With 'Nature Boy', ESPN opens a door for WWE Network to bust through

Image: WWE.com

I was out walking the dog a few minutes before ‘Nature Boy’ debuted on ESPN Tuesday night and was thinking about some of the chatter I had heard from those who had previewed the doc, nearly all of which were wrestling media.

I thought about how difficult it was to please those within our bubble because there’s never enough information, never enough stories about the old days, and, at times, never enough content. We always want more when it comes to the classics, be it to scratch the itch of nostalgia or to provide an escape hatch away from the current pro wrestling product.

As I sat down to watch the much-promoted Ric Flair ESPN 30 For 30 documentary, a idea came to mind on how to build a bigger hatch, but I’ll share more on that after a few paragraphs about what we saw with the documentary, much of which was covered by the most recent Wrestling Observer Radio.

Going in, we knew it was going to be difficult to cover an iconic career that spanned decades in just under 90 minutes. But filmmaker Rory Karpf and company did about as good a job as you could expect putting together a story that was geared toward the mainstream sports audience, not just wrestling fans.

What would you expect to see is in here: the backstory of his upbringing, how he got into wrestling, his desire to be out on the town rather than at home and what that did to several marriages and his relationships with his kids, the classic feuds, the lifestyle, the death of his son, his WWE run, and even his sad TNA run. These are all the stories we have heard before, just from a different storyteller and different perspective.

Finding their way between the major story rocks was a lot of interesting sand. The interviews with Flair were good and the supporting cast helping tell the story was a wrestling who’s who from nearly every stage of his career. I found the interviews with his ex-wives very interesting as they helped paint a clearer picture of the guy that we didn’t see off camera. That contrasted with the footage of him with son Reid which gave us a look at a doting father, setting us up for the devastation that happened to Ric following Reid’s death.

My biggest takeaway from ‘Nature Boy’ was how much Flair was, and is, uncomfortable with being Richard Fliehr. How his parents responded to his rise in fame and success was jarring as were the stories of how from “1972 through 1999, I was never home.” Along the way, Ric Flair swallowed Richard Fliehr whole, a common thread throughout the history of the entertainment industry. It’s when we get to see the wreckage left behind by that takeover that we realize that fame truly comes with a price.

‘Nature Boy’ is well worth the watch, but here’s where that idea, and really a question, comes in: Why didn’t WWE Network do this first?

Considering the amount of interest this garnered and their desire for the Network to be a must-have service for wrestling fans, a no-brainer of an idea is to keep the story going and do their own Flair documentary but over the course of several hours. Essentially, WWE should create a Netflix/HBO style limited documentary series that fills in all the blanks for a different audience: us.

I understand their desire to keep the audience’s focus on the current day and future and how the past should remain where it is, but not doing longer documentary series on some of the game’s biggest legends is a lost opportunity. I wouldn’t keep my Network sub going for Ride Along, but I definitely would for great storytelling and true event television like this.

With the HBO Andre The Giant documentary likely to garner the same positive pop culture buzz, I wish they would further build out a group with the intent of becoming great documentary storytellers, taking advantage of all of the footage and access they have at their fingertips.

If ‘Nature Boy’ told us anything, much like the wrestling business consumed Ric Flair, there’s an audience ready to consume the stories about how that happens.

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