A complete personality change

By Mary Elizabeth Deangelis,
Charlotte Observer Staff Writer
Published Sunday, May 9, 1999

After 26 years in the wrestling business, Charlotte's Ric Flair is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. But behind the showmanship, Flair struggles with the same things as many 50-year-olds: parents aging, kids growing up and work taking too much time.

Thomas Webb, a 12-year-old from Greenville, N.C., screams at wrestlers in the ring during a WCW event at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill. Painted on his chest is the name "Goldberg," one of wrestling's most popular performers.

Ric Flair's cell phone chirps constantly.

Reporters call him for interviews. Colleagues need him at meetings. Friends want to meet for drinks.

It's lunchtime and he's sipping Evian with lime and munching on a Cajun chicken salad at The Cooker Bar & Grille in SouthPark. He looks like success on a day off: tan, fit and sporty in a striped Polo golf shirt and pressed khaki shorts. The waitress stops to ask if he needs anything, but backs away quickly. Flair, one of America's most famous tough guys, is crying.

He's talking about his 50th birthday party in February. He and his wife, Beth, had walked into the Piper Glen Country Club, and there's his entire family and closest friends waiting to surprise him. Seeing his parents, kids and friends who'd traveled from around the country overwhelmed him. Two months later, he still gets choked up about it.

It's been an emotional year for Ric Flair. Here he is, back on top of the popularity charts because pro wrestling's hot and so is he. At 6 feet 1, 230 pounds, perpetually tan and blond, he's one of its longest-starring masters -- Whoooo!!!!

He loves the money, the fame and the rush of performing for huge audiences.

There are troubles, too.

His mom has had two strokes since his birthday. Throughout lunch, when he thinks about her, so strong and independent -- now so frail -- the tears return. Seeing her suffer, and his dad so worn out saddens and scares him. He's survived 26 years in a bruising business. He's thrived because when the camera lights go on, performing transcends life and he's the ultimate showman. He dances around the ring like it's a party, threatens people like he's a killer and screams at the crowd like he's crazy.

But on this day, life transcends wrestling. Behind "The Man" -- with his 1,000-watt hair, blazing blue eyes and supercharged personality -- is a middle-aged guy struggling with the realities of his generation. Kids grow up so fast. Work takes so much time. Parents get older. "I don't want to give you the impression that my parents drag me down," he says. "It's just that I'm an only child -- we have each other -- you know what I mean?"

"What I'm going through is not unusual . . . everybody goes through it. A lot of people are dealing with harder things. . . . My parents have had a phenomenal life. I've just never wanted to accept that they. . . ."

He can't finish the sentence.

"Some people are tougher about this. I'm not."

A complete personality change

If you tried to guess Ric Flair's background, you'd probably pick the wrong one.

His real name is Richard Morgan Fliehr (rhymes with clear). The people who've known him longest live in a southeast Charlotte retirement community, where he persuaded them to move because he wanted them closer. His father, Dick Fliehr, is a retired ob-gyn. His mother, Kay Fliehr, wrote newspaper and magazine articles and co-authored a book about the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, where she worked as a marketing executive.

They raised their only child in a Minneapolis suburb, figuring he'd someday become a professional something. Wrestler wasn't it.

He hated school. It got in the way of sports and playing with friends. Worried about his grades, his parents sent him to high school at the prestigious Wayland Academy, a boarding school about 300 miles from home.

Lured to the University of Minnesota for football, he played offensive guard for the junior varsity team, went to parties and drove his 1968 Corvette -- a green one with gold stripes. His grades took a hit, which meant he couldn't play anymore. He quit in the middle of his sophomore year. In the early '70s, he tried selling life insurance but hated working in an office. When a slot opened at legendary wrestler Verne Gagne's school for aspiring pros, he jumped into the ring.

Kay Fliehr remembers watching one of his first matches.

"He struck me as having a complete personality change. . . . It was an eye-opener -- this kid was serious. There wasn't anything that was going to stop him."

