An article by Mike Mooneyham
Published on Sept. 29, 1998
It was, simply put, a night for the ages. It was wrestling’s version of Mark McGwire hitting his 62nd home run.
Ric Flair’s return to WCW last Monday night in Greenville, S.C., before a sellout crowd of 16,000 and millions of others watching on television, may have been the single greatest professional wrestling moment ever captured on film. If you don’t have a tape, I suggest getting one.
Arn Anderson, perhaps the most underrated communicator in the history of the profession, delivered the performance of a lifetime in setting the stage for his longtime friend. Watching Ric Flair walk that aisle and seeing him genuinely overcome by emotion was one of those rare human moments in wrestling that transcend the business. It was, perhaps, the biggest pop in the history of the sport as the 49-year-old 13-time world heavyweight champion emerged to the familiar strains of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Unsuccessfully fighting back tears, he entered the ring to the thunderous ovation of a town that for years had been a Four Horsemen stronghold. It was a scene in which real life was played out in the most unlikely of places – a pro wrestling ring.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Making the event that much more memorable was the announcing team of Tony Schiavone, Bobby Heenan and Mike Tenay, along with a production crew that captured on film the emotion of the moment. Schiavone, with a hint of what was to follow, aptly chronicled the proceedings for posterity: “One week ago, ladies and gentlemen, when Mark McGwire hit 62, you’d always know where you’d be on that day; well, at 10:38 p.m. Eastern time on Monday, Sept. 14, you were a part of wrestling history. He is back!”
The emotion in Flair’s eyes, as Tenay and Heenan put it, told the whole story. “Words just do not do this moment justice,” said Tenay, an avid follower of the business since the ’60s. What followed will be video that will live on forever in the annals of pro wrestling.
When Ric Flair told the crowd, “I’m almost embarrassed by the response,” you knew it came from the heart as he was almost too overcome by emotion to pick up the microphone. And when he added, “When I see this, I know that the 25 years that I spent trying to make you happy every night of your life was worth every damn minute of it,” it just reinforced the feeling that the man delivering those sentiments was the same man you’ve always considered to be the greatest wrestler of your generation. When he shifted into the “Nature Boy” mode and declared, “Somebody told me we’re having a party in Greenville tonight,” many fans who grew up watching Ric Flair were suddenly transformed back to a time in which they, indeed, were partying with the man and his legendary entourage.
The intensity reached a fever pitch when real-life frustrations surfaced with a vengeance in what will surely be remembered as a classic face-to-face confrontation: the tyrannical, dictatorial head of the promotion against the people’s champion, a star in the twilight of his career who, rather than follow the company line and be put out to pasture, chose to defend the tradition of the business and his love for it, to the bitter end if need be.
Little could be said or done – even a world championship match between Sting and Bill Goldberg, to follow Flair. “Wow!” was Heenan’s response immediately after the commercial break. “That was the greatest moment in the history of this television program – bar none; bar none!” added Sciavone, a veteran play-by-play man whose ability shines when he’s selling a product he believes in, but whose credibility is damaged when he plays the role of company shill, overstating the importance of a pay-per-view or having to produce chicken salad out of something much less appetizing.
But when Schiavone remarked, “I’m so glad I was here for this,” you knew he was, as it was Ric Flair who helped him land a job with Crockett Promotions two decades ago when Schiavone called games at Crockett Park for Charlotte’s minor league baseball team.
“(It gave me) goose bumps,” said Tenay, as it did thousands of other fans lucky enough to witness the event. Added former Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Lee Marshall on the Thursday night show: “It was the single greatest moment in the history of our sport. It rivals, emotionally, some other great sports moments: Lou Gehrig saying he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth, the retirement of Mike Schmidt. What Ric Flair told everybody, and I mean everybody, standing on their feet, standing on their feet in their living room, was the single most emotional moment in the history of professional wrestling.”
Heenan summed it up with the following: “It’s not a question of will he get back into the ring. The man has to get back into the ring. This is his life. This is his passion. This is his woman, his lover. He needs this. And wrestling needs Flair.”
We may never see another night like this again. And whether or not Ric Flair ever wins the world championship again, this moment will be forever etched in the memories of his fans.