ESPN's 30 for 30
Game, set, and match for 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair in Houston: The real story behind the 30 for 30 episode
Pro wrestling legend and "limousine-riding, jet-flying, kiss-stealing, wheeling-dealing" trainwreck, Ric Flair made the publicity rounds recently to talk up his controversial bio-documentary, Nature Boy, which drew the highest ratings for ESPN's 30 for 30 series in more than a year. Nature Boy drew 1.8 million viewers for its premiere airing, almost twice as many viewers than 30 for 30 has averaged in 2017.
During one national interview, Flair talked about the time he came to Houston and played a tennis match against "the 12-year-old champion." It was a typical "bull in a China shop" story, with Flair recounting how the kid beat him badly. It was a very cute story, filled with self-effacing humor ... except for one detail.
Everything he said was wrong.
If you watched Nature Boy, you heard Flair admit to drinking "10 beers and five mixed drinks" every day for decades. Many of his wrestling associates said they'd take the over on the beers and mixed drinks. Flair's out-of-control drinking exploits on the road, especially in hotels and on airplanes, are the stuff of legends. And legal action. So let's chalk up Flair's cloudy memory of his tennis match to booze.
It's too bad. Because what actually happened at the Westside Tennis Club is a much crazier story. I should know. The whole thing was my idea.
Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale called me in 2001 and said he was filming a commercial with Flair at Gallery Furniture, did I want to watch? Sure. The spot ended with Flair body-slamming Mack over "two great recliners for one low price." Okay, it wasn't DeNiro and Pacino. But the idea was to sell furniture, not win an Oscar.
That was the year that Mack bought the U.S. Clay Court Championships tennis tournament to Westside Tennis Club, which he happened to own. Mack asked me to come up with a publicity stunt to promote the event. I knew that Flair would be in Houston that week, appearing at the Summit (later called Compaq Center, now Lakewood Church). I asked Flair if he'd play along with a comedy bit. Sure.
The tennis tournament featured two pro matches each night, with a few minutes of entertainment, usually a local band, between matches.
Except for opening night. The "entertainment" would be a doubles match between a 7-year-old tennis whiz and a 9-year-old champ against "Ken Hoffman and his mystery partner."
I began to plant clues to my mystery partner's identity in my little newspaper column — "won matches in more than 40 countries" and "has more titles than Martina Navratilova." All the clues pointed to my partner being tennis Hall of Famer Steffi Graf.
Except it was Ric Flair.
That night we snuck Flair into the players locker room at Westside Tennis Club. You should have seen the pros run to shake Flair hand, get a photo together, ask for an autograph. Flair said he had never played tennis, and James Blake happily gave Flair one of his rackets to use.
The first pro match ends, and the announcer introduces the kids who will be playing against me and my mystery partner. Amazingly, it looked like nobody had left the stands. I took the court and then, "Here is Ken's mystery partner."
Flair's entrance music, "2001: A Space Odyssey," hit the loudspeakers. Flair walked out, "styling and profiling," tanned almost red, wearing one of his sequined wrestling robes. Here's where I was concerned. These are hardcore tennis fans. What if they think it's sacrilegious for a bleached blonde "fake" wrestler, who's never touched a racket, to play on center court at a real tennis event? What if they're insulted by the whole skit?
Except the crowd went absolutely crazy with delight. Spectators were screaming Flair's trademark "Wooo!," like they do now for Houston Astro outfielder and Flair fan Josh Reddick.
We had a couple of comedy spots planned. With the kids about to finish us off, I hit a ball as hard as I could. It landed in the top row of the stadium. Announcer Cliff Drysdale announced, "Out! Point to the kids."
I protested to Drysdale, who's one of the stodgier voices of tennis. I was surprised he even agreed to officiate this "match." I told him, "I think the ball was good. It should be our point."
Drysdale said something like, "Are you nuts? The ball sailed into the stands. The point goes to the kids. And if you continue to argue, I will disqualify your team."
I turned to Flair. "You handle this." Flair approached Drysdale, flexing his muscles, "The ball was good," and started climbing the umpire's chair to make his point. Drysdale had a change of mind. "Correction, the ball was good." The crowd erupted.
I told the kids, who were in on the joke, "in the last game, hit an easy shot to Ric Flair and let him smash it for a winner." He crushed the easy lob. Flair screamed "Wooo!" and did his trademark strut on the court. Fans lost their minds with laughter.
On match point, one of the kids blasted a forehand past Flair — he probably never even saw it — and the contest was over.