Minnesota couldn't. Charlotte, where the Crockett family owned the National Wrestling Alliance, offered him a chance to be a star. Flair, always up for an adventure, headed south.

Today, he laughs about being so broke that year -- 1974 -- that he slept in a $9-a-night motel room, ate on a tab at Valentino's Restaurant and hitchhiked to the old Charlotte coliseum on Independence Boulevard. The day he got his first $1,000 check, he caught a ride to Arnold Palmer Cadillac and bought a used, black Fleetwood.

"That's terrible, isn't it?" he asks. "I wanted to be somebody and all the big guys had Cadillacs."

An autograph? You've got it

Flair the wrestler isn't always such a great guy. He's arrogant. He brags and beats people up. He surrounds himself with women in tight dresses. Fans love and hate him. They call him "The Nature Boy," "Slick Ric," and "Space Mountain."

"You know how much my suit costs?" he screams at a crowd in Lexington, Ky. "More than most people in Kentucky make in a year."

Or in any city on any night: "Whoooo!"

Like most pro wrestlers, Flair's been both hero and heel, weaving in and out of the roles as the plots change.

As a good guy, he can inspire a standing ovation from 30,000 people. As a bad guy, he's dodged rotten tomatoes, pocketbooks and rocks.

Out of the ring, the man described as "the dirtiest player in the game" will put his fork down in a restaurant or drop his suitcases in the airport to sign his name for a kid. "I think I've only seen him not sign autographs twice," said Doug Dellinger, a retired Charlotte police officer who now heads security for World Championship Wrestling. "Then, it was because the plane was getting ready to close its doors and he was running through the airport trying to catch it."

But fame has downsides -- including overzealous fans who've shown up at his home or found his unlisted phone number. In one case, he got a court restraining order against a woman who repeatedly called and harassed his wife and kids.

In his mind though, the rewards surpass the hassles.

He doesn't have to wait for a table in a crowded restaurant. He's campaigned with former President George Bush, Sen. Jesse Helms and former S.C. Gov. Carroll Campbell. He drinks with famous athletes. When you're a party-loving extrovert, it's a rush to walk up the stadium steps at the Georgia-Florida football game -- one of college sports' fiercest rivalries -- and have thousands stop watching the action to cheer you.

He performs.

In Baton Rouge, he once danced into a restaurant kitchen when he saw the cooks peeking out. "The kitchen staff went nuts," said wrestling writer Bob Ryder. "It's rare to see someone in that position who will entertain for 24 hours a day."

Of course, it cuts into family time. A dinner out often leads to pointing, stares and table visits from strangers. "We can't walk around Disney World," said his wife, Beth. "He gets more attention than Mickey Mouse."

Trying to retire Secretariat

Many hard-core wrestling fans consider Flair one of the all-time greats. So when a court dispute last year threatened to end his career, fans rebelled. WCW, the wrestling organization Flair works for, sued him in April 1998. The Atlanta company said he violated his contract by missing a crucial appearance. Flair sued back a few days later. He says he had permission to take the night off to see his son Reid, then 10 years old, wrestle in a national amateur championship.

Flair feared the company wanted to push him aside and let younger wrestlers take the limelight. It was, he said, "an attempt to sideline me -- to retire Secretariat."

Fans, angry at the company's treatment of a consistent crowd-pleaser, fought back. Over the next months, they waged an anti-WCW campaign and demanded his return. They boycotted shows, passed out pamphlets and sent e-mails urging others to do the same.

In fall, Flair and the company settled out of court. Flair now has a three-year contract estimated at more than $2 million and other perks, such as first-class airline tickets and limousine service.

The buildup leading to his return lasted for weeks, with rumors racing across the Internet.

In September, he donned a tuxedo and made his dramatic re-entrance in Greenville, S.C. When he saw the crowd's reaction -- 15,000 people standing in a cheering ovation, waving signs welcoming him back -- he did something Flair the wrestler wouldn't dream of:

He cried in the ring. Fans cried, too.

