When Ric Flair Traveled to North Korea for the Biggest Wrestling Show of All Time

Mark Dadswell/Getty Images
Mark Dadswell/Getty Images

Whether he was in a dimly lit convention center in front of a few dozen people or headlining packed arenas around the globe, the thrill of a hot crowd was more than enough motivation to keep “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair in the ring decade after decade.

Decked out in his signature fluttering robes, Flair became the face of '80s pro wrestling through his athletic prowess, showmanship, and the machismo-soaked poetry he spewed at the microphone. So when the opportunity arose for him to perform against the most popular wrestler in Japan’s history in front of more than 150,000 fans, Flair couldn’t resist.

There was just one catch: The match would take place in North Korea, in front of a sea of people who didn’t know who Ric Flair was, much less what American professional wrestling was all about. It was the first time an American wrestling company would visit the "Hermit Kingdom," and what followed was a rare glimpse into a notoriously reclusive regime for a star-studded event that has been lost to time.

The show, which took place on April 28 and 29, 1995, was dubbed the International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace by the North Korean government. For a country that is usually intent on keeping outsiders away, inviting 300,000-plus people to cram into Pyongyang's massive May Day Stadium over the course of the two-day event seemed to be an about-face for the notoriously secretive regime.

"American tourists are almost never granted visas," wrote The New York Times's Sheila Melvin in 1996. "Yet less than a year after [Kim Il-sung's] death, North Korea was allowing outsiders to attend an International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Perhaps it was an effort to showcase a North Korea ruled by Kim Jong Il."

The key to uniting communist North Korea with American grapplers was the legendary Japanese wrestler—and embattled politician—Antonio Inoki. With his political career in limbo, Inoki saw participation in this event as a prime opportunity for a diplomatic win in Japan due to his positive relationship with the North Korean government. He was, after all, a protégé of the iconic wrestler Rikidōzan, who had become something of a propaganda symbol in North Korea following his death in 1963.

To make the show the global spectacle that the North Korean government wanted it to be, Inoki, who ran New Japan Pro Wrestling, set out to gather up some of the marquee names in American wrestling. He got in touch with Eric Bischoff, president of America's World Championship Wrestling (WCW). The two had a working relationship, and Inoki wanted Bischoff to bring some of his best talent to North Korea to perform; Bischoff happily agreed. He even got Bischoff to convince Muhammad Ali, a one-time opponent of Inoki's, to join them in greeting the crowd.


Antonio Inoki

By 1995, Bischoff’s WCW was playing a never-ending game of catch-up against Vince McMahon’s WWE (formerly WWF), so an opportunity to see his organization showcased at such a large event—and in such a hostile country—had the potential to be a defining moment for the company. While WWE dominated the U.S. wrestling scene by teaming up with MTV in the '80s, a show in North Korea could potentially get WCW worldwide attention.

The key to the show was Inoki wrestling in the main event against an American star. Originally, he approached Bischoff about getting Hulk Hogan, the biggest name in wrestling at the time. “So I asked Hulk, and I might as well have asked him to row a boat to Pluto," Bischoff told Sports Illustrated. "It was not gonna happen.”

With Hogan out, Bischoff approached Flair. Viewing a match against the legendary Inoki as another coup in an already stellar career, Flair readily agreed. The trip promised two things he lived for: pro wrestling and the type of adventure he could talk about—and embellish upon—for years to come.

“I just thought, number one, it’d be cool to travel with Muhammad Ali," Flair told USA Today in 2014. "Number two, it was a challenge, and I just thought it would be an experience to remember later in life.”

Flair wasn’t the only performer headed to North Korea; he was joined by other ‘90s wrestling mainstays, including Road Warrior Hawk, the Steiner Brothers, Chris Benoit (under the guise of Wild Pegasus), Scott Norton, and 2 Cold Scorpio.


