“Ric Flair vs. Shawn Michaels: Greatest of All Time—Not Even Close”
When it comes to the greatest wrestler of all time, two names instantly come to mind among fans—Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels. Conventional wisdom has it that Flair was the best during his heyday while Michaels ruled the roost through the ’90s and ’00s. As we’ll see, that’s not the case. While both wrestlers are bonafide legends and Hall of Famers, Flair stands out head and shoulders above Michaels, a talented grappler who falls short of “The Nature Boy” in several key aspects. Let’s see why.
Both grappling greats worked a variable style that made for exciting matches. Although both men incorporated some of the same spots into their bouts (which isn’t unusual when you wrestle as much as both did), Flair’s early work was renowned for the variety he brought, not only depending on his opponent but depending on his whim. Flair wrestled 60-minute matches routinely, creating a constant need to change things up in his exhibitions, as opposed to Michaels, who rarely worked past 20-30 minutes.
One area where Michaels eclipses Flair is in the high-flying department. Ric Flair’s track record off the top rope speaks for itself, but all kidding aside, “The Nature Boy” was never one for high-flying moves of any sort. Michaels excelled at mixing technical wrestling with high-flying moves, and while he wasn’t the best of his era, there’s really no comparison here other than Flair’s ability to take bumps from high-flyers.
Both men are close in wrestling skill, but Flair’s track record of wrestling a variety of opponents while putting on entertaining (and lengthy) matches edges him over Michaels, especially in light of Flair’s brutal schedule.
Body of Work
As close as both Superstars are in wrestling ability, Flair’s body of work dwarfs Michaels. Michaels has had some great bouts including his WrestleMania X Ladder Match with Razor Ramon, his back-to-back bouts at WrestleMania XXV and WrestleMania XXVI against the Undertaker, and his “unsanctioned” match against Triple H at 2002’s SummerSlam. Where should we start with Ric Flair? Flair ran roughshod in Jim Crockett Promotions as one of the promotion’s top heels before an even more successful babyface run that led to him becoming NWA World Heavyweight Champion early in his career. From there, Flair headlined the first Starrcade, battled Kerry Von Erich on Christmas night, setting up the Von Erichs vs. Fabulous Freebirds feud in World Class Championship Wrestling, helped Jim Crockett Promotions with shows such as The Great American Bash, set the wrestling world on fire with his epic trilogy of matches against Ricky Steamboat in WCW (which Flair has repeatedly said paled to their house show matches during the ‘70s), and continued playing a key role in WCW during the ‘90s, and later the WWE in the 21st century.
Both men evoked a certain mystique and had the Fonz factor that promoters look for in their stars. Flair was one of the first cool heels, and Michaels worked in a time when cool heels were becoming common. Unlike Flair, Michaels’ attempt to stay hip and relevant failed during his D-Generation X reunion with Triple H, and while some fans enjoyed the nostalgia, many couldn’t help but groan at the sight of two nearly middle-aged wrestlers trying to be cool. Conversely, Flair still pulled off his act as the “The stylin’, profilin’, limousine riding, jet flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin’ and dealin’ son of a gun.”
Michaels could cut a good promo, and his ability to get laughs from the audience served him well during the Attitude Era. In Flair’s case, he worked in an era when wrestlers had to talk fans into arenas and also when interviews were unscripted. Flair’s braggadocious promos and talk of living the high-life irritated some fans, but also appealed to those who dreamed big. Give Flair a microphone and fans could listen for hours, as evident by the tape trading market, which featured videos of nothing but Flair cutting promos. Flair’s promos are memorable with too many to list them all, but it’s likely you can think of several off the top of your head. Ask yourself, can you think of any famous promos other than when he lost his smile? Didn’t think so.
Ability to Work with Anyone
Flair’s ability to work a five-star match with a broom might seem like a cliché. Still, it’s crystal-clear when you see him getting engaging main events out of wrestlers not known for their wrestling ability, such as Jimmy Valiant and the Ultimate Warrior (both of whom Flair commented “When the music stopped, the match was over). As NWA World Champion, Flair traveled the world, wrestling opponents in tiny towns to major markets, with “The Nature Boy” having to adjust things accordingly. Flair would win this category on quantity alone, but the quality of opponents he wrestled seven days a week around the world exceeds Shawn Michaels’s opponents, many which Flair fought as well.
In Michaels’s case, while he was capable of working with a wide array of opponents, he didn’t always want to, and it showed, with Michaels sandbagging opponents such as Vader and suffering convenient injuries when it came time to job to those he didn’t like. The fact the Undertaker was prepared to strong-arm Michaels into doing the job to Steve Austin at WrestleMania XIV speaks volumes to Michaels’ well-deserved reputation as a prima donna who did what’s best for Shawn, not what’s best for business. Shawn’s crybaby ways didn’t disappear after his religious conversion either, something evident when Michaels flip-flopped his frustrations out over having to job to Hulk Hogan at 2005’s SummerSlam. While Michaels was understandably upset at Hogan asking him to work heel and the Hulkster canceling what was supposed to be a trilogy of matches, Michaels’ antics were still unprofessional.
In comparison, Ric Flair had no trouble doing the job for Hulk Hogan, even to the point of ridiculousness in WCW, including his career-ending match at 1994’s Halloween Havoc and numerous times he rolled over and played dead for the Hulkster. Flair’s professionalism in doing the J-O-B as needed is a marked contrast to Michaels’ sometimes childish behavior.
The one area Flair can’t compare to Michaels in is “The Heartbreak Kid’s” incredible ability to sell moves. Flair could sell with the best of them, but Michaels took things to the next level, making it look like he was dying in the ring. When it came to working the crowd to draw sympathy, Michaels remains in a league all his own.
Michaels participation in D-Generation X left a big mark on pop culture, but nowhere near as much as Flair. Flair is a crossover star and although he hasn’t appeared in any notable films or TV shows, he inevitably is name-dropped in songs and associated with living the good life. “”In my life, I’ve been a movie star, a rock star and a sports star all wrapped into one and worked harder at it than anybody else” still ring true as Flair maintains a constant presence on TV, music shows, and at sports events.
Ability to Work the Territories and the National Stage
Shawn Michaels got his start in the last days of the territories, quickly rising up as a tag team star before heading to the big-time in the WWF. Ric Flair worked in the territories, including his early reigns as NWA World Champion, where he learned to get over in numerous wrestling markets. When the industry went national, both men excelled, but Flair can say he was successful in both the WWF and WCW, while Michaels can only claim excellence in the WWF.
The ability to draw is always tricky to determine as wrestling has always relied on using the main event to gauge a show’s success or failure at the box office, ignoring what could be a good undercard. Still, that’s the measure we’re forced to use here. In Flair’s case, he had to prove his drawing power in many territories as NWA World Champion before Jim Crockett Promotions (and later, WCW) went national, and prove it he did. Flair was involved in so many colossal box office events during his heyday, including the inaugural Starrcade
Wrestling’s predetermined outcome shouldn’t be seen as a reason to devalue the industry’s various championships. Quite the opposite as titles once meant a lot and were used to build up house shows and pay-per-views. Ric Flair’s championship pedigree is a reflection of promoters’ faith and confidence in his ability to draw. Shawn Michaels spent years before Vince McMahon gambled on him as the WWF Champion. Michaels did no more for the box office than any of the other WWF champions around this time, including Diesel and Bret Hart. When it comes to titles (particularly world belts), Michaels is barely a blip on the wrestling radar.
Not only does Flair’s body of work hold up better than Michaels’ but “Slick Ric” continued wrestling much longer. Flair accomplished more in his first 10 years than Michaels did and his next 10 years eclipsed Michaels as well. Flair’s 39-year career in the ring is remarkable not only for its length, but for its overall quality. Again, Michaels falls short.
Whether it’s putting over and taking wrestlers such as Sting, Magnum T.A. Kerry Von Erich, and many more, drawing big box offices, headlining shows for years, putting on 5-star matches, working an exhausting schedule, cutting exciting promos, or impacting pop culture, Ric Flair’s achievements far surpass those of Shawn Michaels, which is all the more impressive considering HBK’s excellent record. Furthermore, Flair will be remembered for being generous with putting people over (perhaps too generous) while Michaels will be remembered for being egotistical.
Shawn Michaels will be always be remembered as one of the WWE’s top performers but Ric Flair will be known as one of the greatest of all time. Simply put, Michaels is not in the same league as Flair and as time goes by, Flair’s legend will only grow. As “Slick” Ric often said during promos, “diamonds are forever and so is Ric Flair.”