough to extend an arm over a lifeless opponent. But this being professional wrestling, the referee was eliminated, of course. There’s no one to count to three.
Spoiler: it works. A new referee sprints in and is allowed to officially close a legendary career in glory. Purple confetti — you see, Flair wore purple — floats through a noisy municipal auditorium. Flair, face bloodied earlier during an nasty streak outside the ring, is honored by his family and friends. He walks away and blows kisses to an adoring audience, then walks out, bound for Kid Rock’s bar, he tells the crowd.
Once again, with emotion:
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Only one nature boy
Nashville was lucky. There’s only one Ric Flair, y’all, and Sunday night and the days before, he gave this town a slice of history.
The Nature Boy promised it would be his “last game” – a team affair meant to both showcase and protect a legend who nearly died five years ago. It wasn’t necessarily a good idea, but it’s hard to give up the limelight.
“Everyone says, ‘When does it get old? ” Flair said. “It doesn’t get old. I mean, it’s the honest truth to God. I like people’s respect, and that’s all I get these days. In the past, we had to fight for respect. “
A personal confession: I am not a wrestler.
I haven’t followed this closely since I was a pre-teen. Among the WWE wrestlers at Saturday night’s Summerslam at Nissan Stadium, I may have known a few names.
I knew all about Flair, though. Who doesn’t?
When he spoke to the Tennessee Titans after practice Thursday, famous NFL players — as well as their steely coach, Mike Vrabel — briefly flashed back as teenagers in Flair’s presence. These are men who are not struck by the stars.
“It’s kind of surreal to meet people like him.” Running back Derrick Henry said that, acknowledging the difference between his own stardom and someone like Flair.
The wrestler spoke to the Titans about family and distractions and how “you blink and a long career is over,” Vrabel said. “I don’t know how you couldn’t be (a Flair fan).”
SummerSlam 2022 pictures: WWE SummerSlam 2022 in Nashville
The visit to Saint Thomas Sports Park was clearly designed to promote Sunday’s game, but Flair made a solid point.
“There’s nobody from WWE here,” Flair said. “I’m here. And WWE is in town. So it’s a big deal for me. Nothing against WWE, but I’m the guy the coach invited. Don’t think everyone in WWE doesn’t wouldn’t want to be here.
A little shade perhaps, although it’s hard to believe there would be much offense on the WWE side.
“I mean, it’s Ric Flair,” Titans linebacker Zach Cunningham said.
Exactly. What else should be said?
An authentic legend
The line between sports and entertainment blurs with professional wrestling. But we all know it’s a performance. Athletes are athletes, but their work is choreographed and scripted.
Here’s What Made Flair Special: There Was Never Anything Wrong him.
When professional wrestling took off in the 1980s and early 1990s, it seemed like everyone — even its top players — had a gimmick. They wore elaborate costumes and used props and were essentially portrayed as characters, some more cartoonish than others.
Hulkamania was wrapped in an American flag. Rowdy Roddy Piper wore bagpipes. Jake Roberts had a snake. Even “Macho Man” Randy Savage had Miss Elizabeth.
But Flair was Flair. No gimmicks. The Nature Boy grew up in professional wrestling and built his own unrivaled popularity on one thing: his swagger. In a field primarily aimed at a blue-collar clientele, Flair went out of his way to brag about his wealth and status, his sex appeal and his flamboyant lifestyle. Then I went and did it.
“Nature Boy was my wrestling persona. The Nature Boy wasn’t fake. The Nature Boy was me,” Flair said during “Nature Boy,” an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary. I said it on TV, I did it. I lived my gadget.
By God, you believe it too. This authenticity was different. This is how a “villain” achieved unprecedented popularity and an impact on pop culture that persists to this day.
Flair wasn’t the heel on Sunday, obviously. A delightful pregame story — Flair had been accosted in a parking lot by Nashville-area native Jeff Jarrett (not young at 55 himself) — built the drama. From the moment Flair arrived in his standard, showy dress, the onlookers were firmly behind him and his wrestling partner son-in-law. After the end, the grown men shed tears.
Maybe it wasn’t real.
But there was not much wrong about the risk of an old man subjecting himself to such an ordeal. That’s what made this tribute so appealing to thousands of people who will always remember the excitement and emotion of being there in person.
It was so human. And genuine.
And seeing. And funny.
And oh, so appropriate.
The Nature Boy surely could not have done otherwise.
Contact Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at email@example.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Ric Flair’s Last Wrestling Match Was Weirdly Authentic, Much Like Him