Flair's final Rumble?

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January 25, 2008

"Diamonds are forever, and so is Ric Flair! WOOOOOO!"
-Ric Flair in one of his first WWE interviews, from the Nov. 1991 WWE Magazine

When the "Nature Boy" uttered that quote shortly after entering WWE for the first time, he was just weeks away from his first Royal Rumble experience. Sixteen years and several illustrious chapters to his career later, Flair faces what could be his final Rumble this Sunday at MSG, when he meets MVP in a Career Threatening Match.

The 1992 Royal Rumble, Flair's first, was one of the crowning moments of his career, and almost a halfway point of sorts. For the first 20 years of his career -- one that began in 1972, before many of today's top WWE Superstars, including MVP, were even born -- Flair was almost untouchable. In those two decades, he amassed seven NWA World Championships, plus countless other singles and tag team championships. Arguably, he was the centerpiece of the NWA.

And then, on Jan. 19, 1992 in Albany, N.Y., the "Nature Boy" grabbed the highest honor in sports-entertainment, the WWE Championship. In winning the 1992 Royal Rumble Match -- one that featured a Who's Who of former and future WWE Champions, Hall of Famers and WWE Legends -- and claiming the vacant gold, Flair did something no one had thought possible: He entered the match at No. 3 and went the distance, truly outlasting 29 other Superstars by logging an hour in the ring to claim his eighth World Championship.

"I can tell you all, with a tear in my eye, that this is the greatest moment in my life," an emotional Flair crowed in a post-Rumble interview with "Mean" Gene Okerlund. "When you're the king of WWE, you're the king of the world. Now it's Ric Flair, and you all pay homage to ‘The Man.' Woooooo!"

Twenty years after his debut, Flair had truly become "The Man." As good as he was on that night in upstate New York -- and for the first half of his career -- the "Nature Boy" has maintained that peak. In fact, he may, perhaps, have become even better ever since that historic evening.

Unlike several athletes in recent history who have hit a championship wall halfway through their careers -- among them, Derek Jeter (four World Series rings in his first five years, none since 2000) and Kobe Bryant (three NBA Championships in his first six seasons, none since 2002) -- the "Nature Boy" has, like a fine wine, only gotten better with age.

Why? While even the greatest sports superstars seem to slow down with age, Flair has merely adapted his ring strategies. They don't call him the "Dirtiest Player in the Game" for nothing, after all, and he has changed his game to stay on top. In the last 16 years, Flair has doubled his World Championship output en route to becoming a 16-time kingpin; claimed both the Intercontinental and World Tag Team Championships; and even beaten the very Chairman of WWE, Mr. McMahon, in a Street Fight (at, of all events, the Royal Rumble).

Then again, if there's anyone in WWE whose career can rival Flair's so far, it's MVP. While the "Nature Boy" may be the original "King of Bling," the current United States Champion is well on his way to achieving that crown -- if he hasn't already.

It has been less than a year-and-a-half since Montel Vontavious Porter first made his mark on the WWE scene. Since then, SmackDown's highest-paid free agent signing has co-held the WWE Tag Team Championship, worn the United States Championship for more than nine months and, thanks to his attitude, become one of the most hated men in WWE. Sound familiar? It might to Flair, who ascended a similar path to the top when he first began his career.

Most importantly, though, he has beaten Flair, last July at Vengeance: Night of Champions. MVP claims that he's better than the "Nature Boy" -- hell, he says he's better than everyone -- and one day he may just be. Sure, he has three-plus decades, a suitcase full of World Championships and a one-way ticket to the Hall of Fame to go, but the sky is the limit for the infinitely talented Porter.

So the question is this: At the Royal Rumble, can Ric Flair continue to adapt and survive as he has throughout the second half of his career? He's had to do it ever since Mr. McMahon informed him that his next loss will be his last. Yet from Triple H to Umaga to Randy Orton, the "Nature Boy" has found a way to beat some of the best WWE has to offer over the last eight weeks. You can look back at Flair's Career Threatening Match history here.

Still, there comes a day when all athletes must finally hang up their cleats -- or boots, in this case -- and everyone has an off-night; remember, Flair's also lost the World Title on 16 occasions. But in the same state as his greatest WWE triumph, in the arena where Legends are born, made and cemented -- Ric Flair must walk that aisle once again and come up victorious, or else his illustrious career is over for good.

Flair has never lost a singles match at the Royal Rumble, and by the look of things in recent weeks, he's not ready to start this Sunday. But as "Naitch" himself once said, "To be The Man, you've got to beat The Man." Can MVP become "The Man" at Royal Rumble by closing down "Space Mountain" for good?

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