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McGuire’s Mondays: “Dark Side of the Ring” reintroduces the Plane Ride From Hell discussion — and how far wrestling still has to go to clean itself up

By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)

It was four years ago when the Ric Flair “30 For 30” documentary aired. I was excited to see it, so I did something I never do anymore, which is make a television show appointment viewing. I canceled plans, reorganized work obligations and settled in to view it.

My girlfriend watched it with me and as the documentary unfolded, sometimes, I’d laugh. As is the case with most Ric Flair documentaries, movies, podcasts, television shows or whatever other form of media on which you can find him, the notion of “Ric being Ric” was prevalent. Stories of womanizing, fast living and a general disregard for consequence were shared and chances are that the bulk of responses from us viewers were similar in that they excused the behavior on the grounds that Ric Flair is a legend and we already knew he wasn’t necessarily a beacon for morals anyway, so just let him go.

Plus, by god, he’s Ric Flair.

When the “30 for 30” ended, I was ready to celebrate the documentary and reflect on how maybe Flair wasn’t always the best guy, but hell, we saw him almost cry that one time in that one scene, so he’s a good dude, and boy hasn’t he lived a hell of a life? Or something like that. Either way, the response I received from my girlfriend was something like this:

“Wait, why does everybody like this guy? He seems to treat women pretty badly, but nobody cares? Why does nobody care? Why is he so celebrated for being kind of a bad person?”

I was indignant, of course. How dare someone question the Naitch? Sure, he messed up here, and yeah, he hurt some feelings there, but … ahhh, come on. Don’t be such a stick in the mud, I wanted to say (because I regularly use antiquated cliched phrases that most commonly pop up in children’s cartoons). He’s Ric Flair. He’s great!

Four years later …

PLANE RIDE FROM HELL

And that exchange has stuck with me. The further away I get from it, the more clear I see her points. We, as wrestling fans, have historically tended to look the other way when it comes to pro wrestlers’ personal lives, and in truth, it feels like we don’t give that side of the equation nearly enough attention. It makes sense. Who the hell would want to know anything about Hulk Hogan, other than he’s immortal? Pay no mind to the messy divorce or the racial slurs. I watched that dude rip his shirt in half hundreds of times when I was six years old. That’s the only memory I want to matter to me.

But as the second part of the third season of “Dark Side Of The Ring” began last week, and I watched the “Plane Ride From Hell” piece, the 30 for 30 conversation returned to my consciousness with aplomb. Then, as the fallout from the “Dark Side” doc took shape, and Tommy Dreamer was called out for his comments in the episode before an ad campaign in which Flair is involved was pulled, it got me thinking: At what point do we look at this behavior that seems to settle into the fabric of professional wrestling history and say, “No, but really. That’s bad. And, um, eh, perhaps accountability should be discussed?”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m far from someone who wants to sit perched on top of a high horse, and God knows I’ve made way more mistakes in my life than I’ll ever like to admit. I am not within the subset of people who feel it is their duty to view every questionable action a single person can make in a lifetime and then jump at the ability to point those actions out in a harsh, aggressive manner. Plus, life is nothing without mistakes. We all make them. Some are more severe than others, but forgiveness, I think, is a paramount function of living.

That said …

BOYS WILL BE BOYS

… I don’t know, man. It really felt like there was only one male figure on that “Dark Side” episode who understood what the hell the deal was and that was Jim Ross. Everyone else’s comments and recollections were kind of/sort of presented in a way that was akin to the 15-year-old in class who did something horrible — but didn’t get in trouble — re-telling the story later that day while laughing and explaining that his 16-year-old friend did the same thing and got suspended from school for doing it.

No, that’s not to say any of the people interviewed for the “Dark Side” piece did the same awful stuff their contemporaries did on that plane on that day; rather, it’s just to say that the majority of the people on the episode didn’t appear to be all that tore up about any of it. There weren’t constant cheshire grins, but there did appear to be some invisible winks at times. A sort of, “We know we have to say this was wrong … but meh, wasn’t that a hell of a time?!”

And even if that isn’t a completely accurate read on everybody who sat down to be interviewed, it does underline the reality that the “boys will be boys” mantra is alive and well, and that’s not a good thing. It’s a tired train of thought that excuses abhorrent behavior on the basis of what? Someone’s gender? The acceptance that men have a longer leash to act like fools and not be punished for it?

