Was Signing Ric Flair the Worst Decision Tony Khan Has Ever Made?

In wrestling, we’ve been taught, you should ‘Never Say Never.’ This has applied to a myriad of subjects throughout the last 30 years. When Bret Hart left the World Wrestling Federation after punching Vince McMahon in the face, we all believed that he would never return to the company that made him famous.

When Eric Bischoff and the nWo were destroying the WWF in the ratings, we said that ‘The Fed’ would never recover, much less end up purchasing its competition.

When CM Punk left WWE in 2014, we said (and he said) that he would never return to the world of professional wrestling. And when he left again in 2023, we said “He’s never coming back, and this time we really mean it!”

Still, all of those things (save for the last…yet…) have ended up happening, reinforcing the mantra to ‘Never Say Never.’

More often than not, that statement has been met with a shrug. Sometimes, it’s been said with a nudge and a wink. But despite what decades of history have taught us, sometimes we, as wrestling fans (and humans) believe that some things should never happen.

Joey Ryan and Marty Scurll should never appear in a pro wrestling company again, televised or otherwise.

Vince McMahon should never hold a position of authority over (or be left alone with) a woman again.

And, to many fans, Ric Flair should never be a part of All Elite Wrestling.

Unfortunately for those fans, that is exactly what happened. AEW announced on Thursday that Flair has signed a multi-year deal with the company; a deal that includes the promotion of Flair’s ‘Wooooo! Energy Drink.’

To say the announcement has been met with mixed reactions would be like saying, oh I dunno…

Ric Flair, the character, is a legend of professional wrestling. He is a 16-time world champion and has put on hundreds of classic matches against a variety of opponents. He helped put Sting on the map, and he was a part of two of the biggest, most important stables in professional wrestling: The Four Horsemen and Evolution.

Ric Flair, the character, has made a lasting impact in the world of professional wrestling (though some fans, and wrestlers such as Bret Hart, consider him to be slightly overrated), and his career in the ring deserves to be acknowledged and respected.

But the story of Richard Fliehr, the man, is…a bit more complicated.

For decades, Flair has described himself as a “limousine riding, jet flying, kiss stealing, wheeling dealing, son of a gun.” The problem, of course, lies with the whole “kiss stealing” bit. Because that’s assault, brotha.

When Flair said it in the 80s, most fans didn’t think twice about it. It was a fun catchphrase! It rhymed! He’s Ric Flair! Unfortunately (for Flair), stealing kisses is one thing (maybe?); forcing yourself on women is something completely different.

And that is exactly what Flair has been accused of doing.

In 2021, an episode of ‘Dark Side of the Ring’ aired on VICE TV, which documented the infamous ‘Plane Ride From Hell.’ During the episode, it was alleged by flight attendant Heidi Doyle, that Flair drunkenly forced himself on her in a corner of the airplane.

Wrestling INC. transcribed the interview with Doyle, who stated that she was in the gallery of the plane when Flair approached her.

“The galley is our little kitchen area on the airplane,” she said. “Ric Flair was naked in a cape only, and then he decided to come back to the galley to get a Coke, and then he wouldn’t leave the galley. He had me up against the back door, and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t get away from him … I couldn’t move.

“He was spinning around his penis and he wanted me to touch it. He took my hand and put it on him. And he kept me back there for I don’t know how long. It felt like a really long time. It wasn’t short, it was minutes. And I asked him ‘Please stop.’ And he wouldn’t.”

This wasn’t the first time Flair exposed himself to people. In fact, WWE produced a cartoon – yes, an actual cartoon – of the incident.

“Four brunettes, two blondes,” Flair said in the cartoon. “The anchor, the one in the middle, the blonde – bodacious ta-ta’s. She might as well have had a neon sign on her forehead, saying ‘Naaaature Boy.’ She said, ‘Sit right here, Nature Boy. And I’m gonna rock your world for 9 hours.'”

Flair continued with the ‘Story Time,’ saying that the flight attendants begged him to put on his ring robe. He would, but, he bartered, he never wore the ring robe over his clothes. So, according to him, they told him to get naked and put it on. Which he did. He then, in his own words, told the attendants, ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

According to Flair, they did. Doyle, however, disagreed. She and another attendant ended up suing Flair and the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money. Flair never faced any repercussions from WWE at the time, but when the episode was released, that’s when Flair faced some backlash. At least for a little while.