Paul Kane/Getty Images

The trip got off to an ominous start. When WCW consultant Sonny Onoo informed the Japanese embassy of the trip, he was told, “You understand we cannot guarantee your safety.” The warning fell on deaf ears, and a rickety military transport plane soon brought the group from Japan to the heart of North Korea’s communist government.

Upon landing, “almost immediately, they separated us into groups of two and assigned each of us a handler, or 'minder' as they called it,” Bischoff recalled. Everyone was stripped of their passports and subjected to a carefully manicured tour of the country, including paying their respects to the late Kim Il-sung, North Korea's Supreme Leader until his death in 1994.

After being indoctrinated with a speech on their “Great Leader,” the government officials gave Bischoff and his fellow wrestlers flowers to leave in front of a statue of Kim Il-sung.

“They buy it for you and then charge you," Orville Schell, who reported on the event for the Asia Society, told Sports Illustrated. "You have to put it in front of the statue and then they take videos of you. And then they take the flowers back and sell them to the next guy.”


Scott Steiner
Scott Barbour/ALLSPORT/Getty Images

When it came time for the actual event to start, even the wrestlers—some of whom had been doing this for decades—were at a loss.

“The first time I got on the ropes and looked out there, I looked to the very top of the stadium,” wrestler Scott Steiner told Sports Illustrated. “They were like toothpicks, that’s how small they were. I was like, 'Wow, I can barely see them, how are they seeing me?' It was mind-blowing. But it was a fleeting moment. After that, I locked into the match.”

Despite the size of the crowd (which was rumored to be 150,000 on the first day and 190,000 on day two, though reports vary), the audience remained almost completely silent throughout the event—a far cry from the nonstop chants and cheers the American wrestlers were used to. But there was good reason for that: They likely had no idea what they were even watching.

“I think initially they expected it to be more like amateur wrestling,” Flair said. “[They] would ask me how [these wrestlers] could do this to somebody, you know, a wrestling move. I would say ‘I don’t know, they couldn’t do it to me.’ They probably thought they were getting duped a little bit.”

Even Muhammad Ali, who was “essentially a political prop” for the event, got a positive, albeit unremarkable, reaction from the people when he waved from his seat, according to CNN’s Mike Chinoy, a reporter brought over to cover the show.

Of course, when you want a reaction, there are few in the history of the wrestling industry better than the show’s headliners. Flair/Inoki main-evented the second night, with Inoki getting the win over Flair in about 15 minutes. More impressive than a choreographed melee between two legends was the fact that they had the audience in the palms of their hands. The two had put butts in arena seats all over the globe for decades, and even in an unfamiliar communist country, they hit their marks.

“Those two guys go out there and took that crowd from nothing to pandemonium. It was just amazing,” wrestler Scott Norton, who was the main event during the first night, said.

As with everything on the show, there were motives outside of just a fantastic match. One specific photo from the match—of a battered Flair being slammed around by an enraged Inoki—became part of a deluge of North Korean propaganda leaflets that were dropped over Seoul in late 1995.

After the final bell rang, the fight wasn’t over—at least not for the cadre of weary American wrestlers looking to get back home. Before they were able to return to Japan, then make their way back to the U.S., the North Korean government made one very unsettling request of Flair: They wanted him to read a statement basically saying that after visiting North Korea, he understood that the country could dominate the United States.

Flair refused to recite their requested language, but agreed to make a more diplomatic statement, praising this “beautiful and peaceful country” and saying, “His Excellency, Kim Il-sung, will always be with us.”

Even though it broke the all-time attendance record for a wrestling event, there wasn’t much to celebrate: In the United States, the event hadn't garnered much curiosity, and there were only scattered news reports covering its aftermath. To the wrestlers, it was just another show. Later on that year, WCW released part of the event as a U.S. pay-per-view special titled Collision in Korea; the event drew 30,000 buys—a paltry sum in comparison to the company’s other shows. What should have been a political moment draped in neon spandex soon faded into obscurity.

