- Elizabeth Merrill
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PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. -- Welcome to Spring Break 2009, a haze of testosterone, flat beer, rippled bodies and youthful inhibition. Welcome to Wal-Mart. Four police officers are guarding a roped area in the back, and the night has a combustible vibe, as if anything could happen. Ric Flair is coming to the party capital of the Florida panhandle for an autograph signing. The line snakes through three aisles in the shoe department, and the tension builds. What's Flair gonna do? Knock back a couple of beers with the boys of Delta Tau Delta? Show the ladies the 11 staples in his head and let out a giant "WOOOOO?"
He is whisked into a back entrance of the store, rock-star style, and the blue smocks flock to him. A stranger promises to keep him going all night with coffee. "He drinks a lot of coffee," says his agent, Nola Armstrong.
He is, after all, 60 years old. Flair arrives in a powder-blue polo and gray slacks -- no robes or spandex -- and looks more like a hip granddad than the "Nature Boy," a hard-livin', fun-lovin' wrestler who spent more than three decades throwing his tan, action-hero body around a ring. He tells people he's retired now, and that at some point, life has to slow down. But does anybody believe it?
The night before, he did a show in Kansas City. He wasn't wrestling -- well, not really, but then a guy threw a camera at his head and the adrenaline started pumping. Happens a thousand times, Flair says. Doesn't really hurt.
And now, after a couple of flight delays and a gallon or two of coffee, he's at the Wal-Mart Super Center on Front Beach Road, doing one of the grip-and-grin sessions that command at least $10,000, which doesn't even cover half of his monthly alimony payments. A young man approaches Flair and says he's in the military: "It's a pleasure to meet you sir. You're my favorite wrestler ever. You're the man. Like you say, to be the man, you gotta beat the man!"
Flair smiles. Whenever he's asked if he gets sick of all the stops and the odd requests, he responds with a quick, "Thank God." They still remember. He pulls himself up from his chair after roughly 1,500 autographs, his whirlwind 24-hour odyssey complete. He runs his hand over his face. His mouth is bleeding.
The cackle is key. When Flair tells a good story, really gets going, it is preceded by a long, sinister laugh. This could also mean it's a non-G-rated story. He cackles a lot.
His wrestling career started in the '70s in a Cadillac, the odometer burning through 3,000 miles a week to the next gig. He never called in sick, never pulled over for holidays or family functions. It was all about wrestling, the shows, the boys. Flair eventually realized he was too big for Interstate 20. So he upgraded to a Falcon 10 jet.
His pilot was skilled, but never quite figured out how to become instrument trained. So he'd fly 500 feet from the ground, tempting the fates, following telephone poles to the next town while in the back they swilled Boone's Farm apple wine. Some nights, Amarillo and Lubbock looked the same. One time, according to Flair, the plane had to land on a football field in St. Cloud, Minn.
"That was rough," he says. "I was pounding the Boone's Farm. We've done it all, trust me. The reason I don't tell those stories to people is that they'll wonder why they'll think I deserve to crash."
He did crash, into metal folding chairs and ladders -- and into a field in Wilmington, N.C., in 1975 after his Cessna fell from the sky. Flair broke three bones in his back that day, and doctors told him he'd never wrestle again. He was back in the ring six months later. On a bio page on WWE.com, it says Flair took his insurance settlement check from the crash and bought himself a new Cadillac.
They were lovable warriors then, athletes with blow-dried hairdos and built-in storylines. Flair didn't exactly start out glamorous. He was a puffy ex-bouncer who weighed nearly 300 pounds his first match. But he trained hard -- harder, he says, than anybody else -- and he was different. His hair went from brown and drab to a bleach-blond mane that swept across his shoulders, and his quips became legendary in frat house circles.
I'm a limousine-ridin', jet-flyin', kiss-stealin', wheelin' dealin' son of a gun. WOOOO!
Space Mountain may be the oldest ride in the park, but it has the longest line.
Back then, Flair says, wrestling was sacred. Nobody knew what went on behind the curtain, and nobody dared tell. Words like "scripted" and "sports entertainment" were taboo.
"We protected the business," he says. "We just had a secret bond. Nobody knew anything about what we did."
Flair's iconic moment came in 1981, when he beat Dusty Rhodes for his first NWA world heavyweight title. He is recognized by the WWE as a 16-time world heavyweight champion, and possibly the luckiest man in his profession.
Friends half his age have died from a combination of steroids, painkillers and the physical beatings. Flair walked away with just two rotator cuff surgeries and a cracked C5 in his neck. He still works out five days a week and can bench press 300 pounds and says he wakes up every morning relatively pain-free.
Flair says he "experimented" with steroids in the 1980s, "just like everybody else did. I shouldn't say everybody else I did. It's no more of a problem [in wrestling] than A-Rod or Roger Clemens or 103 guys [in baseball]. It can't be any more. We haven't got that many guys on our roster.
"Our company's as clean as can be. We've got the most stringent drug-testing policies in place in the world. There's no ifs, ands or buts. The guys pee in an open area. It is what it is. The guys pay the penalty now. We're not going to mess around with that after all we've been through."
He will, undoubtedly, be a lifelong billboard for the WWE. When his youngest son, Reid, signed on as a developmental wrestler in 2007, months after wrestler Chris Benoit died, Flair didn't consider steering the boy away. It's a great way to make a living, he says. A good life.
Some of his best travel stories come from the European tours, where it was just a bunch of wrestlers on a bus, drinking and singing, cackling to the next stop.
