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When Ric Flair Lived in Charlotte
In the Queen City, to be the man, you had to see the man.
I wasn’t there for this, but my friend Chris likes to tell the story about how he and his buddy Joey ran into Ric Flair one night. It was at The Lodge, a fairly meh watering hole down in south Charlotte, and Flair was sitting at the end of the bar. Joey fangirled over him from afar before finally working up the gumption to approach him. Big fan, Joey said. Can I have your autograph? Flair looked at Joey, spent a second or two sizing him up, then threw up his hand to dismiss him, gently saying “woooo” as he turned away.
Charlotte used to be full of stories like that. Someone would tell you about the time Flair walked into Cowfish for some burgushi and bought drinks for the whole place. Sometimes he’d show up on the news after an incident of road rage, and someone would claim to have driven past the scene on the interstate. The guy who cut my hair used to talk about how Flair was imminently, sadly hireable: give him enough money, and he’d show up and drink with you. All pieces of Flair gossip seemed outrageous, but since Flair was outrageous, they were all…plausible. You couldn’t live in Charlotte without knowing a guy who knew a guy who had a preposterous Flair story.
I lived in Charlotte for six years before I had my first Ric Flair encounter. In 2011, I saw him walking down a sidewalk near the SouthPark Mall. Two months later, I met him in the green room of the television station where I worked, and posed for a picture with him and Mick Foley. A few days later, he passed my Chevy Cavalier on Woodlawn Road, extending his meaty arm from a white Dodge Charger as he switched into my lane. I caught a glimpse of his peroxide blonde hair before calling everyone I knew to tell them OMG RIC FLAIR JUST CUT ME OFF IN TRAFFIC.
So much of Flair is built from hyperbole, like claims that he slept with 15,000 women and guzzled 15 drinks a day. But there was a cognitive dissonance between the Flair from TV and the Flair who lived a few miles away. You’d hear crazy stories, but you’d actually see him doing mundane things, like waiting patiently at red lights, or perusing the produce section at Harris Teeter. Sure, I’d spotted one of the Avett Brothers at Crate & Barrel, or seen the mayor at the farmers market, but for some reason, those chance encounters didn’t carry the same weight. Seeing Flair was a rite of passage. You couldn’t find him. In due time, he found you, crossing your path in the most banal of ways. In Charlotte, to be the man, you had to see the man.
A few years ago, he moved away, and those quirky little stories don’t happen anymore. In some ways, it’s proof that Charlotte can no longer claim to be a big city that feels like a small town. Flair was a relic from the time when Charlotte was a true southern city, when wrasslin’, racin’, and preachin’ were folksy totems of life. Today, World Wrestling Entertainment is a public company, NASCAR makes more money from television rights than from ticket sales, and Elevation Church stickers adorn SUVs all over the city. The things that once made Charlotte southern have been turned into commodities.
Flair himself turned into a commodity, less known for what he did in the ring than for being the guy who said “woooo!” I confess that I never saw him wrestle live (I was more of a Hulk Hogan guy growing up and never watched much WCW), but I was always in awe of his ability to cut a promo. When I moved to Charlotte, people kept telling me that he lived in town, and I’d watch YouTube videos of him, shouting into a microphone, talking about Rolexes, jet rides, and Space Mountain. He was energizing, and knowing he might be nearby made a once blander city into something more exciting.
Flair is gone, and Charlotte has its own persona now anyway, one that’s more fractured and less homogeneous. Neighborhoods are changing so quickly that, overnight, they become unrecognizable to former Charlotteans. There have been riots. A mayor went to federal prison. The Charlotte Hornets are back, but they’re really the Bobcats in teal and purple. Toll lanes are being built. Cam Newton is now the larger-than-life celebrity you’re most likely to randomly encounter on the street. The population cracked 800,000 in 2014. Publix has arrived. Ric Flair feels, somehow, out of place among all of that.
Today, a personal Flair encounter is a form of Charlotte currency that’s no longer being minted and, as time goes on, keeps increasing in value. In 2013, I interviewed him about his trip to North Korea, and afterward, people asked me what he was like. You know, in real life. He was polite, I said. Subdued. But I kept my description short, hoping my lack of information would cause their minds to fill in the gaps. I smirked as I told the story. Maybe I was holding something back. Maybe he said “woooo.” Maybe not. And maybe I decided, just this once, to keep that part of the story to myself.