Flair issued a statement a couple days after the episode’s release.

“Every person that I’ve worked with, from my lawyer to my publicist to my wife has said not to post a response; but I’ve never run from past behaviors before and I’m not going to start now,” Flair said.

“I want to clarify a few things, About four years ago, I gave ESPN full access to my life for a ’30 for 30′ special. They covered taxes, financial issues, adultery, divorces, the passing of my child and drinking/partying AT LENGTH.

“Rory Kampf, desperate to matter for another 15 minutes, did an interview about it this morning. When Rory’s lips are moving, he’s typically lying, but one part of what he said was the God’s honest truth:

‘I’d never heard that he had forced someone to touch his genitals,’ Karpf admitted. ‘Everything with Ric that was construed as negative I tried to address in the 30 for 30. His drinking, his philandering, his adultery, his money problems, there’s quite a bit, but never, at least in the people that I spoke to, no one ever brought up that he would force himself on somebody.’

“I allowed my personal life and the lives of my wife and children to be turned upside down for one reason: Whether it’s good or bad, even the really bad, the truth has to matter. Even in wrestling.

“My issues have been well documented over my 40+ year career. The impact of drinking too much (which nearly killed me 5 years ago) has been told time and time and time again. The reason Rory (or anyone else for that matter) never heard stories of me forcing myself on ANYONE is simple: it never happened.”

Despite his pleas of innocence, Flair’s endorsement deal with CarShield was paused (though it eventually resumed) and any plans of debuting with AEW at the time (2021) were put on ice as well.

However, the ice thawed and Flair debuted with the company on the Oct. 25 edition of AEW Dynamite. He was promoted as “Tony Khan’s ‘Gift’ to Sting.”

When Flair appeared, many wrestling fans on Twitter condemned the move, noting Flair’s alleged history and Khan’s own insults towards Vince McMahon, who has also been alleged to have sexually assaulted multiple women.

Many fans viewed Khan’s comments and subsequent decision to feature Flair as hypocritical, and those views were only exacerbated and echoed on Thursday, when the company announced that Flair had signed a multi-year deal.

Lambert, (possibly the greatest headline writer in the history of professional wrestling journalism), is correct. While many fans praise Tony Khan’s WWE signings at best (Swerve Strickland, Bryan Danielson, Adam Cole, etc.) or roll their eyes at the very worst (Paul Wight, Mark Henry), the signing of Flair, to many (most?) fans, goes far beyond storyline or star appeal.

Throughout the past four years, Tony Khan has made a lot of decisions. Some of those decisions have been brilliant (signing CM Punk, Bryan Danielson, Samoe Joe, Adam Cole, etc.; making MJF the face of the company; creating AEW in the first place), while others have been baffling (the way he handled ‘Brawl Out;’ the way he books AEW’s women’s division, announcing ‘major announcements’ that are just talks of pre-sale codes, et. al). But for many fans, this decision – the decision to hire Ric Flair – is the worst decision he’s ever made.

While it may not have the financial implications that losing CM Punk, or having too many television shows may have, this was the first decision that most fans (at least on social media) can agree with each other on. It was a bad idea.

The reasons it’s a bad idea (beside the fact that, like, hiring an alleged sex pest is never a good idea), are varied.

  1. The most important reason is because it could, conceivably, put his female wrestlers in uncomfortable, if not downright dangerous, positions. Flair has gone on record, stating that he continues to consume alcohol despite the fact that it almost killed him. People do not make good decisions when they are drunk; this is true of most anybody. What could happen if Flair were to consume too much alcohol at an AEW after party? Probably nothing, we hope. But the fact there’s a chance that something could, should be all the reason one needs to not have him around.
  2. Given Tony Khan’s recent comments regarding Vince McMahon, this whole situation comes across as extremely hypocritical. Khan doesn’t get to condemn McMahon for his alleged behavior, and then ignore Flair’s.
  3. Ric Flair is 74 years old. He has had an incredible career, of this there can be no doubt. But today, Flair brings very little to the table. Ratings have already reflected that. Nobody wants to see Flair wrestle anymore. Nobody wants to see him take bumps. Very few people want to see him cut a promo. The risk is not worth the reward.
  4. This decision has seriously dented Tony Khan’s goodwill with the fans. When Tony Khan created AEW, he did so with a lot of fanfare. Throughout the past four years, he has (deservedly so) earned a lot of goodwill with fans. It’s why, for the most part, we’re able to laugh off anticlimactic announcements. It’s why we’re able to trust him when he fires CM Punk. It’s why we rally behind him when he tries to compete with WWE. It’s why we pump our fist and say ‘Yeah!’ when he calls out Vince McMahon for his lewd past. But if today’s announcement is any indication, Khan lost a lot of that trust by this decision and that is what will cost him in the end. Maybe not monetarily, at least for now. But when fans no longer trust you, when they no longer want to rally around you, when they realize that ‘Oh, maybe you’re not actually as good of a person as we thought; maybe you are just like every other businessman willing to ignore the most crimson of flags to make a buck,’ that’s when tides start to shift.

