Ric Flair, the man fans know as The Nature Boy, spent 40 years reveling in the spotlight, and drinking in his downtime convinced he didn’t have a problem.
Looking back, he says, it was easy to justify his drinking, as something he could control.
“I don’t carry a flask, I don’t drink at home, and I’m a social drinker,” Flair says he would tell himself.
But on August 11, 2017, the 69-year old former world champion wrestler got a wakeup call.
As pain tore through his abdomen, his fiance’ Wendy Barlow rushed Flair to Gwinnett Medical Center’s emergency room.
“I knew that something was going on because it really hurt,” Flair says. “So, she took me and, sure enough, my intestines had ruptured.”
Flair has a major bowel obstruction.
“And if that goes on long enough, it causes a cascade of problems: hypoglycemic shock, sepsis, multi-organ failure,” vascular surgeon Dr. Jim Elsey says. “All of that which Mr. Flair had.”
Dr. Elsey, who had operated on Flair two times before, wasn’t sure he could survive this.
“He was in shock,” Elsey says. “He was in renal failure. He had a complete heart block. He had multiple electrolyte abnormalities.”
Dr. Elsey says the drinking didn’t cause Flair’s bowel obstruction, but it left him weak and disoriented.
Flair had prided himself on being strong and fit, working out no matter how late he came home from the bars.
Yet, alcohol had taken its toll.
“I mean my whole life, I never drank during the day,” Flair says. “But at night, when I’m through working, yeah, I drank.”
Then in March of 2013, just as Wendy Barlow came back into his life, Flair’s son Reid died of a heroin overdose at 25.
‘I remember the night before his son passed away,” Barlow says. “We had dinner, and he said to me, he said, ‘Promise me you’ll take care of my father,’ and it was just like a premonition.”
Flair says he felt somehow responsible for his son’s death.
“I didn’t start ‘day drinking’ until probably right before my son died,” Flair says. “And then, I really, after he passed away, it was 10 in the morning until 2 a.m. every day.”
Consuming as many as 20 drinks in one sitting, Flair finally went to rehab in 2015, only to start drinking again a month later.
Now, two years later, at Gwinnett Medical, he was so weak and so sick, it took 18 hours to get Flair stable enough to operate.
The prognosis was grim.
“I gave him about a 20 percent survival rate,” Dr. Elsey says.
Flair made it through the difficult surgery, but was so sick, he doesn’t remember the ICU, the long journey to get back on his feet, or the withdrawal from alcohol.
“So, it made it easier for him not to drink when he got back home,” Barlow says. “But, not to think about it? That takes a strong man. And that’s who he is.”
Dr. Elsey says he had a long talk with Flair after his scare.
“I said, ‘You can’t do this again, Ric. Okay? This is our chance to get better here. We can’t have this again.’ And, he laughed at it, and thought it was funny.”
But Ric Flair says his brush with dying shook him, and he hasn’t had a drink since he got sick in August.
He says he feels lucky to still be alive.
“You have no idea,” Flair says. “You want to know something? I am preoccupied with dying, does that make sense to you? I think about it every day.”
Still, Barlow says Flair seems happier than she’s ever seen him.
“He talks about how he looks back on things in the hospital and he’s sad, but I’ve seen him laugh more now that I have in a long time,” she says.
And Ric Flair says he feels better than he has in years, and Wendy Barlow says she feels like they’re living “a miracle.”
“I see him very thankful, stronger in his faith and very at peace with himself,” Wendy Barlow says. “And I’m loving this. I’m loving every minute of it.”