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Ric Flair rose to his feet. His shock of bottle-blonde hair stood on end, just as thousands of fans stood bolt upright in the sold-out stadium. Tears streamed down his face and he clenched his fists in defiance. The Nature Boy gazed across the ring at Shawn Michaels.
The Heartbreak Kid paused, his body wrought with hesitation. Slowly he looked up, to a man he had idolised since he was 15 years old. Shawn considered Ric Flair to be the reason he started wrestling in the first place. And he was about to go down in WWE history as his final opponent.
11 years ago today, Ric Flair retired from the WWE at Wrestlemania XXIV at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando Florida. To mark the anniversary of his emotional exit, SPORTbible spoke to the icon about his remarkable final bow from the sports entertainment.
Despite the fairy-tale ending Flair was afforded by WWE, initially he wasn't sure he even wanted to leave the company.
"Actually I think they decided it was time for me to go! (laughs) It wasn't me volunteering to leave. I'd been there a long time and I was 59 years old. It was mutually agreed upon but I think that they figured while I was still healthy and everything, it was just a good idea to retire."
With the decision made, talk turned to who Flair would face in his final WWE bout. In a career that spanned 36 years and 16 official world title wins, the choice of opponent could not be taken lightly. This final farewell would need to encompass everything that made Flair's career so special, and live up to the high level of performance he was famous for.
"I had hoped it would be Hunter (Ric's close friend Triple H) or Shawn. Either one worked for me. I was just really fortunate to be involved with either one of them. Shawn was probably the greatest performer of all time. It made it very special. I'd wrestled everybody that had any name recognition at that point. There wasn't another opponent that was my dream opponent. Being fortunate enough to wrestle Shawn Michaels was probably the first or second biggest moment of my WWE tenure."
Check out the last time we interviewed the Nature Boy:
With the stage set for a defining clash with Shawn Michaels on WWE's biggest stage, the reality of the task ahead set in. For a man whose career was forged in classic confrontations with the likes of Ricky Steamboat, Harley Race, Dusty Rhodes, Sting and Randy Savage; how would Ric live up to the sky-high expectations his retirement match promised?
"Hunter knew that I was second-guessing my ability at that point in my life. I put a lot unnecessary pressure on myself when I look back on it. At that time I would have self-confidence issues. Whilst Shawn prepared for the match he reassured me that this was going to be a great moment. Hunter walked me through the steps of getting myself ready to work. I had the luxury of the two best performers in the business. One I was wrestling and one was counselling me. One was my psychiatrist! (laughs) People just took it for granted. All the other wrestlers didn't know I had these self-confidence issues. They just assumed 'that's Ric Flair that guy can do anything' when actually I was struggling, which Hunter refused to tolerate."
It's a well-worn showbiz axiom that "it'll be alright on the night", but when Flair and Michaels finally locked up in the Orlando dusk, they went beyond merely alright. They worked together to produce a dramatic and memorable spectacle, one that fittingly provided a bookend to Flair's enduring legacy.
"I sensed there were people that actually thought I was going to win. Which was nice, to think that I could make people think that I still had that level of ability. The whole thing, there was the crowd in Orlando, which of course is not just people from Orlando, but all over the world. They were so gracious and so nice. Shawn delivered a great match, I was just part of it. I was lucky enough to be in the ring with him. He will be remembered as the greatest in-ring performer of all time. Trust me, he was wrestling himself for a lot of that match."
Shawn locked eyes with Flair, who hobbled towards him with the resilience of a man who doesn't know he's beaten. The two men created a tableau reminiscent of Jake Lamotta's final stand-off with Sugar Ray Robinson in Raging Bull. With a shrug of resignation, he uttered the words "I'm sorry. I love you" before blasting the iconic Nature Boy with his patented Sweet Chin Music superkick. As Ric fell to the mat for the final time, Michaels fell on top of him in less of a pinning combination and more of an embrace. The referee logged the closing three seconds of Flair's era with three climactic strikes of the mat. The most decorated career professional wrestling has ever seen was at its end.
The "I'm sorry. I love you" verbiage has become an established part of wrestling folklore in the years since. Often imitated but never truly duplicated, it is surprising to hear that the match's most emotional stanza was completely unexpected.
"That wasn't planned at all. That is a moment I'll never forget. You can't plan something like that. I think it's how he felt. We're extremely close friends. I'm honoured that he grew up admiring me, as did Triple H, and took me there with him in that moment. You can't rehearse something like that. And that's why I've always said, I don't care what sport it is, that might be the greatest retirement that any athlete has ever had the pleasure of being part of."
Nature Boy Ric Flair exited WWE in much the same way he came in. Holding the crowd in the palm of his hand, delivering a performance that stole the show and lived long in the memory. Flair walked into Wrestlemania 11 years ago as a legendary figure with something to prove. He walked out a Hall of Famer who, after a stunning performance, left the crowd wanting more.
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