For her first WrestleMania, Charlotte Flair brought a piece of her father. Not literally, of course. Just a shimmering memento from the robe he wore to WrestleMania, his final main event as a headliner, reserved for the most famous in professional wrestling.
"They used to say a woman would never main-event a pay-per-view," Charlotte says. "I'm pretty sure I heard that from my dad."
Her dad, of course, is Ric Flair—the most famous man in the billion-dollar, 65-year history of professional wrestling as we know it. And the Nature Boy's robes were as much a part of his career as anything else, all twinkle-in-the-eye glitter and boas down the front, fabric draping down the arms like wings, a blond mane flowing over the shoulder pads like his daughter's would—like his daughter's does.
The robes of the Flair family wrestlers are heavy—like 45 pounds heavy. They are ornate, with this WrestleMania memento topping out at 21 pearls at the center of a nine-leaf metal clover. But look a little closer—at the fabric costing upward of $10,000, beyond the noise of the woo—and you remember that the robe is just a costume.
The woman we now call Charlotte—unlike her brothers who followed in their father's career footsteps, she initially wasn't even allowed to use the family stage name, Flair, just Charlotte—has learned to embrace the pomp and circumstance, the moonsaults and the figure-eight leglocks, in her new role as the 31-year-old standard-bearer for the women's revolution inside WWE's big business.
But her father, at 68, has hung up the robes and given up on ornamentation, has retired the cashmere sweaters and stored away his alligator shoes. The breathless, materialistic swag of Ric's character has given way to something simpler, something shared: What motivates the Nature Boy to get up every day is the daughter who improbably assumed his mantle, their professional paths having crisscrossed at the intersection of mortality and men.
"I'm living my life vicariously through her," Ric tells B/R Mag.
That Ric Flair is living his life at all right now, of course, is something of a miracle. Last month, a procedure for stomach pains unraveled into a medically induced coma—a health scare instantly felt around the intermingling worlds of sports and celebrity, reminding us that the greatest pro wrestler of all time might not last forever after all.
He's on the mend now, out visiting family and sticking to a healthy diet near his new home in Georgia, where he moved after his youngest son and assumed scion, Reid, died from a drug overdose.
But even before his near-death experience, Ric was in repose, growing more and more comfortable with a legacy not merely of his own making.
His daughter has long been eager to take advantage of her father's full breadth of knowledge, of fame and his Figure Four finish—hell, even a social media flourish. Early in her career, Ric was hesitant to get into the minutiae of the wrestling business, but once he learned to appreciate Charlotte's commitment to the craft, he opened up about "the psychology and what goes into it," she tells B/R Mag. "I don't know if I had to earn that or own that or my dad had to see it for himself, that a woman could do it."
And so before he was hospitalized, Ric was talking, and talking, about his miraculously talented daughter, publicly, and to her, privately, in near-daily cross-country phone calls from Atlanta.
"She likes to run stuff by me," he says. "I always want to encourage her not to be upset about things."
And then, the upsetting scare: "When you're used to doing something every single day and then it's taken away for two weeks," Charlotte told her fans on WWE.com, "I kept thinking—How am I gonna talk to my dad about work? So just being back and knowing that he's getting better, it's for the family."
Ric remains, without question, his daughter's biggest advocate, using the prodigious verbal tenacity and supreme confidence that propelled him to international recognition to support his daughter's stardom—in sickness as in health.
"She'll be the next Marvel superstar if WWE lets her," he says, boastful as ever, proud as never before. WWE chairman Vince McMahon, Ric claims, "is not letting her take off six months to make a Marvel movie. Most people who walk off into Marvel never come back."
This was a week before Ric went into the hospital, and he was at his usual haunt, the Palm Atlanta Restaurant on Peachtree Road, inside the Westin Buckhead hotel. Most of his life has been spent from hotel to hotel, town to town, never staying in one place too long. Such is the life of the successful professional wrestler: The tour never ends.
"My older ones, I just wasn't at home. I think they've always resented that." There's a pause on the phone, a crack in the Nature Boy's voice. "In fact, I know they have."
"Ashley," Ric says, "has dealt with it the best."
In a regal purple robe, with just a hint of exposed chest, Ric Flair walked toward the ring, slowly enough to drink in the weighty, portentous moment. This was his first pay-per-view event against Hulk Hogan, at 1994's WCW Bash at the Beach event in Orlando. It was a match so big—the two most larger-than-life wrestling attractions of the era—that Shaquille O'Neal was there just to present the championship belt.
Ric, surrounded by fireworks and fans, brought the kids this time. He had entered the ring, as announcer Michael Buffer noted, "meeting all obstacles and accepting all challenges."
With a ringside seat to this broadcast madness, all eight-year-old Ashley Elizabeth Fliehr could think about was Disney World.