Outside of rock and roll in the ’70s and ’80s, I can’t think of another pop culture underbelly that feels more ugly than the one that’s haunted professional wrestling. Racism and sexism were baked into the presentation for decades until only recently, when people started standing up for change and the business appears to be moving — very slowly — toward being a better, less offensive, more inclusive entity. When Big E won the WWE Title last week and the barrage of tweets outlining all the Black champions in WWE was released, I was shocked to see the number so low. WWE/F has been around for about a million years and it’s had, what? Seven, eight Black world champions?

Wow.

But I digress. No matter how hard company owners or wrestlers or executives want to sell you on this idea that they “hear everybody’s concerns and are taking them into consideration,” the “Dark Side” episode, in my mind, failed in a couple of ways. How so?

WHAT’S IN AN APOLOGY?

You can say all you want that if putting that episode together means that Heidi Doyle will receive the proper apology she’s always deserved from all the people who crossed all the lines on that plane ride, then it was worth it, but if you do say that, you’re as disillusioned as Scott Hall was after Mr. Perfect allegedly ruffied him. Those apologies aren’t coming because those people feel true remorse; those apologies are coming because those people want to keep their jobs.

Take Tommy Dreamer. Let’s not act like his interview occurred a few weeks after the plane ride occurred in 2002, nearly 20 years ago now. Instead, Dreamer said those things at some point within the last year or even six months. He didn’t know any better then, and he clearly doesn’t know any better now. Do I think he had good intentions while insisting Ric Flair never forced himself on anyone? I guess. But did he show any amount of respect for the aggrieved parties who had to deal with Flair’s nonsense? Let’s take a look at a quote from the episode:

“He could move his hips, twirl it and so his well-endowed penis spins around like a helicopter. So, hey, he’s the Nature Boy for a reason, he’s got a hammer on him. Ric Flair’s not going to try to impose by force any sexual stuff onto anybody. He’s just flaunting, styling and profiling, doing the Ric Flair stuff where everybody’s going to laugh about it. But obviously, someone took offense to it.”

Right. Yeah. Obviously someone took offense to it. How dare they.
Then there’s the worst one, which was in reference to Doyle:

“If that’s how she felt, maybe she should have not taken a payout and went to the fullest extent of the law to then truly put this heinous person in jail.”

That sort of speaks for itself.

Then came the apology:

“Regarding my comments made on Dark Side of the Ring. It was never my intention to offend, hurt or victim shame anyone. I understand my comments were insensitive and could trigger emotions in someone’s own personal past. I do not condone sexual misconduct of any kind. I apologize to anyone I offended. From the bottom of my heart. I am so sorry.”

It took three days and two suspensions from two jobs to come up with those seven sentences. I’m all for forgiveness and saying the right thing is a step in the right direction. But you can’t convince me his initial comments — which, again, were most likely recorded within the past calendar year — weren’t and aren’t indicative of the majority of a generation of wrestlers, promoters and everyone in between. This wasn’t, “I understand it’s wrong to criticize someone for taking money after being put through what she was put through.” Instead, this was, “Oh, wait? That was bad? Sorry, guys. Can I get back to work?”

The thing is, I don’t even entirely blame Tommy Dreamer for much beyond being insensitive and tone deaf. In my mind, the harsher blame goes to …

A BUSINESS IN CRISES

The wrestling business itself.

It is no secret that pro wrestling has so much of a checkered past, it looks like the floor of a 1950s diner. We all know this. Even peripheral fans, or people who aren’t fans at all, know about some of its reputation, some of its history, some of its black eyes. But here’s the thing: After seeing this episode of “Dark Side” in particular, it sure does make me wonder how much headway is being made when it comes to the DNA of the people who either run or dominate things in today’s pro wrestling world.

I’d like to think that Tony Khan is a nice man and considering how he created a safe enough space to entice CM Punk and Martha Hart to return to wrestling, I will choose to continue to believe that until I’m proven wrong. Simply being at the GCW show in Chicago a couple weeks ago proved to me that if the smaller promotions aren’t actually like family, then they at least are doing a good job faking it. Plus, the strides made in women’s wrestling, with all-women shows and the like, have been tremendous.

But then you got Mike Chioda quarter-grinning as he reflects on a plane ride where grown men acted like 14-year-old energy-drink-obsessed perverts and Tommy Dreamer proudly sticking up for Ric Flair’s dick. Like … what? How far has anything really come if we’re still subjected to people having to make apologies for saying this type of stuff … because they keep saying this type of stuff … because this is the type of stuff they think. Can somebody just stand up and say definitively that from the inside out, these attitudes and these perceptions need to be completely wiped out of pro wrestling? Is there anyone brave enough to do it and follow through with it?

