Wrestling legend Ric Flair may have once commanded the ring – but after the cameras turned off, things “just got out of control.”
Decades of “social” drinking finally caught up with the 16-time pro wrestling world champion this year, landing him in the hospital and near death last month.
“I crashed in an airplane and broke my back, I’ve been hit by lightning,” Flair tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “But this is totally different. Anything I’ve been through before is nothing like this.”
On Aug. 11, the 68-year-old was rushed to the hospital with stomach pains. Within hours, Flair was in the early stages of kidney failure and on the verge of congestive heart failure – the result of years of alcohol abuse.
Flair’s family members were told he had only 20 percent odds of surviving, and he was placed in a medically induced coma while they – including daughter, pro wrestler Charlotte Flair – took to social media to asks fans for prayers.
Doctors subsequently removed part of Flair’s bowel, and inserted a pacemaker. Now, in recovery at a convalescent center in Atlanta, Flair tells PEOPLE of the entire ordeal, “It scared the s— out of me.”
He adds, “But I’m not out of the woods yet.”
Now, the man once known as the “Nature Boy,” needs a nurse to help steady his shaking hands so he can sip water from a glass. He admits, “I didn’t think I was an alcoholic, but obviously I was.”
Flair’s problem with alcohol started while he worked to build a camaraderie with his fellow wrestlers during the early days of his career in 1972. It helped them “bond,” he says, noting though, “I never drank when I was working.”
“But as soon as work was over, I went right to the mill,” he says, adding that he’s long struggled to “do anything in moderation,” and admitting to a failed rehab stint four years prior.
Alcohol also served as a tonic of sorts when it came to coping with his injuries and intense physical pain from his job. “I’ve never taken a pain pill in my life,” he explains. “I’d just take a shower, flip my hair back and go to the best bar in town.”
Now, the father of four says he is dedicated to doing better.
“I’ll never drink again,” says Flair. “I never want to go through this again.”