Nature Boy — a documentary about the “Rolex wearin’, diamond ring wearin’, kiss stealin’, wheelin’ dealin’, limousine ridin’, jet flyin’ son of a gun who is always having a hard time trying to hold his alligators down” professional wrestler Ric Flair — is not just another project for Rory Karpf. It was a dream that became a reality.
It premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN.
Growing up in Plymouth Meeting, Karpf watched wrestling on Saturday mornings. He begged anyone who would listen to take him to the Spectrum for WWE events or the Civic Center to see the National Wrestling Alliance.
So when the Plymouth-Whitemarsh graduate began directing films, including installments of ESPN’s critically acclaimed sports documentary series 30 for 30, he had a project about professional wrestling in mind.
At first, he was working a piece on Andre the Giant, but it never crystallized into anything. It was while directing the 30 for 30 doc I Hate Christian Laettner, about the former Duke basketball star who was reviled by rivals, that another idea struck. For Laettner, Karpf interviewed 16-time world heavyweight wrestling champion “Nature Boy” Ric Flair because he wanted to talk another pop culture villain. In Flair, Karpf found a character even more interesting than Andre.
ESPN noticed there was a certain amount of buzz surrounding Flair’s appearance in Laettner and offered Karpf the chance to direct a doc about Flair. “I practically ran through the wall,” Karpf said.
Flair is one of the greatest trash-talkers in wrestling history. He was incredibly charismatic in and out of the ring, dressing in fancy suits and living the life of partying and womanizing that he bragged about on screen. Though he never had the same crossover appeal as Hulk Hogan, his effect on pop culture is still felt today. Athletes quote him, and rappers sample his interviews in songs.
Karpf knows first-hand of Flair’s talents. He saw Flair style and profile at University City’s Civic Center in the 1980s. Digging through archival footage, Karpf found that Flair remained mesmerizing. “Sometimes you remember things better than they were. You think something was great and then you watch it again and you’re like, ‘Eh … it wasn’t as good as I remember,’ ” Karpf said. “Ric Flair was better than I remembered.”
“I would spend hours watching his promos because I would just get lost in it,” he added. “He was so funny and also believable. He could flip a switch and be so intense, and he would change things up.”
Karpf’s Nature Boy is a look at why Flair was such a captivating figure. He was so good at being his character, he couldn’t separate Ric Flair from Richard Fliehr, the real guy in those fancy suits.
With great fandom comes great responsibility, and Karpf said he felt immense pressure to tell Flair’s story correctly. “This isn’t a chronological telling of Ric Flair’s greatest hits and matches,” Karpf said. “It’s something that tries to encapsulate who Ric Flair was, why he matters, and what wrestling is.”
“That’s a big task,” he said. “I felt like I wasn’t just trying to tell the Ric Flair story; I was trying to tell a story for the 12-year-old version of me, who would watch things on television about wrestling and be disappointed. I really wanted to make something for that kid that he would be satisfied with.”
Karpf also saw Flair from an entirely human angle, flaws and vulnerabilities that aren’t on display when Flair is in the ring. Among the toughest conversations Karpf had with Flair was about the 2013 death of his son, Reid.
“Your instinct as a human being when somebody’s crying is to give them relief, to stop asking about it, to go away, but at the same time, he’s showing vulnerability in that moment and he’s expressing himself maybe in a way he hasn’t before, so I try to put on my filmmaker hat and try to delve a little bit deeper,” Karpf said.
“It’s a real balance you have to strike because you don’t want to cross a line and have the person devastated in a puddle of tears, but at the same time, you want to try to be real.”
Karpf had to make Flair’s flaws just as much a part of the story as his rise to the top of wrestling. Nature Boy does not shy away from Flair’s infidelity, alcoholism, strained relationship with his parents, and the fact that his children didn’t always approve of his lifestyle.
“I told him from the beginning that this wasn’t going to be just a whitewashing of his life, so I didn’t know what to expect, how he would feel,” Karpf said. “I think he knows that he led this crazy life and he’s done a lot of crazy things.”
“You think about the people that say the things about him that might be less than flattering, it’s not like it’s his enemies or people that have an ax to grind with him. It’s like his children, Triple H, Shawn Michaels, the people that care about him the most, and I think it makes it that much more powerful, in a way, when it’s coming from those people,” he said.
Even after filming on Nature Boy wrapped, Flair found himself close to death. In August, he was put in a medically induced coma. His kidneys almost shut down and he nearly died due to congestive heart failure. After he recuperated, he said he drank at least 10 beers and five cocktails a day.
Flair has since pledged to lead a cleaner life, but when Karpf showed him Nature Boy for the first time in March, he was drinking.
“I didn’t know how he was going to react, but he hugged me afterwards and told me he thought it was great,” Karpf said. “To his credit, he was OK having the good, the bad, and the ugly all in the film.”
10 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN.