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Sorensen: Pro wrestling shows it still has its hold on Carolinas

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.
Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat
Bill Olive - Getty Images File Photo
Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat flies off the ropes during WrestleMania 25 at Reliant Stadium on April 5, 2009 in Houston, Texas. Steamboat is scheduled to be in Charlotte on Friday morning at the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest.

In front of me is an athletic-looking guy with slightly curly platinum hair that falls neatly to his shoulders. When he turns, I see he has a black beard.

Oh, yes. Welcome to the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest.

Remember waking up on Saturday morning and eating cereal while you watched professional wrestling on your non-flat screen, no surround-sound TV? Remember Good and Evil leaping off the top rope, launching flying dropkicks and whacking each other with cleverly hidden metal folding chairs?

The Fanfest began Thursday and will run though Sunday at the Hilton Charlotte University place. The schedule might change, so for up-to-date itinerary and ticket information go to midatlanticlegends.com.

The man with the hair and beard is The Stro, formerly The Maestro. He has a table inside Lakeshore Ballroom. The scene here is part family reunion, part bizarre and part bazaar.

For $15 you can have your picture taken with, or receive an autograph from, Ernest Miller.

You can buy championship belts, wrestling boots, books, videos, tapes, action figures, pictures, plaques and posters.

One poster promotes an all-star card Nov. 24, 1983, at the Greensboro Coliseum. The main event is Ric Flair vs. Harley Race. Also featured is a tag-team match – Jack and Jerry Brisco vs. Jay Youngblood and Ricky the Dragon Steamboat.

(Steamboat is scheduled to appear beginning at 10 a.m. Friday)

Into the ballroom walks a man with a sleeveless shirt, muscled arms and a tall woman in a tight red dress. Since a mask covers most of his face, he might be a wrestler. He’s the Hurricane.

At a table 10 yards away masks sell for $15. A companion is not included.

Among the wrestlers inside the ballroom Thursday are Matt Hardy, Bobby Fulton and Tom Prichard. Joining them is the very popular Rock ‘n’ Roll Express. You know what they’d be called if they grappled in 2014? They’d be the Rock ‘n’ Roll Espresso. They would. It’s a different time. And they’d still be stars.

In the corner of the room are several stacks of T-shirts inscribed with: Take Me Back to the Good Old Days.

For some fans, the good old days took place inside a plain building on a plain street off South Boulevard. The National Wrestling Alliance was headquartered on Charlotte’s Briabend Road.

Jim Cornette, the former wrestling manager who always was hilarious and often evil, was a regular. On Thursday he stands behind a table and attracts the biggest crowd inside the ballroom.

Wrestlers told Cornette, 52, he’d need protection when he went to Louisiana for Mid-South Wrestling. He and his girlfriend watched a teen movie one night in which the rich kid carried a badminton racket. Ah. A badminton racket would be too light to ward off zealous fans so Cornette picked up a tennis racket.

Several old rackets are on the table, among them a MacGregor XL 1000. It’s $100. Cornette sold four the first three hours he was here. He also sold a suit he wore to big matches for $350.

“They’re such great fans here in the Carolinas and wrestling was so popular,” says Cornette. “There were more fans here than any place in the country and people don’t want to let go of that.

“It was theirs. It was local. It was part of the culture. It wasn’t from New York or California or Florida. It was from right here in the Carolinas and it was the best in the world.”

On stage at the University Ballroom is Tom Prichard. Prichard is a wrestler, trainer, coach and author. He rocks back and forth in a chair as he talks to about 50 fans. Talking about the old days, he says: “They made you want to believe.”

Prichard is correct. Fans wanted to believe.

Look around the hotel, on the sofas, chairs and escalator, inside the ballrooms and the lobby. Fans aren’t happy. They’re thrilled. The guy they grew up watching, the guy they screamed at or for? They met him. They talked to him.

They did want to believe.

They still do.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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