In 2001, McMahon’s WWE bought WCW and its tape library, yet the company rarely references the event, nor has it ever released Collision in Korea on its expansive WWE Network, which features nearly every other WCW show. There are theories about why the event seemed to disappear: WWE likes to maintain the claim that the company’s WrestleMania III, which drew (a disputed) 93,173 fans to Michigan's Pontiac Silverdome in 1987, holds one of the highest attendances for a wrestling show. Having a rival's event in North Korea basically double that number in just a single day might hurt the prestige of their own accomplishment.

According to wrestling historian Dave Meltzer, “WWE, they want to claim these records, so this kind of hurts that narrative." Bischoff was more blunt, saying the North Korea show is simply “an inconvenient fact for the branding and the positioning that the WWE is so great at.”

Despite feeling like hostages in a foreign country and wrestling to near-silence in front of a confused audience, there’s no denying the significance of the event—even if the world has seemingly forgotten all about it.

“Were they paying customers? I don’t think so,” Bischoff said. “Maybe. But the fact is, over the course of two nights, 350,000 people came to a stadium and watched professional wrestling with some of the biggest stars of the time. I think that’s a phenomenal achievement.”

11 Fascinating Facts About Mad Max

Mel Gibson stars in George Miller's Mad Max (1979).
Mel Gibson stars in George Miller's Mad Max (1979).
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

What began as director George Miller's ambitious action film about a solitary cop (Mel Gibson) on a mission to take down a violent biker gang has evolved into a post-apocalyptic sensory overload of a franchise that now has four films to its credit—Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)—and additional sequels in the works. So let's obsess over Miller’s masterpieces even more with these 11 things you might not know about the franchise.

1. Director George Miller worked as a doctor to raise money for Mad Max.

Mel Gibson in Mad Max (1979)
Mel Gibson in Mad Max (1979).
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Since the film only had a budget of $350,000, Miller scraped together extra money as an emergency room doctor to keep the movie going. “It was very low budget and we ran out of money for editing and post-production, so I spent a year editing the film by myself in our kitchen, while Byron Kennedy did the sound,” Miller told CraveOnline. “And then working as an emergency doctor on the weekends to earn money to keep going. I’d got my best friend, and friends of friends of friends of his, and Byron ditto, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, we made a film and it won’t cut together and we’re going to lose all their money.’”

Miller’s medical training is all over the film: Max Rockatansky is named after physician Carl von Rokitansky, a pathologist who created the Rokitansky procedure, a method for removing organs in an autopsy.

2. Mel Gibson went to the Mad Max audition to accompany his friend, not for the part.

Gibson was black and blue after a recent brawl with “half a rugby team” when his friend asked him to drop him off at his Mad Max audition. Because the agency was also casting “freaks,” they took pictures of Gibson, who was simply waiting around, and asked him to come back when he healed. When he did, Miller gave him the role on the spot. In a clip for Scream Factory, Gibson recalled the moment: “It was real weird. [Miller] said, ‘Can you memorize this?’ and it was like two pages of dialogue with a big speech and stuff. I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I went into the other room and just got a gist of what it was and I came out and just ad-libbed what I could remember. I guess they bought it.”

3. George Miller paid Mad Max crew members in beer.

With barely enough money to finish the original film, Miller offered to pay ambulance drivers, a tractor driver, and some of the bikers on set with “slabs” (Australian for a case of 24 cans) of beer, according to The Guardian.

4. Real-life motorcycle club the Vigilanties played Toecutter’s gang for Mad Max.

Forget the money required to train stuntmen; Miller and crew hired real bikers to professionally ride into production. In an interview with Motorcyclist Online, actor Tim Burns said about working with them: “[The Vigilanties] all wanted to ride the bikes as fast as possible, as often as possible, by their nature. Their riding was individually and collectively superb.” Additionally, stuntman Dale Bensch, a member of The Vigilanties, recalled seeing the ad for the shoot at a local bike shop, and took a moment to clarify a mishap that had happened during production. Bensch said, “There’s an urban myth that a stuntman was killed, and that was me. The scariest thing was dropping the bike on that bridge. They took the speedo and tach off because they didn’t want to damage more than they had to. They wet the surface to make it easier, but I hung onto the bike too long and it flipped me over with it; that’s why it looked bad. But it’s a famous scene, so it worked out all right!”

5. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was inspired by the oil crises of the 1970s.

During an interview with The Daily Beast, Miller discussed the making of The Road Warrior. Of its inspiration, he said, “I’d lived in a very lovely and sedate city in Melbourne, and during OPEC and the extreme oil crisis—where the only people who could get any gas were emergency workers, firemen, hospital staff, and police—it took 10 days in this really peaceful city for the first shot to be fired, so I thought, ‘What if this happened over 10 years?’”

6. Mel Gibson only had 16 lines of dialogue in The Road Warrior.

Upon Fury Road’s release in 2015, social media lit up with complaints that Tom Hardy was underutilized, only there to grunt and utter a couple of one-liners. But just to remind you, in Mad Max 2, Mel Gibson only has 16 lines of dialogue in The Road Warrior.

On his use of sparse dialogue, Miller told The New York Times, “Hitchcock had this wonderful saying: ‘I try to make films where they don’t have to read the subtitles in Japan.’ And that was what I tried to do in Mad Max 1, and I’m still trying to do that three decades later with Fury Road.”

7. Mel Gibson says The Road Warrior is his favorite movie in the original trilogy.

Once upon a time Mel Gibson enthusiastically spoke about Beyond Thunderdome, telling Rolling Stone, "[The films are] a sort of cinematic equivalent to rock music. It's something to do with the nihilistic sentiments of the music of the ’80s—which can't continue. I say, let's get back to romanticism. And this film [Thunderdome] is actually doing that. It's using that nihilism as a vehicle, I think, to get back to romance.”

Years later, he told Playboy what he really thought of the films, namely that The Road Warrior was his favorite. “It still holds up because it’s so basic,” Gibson said. “It’s about energy—it didn’t spare anyone: people flying under wheels, a girl gets it, a dog gets it, everybody gets it. It was the first Mad Max, but done better. The third one didn’t work at all.”

8. Beyond Thunderdome was inspired by Lord Of The Flies.

Mel Gibson and Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).
Mel Gibson and Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).
Warner Home Video

Even though Miller and his producers were on the fence about a third Mad Max, they couldn’t help but give in. "George was sitting and talking to me about … quantum mechanics, I think," Miller’s co-writer Terry Hayes recalled to Rolling Stone. "The theory of the oscillating universe. You could say he's got a broad range of interests. And I said something about ‘Well, if there was ever a Mad Max III ...' And he said, 'Well, if there was ...'"

In a 1985 interview with Time Out, Miller recalled the story himself. “We were talking one day and Terry Hayes started talking about mythology and how where people are short on knowledge, they tend to be very big on belief. In other words, they take a few fragments of knowledge and, if you take like the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, they just take simple empirical information and using those little bits of the jigsaw construct very elaborate mythological beliefs, which explain the whole universe,” Miller said. “Terry was saying if you had a tribe of kids after the apocalypse who had only a few fragments of knowledge, [they would construct] a mythological belief as to what was before. And what would happen if Max or someone like that [came in] ... and it kicked off the idea of kids who were Lord of the Flies-type kids, and that led to this story.”

9. Tina Turner was cast in Beyond Thunderdome because of her positive persona.

According to Rolling Stone, Tina Turner beat out Jane Fonda and Lindsay Wagner for the role of Aunty Entity. On her casting, Miller told Time Out, “One of the main reasons we cast Tina Turner is that she’s perceived as being a fairly positive persona. You don’t think of Tina Turner as someone dark. You think of the core of Tina Turner being basically a positive thing. And that’s what we wanted. We felt that she might be more tragic in that sense. But more importantly [when] we actually wrote the character, as a shorthand way of describing the character we said someone ‘like Tina Turner’—without even thinking of casting her. We wanted a woman ... we wanted someone who had a lot of power, charisma, someone who would hold a place like that together—or build it in the first place. And we wanted someone who was a survivor.”

