It's hard to believe that it's been nearly a half century since I first met the "Nature Boy" Ric Flair.

I remember the moment like it was yesterday.  March 1, 1976. I was a junior at Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood, Queens. But, with the World Wide Wrestling Federation scheduled that night at Madison Square Garden, I wouldn't be in school that day.  You see, each month when the WWF came to Manhattan, it was an unofficial holiday for me.

Don Laible with Ric Flair in 1975. (Photo courtesy of Don Laible)
Don Laible with Ric Flair in 1975. (Photo courtesy of Don Laible)

My regular routine was to take the subway into Manhattan, then stand in front of the Edison Hotel located on West 47th Street, and wait for the wrestlers to check in. The first match of the evening at the Garden was many hours away. I found my perch at the hotel by 9:00 a.m.

Armed with my satchel, in it was my autograph book, and pictures I cut out of wrestling magazines, along with several arena programs, all of which I had hopes of getting signed.  This was a routine of mine for the better part of 1974 - June 1976.  March 1, 1976 was a particularly memorable meet and greet day with the wrestlers in Midtown Manhattan. On this day, I met Ric Flair for the first time in person.

Don Laible (C) with Ric Flair (L) and Jim Cornette (R) in NYC 1991. Photo courtesy of Don Laible.
Don Laible (C) with Ric Flair (L) and Jim Cornette (R) in NYC 1991. Photo courtesy of Don Laible.

I had read about him in Inside Wrestling and The Wrestler magazines. That night, Flair was booked on the Garden show opposite the very popular New Yorker "Pistol" Pete Sanchez. Getting Flair's autograph was my main goal that winter day.

Sure enough, Flair booked a room at the Edison, and I was one of less than a handful of wrestling fans who staked out to meet him.  He was wearing a leisure suit! There was no mistaking him. The long bleached blonde hair had him standout among those coming and going in the heart of the theater district.

Flair was cool. He posed for a picture with me, signed my autograph book, and a magazine cover for me.  For this old-time wrestling fan, looking back, that was a great moment.

Don Laible with Ric Flair in Cooperstown, NY in 2016. Photo courtesy of Don Laible

Just a few years earlier, in  the final days of 1972, Flair had his first match under the billing of Ric Flair. It was good-bye Richard Fliehr, and soon to be "Nature Boy". His first match as Flair resulted in a 10-minute draw in Wisconsin against George "Scrap Iron" Gadaski.

I also came across Flair in August 1991. My friend John Arezzi presented his Weekend of Champions Convention in Queens, at the Ramada located at LaGuardia Airport.  Flair was booked to appear both days.  Aside from making sure the then seven-time world champion had ample amounts of photos to sign for his paying customers, my favorite memory is when I was asked to pay him.

I was in a small room off the banquet room housing the convention . In the makeshift office was myself, John, Nancy Daus (female wrestling valet who one day would be married to Chris Benoit), and Flair.  The champ entered, ready to be paid. John handed me several thousands of dollars (I'll leave it up to your imagination just how much) in one-hundred-dollar bills. They were rolled up, and in the palm of my right hand. As the exchange occurred, Flair never counted the bills, to make sure the agreed upon amount was all there.

Hulk Hogan's Hulkamania Tour - Melbourne
Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan. Getty Images

I'm confident that Flair did indeed count every bill, once he exited the office and resumed meeting his fans. When I greeted him, Flair was addressed as "champ."  I was told he liked that greeting, and previously I heard others in his business use that same tag when shaking his hand. Once he was pocketing the money, I received a 'Thank you, brother", and the former and future champion disappeared from my sight.

The other times that I came across Flair came in Upstate New York - Troy and Syracuse.

In September 1989, the National Wrestling Alliance presented a show at the Fairgrounds in Syracuse.  The night before the same crew worked in Troy. I left early that morning with my friend and favorite wrestler "Hotstuff" Eddie Gilbert. He slept in the car as I drove from the Capital District to Central New York. We stopped at my home in Ilion to pick up my wife Barbara.

Once we arrived at a local Holiday Inn, soon the wrestlers began to arrive. As Barbara, Eddie and I were having lunch, Sting entered the room. He came over to our table, spoke briefly, and then grabbed a table for himself.  Then, off to the New York State Fairgrounds we drove.

I was meandering in the dressing room area prior to the start of the show when the promoter asked me if I would like to take the jackets from the wrestlers at ringside. Of course I said yes. You know those gorgeous, sequin, custom-made velour robes Flair wore throughout most of his career?  Once he removes them from his body, Flair wants to make sure the robe finds its way back to the dressing room - and not be stolen.

My relationship with the promoter and wrestlers was Flair's safety net that evening in Syracuse. After his introduction to the thousands of wrestling fans gathered, the "champ" gently folded his blue robe, and as he handed it to me at ringside, he looked me dead in the eye and ordered - "Make sure it gets back where it belongs."

The robe found its way in the dressing room next to Flair's other personal belongings.

Although I crossed paths with Flair on two occasions in Troy in 1989, one of them stands out.

November 15, 1989 at the Houston Field House, on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the NWA would present a live TV show that night on cable's TBS.  The show was billed as Clash of Champions: New York Knockout.

I was at the building hours before the first match would go on.  Mingling with my wrestler friends, the promoter treated me well, and allowed me to remain with the crew. I would be taking photographs for wrestling magazines that evening. Then, something funny happened at about 4:00 p.m. While the wrestlers were seated in the lower bowl, the promoter and NWA officials were going over what will take place later that evening on live TV, Flair had a request.

Professional wrestler Nature Boy Ric Flair in Cooperstown, NY July 25, 2015 (Photos by Don Liable for WIBX)
Professional wrestler Nature Boy Ric Flair in Cooperstown, NY July 25, 2015 (Photos by Don Liable for WIBX)

The main event booked was Flair versus Terry Funk in an "I Quit Match." Flair approached the promoter asking if he could make a run to the airport, to pick up a package at Delta Air Lines.  He was told absolutely not.  The wrestlers were quarantined in the building. With the show going live in hours, there could be no room for an accident happening of any kind that could potentially keep them from appearing as promised.

So, who did the promoter ask to be "the champ's" runner? Yep - yours truly.

I was just excited to do the deed. Flair approached me, informed me to be at Delta, and look for a specific flight. One problem - it was dark out, and I didn't know my way to Albany International Airport on Shaker Road. I just wanted to say yes, but didn't put much thought into the mission. So, I enlist Japanese wrestling magazine photographer Jimmy Suzuki to accompany me. Armed with no map, no GPS, and known to get lost in a phone booth, off I drove.

By the grace of God, we found the airport. Now, getting back to 8th Street in Troy, that was a task and a half. But, we arrived.  Oh, back to Delta.  There was no package to pick up. A lady friend of Flair's was who I was to transport. And a beautiful woman she was, and is still today.  When we walked into the field house, Flair smiled, and thanked me. "The Champ" was now fully ready for performing that "I Quit Match".

When I see that Flair has his own energy drink today - Wooooo Energy, still appears in wrestling with the AEW group, can be seen on TV commercials, I really am surprised.  I thought his fame was done several years ago but who knows the power of promotion better than the "Nature Boy"?  He's endured some health scares in recent years but there's no slowing him down. I should have seen this coming 49 years ago at the Edison Hotel.

Kristine Bellino, WIBX

Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter from the Mohawk Valley, now living in Florida. He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at Don can be contacted via email at 

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