TAMPA — Ric Flair’s first retirement match seemed perfectly scripted.
It was WWE’s WrestleMania 24 in 2008 against friend Sean Michaels, who modeled his character, in part, after Flair.
He battled valiantly, but could not topple the younger Michaels, who mouthed, “I’m sorry, I love you” to his hero before delivering a kick to Flair’s head, ending the legend’s career.
Flair wept, as did his family seated ringside.
And 70,000 fans stood and cheered as the 16-time world champion walked down the aisle, waved goodbye and disappeared backstage.
The end — until it wasn’t.
Flair, also known as “The Nature Boy,” felt he had more to give. He returned to the ring in 2011 with the TNA promotion before retiring again.
Flair remains unhappy with those performances and that ending.
So, on July 31, Tampa’s 73-year-old Flair will wrestle one final match.
The match will take place in Nashville as part of the Starrcast professional wrestling fan convention. His opponent has not yet been announced.
Wrestling is “in my blood,” Flair said. “It’s my life. So, I thought, why not one more go-around?”
Flair is new to Tampa, moving here in August from Atlanta.
“This town is just mack daddy,” said Flair, whose birth name is Richard Fliehr. “It’s awesome.”
Flair has been regularly boating, frequenting bars Hula Bay and The Battery, and hosting celebrity friends like Dennis Rodman.
How did bar patrons react in April when they realized the two-time WWE Hall of Famer and NBA Hall of Famer were drinking together?
“They ran,” joked Flair.
And then there’s that badge. In March, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister named Flair an honorary deputy.
“You know what that means? I’m untouchable,” Flair laughed.
But Flair said he is working harder than he is partying and credits training opportunities in Tampa for getting him back into shape.
“I feel better about myself now than I did 12 years ago,” Flair said. “I now weigh 223. The last time I wrestled, I weighed 240.”
He works out up two hours a day at Hard Knox South, a private gym where Flair said John Cena’s personal trainer pushes him harder than anyone has in years.
For up to another two hours, he then works on his ring skills at Tampa Bay Pro Wrestling’s Lethal Academy, run by friend and fellow wrestler Jay Lethal.
An Instagram video posted on May 11 shows Flair being body slammed and suplexed by Lethal, real name Lamar Shipman
“That was just an experiment to make sure my pacemaker didn’t come unplugged from landing on the mat,” Flair said.
He was joking — sort of.
In 2017, he was in a medically induced coma for 12 days. He had kidney failure, respiratory heart failure, was septic, and had pneumonia.
Two years later, he received a pacemaker.
But doctors, Flair said, cleared him to return to the ring. “And now it’s just picking up the pace where I’m moving faster and just reacting” during a match.
Flair said he is not doing this out of boredom or because he needs money.
He hosts the “To Be The Man” podcast named for his famed catchphrase: “To be the man you have to beat the man.” He has also partnered with Mike Tyson on a cannabis line and is a featured guest at wrestling conventions throughout the year.
“I’m busy,” he said.
Still, Flair admits his family said he was crazy when he brought up the idea of one more match. “But they’ve always known I was crazy,” he said.
They also support his decision.
“Ric is a legend that has transcended pro-wrestling into our pop culture,” son-in-law and Starrcast promoter Conrad Thompson said. “The response to the announcement of his last match has been tremendous, but nobody is more excited than he is about all of this. Ric loves being the Nature Boy, and I’m glad he gets to walk that aisle one last time.”
Retired professional wrestlers understand why Flair wants to go out on his terms.
“It’s hard to hang it up,” said Tampa’s Brian Blair, 65, who wrestled his retirement match two years ago. “Wrestling gets in your blood. It’s such a high that is indescribable. It’s such a euphoric feeling to get in the ring in modified underwear and get people to cheer or boo. There is nothing like it.”
Tampa’s Jody Simon, who wrestled his retirement match two years ago at a tribute show for his grappler father, Boris Malenko, agrees.
“We all think we have that one more match in us,” said Simon, 65. “But we all don’t have the cache like Ric Flair to get that one last match. But, when any of us do it at older age, we realize that our skillset is less than when we were younger.”
Flair admits his athleticism is diminished but can still pull off his most famous moves — chops to the chests of his opponents, the figure four leglock and strutting the ring as he yells “Wooo” to the crowd.
But what about that signature spot where he gets flipped upside down over the ring ropes, runs the ring apron, climbs to the top turnbuckle and leaps off, only to be caught with a punch to the stomach?
“That’s what I’m working on,” Flair said. “It’s just a timing issue. I’ll guarantee I’ll be coming off the top rope. Whether it’s the flip or not, I don’t know.”
He also guarantees that this last match will be better than his first, which took place 50 years ago against George “Scrap Iron” Gadaski in Wisconsin.
“I was horrible,” Flair said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. It takes a long time to learn how to do this properly.”
He became an international star who wrestled industry greats spanning decades, from Dusty Rhodes to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
It’s often said that Flair could entertain a crowd while wrestling a broomstick.
“He’s one of the greatest of all time,” Blair said. “No one can say otherwise.”
While with TNA, Flair wrestled fellow icon and Tampa Bay resident Hulk Hogan, former Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle and longtime foe Sting (the professional wrestler, not the musician.) He bled, strutted and was suplexed off a top rope.
But Flair doesn’t think he was in proper shape with TNA. That run ended suddenly when he tore his left triceps in a match, robbing him of a formal retirement bout.
This final match in July, Flair said, will “better than I was the last time I wrestled with TNA. That’s all that really matters. I just want one more go around to look back on and say I did something special. I’m pretty confident it will be something special.”