The whole thing reminds of when earlier this year — yes, again, earlier this year! — the Undertaker criticized wrestlers for playing video games in the back. Instead of … what? Abusing women? Discounting women? Disrespecting women? Smoking pot, drinking Jack Daniels and helping yourself to a few lines? Sure, it’s a lot more glamorous to look back on the days of old when it was hard partying and partying hard, but if that’s what got us to the point where the plane ride from hell happened, are we really all that sure we want to keep that vibe alive?

What Tommy Dreamer said was as much a product of Tommy Dreamer as it was the state of the wrestling business. Maybe that’s not its exact state today, but remnants of that state are very present in the current product and they will continue to be for quite some time. And as if there isn’t enough blame to go around, there’s one final suspect in this case that should be noted …

CRASH TV

“Dark Side Of The Ring” itself. I have all the respect for those guys and for the most part, I think that series has been stellar from top to bottom. But I realized something for the first time as I was watching this latest episode: There’s a big distance between chronicling the whodunnit of Dino Bravo’s murder and getting a handful of overgrown children to recount a story they so clearly want to laud but know they have to do their best to look concerned about as they look back on the memory.

The plane ride from hell has been discussed ad nauseam since the day it happened. Especially with the abundance of podcasts dedicated to former professional wrestlers, this thing has been beaten to death for years — and most of the time, it’s accompanied with giggles. Telling the Herb Abrams story? That’s unique, interesting and a compelling window into a tale about which a lot of wrestling fans didn’t know all that much.

But what was the real get for “Dark Side” here? Heidi Doyle? Make no mistake about it — she was a saint here and in my mind, she didn’t just represent her own reality, but she also most likely served as a stand-in for a slew of flight attendants who had to deal with similar stuff for decades from not just pro wrestlers, but pro athletes across the board.

Still, the question remains: How badly did she want to tell her story? Did she reach out to the “Dark Side” guys to get this ball rolling or how convincing did they have to be in order for her to give the green light for a sit-down? Because outside of Jim Ross, it wasn’t like any of the main characters were popping up to talk about how regretful they are that it happened.

I can’t stop wondering why. On some level, the episode felt exploitative, a look back at one of the many black eyes professional wrestling has endured through the years without providing any real resolution, acknowledgement or deep guilt for the things that happened. On another level, it felt useless because Scott Hall ain’t walking through that door ready to apologize to anyone for licking them.

Then again, that’s the issue at the core here. If you can’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it. For far too long, we, as fans, have been asked to excuse the ugly in the name of entertainment. The hurt caused, the lines crossed, the abuse swirling — it’s all good if you know how to throw a great-looking punch. As much as anybody, us fans are to blame because we keep pushing these instances to the side without really holding anyone accountable.

Thankfully, with examples of responses to people like Joey Ryan and Marty Scurll recently, there is clearly movement in a good direction. But no matter what, there are always going to be Ric Flair stories that people will tell, and sometimes, when you hear them, they’ll make you cringe. But when that happens, as I guess I do more now than I ever thought I would, will you ask yourself, “Why is he so celebrated for being kind of a bad person?”

Because if you do, so much of these things we’ve been conditioned to celebrate will take on an entirely new light.


Readers Comments (4)

  1. I heard that so many fans had been asking for an episode covering that, so after a bunch of seasons, they started researching it and came up with the episode. It came from the fans’ curiosity

    • Pro wrestling fans were extremely interested in the details of that flight. People writing for this site, maybe not so much.

  2. As the old saying goes, there are 3 sides to every story: mine, yours and the truth.

    Who knows what really happened, none of us were there and there is no video (that we know of) as proof. As we have learned from many wrestling “biographies” the memories of some people in the industry can be faulty or embellished depending on the purpose

    I tend to agree with your statement that this all feels exploitive. A lot of the dark side topics seem that way truthfully. But in this case I wonder what the purpose was. Was this entertainment? Was it designed to ruin reputations? Was the episode created to “clean up the business?” I’m really not sure.

    I do think there is an anti WWE slant to a lot of these episodes but that may be simply because for the better part of 40 years they have been the industry leader or the only game in town at all. And that makes them a natural resource for topics

    But I am finding I am enjoying this series less and less as it goes on. It truly lives up to its billing as dark.

  3. People asked for the episode only 153,000 watched it , but the aftermath more know about it now

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