10. Mad Max characters’ names hint at their backstories.

One of the most peculiar quirks of Miller’s franchise has to be his bizarre character names. In an interview with Fandango, Miller explained exactly how he comes up with them: “One of the things is that everything in the story has to have some sort of underlying backstory. Not just every character, but every vehicle, every weapon, every costume—and the same with the language. So [the concept] was always found objects, repurposed. Immortan Joe is a slight adjustment to the word 'immortal.' The character Nux says 'mcfeasting' instead of using the word 'feasting,’” Miller explained, adding that his favorite name of all is Fury Road’s The Dag (played by Abbey Lee). “In Australia, the dag is sort of a goofball-type.”

11. George Miller is a proud feminist.

Director George Miller, recipient of the Feature Film Nomination Plaque for “Mad Max: Fury Road," poses in the press room during the 68th Annual Directors Guild Of America Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on February 6, 2016 in Los Angeles
George Miller poses with the Feature Film Nomination Plaque for Mad Max: Fury Road during the 68th annual Directors Guild Of America Awards in 2016.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Perhaps evidenced by Charlize Theron’s scene-stealing role as Imperator Furiosa, Miller is a proud, outspoken feminist. He told Vanity Fair, “I’ve gone from being very male dominant to being surrounded by magnificent women. I can’t help but be a feminist.” That female influence even stretched behind the scenes, with Miller asking his wife Margaret Sixel to edit Fury Road. “I said, ‘You have to edit this movie, because it won’t look like every other action movie,” Miller recalled. Moreover, feminist activist Eve Ensler also consulted on the film to offer, according to Ensler herself, “perspective on violence against women around the world, particularly in war zones.”

What Happens During a Jeopardy! Commercial Break?

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek chats with the show's contestants.
Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek chats with the show's contestants.
Getty Images Entertainment

Jennifer Quail:

Typical Break One: First, if there are "pickups" (re-recordings where Alex misspoke or coughed or stuttered, or Johnny mispronounced someone’s name or hometown) to record, they do those. A stagehand brings water bottles for the contestants. The production team who wrangles contestants comes over and gives their pep talk, makes any corrections, like if someone is consistently buzzing early; and keeps you quiet if there are pickups. Alex gets the cards with the "fun facts" (there are about three, one highlighted, but which one he goes for is ultimately up to Alex alone) and when the crew is ready, they come back from commercial to Alex’s chat with the contestants.

Typical Break Two: If there are any pickups from the second half of the Jeopardy! round they do those, the water gets distributed, the production team reminds the contestants how Double Jeopardy! works and that there’s still lots of money out there to win, and Alex comes over to take a picture with the two challengers (the champion will have had their picture taken during their first match.) Then we come back to Double Jeopardy!.

Typical Third Break: This is the big one. There are pickups, water, etc. and they activate the section of the screen where you write your wager. One of the team members brings you a half-sheet of paper ... and you work out what you want to bet. One of your "wranglers" checks it, as does another production team member, to make sure it’s legible and when you’re sure that’s what you want, you lock it in. At that point you can’t change it. They take away the scratch paper and the part of the board where you write your answer is unlocked. Someone will tell you to write either WHO or WHAT in the upper left corner, so you do know at least whether it’s a person or thing. They make sure the "backup card" (a piece of card stock sitting on your podium) is turned to the correct who or what side, just in case your touchscreen fails. If everything’s ready, then as soon as the crew says, they come back and Final Jeopardy! starts.

There are breaks you don’t [even know about, too]. If there is a question about someone’s final answer, they will actually stop tape while the research team checks. Sometimes if something goes really off, like Alex completely misreads a category during the start of a round, they’ll stop and pick it up immediately. Those [are breaks] you’ll never notice because they’ll be completely edited out.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER