by Robot Hammer (@robot_hammer)
Ric Flair is one of the greatest professional wrestlers to ever grace God’s green Earth. He’s a two time WWE Hall of Fame member, both as a singles competitor and as a member of the legendary Four Horsemen. He’s sold out arenas all over the world, wrestling a virtual who’s who of talent over a career that stretches over four decades. If I could only watch one wrestler’s matches for the rest of my life, I’d choose Flair, just because of the sheer scope of his opponents. From Terry Funk to Edge, from Dusty Rhodes to Eddie Guerrero, from Harley Race to Shawn Michaels, he’s wrestled the best of the best. Despite all of this, The Nature Boy’s biggest claim to fame in some fan’s eyes is his recognized sixteen reigns as a World Heavyweight Champion. For now, that’s the record for the most NWA/WCW/WWE combined title reigns, but that claim is in jeopardy, from one of the most polarizing people in sports entertainment.
John Cena, current WWE World Heavyweight Champion, has fifteen title reigns to his name. At 37, Cena still has the potential to be wrestling in his prime for years to come. If he doesn’t beat, or at the very least tie, Naitch’s record it will be a small miracle. The WWE views him as their fall back choice for champion when things go wrong with plans for guys like Daniel Bryan, and with good reason. He’s been a proven commodity and performer for over ten years now. As the biggest name on the WWE’s roster, it’s never a question of if Cena will be champion, but when will he be champion. He’s a public relations dream come true, visiting Make-A-Wish kids, doing TV and radio interviews, and representing the WWE everywhere he goes.
The prospect of Cena having more title reigns than Flair is enough to drive some members of the WWE’s fan base insane. Yes, it took Flair nearly twenty years to collect sixteen reigns and Cena has fifteen in less than a decade, and yes, the nature of wrestling has changed, and the perceived value of championship reigns has changed along with it. So what? Wrestling is an art form, and like any art form that survives it’s boom period, it’s adapted and evolved to stay relevant.
The idea that Flair’s record should stay intact just to maintain his legacy falls apart for me on two fronts. The first is that Flair’s career is built on so much more than a number. He had classic bouts with the best wrestlers in the world and led lesser wrestlers to the best matches of their careers. He’s among the true elites on the microphone, spouting catchphrases while the crowds, both in the arena and watching at home, were clinging to his every word. Even without his championship reigns, he’d still be one of the best pure entertainers to ever lace up a pair of boots. And that’s not even taking into account his suit and robe fashion choices.
The second front is the more important one. As a scripted, coordinated form of entertainment, wrestling has the opportunity to create history. There’s no way to know if records in baseball, football, or any other sport will stand or fall. While the risk and anticipation of sports can be recreated in wrestling, the WWE can build a story out of Cena’s chase for his sixteenth and seventeenth reigns to make his possible surpassing of Flair all the more exciting. Why sacrifice the potential to sell tickets, make money, and put on a hell of a show just to maintain a record that Flair doesn’t need? Because if and when Cena becomes a seventeen time champion, we’re still going to remember the Nature Boy. We’ll be online arguing and debating whose title reigns were better. We’ll write articles and blog posts. We’ll talk it over with friends and fellow fans. Cena will hold the record and Flair will still be Flair.
One of Ric Flair’s best catchphrases was his most simple. “To be the man, you gotta beat The Man!” Before his career is over, John Cena faces the opportunity to break a long celebrated and revered record, cementing his status as The Man for his generation. While Cena won’t be wrestling Flair when and if he wins a seventeenth championship, Flair’s presence will be felt on that night. That’s a much bigger and fitting legacy for the Nature Boy, as far as I’m concerned. If handled in a certain light, the story of Cena chasing his sixteenth and seventeenth title reigns can be turned into a celebration of Flair, making his title reign record an active part of the story, and not just a soundbite of trivia.
Wrestling is a “RIGHT NOW” art form. That’s why commentators declare the next pay per view to be the most important one ever, until next month, when that show becomes the biggest sporting event of all time. It’s why the match taking place each night, in that very ring, is the match that each wrestler knows will define his or her career. It’s why Cena should break Flair’s record, and why, if the stars align and we’re in a similar situation years from now, someone should break Cena’s record too. If that happens, some fan somewhere who grew up wearing Hustle Loyalty Respect armbands and waving his hand in front of his face will wonder about Cena’s legacy. As it should be. Wrestling is a generational art form, and one generation shouldn’t be held back by the previous generation’s accomplishments.