If Hulk Hogan defined the term “Sports Entertainment”, then Ric Flair was wrestling. ‘The Nature Boy’ was seen by many to be the best wrestler in the world during the decade of the eighties (and many to this day label him the greatest of all time) and he was to NWA/WCW (two separate entities, which plays into the later story) what Hogan was to the WWF –the face of the organisation/company and the man who could carry the company. The difference between Hogan and Flair was that while Hogan’s matches would for the most part be underwhelming (which, to Hogan’s credit would still draw the crowds), Flair would lead by example in putting on classic matches, seemingly on a nightly basis.
Vince McMahon had previously made a play for Ric Flair, with the idea being for Flair to come in and challenge then WWF Champion ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage at Summerslam 1988. Despite being at loggerheads with WCW over a new contract, Flair decided that he was a NWA guy, and as such could not move to the WWF. Three years later however, things would change dramatically.
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Ric Flair moves to the WWF
The man in charge of WCW in 1991 was a man by the name of Jim Herd. Herd was not a very popular man and seemed to almost revel in undermining Flair. Herd had decided that Flair, at 39 years old in 1991, was too old to be the face of WCW, and it was time for younger stars such as Sting and Lex Luger to take his place. While there is much to be said for older stars holding onto their spots when they are past their sell by date, the fact is that when Sting wrestled Flair, it was a success. When Luger wrestled Flair, it was a success. When Sting wrestled Luger? It bombed. You don’t have to be a genius to work out what was missing. Flair was still the most popular wrestler in WCW despite his age, yet Herd wanted to downsize Flair’s role within the group. He wanted Flair to cut his famous long blonde hair – a demand which Flair acquiesced to and would later claim he deeply regretted. He wanted to bring Flair ‘into the nineties’: by making him wear a diamond earring and brandish a shield, under the new moniker – Spartacus. If that was not enough, he also wanted to take Flair’s reported $700,000 a year contract which was up for renewal and cut it in half, despite the fact that he was still the company’s top star. Perhaps most incredibly, all of these demands were being made at a time where Flair was also the NWA World Heavyweight Champion.
With Flair refusing the contract offer and WCW refusing to budge on their offer, negotiations came to an impasse in July of 1991. Taking the strong arm with Flair, Herd demanded that Flair drop the NWA title to Barry Windham, despite the fact that WCW were building towards a PPV main event of Flair vs Lex Luger at The Great American Bash ‘91 and that the event was less than two weeks away when Herd made his demands. Ever the pro, Flair was willing to drop the belt to Windham and had returned from a holiday to do so, but Herd, fearful that Flair would hold WCW up for money to drop the belt, promptly faxed a notice of termination to Flair’s lawyer. The unthinkable had happened – WCW had fired Ric Flair, its most beloved star.
There was a crucial point that WCW had forgotten. Flair was not the WCW World Heavyweight Champion, he was the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, and as far as the NWA were concerned he would remain their champion (while WCW had bought out Jim Crockett Promotions, formerly the NWA’s biggest territory, the NWA remained a separate entity completely) and issued a press release stating as much.
This was almost too much for Vince McMahon to process – his biggest rival’s main star was a free agent and was still recognised as the NWA World Heavyweight Champion. A deal was soon made and Flair sent his world title ahead of him while he counted down the days left on his contract. Soon, Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan was confronting Hulk Hogan, proclaiming that ‘The Hulkster’ had been ducking the challenge of ‘The Real World’s Champion’ for too long, and that Flair was coming to the WWF. In his hands he held the very same NWA World Heavyweight Championship that Flair had been defending on WCW television. That September saw Flair’s debut in the WWF and he wasted little time in challenging Hogan.
What happened next?
Despite Hogan vs Flair being a dream match which would have been worthy of headlining WrestleMania VIII, the WWF never promoted a Hogan vs Flair match on PPV, instead allowing the once in a lifetime bout to play out on their regular house show circuits. It was a decision that is as baffling today as it was over twenty years ago.
Flair’s first WWF run would see him win the WWF title at Royal Rumble 1992 in an all time classic display. He would drop the title to ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage before winning it back later that year. Seeing that he was not going to be ‘The Man’ in WWF, and with Herd long gone from WCW, Flair dropped the WWF title to Bret Hart before leaving in early 1993, following a ‘Loser Must retire’ bout with his good friend ‘Mr Perfect’ Curt Hennig.