Whenever I think of Ric Flair, I can't help but think back to the 1992 Royal Rumble. I was 11 years old at the time, and I didn't know anything about cutting promos, mic work or character development. I just knew I liked pro wrestling and all of the colorful characters whom I would watch every Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
But amidst a cartoon landscape filled with Doink The Clown, Repo Man and The Berzerker, I couldn't keep my eyes off of Flair. He didn't fit into the WWE's circus at the time. Outside of his flashy, feathery robes, there was nothing about him that fit the mold of the other superstars on the roster. He was never particularly well-built during a time when steroids were rampant, and he wore uniform-colored shorts, knee pads and wrestling boots when everyone else was outfitted by a costume designer. He was a pro wrestler in a land of sports entertainers.
On January 19, 1992 in the Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, New York, Flair won the WWE (then WWF) world heavyweight championship for the first time in his career by outlasting 29 other wrestlers in the main event of the Royal Rumble, one of the WWE's big four pay-per-view events. He was in the ring for more than 60 minutes during the over-the-top rope battle royal, which was unheard of at the time. No winner had gone more than 22 minutes before, and it would be 12 years before a winner lasted longer than Flair.
There was an aura of realism about Flair that captivated me as a child. I knew wrestling was scripted, but reality was always suspended whenever Flair appeared on the television. There was certainly an art form to punching and kicking someone without hurting them, but there was no shortcut to Flair being in the ring for more than an hour. I saw it happen in real time, and I'll never forget it.
But in true Flair fashion, he had a way of upstaging his incredible performance in the ring with a victory speech that I'm not ashamed to say I can still recite word for word, just as I did in school the next day for my friends during recess. I'll still put it up against any victory speech in sports, not just for the content, but Flair's emotional delivery.
"I'm going to tell you all with a tear in my eye," Flair said. "This is the greatest moment in my life. When you walk around this world and you tell everybody you're No. 1, the only way you get to stay No. 1 is to be No. 1, and this is the only title in the wrestling world that makes you No. 1. When you are the king of the WWF, you rule the world. Woooo!"
Long before Scott Hall and Kevin Nash blurred the lines of wrestling and reality when they formed the NWO in WCW, Flair was ahead of the game when he brought the old WCW world heavyweight championship belt on WWE television in 1991 and proclaimed himself "the real world champion." The WWE literally blurred it, making you wonder if the most famous WCW champion was really infiltrating the WWE to take down its most famous champion, Hulk Hogan, and take his title.
While many feuds at the time were born from no rhyme or reason other than a good guy fighting a bad guy, when Flair faced "Macho Man" Randy Savage at WrestleMania VIII, he did so after claiming he was with Savage's wife, Miss Elizabeth, before they were married. Flair showed pictures of Elizabeth in a bikini feeding him strawberries and the two of them enjoying a bottle of wine. He continually said, "Randy Savage, Elizabeth was mine before she was yours."
It was a mature storyline that blended reality and wrestling in a way that no one did quite like Flair. At a time when Savage was facing guys who wanted to smash his face in for no particular reason, this was next level stuff and par for the course for Flair. He was always ahead of his time as a performer.
There's a reason why Flair's promos and signature phrases are recited today in locker rooms and offices and splashed across shirts and hats as if he were still wrestling. They're as timeless as he is. In a world of over-the-top characters with comic book names, chemically enhanced muscles wearing ridiculous costumes and screaming unintelligible scripted lines, Flair was the genuine article. He wasn't a good guy or a bad guy. He was himself. He blurred the lines.
Becoming a Flair fan was a coming of age moment for many younger fans. There was something almost refined about becoming a Flair fan as I became a teenager. I made the transition from Hulk Hogan's "say your prayers and eat your vitamins" to Flair's "limousine riding, jet flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin' and dealin'" motto and never looked back.
One of Flair's favorite sayings is, "To be the man, you gotta beat the man." He said it countless times over the course of a 40-year Hall of Fame career that included him winning more than 30 major championships in the NWA, WCW and the WWE. Everyone has their favorites for different reasons, but Flair will always be the man to me. He will always be the guy who outlasted every wrestler I grew up watching on one magical night in Albany, and with a tear in his eye while holding the world heavyweight championship, proclaiming himself No. 1. "Woooo!"