Wrestler Ric Flair, the reigning WCW heavyweight champion, poses a very embarrassing Y2K problem for the folks at Time magazine.

Flair, a decorated 27-year ring veteran, risks his belt against Hollywood Hogan in Fairfax on Good Friday. But his mind may not be on that match. Flair is currently and inexplicably in the running for the loftiest title Time has ever sought to bestow on anybody. Last spring, the online wing of the newsweekly, Time.com, began taking votes for a “Person of the Century” poll, with the winner to be announced in a special issue set to hit newsstands in late 1999. “Billions of people have lived this century. See the 100 we should all remember,” reads a headline on the Web page. Editors figured the survey would bring attention to the site and foster intellectual debate among Internet users.

They were only half-right. To date, more than 20 million votes have been cast in the poll, making it the most popular interactive feature in Time.com’s history. But from the start, the debate has been far less brainy than brawny.

Flair fans and other morons with modems immediately began casting votes for the wrestler. And they haven’t stopped. Expected and logical contenders for the crown, from good guys like Gandhi and Pope John Paul II to heels like Hitler, have proved no match for Flair. As of last weekend, the wrestler had notched more than 310,000 votes, the second-highest total in the poll and about 122,000 votes ahead of third-place Hitler. For now, the only guy between Flair and the Time title is the Son of God himself, Jesus Christ.

Time spokespeople swear they’re as surprised as anybody to see Flair among the front-runners this far into the project.

“I had never even heard of Ric Flair before,” chuckles Janice Castro, editor of Time.com. “This has been an education for a lot of us.”

Flair deserves some notoriety. For the uninitiated, Flair (born Richard Fliehr) is and has long been the “Nature Boy,” a dazzling performer inside the squared circle—he’s recognized as the father of the Figure-Four Leg-Lock, a punishing closing move that stretches the opponent’s knee ligaments. Flair also has a few choice moves once he leaves the ring, demonstrating a hilarious, captivating genius for trash talk that leaves even the most seasoned opponents struggling for a comeback.

The Minnesota native took up wrestling in 1972 under the eye of legendary Minneapolitan grappler Verne Gagne. Along the way to winning world championship belts in essentially every major wrestling organization around the globe, Flair, now 49, garnered a reputation as the best interview in the history of the sport, or whatever you want to call it. His pre-match pronouncements (“If you wanna be the man…you gotta beat the man!”), cocky strut, and whoooooping made him the Main Man on the marathon Sunday night telecasts of the NWA that Ted Turner’s TBS showed throughout the ’80s. Now, he’s on the cusp of being Main Man of the Century.

Flair always has been a fabulous self-promoter; he was so absorbed with being champ that he actually spent tens of thousands of his own dollars on a bigger, flashier NWA title belt. But Flair is nowhere near the most popular wrestler now working—you can’t leave the Wal-Mart without spotting “Austin 3:16,” T-shirted homage to Steve Austin, the current king of the WWF ropes. And Flair hasn’t promoted his own candidacy in the Time poll whatsoever, at least not publicly. So who’s behind it? Conspiracy buffs could point out that Flair’s current employer, WCW, is a subsidiary of Time-Warner, just like the magazine.

But spokespeople for the conglomerate insist that Time isn’t on his side. Castro attributes Flair’s incredible showing to all sorts of unfair lobbying on his behalf from the people who run wrestling fans’ Web sites, many of which include links to the Time.com polling page and pleas to vote early and often. Some “robots”—Internet parlance for software programs that can spam out responses to polls—have also skewed the voting, according to the pollsters.

To prove how unjazzed they are by the partial returns, Time.com editors recently decided to institute some campaign reform. A disclaimer appeared on the Web site, insinuating that foolishness will no longer be tolerated from the masses: “Whimsical candidates and others who do not fall within the spirit of the title will not be counted.” Much harsher amendments are imminent, Castro promises. And when they’re put in place, the wrestler’s poll position will suffer a fatal wound.

“Ric Flair is about to go down,” she says.

If it’s any consolation to Flair’s fans: “Jesus is going down, too,” says Castro. Turns out His followers have also been caught stuffing the ballot box. The National Service Committee for Catholic Charismatic Renewal, a clearinghouse for god-squadders in the U.K., threw the following into this month’s Internet newsletter: “Vote for Jesus! Time Magazine is currently running a poll to find the Man or Woman of the Century and the results will be published at the end of 1999. Christians are being urged to vote for Jesus Christ so that He will be proclaimed Man of the Century through the pages of Time!” Similar examples from around the globe abound. No wonder He got so many votes (about 890,000 as of Monday).

A vote for Jesus, like one for Flair, violates “the spirit of the title,” say officials at Time.com.

Castro won’t say exactly when the two front-runners will be yanked from the poll. Her staff is now plotting an exit strategy, preparing to be flooded by angry e-mails and attempted hacking of the site once the double DQ of Flair and Jesus becomes official.

“We want to keep [the poll] as open as possible, but we will ask people to take the poll slightly more seriously,” she says. “But lately, we’ve been pretty busy with Kosovo.”

With the removal of the Nature Boy and Jesus and all the candidates destined to be deemed whimsical or otherwise unfit to wear the Time crown, nothing short of a massive ground invasion will keep Hitler from taking the title.

—Dave McKenna