In March 2008, Flair wrestled his last match in Orlando, Fla., gave his farewell address then received a standing ovation from his fellow wrestlers. Flair cried, and still gets choked up today when he thinks about it. It wasn't scripted.
Jackie Beems, Flair's girlfriend, has accompanied him on this trip to Florida. With braces on her teeth and an occasional hesitant smile on her face, Beems looks younger than her 40 years. She knows nothing about wrestling, and Flair likes this.
"There's nothing about me and what I used to do that compels her to like me," Flair says. "We just have a lot of respect for each other."
She sits next to Flair at his autograph table, in front of an 8-foot wall of Coca-Cola, behind a giant wrestling belt, and slides out of the way when a group of frat boys wants a photo with Ric. She laughs as they flex their muscles together in a cheesy pose, and hands him pictures to scribble on in black Sharpie.
They met in 2004, at a steakhouse bar in Chicago, committed to other people. They'd be friends, Flair said. He eventually divorced his wife and married a fitness competitor. The marriage lasted two years, and by the time it was all over, Flair owed $22,000 in monthly alimony payments to two women.
Finally single -- and considerably lighter in the wallet -- he hit the town, nearly every night, in Charlotte, N.C. There's a lot to do in Charlotte if you're single and Ric Flair, he says. He brags that his DVD is motivational for guys and soft porn for women. He adds, with a laugh, that any woman who didn't know him in the 1980s "doesn't have any idea what she's missing out on."
A not-so-G-rated story: In 2002, on a charter flight back from England, Flair allegedly wore nothing but a jeweled cape. According to court documents, Flair and a handful of other wrestlers allegedly sexually harassed two flight attendants, who later filed a civil lawsuit against the wrestlers, their wives and the WWE. The suit claimed that the wrestlers had consumed too much alcohol. The trip is often referred to as the infamous "Flight from Hell." Court documents show that a notice of settlement was reached in May 2004.
"First of all, I don't pursue women," Flair says. "For me, it's about camaraderie. My whole life is like, if something's going on, nothing ever preceded fun. I always put my friends and the fun and the business ahead of everything.
" The persona that I used to have was of this guy who ran around, who had such a good time all of the time. Which I did, but it's like this legend."
Something might've changed with Beems. He was single for three months before they started dating, free but somehow miserable. He needed somebody. Sometimes when she calls, he'll leave a table of friends to speak to her in private. He'll throw in an, "I love you, honey," before he hangs up. She's grounded, he says, and classy. She helps an old wrestler wipe the blood off his mouth.
"It's just a different way of life right now," Flair says. "I'm not that character anymore. I haven't been that character that I made so famous for a long time."
The late-morning breakfast crowd at the Bay Point Marriott is gone, and Flair sits at a table in a black muscle shirt, eating an omelet with ketchup and jalapenos. At least twice, he asks the waitress to freshen his coffee. It's just before 10 a.m., and Flair needs to keep moving.
He is chatting with his publicist and Bobby Story, a representative of Coca-Cola. Flair jokes that he's changing his name from "Nature Boy" to "Mr. Coke," then launches into a Coke, woooo, endorsement.
Story reminds him to say, "Coca-Cola," and Flair veers onto another topic. It's funny, he says, that at nearly every autograph session, a guy will walk up and say he knows him, that his best friend used to date Flair's sister. Everybody has a Ric Flair story in Charlotte, but some of them just aren't true. Flair is adopted and doesn't have any siblings or cousins that he knows of.
"I'm pretty sure my brother was Elvis Presley because I was born in Memphis," Flair says. "But we can't confirm that."
At least twice, he starts to talk about politics and stops himself. Celebrities, he says, shouldn't do that. Then he goes on for five minutes about President Barack Obama filling out an NCAA bracket when he should be visiting wounded war vets or cracking down on CEOs stealing money from America.
"I'm worried about America big time right now," Flair says. "The future is we have a lot of issues right now."
He wonders about his four kids and three grandkids, growing up in a world that isn't nearly as fun. They won't glide above the telephone poles, not after 9/11. But he can hope that Reid will wake up in 35 years with limber legs and a huge grin.
"I think I've had a phenomenal life," he says in between bites of breakfast. "I do think a lot of people envy this."
A woman with a southern accent interrupts the conversation. She wants to know if Flair will pose for a picture. Her kid eyeballs Flair in his muscle shirt and yells, "You're a beast!"
Sixty years, and Flair is still huge. In the South, a couple of professional sports teams have used videos of him on the JumboTron to get their crowds amped. A buddy of Flair's, Charlotte Observer columnist Tom Sorensen, says that a few years back, there were three sports celebs -- Kris Jenkins and Dan Morgan of the Carolina Panthers, and Ric Flair -- waiting in a long line for the opening of a new restaurant. The manager saw Flair in line and waved him in. Flair had to ask the guy if he'd let Morgan and Jenkins in, too.
"When he walks in, people flock to him," Sorensen says. "If it got to the point where people didn't notice him anymore, it would kill him. That's sort of his currency. He loves the attention, and he doesn't take it for granted."
Which is why Flair will never really retire. He loves the stories, the stage, but most of all, the attention. Why else would he wear a muscle shirt to a fancy hotel restaurant? He finishes up his breakfast, and a woman at the front asks what the commotion was, if the man at the table is famous. When she's told it's Ric Flair, her eyes light up and she remembers. Thank God.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He's officially retired, but at age 60, Ric Flair is still making the rounds. He makes appearances. He signs autographs. And more than anything, he doesn't want you to forget him, writes ESPN.com's Elizabeth Merrill.