Most, if not all, artists with long term careers go through a late-stage evolution of their style. Sometimes this period of their work can have a long-lasting impact on their legacy, but more often than not, it’s remembered as an odd curiosity. Bob Dylan has his Christmas album. Jack Kirby has his work at Pacific Comics. Garth Brooks has Chris Gaines. Ric Flair has his deathmatch period. 

It’s 2006 and Ric Flair is two years away from his retirement. Well, his first retirement, but we’ll go over that later. It’s nowhere near the most notable year of Flair’s career, but 2006 always sticks out in my mind as the year that Ric Flair did something a little different. He was 57 years old at the time and decided that it was time to take some risks. It wasn’t uncommon to see Flair covered in his own blood, but these matches were a little different. The first match in this brutal trilogy takes place on the January 16 episode of Raw

Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match for the WWE Championship
Edge © vs. Ric Flair
January 16, 2006

To put things into a historical context, we’re one week removed from the “classic” live sex celebration presented by Edge and Lita. It was also on that show that Edge concussed Ric Flair with a conchairto. Hey, remember when concussions were used as a storytelling device? In the lead up to the match, we’re informed that this is Flair’s first ladder match of any kind, much less a TLC match. 

Flair takes a note from the god Onita and enters the match with a bandaged up head. The bell rings and Flair goes after Edge immediately. Flair is chopping Edge like he’s WALTER here. Edge takes the advantage and tries for another conchairto just like he hit the previous week, but Flair grabs a big ole handful of Edge nuts and saves his concussed head. Moments later, Flair’s skull meets chair and he hits a gusher. The assault continues at ringside where Flair is held down on a table by Lita. Edge climbs a ladder in the ring and comes down on Flair with a splash, crushing him through the table. A bloodied Flair screams in pain as the show goes to break. 

When we return, Flair’s entire head is red, but he somehow has the advantage in the match and furthers the destruction of Edge’s nuts with a low blow.  Flair sandwiches Edge in a ladder and crushes him with a chair, compacting the insides of Edge. Flair invites Edge back to his feet and nails him with a chair shot to the head that feels appropriately gross for 2006. 

Flair climbs a ladder for the first time in the match and also has his first rough fall from a ladder when Edge grabs him for a superplex. In a rather odd spot, Edge goes from a dropkick off the ladder (while he has a bad leg) and comes up short, but Flair still does the flop. As the overrun begins, Edge plasters Flair with a chairshot to the head. I know people don’t traditionally think of a TLC match as a deathmatch, but because of spots like this, especially at Flair’s age, I have no problem including it here. 

It’s at this point that I realize the Ashley Flair watching from the front row is the Charlotte we all know today. Edge just about makes it to the top of the ladder, but Flair tips the ladder over, sending Edge crashing through a table on the outside in a crazy looking bump. With Edge incompacitated, Flair almost takes down the title, but he’s stopped by Lita. Following the distraction, the exhausted Flair is met at the top of the ladder by a recovered Edge, who rains down punches until the Nature Boy wilts and falls to the mat. Edge pulls down the title, handing Flair his first bloody loss in a ladder match. By this point in his career, Flair should have been in total “too old for this shit” mode, but he really went for it and put in a great effort. It helped that he was in the ring with Edge, who actually had more experience when it came to this special circumstance. ****¼ 

WWE would essentially do a remake of this match a little over four years later when Miz would defend his WWE Championship against Jerry Lawler in a TLC match on the November 29, 2010 episode of Raw. But that’s a story for another day.

Back in 2006, we’re skipping ahead to the July 11 episode of ECW. Ric has found himself in a feud with Mick Foley over comments Flair made in his book. In an attempt to prove how extreme he can be, Flair makes a special appearance on the third brand. 

Extreme Rules, ECW Title Match
Ric Flair vs. Big Show

July 11, 2006

Big Show had just won the ECW title from Rob Van Dam the prior week, in what was Paul Heyman’s big heel turn. On Raw, Flair was challenged to this match by Big Show and Paul Heyman, after he called out Mick Foley and was denied a rematch to their 2 out of 3 falls match at Vengeance.  In a backstage promo, Flair challenges Mick Foley to his kind of match. Flair has a ton of fire in this promo for a title that he doesn’t even really want. 

When he hits the ring, Big Show looks the biggest he’s ever looked in this match. Show totally overpowers Flair in the early goings of the match. Flair fights back with chops and other offense, but Show busts him open with a headbutt. This isn’t out of the ordinary for Flair, but he bumps like an absolute maniac for Show in this match. The tables turn when Flair nails Show with four straight nutshots. 

