ORLANDO, Fla. – Deep down, Ric Flair knew this day would come. Mr. McMahon gave him a “win or retire” ultimatum more than four months ago, but the “Nature Boy” didn’t need a mandate to realize his in-ring career was coming to an end. And though tears streamed down his cheeks as he said farewell to the millions of fans he entertained for more than 35 years, Flair didn’t feel any agony in defeat to Shawn Michaels tonight at WrestleMania XXIV. After all, how fitting it is that the greatest wrestler of all time ends his career on The Grandest Stage of Them All.
What a week it had been for the 16-time World Champion! Flair received tributes from well-wishers across the country all week, from receiving the key to the city of Columbia, S.C., last Monday to his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame Saturday night. It was as if “Naitch’s” millions of fans sensed he would not be able to avoid defeat like he had since last November. Everyone wanted to pay tribute to Flair and let him know how much they appreciated watching him for so many years.
Still, that didn’t prevent a hushed silence from engulfing the Citrus Bowl tonight after Michaels stunned Flair with Sweet Chin Music to the jaw and the Nature Boy wasn’t able to rise before the three-count. More than 70,000 of our screaming fans seemed amazed because they had just witnessed history – the end of a legendary career.
At first, HBK couldn't bring himself to unleash Sweet Chin Music and it nearly cost him the match. But he realized during his second and third opportunity that he had to pull the trigger. Flair wanted it that way – no sympathy, no remorse. With tears in his eyes, Flair implored HBK. And with a whisper of "I'm sorry ... I love you," Michaels turned out the lights on Flair's legendary career.
An exhausted HBK buried his head in his hands. The Showstopper – “Mr. WrestleMania” – had provided many unforgettable moments over the years at The Granddaddy of Them All, but this was not one that he wanted. Flair was his idol and his inspiration, the reason he chose to become a Superstar.
As a boy, and later as an up-and-coming Superstar, Michaels worshipped Flair and aspired to be everything the Nature Boy was in the industry. Even today, as a respected, grizzled veteran who has had his own Hall of Fame-caliber career, Michaels is like an awestruck boy when he is in the presence of Flair. Before WrestleMania XXIV, HBK himself said he couldn’t imagine the industry without Flair.
Whirlwind of emotions
However, the Nature Boy and new WWE Hall of Famer chose to face Michaels at WrestleMania. Flair said he handpicked HBK because he considered him “the very best,” and he had to know if he could still defeat the very best on sports-entertainment’s grandest stage.
Flair appreciated all the kind words from well-wishers, but he didn’t want – or necessarily welcome – any suggestion that a loss to HBK at WrestleMania was a foregone conclusion. In many ways, Michaels had no choice but to face Flair. If he didn’t, he would lose the respect of a man he loved. And Flair didn’t want sympathy from HBK; he didn’t want him to hold anything back. The only true way HBK could honor Flair was to give him his very best at WrestleMania.
A Showstopping encounter
And The Showstopper gave Naitch his very best. In some ways, Michaels’ onslaught was an elixir for Flair. The legendary World Champion at times seemed 20 years younger as he battled HBK with a ferocity and a ring mastery that showed our fans why he has been known as both “The Dirtiest Player in the Game” and “Rembrandt of the Squared Circle,” as Jim Ross likes to say.
At one point, thousands of necks craned and jaws dropped in the Citrus Bowl when Flair trapped Michaels in his trademark Figure-Four Leglock and HBK screamed, seemingly moments away from tapping out. As both legends traded momentum for nearly 20 minutes, it was easy to see why Flair has said he sees traces of himself in HBK.
But ultimately, Michaels outlasted Flair. He gave Flair what he wanted – his very best in the form of Sweet Chin Music. At first, HBK couldn't bring himself to unleash Sweet Chin Music and it nearly cost him the match. But he realized during his second and third opportunity that he had to pull the trigger. Flair wanted it that way – no sympathy, no remorse. With tears in his eyes, Flair implored HBK. And with a whisper of "I'm sorry ... I love you," Michaels turned out the lights on Flair's legendary career.
HBK cradled the "Nature Boy's" head, whispered in his ear and then left the ring. When Flair was able to rise, the tears welled in his eyes. Maybe he was relieved; maybe he felt tremendously honored. Flair knew he lost to not only a better competitor this night, but to a man he somewhat molded. In many ways, his career was ended by a near carbon copy of himself.
The Citrus Bowl erupted. Meanwhile, Superstars – Flair rivals and allies alike, who watched the battle from the locker room, gave him a standing ovation. Dusty Rhodes, Ricky Steamboat and Barry Windham – past Flair rivals who were now dear friends and currently WWE officials – saluted him. Flair blew kisses to his wife and children seated in the front row, and even hardened warriors and friends like Arn Anderson and Triple H in the back couldn’t fight back their tears.
Back in 1978, the original "Nature Boy," Buddy Rogers, challenged Flair because he needed to know if his namesake was “for real.” Rogers passed the torch to Flair that night, and nearly 30 years later, the 16-time World Champion has passed it on to Michaels. The Showstopper beat “The Man” on the greatest stage in sports-entertainment. Still, Flair will always be The Man.
"Little Naitch" Charles Robinson, who refereed tonight's match and idolized Flair, wiped tears from his eyes. Robinson could say something no other wrestling official in the world could say: He officiated "Nature Boy" Ric Flair's last match.
Now and always ‘The Man’
It’s amazing to think Flair’s career was almost cut short before it really began. Some doctors predicted that he would never compete again after he was severely injured in a plane crash in 1975. Flair not only came back, but he made a career of defying odds and winning championships. There isn’t a legend or Superstar who has emerged over the last 35 years that Flair hasn’t met and defeated. He even made a believer out of the original “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, who fell to Flair in an iconic encounter in 1978.
Back then, Rogers challenged Flair because he needed to know if his namesake was “for real.” Rogers passed the torch to Flair that night, and nearly 30 years later, the 16-time World Champion has passed it on to Michaels. The Showstopper beat “The Man” on the greatest stage in sports-entertainment.
Still, Flair will always be The Man. Just look at the champions he has mentored and inspired – Triple H, Michaels, Batista and Randy Orton, to name a few. And DX, Evolution, the New World Order and any other wrestling supergroup that will form in the years to come owe gratitude to Flair’s Four Horsemen. “Also Sprach Zarathustra” has played for the last time, but the Nature Boy’s legacy lives on. Diamonds are forever, and so is Ric Flair. Woooooo!