Ashley was born April 5, 1986, in the North Carolina city from which she would borrow her stage name. Her half-sister, Megan, and half-brother, David, lived with their mother in Ric's native Minnesota; Ashley and her full brother Reid resided with Ric in Charlotte—whenever he was home, anyway.
If Ric had a week or two off, it was a proper event—sometimes Disney World, or maybe just pasta night at the country club. Wrestling was rarely dinner time conversation, though: "Me and my little brother never grew up wanting to be famous," Charlotte says. "Reid wanted to be a wrestler later on, but I didn't look at [Ric] being famous and being known worldwide. It's more that you're just dad. You wrestle for a living."
In the male-dominated wrestling business of the time, it was natural that all eyes would be on the athletic, charismatic Reid.
"Reid was the one you thought, 'There's your next Ric Flair,'" says Tony Schiavone, the former WCW announcer and a Flair family friend. "He liked to ham it up—you could just see that there's a lot of dad in him, just the way he acted."
In a sense, chasing his dad was a way for Reid to be closer to a man who spent more time in airplanes than at parent-teacher conferences or little league games. Time passes and moments fade, even for the Nature Boy, which is why he spent so much time leading up to last month's hospitalization helping Ashley become Charlotte.
In that beautiful blue robe, Ric Flair walked down the aisle one more time: WrestleMania XXIV—back in Orlando, 2008, against Shawn Michaels. Reid, David and Charlotte were all there.
"Sitting front row, with my little brother, my older brother and my dad's wife at the time—seeing 80,000 people at the Citrus Bowl emotionally pouring their hearts out watching my dad retire—I didn't even grasp what he meant to the industry," Charlotte says. "I didn't even fully grasp it until I started wrestling myself.
"That was the last time we were all together, to see him wrestle."
Even with his own back-from-the-dead experience, Ric is still struggling with Reid's death, after he found his son unconscious in the second bedroom of a two-room suite at a Residence Inn where Ric was living in Charlotte in 2013. "It had been going on for so long," he says of Reid's struggle with addiction. "A lot of people don't realize that. We'd been dealing with that for almost five years."
But letting Reid wash out was never an option.
"Everybody's got a different idea of how you treat it," Ric says. "The one idea that wasn't working for me was kicking him to the curb—I don't think so. I'm not gonna have him die on a street corner. I'm never gonna let that happen. So, I take a lot of responsibility for that decision, that I never agreed to bottom him out to make things better."
Ric would return to WWE in 2014 in a non-wrestling role. David, a sturdy performer who might have lacked his dad's natural charisma, stayed retired from wrestling and now lives in Shelby, North Carolina, with his wife. But in the wake of tragedy, the next Ric Flair—the real one—was born.
When Ashley Fliehr got to WWE's developmental territory, she couldn't even do her makeup. She is what a less enlightened era might call a "tomboy"—she'd rather compete at the highest level than fuss about eye shadow. "I wasn't red carpet-ready," she says now. "I wasn't into the whole diva side of what we do."
Growing up, she'd see glamorous women like her mother or the WWE Divas and stand in awe. On the weekend of Ric's last match in Orlando, she found herself wandering through the backstage area and coming upon the makeup room and: "Wow. The hair, the makeup, the clothes. Even at that age, I never saw myself like that. I thought that's what it meant. I never looked at the athleticism."
After three years in Florida, she graduated to the WWE main roster in 2015 as a fan favorite, but still no Flair—no robes, not even counseling from dad.
"When I started wrestling," Charlotte says, "we didn't even talk about wrestling."
She'd have to earn her father's respect, and that of her peers, who weren't about to bow down just because of her last name.
Charlotte remembers posing for a promotional photo for WWE soon after joining Twitter, where she now has over a million followers—and nearly as many trolls.
"There was this website that critiqued the photos. I was like, 'Oh, this is how they think of me?' I was heartbroken," she says. "Even after that, I had camera fright because, I don't know how to pose and it's showing. When I see that photo, all I can think of is that girl on her phone reading these comments like, 'Charlotte's basic. She's all these things.'"
Wrestling fans have long had a habit of turning on anyone they feel hasn't worked hard enough to get in the ring, from The Rock in the 1990s to Roman Reigns today. This was long before WWE became one of the most popular sporting leagues on social media, with 12 billion online video views a year and one billion followers expected by 2018.
"I can only imagine what social media with Ric Flair being in the limelight would have looked like," says Flair family friend Conrad Thompson.
Even at a 2015 pay-per-view event in Atlanta, which is Flair country if you ever saw it, Charlotte was decried as a privileged scion.
"That arena literally booed me out of the building," Charlotte says, with the kind of chuckle that only comes from the distance and perspective of time. "These people don't understand I am a nice person. The smiley, bubbly blonde—whatever. But they just viewed me as Ric's kid that was getting this chance because I'm Ric's kid.
"So that night, when I went to the hotel, I was crying. I was like, 'You know what? I need to use what people think of me as a character.i I was so scared to be that arrogant queen through the curtain, because I needed the approval. Why? I don't need approval from people who don't know me."
From that point, Ashley Fliehr would embrace being Charlotte—genetically superior, the heir cometh, the challenger. Soon, her dad would start accompanying her to the ring as a manager. She began wearing the robes. Toward the end of last year, just in time for WrestleMania, she began to let it out—woooo!—just as she assumed the family name: Charlotte Flair.
"I wouldn't have turned into the queen," she says, "if I hadn't committed 100 percent to being a bad guy."
For 16 years, WWE's female performers had been referred to as "Divas"—externally, anyway. Sable, Sunny, Torrie Wilson, Stacy Keibler: The pinnacle seemed like it wasn't headlining WrestleMania so much as posing for Playboy.
But on the July 13, 2015, edition of Monday Night Raw, WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon walked to the ring to declare a "Divas Revolution," introducing Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Charlotte to a worldwide television audience, in one fell swoop.
That a McMahon was announcing all this was no coincidence, surely, according to Ric Flair: "That was a decision at the last minute," he says. "[Stephanie] was basically endorsing them and saying, 'You three are going to change the face of women's wrestling.' And they did."
Banks, Lynch and Charlotte would soon be joined by Bayley on the WWE main roster, reforming a group they'd created in the developmental league that they christened The Four Horsewomen, a play on Ric's legendary bad-guy gang, The Four Horsemen.
Lynch travels with Charlotte for WWE's SmackDown Live touring brand, continuing their bonds from the early days in Florida. The long hours and never-ending travel haven't changed since Ric's heyday.
"We're away from our family more than we're with them," Lynch tells B/R Mag. "So when you've got that sister on the road, it makes life so much easier."
At 2016's WrestleMania 32 at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, WWE officially retired the term "Diva" and vowed that its female performers would be judged alongside the men. Charlotte became the first person to hold the WWE Women's Championship under the new paradigm.
"I'm proud to be athletic and intelligent and to be called a diva," she says. Now, in the age of Ronda Rousey headlining UFC cards, women like Charlotte Flair can be all of the above.
Charlotte hesitates to cast herself as a trailblazer. Instead, she acknowledges her peers in the rise of a new era of women's sports. She name-checks "women like Ronda Rousey, the women's soccer team, Serena Williams. Even someone like Stephanie McMahon and what she means to our company. It's just been, I guess, multiple women who have stepped out in roles and made it extremely popular."
That name—Ronda Rousey—lingers over Charlotte Flair's trajectory like the insistent hum of a far-off thunderstorm. Rousey is an avowed wrestling fan who's already participated in a segment at WrestleMania 31, who brought her own Horsewomen to WWE's all-female tournament, the Mae Young Classic, in July.
A Rousey/Flair matchup would be the pinnacle of a career that seemed unlikely only a few years ago. And Charlotte's father, as ever—in sickness as in health—is confident that his daughter could hang with the MMA superstar.
Ric can see it, something Charlotte never quite saw in herself growing up: a belief, a desire, a modern kind of swagger that takes on all doubters and Twitter trolls. Ric can see it, just like 21-year-old Ashley could bear witness to Ric's stylin' and profilin' at his final WrestleMania. Father knows best, they say, and Ric Flair knows that Charlotte is the best in the business.
"If Ashley had three or four months of legitimate coaching," Ric tells B/R Mag, "she could wear Ronda out and more. She's bigger and stronger. Ashley's tougher than shit. She ain't afraid of anything."
Ric might not be accompanying Charlotte to the ring anymore, but she still takes pieces of her father with her everywhere—the robes, the cocksure smile, the woo of it all—and she is very much her own woman, standing on her father's broad shoulders, sequined pads and all.
"I think what made me successful is I never took a day off," Ric says. "You got a big crowd and a hot match, give 'em everything. If you give them that all the time, they're gonna have the same reaction: holy shit. Because nobody else can do it."
But now someone else can do it. And soon enough, now that he's on the mend, Ric could have a front-row seat for real, one that would force him to take a look at the next generation: Rowdy Ronda gritting her teeth and flexing her muscles on one side of the ring, Ashley all grown up strutting her stuff on the other—a woo to rile up the rabid capacity crowd at a gargantuan football stadium near you.
The fans let loose with dueling chants—Let's go Char-lotte! Let's go Ron-da!—as they take in a history-making moment: two women, finally closing out WrestleMania, the main event.
"She's already way ahead of what I've ever done," Ric says. And she's just getting started.
Correction: The story has been updated to say the WWE gets 12 billion online video views each year, per a spokesperson.
Dave Schilling is a writer-at-large for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @dave_schilling.
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