In the Wrestling Ring with Ric Flair, Where ‘Evil is the Natural Climate’

WCCW Star Wars: Kerry Von Erich vs Ric Flair for the World Heavyweight Championship (25 Dec 1982)

A sublime asshole blazes into the blackness of the theater: a cascade of bleached blond hair atop a blistering red robe, patterned sequins that spell out ‘Nature Boy’ topped with a small crown glittering in the pinpoint spotlight. We follow him out through the crowd, seeing only his back, flash bulbs popping, boos and jeers erupting from the darkened stalls, until we find the ring itself: a luminous square of blue with a thronging sea of silhouettes pressed up against the steel cage that lines its boundaries.

The announcer tells us that this flamboyant figure is a coward. Not only had he been trying to escape this match, it had recently been proved that he paid a bounty to have his opponent injured before the fight.

But now, in the ring, he stands stoic and serious, subdued and pacing as his revered opponent enters. Finally, the ring announcer formally names him for the crowd and we see his face for the first time in the full spotlight, head bowed for a moment with furrowed brow:

The world heavyweight champion, from Minneapolis Minnesota, 240 lbs, Nature Boy, Ric Flair!

He lifts his head and raises his arms to meet the resounding boos and jeers of the crowd massed at the walls of the cage.

Caught somewhere between the seemingly-straightforward focus of early bouts and the non-stop spectacle of today’s WWE, this Christmas day title match for the World Heavyweight Championship from WCCW Star Wars in 1982 has just about everything for the casual and seasoned wrestling viewer alike: big-name fan-favorite competitors, a quick pace despite being a reasonably long match, a smattering of skillfully executed moves and holds, and the set-up for a major ongoing soap-operaesque rivalry. Oh, and don’t forget blood. Ric Flair sure knows how to bleed.

And it’s Flair who will be the real revelation for uninitiated viewers. Following Flair through the crowd into the ring with a minimum of showboating gives the lead-in to the event an oddly intimate feel — Flair doesn’t need to sell himself as a heel at this point, and his quiet poise beneath the crowd heat generates a brewing intensity and a kind of weird sympathy when this initial dignity finally collapses into trademark cartoonish agony beneath the beating that’s waiting for him at the hands of Kerry Von Erich (much to the delight of the screaming teenage girls in the audience).

In fact, it’s this odd duality in Flair that’s perhaps seen him become one of the most revered and longest-running wrestlers in the business. Wrestling fans love to throw around real honest-to-goodness rasslin’ terminology like ‘heels’ (bad guys) and ‘faces’ (the good guys aka ‘babyfaces’), but the performance nuances in the wrestling game are, when at their best, clearly a little more complicated than just waiting for a good guy to beat up the bad guy.

When wrestling fans are out for a little sophisticated cred, they generally need look no further than Roland Barthes, who wrote an enjoyable appraisal of professional wrestling in his seminal 1957 book of cultural analyses, Mythologies (sorely needing an updated standard English translation). Barthes’ final statement seems to be fairly commonly quoted:

Wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.

It’s a nice line, but tends to lose something when taken out of context, coming across as a simple ‘it’s nice to see good guys beat bad guys’ statement — a reading which tends to back up Barthes’ suggestion that American wrestling, unlike the French he was writing about, is primarily about asserting moral superiority by vanquishing ‘quasi-political’ undesirables and remains a simple ‘sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil’.

That’s reasonable enough, of course, and clearly holds some basic truth, but it doesn’t really capture the full essence of Barthes’ discussion of the inherent art and morality of wrestling. In this realm where ‘Evil is the natural climate’, a wrestler who manages to craft himself into a grade-A jerk still finds himself with ‘a highly moral image’.

A real heel can create a kind of jerkdom that takes on the status of a spiritual calling. When he’s beaten down, we’re not just seeing justice served, but we also take part, as Barthes points out, in a kind of spectacle of suffering. The heel has played his role without restraint or renunciation in the face of certain punishment, of unavoidable vengeful retribution, and this audacity (especially from a master like Flair) can hardly be crushed without some underlying audience identification and sympathy, perhaps admiration, even as we cheer on the final settling of scores.