"I'm almost embarrassed by the response . . . ," he told the crowd. "But when I see this, I know the 25 years I tried to make you happy every night . . . was worth every minute."

In wrestling circles, where fact and fiction often blur, that night is considered one of the most moving -- and real -- moments in the history of the business. "I've never seen anything like it," Flair says. "I was overwhelmed."

Since then, he's jumped back to the top of the WCW roster. In true wrestling fashion, WCW wrote the legal battle into a story line, pitting Flair against real-life company President Eric Bischoff. In December, during a tirade about Bischoff in Tampa, Fla., Flair suffered an in-the-ring "heart attack" (real-life muscle spasms) that sent him to the hospital.

Frantic fans called the emergency room and newspapers, fearing for his life. A few days later in Charlotte, Bischoff pretended to apologize to Flair's family during a "Thunder" show. He wasn't sincere. The show ended with Bischoff making a pass at Flair's wife while his henchmen roughed up his sons Reid and David.

As part of the same story line, Flair wrestled control of the WCW from Bischoff and is now the company's "president." He also won (and has since lost) his 14th professional world title.

He's also brought his oldest son into the business. Bad move.

David, 20, has since joined Flair's enemies, trashed him on TV and had him committed to a mental hospital. ("Pretty good, huh?" Flair says proudly.)

The power of the "presidency," has turned Flair from beloved boss to dominant dictator, firing anybody who bugs him and conspiring to get even. He dances, preens and jumps around like a man in a violent trance.

In Charlotte for "Nitro" last week, he broke out of the mental hospital and pretended to make amends with David. Behind the scenes, he set up a match between David and one of the WCW's most feared wrestlers -- Meng. David left the Charlotte Coliseum on a stretcher.

"I like being a heel," Flair says with a grin. "I'm good at it."

Family time can be hard to find

The hair is shorter now. The suits are tailored, more Wall Street than Bourbon Street these days. Besides working for WCW, he's a partner in nine Gold's gyms throughout North Carolina.

He spends a lot of time thinking about his four kids, talking about them and trying to be with them as often as he can. The same goes for his parents. After her recent stay at Mercy South's intensive-care unit, his mom is back home and doing better. He's hopeful.

Wrestling made Flair rich. He's paid for it.

In his early career he traveled more than 300 days a year. Now, it's about 200. Some of the biggest shows fall on holidays.

Today -- Mother's Day -- for example, Flair's scheduled to wrestle "Rowdy Roddy Piper" in a WCW pay-per-view match in St. Louis.

His first marriage didn't survive the lifestyle. Flair says he was too young, too wild and traveled too much. David was a baby and his daughter Megan was 5 when the marriage broke up. Flair says he was devastated when they moved back to Minneapolis with his ex-wife. Traveling had already limited the time he had with them. Living in different cities made it even harder.

"It crushed me," he said. "When I was home, I used to bring Megan everywhere I went."

He's had more time with his younger children. He and Beth, who married him in 1983, have 11-year-old Reid and 13-year-old Ashley. Both go to Providence Day.

David lives in Charlotte now. He attended Central Piedmont Community College before dropping out to join the wrestling business. Megan, now 25, graduated from nursing school on Friday and plans to get married this fall. "Here's a picture of her in her wedding dress," Flair says. "I started crying when she gave it to me. I'll never make it through the wedding."

Flair's emotions sometimes surprise even him. Movies can bring them on (He's seen "Father of the Bride" -- the original -- about 10 times and still gets choked up.) So can certain songs like "Butterfly Kisses" a ballad about a daughter growing up.

He doesn't fret about getting older -- he fights age by working out harder and surrounding himself with younger people. And turning 50 didn't bring him down. It's just another marker of time passing.

Maybe that's it, he says as he sits in the restaurant, thinking about his parents. "You just can't recapture that time. There were a lot of great times -- I just wish there were a lot more."

Copyright 1999 - Charlotte Observer