Ric Flair is an alleged sex pest. Though Flair denies ever assaulting somebody, living in a post-Me Too world means (as it always should have) that we believe the victim; in this case, there were two of them who have gone on record.

Doyle alleged that Flair cornered her, exposed himself to her, and forcibly put her hand on his penis.

“I asked him, ‘Please stop,'” and he wouldn’t,” she said.

That statement, that plea, is heartbreaking. And it resonates. It resonates with any woman (or man) who has ever been sexually assaulted. It resonates with any person who has ever felt taken advantage of. It resonates with anybody who has ever been made to do something they didn’t want to do, whether physically or via coercion. More than anything, it resonates with anybody who has ever felt unsafe.

Fans argue that if we live in a world (and we should), where we believe women, Doyle’s account should have put to rest any further discussions between AEW and Ric Flair. It doesn’t matter that the alleged incident happened 20 years ago. It doesn’t matter that the episode of Dark Side of the Ring happened two years ago. It doesn’t even matter that Flair denied the accusations. Others have confirmed those allegations; even Flair’s contemporaries, like Tommy Dreamer, Rob Van Dam, and Jim Ross. Even if we ignore the actual allegations from the women (which we’re not), his own peers have admitted that Flair exposed himself.

Maybe Flair’s signing won’t end up being a big deal. Maybe he’ll be in Sting’s corner for his last match, and then ride off to the sunset, letting his image be used for video games and t-shirts. Maybe Flair will stick to strictly backstage, attempting to guide younger wrestlers on the art of selling or cutting a promo (both things that Flair is excellent at). Maybe, just maybe, Tony Khan will see this backlash and decide that the risk wasn’t worth the reward; that the ROI is very little and that it’s actually causing more harm to his company than good. Maybe he’ll address the controversy head-on, pay Flair what he promised to buy him out, and apologize for the lapse in judgment.

Tony Khan is not a perfect person; none of us are. He’s made mistakes, and he’ll make more. But fans will be more apt to forgive him if they believe that his intentions are good. Tony Khan, by most accounts, is a good man. He seems genuinely moved when wrestlers sign with him. When we see him hug Bryan Danielson or Claudio Castagnoli, we’re charmed by it because we see the fan in him. We see the little boy in the man, with stars in his eyes and awe in his heart. Tony Khan seems genuinely likeable and he has changed professional wrestling. He’s made it better.

Which is why, probably, fans are so disappointed by his decision to sign Ric Flair. They want to believe that Tony is different than Vince McMahon. They want to believe that Tony Khan cares about his wrestlers, and cares about his fans. And, for the most part, it seems like he does. But this decision, fans argue, directly contradicts that idea.

Ric Flair isn’t a perfect person, either. He admits a lot of the mistakes he’s made throughout his career and throughout his life. We, as fans, will never know what happened on that plane ride from Europe. We’ll never know about any of the other incidents of which Flair was alleged to be a part of. We’d like to believe the best in people and wrestling fans are quick to celebrate a comeback story. But there are just some things you can’t come back from.

Wrestling has come so far from where it used to be. Fans, and promoters, have come together to say that sexual assault, in all of its various forms, has NO place in this business anymore. For a long time, it seemed as though Tony Khan led the charge on that proclamation. And that’s why fans are so disappointed with his decision. Tony Khan has very little to gain from this signing, and so much to lose; not the least of which is the trust of his wrestlers and of professional wrestling fans.

So was hiring Ric Flair the worst decision Tony Khan has ever made?

Only time will tell.

Follow Nick at @WrestlePerks

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