So, in this solid and energetic match, when Flair skips away from direct confrontation (like effeminate showman Gorgeous George before him), takes on a look of vicious glee with the pain he inflicts, howls in overblown agony with every hit he takes, and crawls for refuge outside the ring or over the cage walls (nearly losing his trunks in the process), it’s a remarkable descent into overblown suffering and defiant jerkdom, and one that leads to an odd and masterful mix of pathos and bathos that stretches over the half-hour bout.

Once his head starts bleeding (the camera cuts away immediately beforehand, almost certainly to give Flair a chance to open the wound himself), raked across the cage and soaking his bleached hair a sickening red, Flair takes on the status of some doomed heel-god too firmly attached to his own ethic to renounce it: he knows his ‘Evil’ is doomed to failure and retribution, and yet he persists until he’s nothing more than a broken bloody mess on the mat.

Here, perhaps more concisely and efficiently than in any other match (although it’s not necessarily his best match), Flair epitomizes Barthes’ ‘perfect bastard’, adopting a cowardly and devious state of jerkdom as an all-consuming compulsion: it persists as an unrenounceable state of being, not a mere contrary reaction to the presence of ‘good’. Like the similarly wonderfully overblown Vincent Price as Prospero in Roger Corman’s adaptation of Masque of the Red Death (1964), Flair’s heel pursues fully and unreservedly his role to its ultimate end, even as that end becomes more and more untenable. And, in doing so, his petty and coarse existence is elevated into some quasi-mythological trajectory and state of being.

Certainly, few wrestlers have managed to establish as exciting and colourful a career as Flair’s: hopping between roles as the beloved face and the hated heel for decades, all the while somehow remaining the ‘dirtiest player in the game’.

Ordinary run-of-the-mill wrestling heels just act like thugs or psychos for a bit and then eventually get beaten. Other ‘total badasses’ like ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin have ‘attitude’ and become fan favorites for teenage boys, which, of course, still relies entirely on acceptance by a certain dominant sense of morality. They may pretend to flaunt the moral rules, but instead simply recreate them, drawing roars of approval rather than that odd mix of awe and contempt.

But Flair treats being a jerk like it’s a persistent and irreconcilable natural force, an ethic than can be crushed but never renounced. And in never asking for our love, of never relenting to stoop to meet our own simple standards (unless that too is a deceit), he transcends the mere ‘bad guy’, and his display of ‘Evil’ becomes an art.

While Flair ultimately claims victory this time around and manages to hold on to his championship belt, his win is overshadowed by the beginning of a a monumental feud between the Von Erichs and the Fabulous Freebirds, with the wonderfully only-in-wrestling moment of the steel cage door being slammed on Kerry Von Erich’s head after referee Michael Hayes mistakenly believed Von Erich had attacked him (hopefully we’ll have a chance to see the rest of that feud on dvd one day). Confronted with this sudden eruption of melodrama around poor babyface Kerry, the camera barely takes note of Flair as he staggers from the ring in delightfully unearned victory, beaten and bloody and, with the display of suffering and turmoil now shifted, hardly noticed.

DVD: The Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling

Cast: Abdullah the Butcher, Ric Flair, Jerry Lawler, Sunshine, Mark Lewin

Year: 2007

Rated: not rated

US DVD release date: 2007-12-11

Distributor: World Wrestling

Image: Von Erich died just over ten years after this match, continuing a series of family deaths that all-but wiped out the Von Erich family legacy. His brief stint as the Texas Tornado in the WWE (then WWF) means that fans can most-easily catch him in action (briefly) in Wrestlemania VII, and the Royal Rumble events from 1991 and 1992 (the latter also featuring an encounter with Flair).

The DVD documentary The Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling, which also features this particular match as an extra, is an extraordinary glimpse into the Von Erich’s burgeoning business and an almost impossible string of family tragedies. His daughter Lacey now continues the Von Erich in-ring presence, currently set to appear in the upcoming Wrestlicious (which promises to be enjoyably dopey).

Flair, as most fans will know, was recently ‘retired’ in a match with modern legend Shawn Michaels but still finds himself in and around the ring, recently kicking the hell out of occasional WWE Champion (and generic psycho-heel) Randy Orton. His status as one of the most revered and long-lived workers in the business, now a living mythological presence in his own right and transcending any predetermined labels that wrestling stories might try to create, means that hopefully it won’t be long until he’s spilling more blood on the mat and howling in unrestrained agony to make a new parade of generic barely-intriguing vanquishers look like gods.