Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Greatest Story Never Told: The Battle of the Nature Boys Flair vs. Landell

Art begins in imitation and ends in innovation.
-Mason Cooley

Professional wrestling has many examples of the adage "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery". Back in the 80's, the Road Warriors spawned more knock-offs than Gucci handbags on New York City street corners. However wrestling also endorses the idea that "there can only be one". In a business driven by ego, there's only room for one. This was seen in the classic "Battle of the Nature Boys" in the late 1970's and nearly came to repeat itself a decade later. The first battle was a short-lived but memorable classic while the second became better known as a case of "what might have been".

The battle of the Nature Boys. A memorable encounter that played an important role in Ric Flair's ascension to greatness. The brief but memorable encounter saw Ric Flair battle the original "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers in a match to determine who would hold the title of "Nature Boy". Rogers, a legend in the sport and one of the wrestlers who inspired Flair to enter the business, had come to Flair's stomping grounds in the Mid Atlantic area's Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP). With two egos as big as Flair and Rogers, there could be no sharing of the name, thus a battle between Flair and Rogers was inevitable. Rogers, the man who originally soared to fame under the "Nature Boy" nickname had seen better days but he still had a few tricks up his sleeve. The cagey veteran was ready to show Flair why he had enjoyed so much success (part of which involved him being the first man to hold the NWA World championship and the World Wide Wrestling Federation championship) and maintain his claim to the title "Nature Boy". However when the battle was over, Flair stood triumphant, once again proving that "to be the man, you've got to be the man."

As wrestling promoters has proved time after time, good angles are made to be used again and again. Flash forward several years later to 1985. Jim Crockett Promotions is holding its own against the national expansion of Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and one of the key pieces in JCP's success is its world champion, "Nature Boy" Ric Flair. By this time, Flair is at the peak of his game, having honed his craft to perfection and developed a reputation as the man who could wrestle a broom to a five star match.

While Flair was enjoying his time at the top of the mountain, a hungry young competitor by the name of Buddy Landell was making a name for himself elsewhere. Landell broke into the business in 1979 after training under famed grappler Boris Malenko. Malenko's reputation helped Landell gain entrance into the business and soon he was wrestling throughout many of the territories at the time including Mid South, Memphis, and others. Landell's big break came in 1983 when he was asked to dye his hair blonde and work in Puerto Rico as a heel. From there, his career began to build momentum and he began working as "Nature Boy" Buddy Landell.

For decades, it was common for wrestlers to adopt the gimmicks of other successful wrestlers, especially when most fans' knowledge of wrestlers was limited to what they could tune in on their local television channel. If a promoter saw that "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes was over big in Florida, they could make their own version of the Dream (as happened in Memphis when Dusty's "cousin" Dirty Rhodes began wrestling for Jerry Jarrett). In most cases, the copycat wrestler was a cheap imitation but in the case of Buddy Landell, imitation was turning into innovation. It only became a matter of time before fans began speculating who was the better Nature Boy.

With the rise of cable TV, fans became aware of other wrestling promotions and their wrestlers. Inevitably, fans who saw a "Nature Boy" in one area couldn't help but wonder how their "Nature Boy" would stand up against the other. Typically, these confrontations never took place as rival promoters didn't want to pit their version against another, especially when they were dealing with an imitation. However in the case of Buddy Landell and Ric Flair, a confrontation was put into place.

In 1985, JCP began planting the seeds of what they had to have hoped would be a big money feud between National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair and a talented upstart. Things began with Landell entering the Crockett territory with manager James J. Dillon at his side. Landell wasted no time making it clear who the real Nature Boy was. During a TV interview, Landell recalled how his career was floundering until he got a phone call from manager James J. Dillon. Landell knew that Dillon saw a diamond in the rough and it was his call up to the big leagues i.e. Jim Crockett Promotions. Landell recalled how Ric Flair had taken the name "Nature Boy" from another man and the history books would one day show that Buddy Landell had seized the title "Nature Boy". Flair was a great champion but he was an old man and it was Landell's time to take his place.

More interviews followed with Landell positioning himself as "The Real Nature Boy". JCP even filmed vignettes involving Landell and his bid to topple Flair. One involved DIllon trying to watch a Flair match and analyze it with Landell only for Landell to yawn and tell JJ that Flair bored him. The vignette continued with Landell partying the night away while Dillon reluctantly joined along, no doubt concerned that Landell was taking his opponent too lightly.

As the program slowly unwinded, Landell continued boasting of being the real thing while he wrestled his way up the ladder. Eventually, Ric Flair began to take note of Landell's boasts and a confrontation seemed inevitable. While a few matches did take place at house shows, JCP was unable to pull the trigger on what could have been a big feud due to Landell being fired after falling prey to personal demons. What might have been a great program never saw the light of day.

According to interviews with Landell, Flair was slated to take time off from JCP in order to deal with a family crisis. This would lead to a match with Landell defeating Flair for the title and him holding it until Flair's return. As we know, this never happened but what if it had? How successful would Landell's run as world champion have been? Anyone familiar with Buddy Landell's work at the time knows that he was a good worker with good microphone skills (A great example of this is Landell's work in Memphis around 1986 with "Superstar" Bill Dundee during their program against Jerry "The King" Lawler).

If a Landell vs. Flair program had taken place, wrestling as we know it might have been very different. With James J Dillon managing Landell, would the Horsemen have ever formed? Would Flair have stayed as a face rather than turning heel as he did around this time? Bear in mind that around the time of the proposed Flair/Landell feud, Flair was just beginning down the road that would lead to the formation of the Four Horsemen. Around this time, the fans in the Mid-Atlantic area still held a soft spot for Ric Flair, cheering him even while fans in most other promotions booed him for his heelish tactics. In JCP, Flair wrestled against babyfaces as well as heels but by September 1985 (the time when the Landell program was beginning to pick up speed), the promotion seemed headed towards booking Flair as a straight out heel, particularly following his infamous attack on Dusty Rhodes in a cage (the classic beatdown that eventually led to the formation of the Four Horsemen).

However, with Landell's program with Flair, things could have been much different. Flair clearly would have been the face in a program against Landell and his heel manager James J. Dillon. Thus, JCP could have continued its booking style of having Flair work as a babyface or heel, depending on his opponents. Assuming this happened, it's difficult to imagine Flair working as a Horsemen, especially with J.J. Dillon out of the mix. That isn't to say however that the Horsemen might not have been formed with Landell filling Flair's spot, especially when one remembers that Dillon was also managing Tully Blanchard (one of the original Horsemen) at the time. Without the Horsemen (and a heel Flair), would JCP been able to compete as well as it did against the WWF?

Like any "what if", we'll never know what might have happened and we can only speculate. The wrestling world might have been very different or things might have taken a different path to where they ended up in the real world. After defeating Landell, Flair could easily have turned heel with Dillon dumping Landell and joining Flair's side. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination.

Ironically, the Battle of the Nature Boys would be revisited in the 1990's when Landell was set to face the original Nature Boy, Buddy Rogers. The match was set up in the Tri-State Wrestling Alliance after Rogers special refereed a match involving Landell and Landell attacked Rogers. After a Rogers comeback, the match was signed but sadly, the promotion folded and Rogers died not long after.

In the end, wrestling fans were denied the chance to see what could have been a memorable feud. What would have happened? We can only speculate as we look back on one of the greatest stories never told.

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Anonymous said...

Interesting read!