Mark Dadswell/Getty Images
Mark Dadswell/Getty Images

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.”

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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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iStock
The Annual Festivals That Draw the Most People in Every State
iStock
iStock

Every state has that one big event each year that draws residents from across the region or even across the nation. Louisiana has Mardi Gras. Kentucky has the Kentucky Derby. South Dakota has Sturgis. Genfare, a company that provides fare collection technology for transit companies, recently tracked down the biggest event in each state, creating a rundown of the can't-miss events across the country.

As the graphic below explores, some states' biggest public events are national music and entertainment festivals, like Bonnaroo in Tennessee, SXSW in Texas, and Summerfest in Wisconsin—which holds the world record for largest music festival.

Others are standard public festival fare. Minnesota hosts 2 million people a year at the Minnesota State Fair (pictured above), the largest of its kind in the U.S. by attendance. Mardi Gras celebrations dominate the events calendar in Missouri, Alabama, and, of course, Louisiana. Oktoberfest and other beer festivals serve as the biggest gatherings in Ohio (home to the nation's largest Oktoberfest event), Oregon, Colorado, and Utah.

In some states, though, the largest annual gatherings are a bit more unique. Some 50,000 people each year head to Brattleboro, Vermont for the Strolling of the Heifers, a more docile spin on the Spanish Running of the Bulls. Montana's biggest event is Evel Knievel Days, an extreme sports festival in honor of the famous daredevil. And Washington's biggest event is Hoopfest, Spokane's annual three-on-three basketball tournament.

Mark your calendar. Next year could be the year you attend them all.

A graphic list with the 50 states pictured next to information about their biggest events
Genfare

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