Things get extreme when Flair busts Big Show open with a barbed wire bat. Big Show finally falls to the mat after shots from a garbage can and a chair. Flair pins Show,  who effortlessly tosses Flair off of him at 2. Big Show comes off like an absolute monster in this match. Flair grabs a sack (this time it’s not Big Show’s OHH!) and spreads thumbtacks all over the ring. He clocks Show twice in the head with a chair because 2006, knocking him into the pile of tacks. This shock wakes up Show, who takes out Flair with a chokeslam and a cobra clutch backbreaker to end this. The most memorable part of the match actually comes after the bell rings. Show ragdolls Flair from the cobra clutch position into the tacks, in one of the grossest bumps of Flair’s career. This match rocks. Great simple storytelling where both guys seemed like they had something to prove when it came to the extreme side of things. ****1/4 

I Quit
Ric Flair vs. Mick Foley 
August 20, 2006 

A little over a month after his war with the Big Show, Ric Flair meets Mick Foley in “his kind” of match. Prior to it, Mick Foley talks with his friend Melina. She tries to dissuade him from taking the match, but it’s really a ploy to get him fired up to beat Flair. The newly-determined Foley sets the tone for this match, walking to the ring with a trash can full of weapons. He jumps Flair before the bell, beating down Flair and then giving him a chance to quit. Flair remains silent and Foley grabs a string of barbed wire and wraps it around his sock-covered fist. We’re getting into the good stuff early with this one. 

Before Mick can put the barbed wire to use, Flair squeezes Foley’s balls and lays into him with repeated punches. Flair puts on the barbed wire covered socko and chops the hell out of Foley, slicing his chest. They fight on the outside and Foley rams a barbed wire board into Flair, busting him open. Foley drives the board into Flair two more times, leaving him an absolute bloody mess. Flair once again refuses to quit when given the chance. Foley ups the ante and dumps out thousands of tacks all over the mat. Typically in a deathmatch, you see a big build-up to spots like these. There’s an escalation to the violence normally, but these two don’t have that kind of time. Flair gets slammed into the tacks and turns into a pincushion, yet he still refuses to quit. 

Foley grabs a barbed wire bat and tries to shred Flair’s head again. Flair kicks Foley in the groin as he’s pushing the bat away. As he’s doing this, you can see a bunch of tacks stuck in Flair’s arm. Everything about this match is built to be as visceral and upsetting as possible. We’ve seen matches like this one in WWE(F) before this, but there’s something different here. Maybe it has something to do with the age of the wrestlers, but the desperation to kill their opponent feels real. Flair tosses Foley into the ring post and takes a much-needed rest. Foley tastes the barbed wire again when Flair cracks him in the arm with the bat. You don’t even have time to consider whether the barbed wire is real or not as Foley’s arm is immediately bleeding. 

Going back to what I said about the desperation to win, Flair screams “You quit or I’ll kill you right here,” at Foley. On commentary, JR reminds us that on the previous episode of Raw, Flair said, “May one of us bleed to death in Boston.” It’s clear that Flair doesn’t want anyone calling him a liar. The next attempted murder comes when Flair runs and knocks Foley off the apron with the bat. Foley goes flying and takes a flat back bump on the floor, but his head clips a trash can that was lying out there. The referee calls for help and Melina follows after the medics. The trainer says Foley can’t continue so the ref calls for the bell. Flair says they’re not done yet and demands Foley gets back in the ring. 

No longer listening to reason, Flair rolls Foley into the ring, through the tacks and over the barbed wire bat. Flair slices Foley’s head open with the barbed wire and then says he’s going to use it to rip his eyes out. Melina cries as Foley pours blood. Melina throws in the towel as Flair drives the bat into his head. The towel doesn’t stop Flair, who says that only Foley can quit. At one point, Flair gets out of the ring and rolls back in through the tacks, but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on him. Melina places herself between Flair and Foley in an attempt to protect her friend and stop this madness. Flair was ready to blast Melina with the bat, but Foley quits in time to save her. The bell rings and this war is done. Both men are an absolute mess when the match ends. I have no problem saying that this is one of the most brutal matches that WWE has ever produced. It’s a violent, bloody masterpiece that shockingly only clocks in at a little over 13 minutes long. Not a second was wasted and both men fought like this match could be their last.  ****¾  

Ric Flair “retired” around a year and a half later, but that wasn’t the end for these two. In 2010, Flair and Foley would meet again, this time as members of the TNA roster in a Last Man Standing match.

Both men are slower at this point, but what isn’t slow is the amount of time it takes before they’re both bleeding. At one point they fight up to the entrance area and Flair sends Foley flying off the stage and through a table. Flair brings out the thumbtacks again and gets back body dropped into them. Foley introduces a smaller barbed wire board into the match. The weirdly tiny board really signifies to me that this is a lesser version of the I Quit match in almost every way. Flair puts Foley through a table with a splash and falls into the tacks. Things come to an end when Flair does the flop into the tacks and doesn’t answer the count. I don’t know if there’s ever been another match that made me want to say “stop, you don’t have to do this anymore” more than this one. 

So what was the difference between the matches from 2006 and the match in 2010? The Flair Deathmatch Trilogy of 2006 works so well because it’s an experimental period. Flair was a wrestler in the twilight of his career that was looking to do something he had never done before he called it quits. The 2006 match with Foley is gross and upsetting in all of the ways that it was intended to be, which is a quality that the 2010 match does not share. Remember the bit from The Wrestler where Randy the Ram fights Necro Butcher? That’s what the TNA match was. It was a match that shouldn’t have happened. 

Now I don’t mean to end this piece on a down note. The 2006 Trilogy should be celebrated and enjoyed. In talking to people about these matches, I’ve found that not many people seem to have seen them, which is a travesty. Are these as good as Flair’s classics with Steamboat or Dusty? Your mileage will vary, but for me, they’re right up there.

If you’ve never seen these matches or haven’t seen them in a while, I implore you to give them a watch to appreciate a different side of one of the best to ever do it.