Charlotte Flair is one of WWE’s biggest stars. How much does she owe her famous dad?

Charlotte Flair: I don’t know if I will ever get over Reid’s death

WWE Superstar Charlotte Flair returns home on Tuesday, February 26, 2019 at Spectrum Center for WWE Smackdown. Charlotte's brother Reid Flair was a professional wrestler who passed before having the opportunity to see Charlotte's success.
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WWE Superstar Charlotte Flair returns home on Tuesday, February 26, 2019 at Spectrum Center for WWE Smackdown. Charlotte's brother Reid Flair was a professional wrestler who passed before having the opportunity to see Charlotte's success.

Say what you want about the authenticity of pro wrestling, but there are some things no one could fake. Right?

Like the moment, 15 months ago, when Charlotte Flair won her first WWE SmackDown Live women’s championship at Spectrum Center. As she held the title belt above her head and the crowd roared for its hometown hero, her wrestling-legend dad’s theme music suddenly began playing, and Ric Flair emerged from the wings. She ran to him, and locked him in a powerful embrace as they both wept.

She’ll face another dramatic moment in the same venue at the same event this Tuesday, when she tries to win back that title belt — on the day her younger brother Reid, who died at 25 of an accidental drug overdose, would have turned 31.

To some degree, Ashley Fliehr (that’s Charlotte’s real name) and the WWE have built her character atop the foundation of her love for and grief about Reid, who along with their older half-brother, David, once seemed the better bets to make the Flair name world-famous again in wrestling. (David, now 39, has been retired for almost a decade.)

“I wish I could say that I was over losing my brother, but I’m not,” Charlotte Flair says. “I mean, I have so many regrets. ... How did my brother never get to see me wrestle? ... I ask myself that every single day: How am I here, where I am, and he never got to see me? This was his dream. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.”

He’s the one who had always dreamed of this level of wrestling fame, both for him and for her. He’s the reason she’s here, she says.

Yet despite everything she’s accomplished since leaving her job as a personal trainer in Charlotte seven years ago to pursue this path, there are some who still think she’s only here because of her father.

A blessing and a curse

There’s no need to run through all her accomplishments in the ring. (If you’re a wrestling fan, you probably know them. If you’re not, let’s just say she’s won an awful lot of big, shiny belts over the past few years.)

This alone speaks volumes: There’s a rumor going around suggesting that, this April in New Jersey, she and two others (Becky Lynch and Ronda Rousey) will become the first women ever to headline Wrestlemania, the WWE’s annual flagship event. Even if the rumors turn out to be untrue, just the fact they’re circulating indicates how far women’s wrestling has come.

Says WWE superstar Charlotte Flair: “I went from personal training in Charlotte to changing the game for women’s wrestling — all because I decided to move to Florida.” Eric Johnson Eric Johnson

As for what it’s like to be Ric Flair’s daughter, she has described it as ... complicated.

“My dad’s legacy means the world to me,” she told Birmingham, Ala.’s WBRC-TV recently. “(But) do I pay homage to him or do I not? Is it OK to ‘WOO’? Is it not OK? Is it too much? Is it not? I just have to tell myself, and remember, that I am way more athletic than my dad was and what I am doing now, it’s OK to continue my dad’s legacy, and carry the last name, and WOO, and strut, and do all those things because ... I’m going above and beyond and showing that I’m also a talent — versus just Flair’s kid.”

That’s something she’ll probably always have to deal with, long after her dad is gone.

It’s a blessing and a curse, being the kid of someone who’s not simply a celebrity but a bona fide megastar. The blessing is not having to want for anything, and being able to play sports not every kid’s parents can afford, and maybe a little extra help getting your foot in the door at the company your dad used to work for.

The curse is having to hear stuff like this from the peanut gallery:

“Lets be honest if u weren’t ricks [sic] daughter u would be toiling around the mid card or independent scene somewhere,” someone tweeted at Charlotte Flair just two weeks ago. “@BeckyLynchWWE did it without her daddy getting her every push she got.”

That particular theme “gets very old, very fast,” she told the Observer. And while she says she doesn’t usually get down in the mud with critics of her or her sport, this involved only her, “so I felt like it was OK to clap back.”

The response she tweeted? “Here’s a thought: Spend less time being a tool on twitter and focus on leaving a legacy your child can be proud of. Or... you know... just keep focusing on what my father left me.”

It was the perfect comeback, a flying elbow off the top rope that struck the opponent in the chin but didn’t decapitate the person. “It was an opportunity to remind anyone who follows me on Twitter, you know, just be careful. I mean, we’re human.”

It was the perfect comeback, a flying elbow off the top rope that struck the opponent in the chin but didn’t decapitate the person. “It was an opportunity to remind anyone who follows me on Twitter, you know, just be careful. I mean, we’re human.”

Because of how over-the-top pro wrestlers’ personas can be, that fact is sometimes easy to forget.

From Providence to prominence

Less than a year and a half ago, at age 31, Charlotte Flair published a memoir with her father titled “Second Nature: The Legacy of Ric Flair and the Rise of Charlotte.” That’s where to look if you’re interested in a detailed personal history.

But for the uninitiated, here are the broad strokes:

Ashley Fliehr was born and raised — and this should come as no surprise by now — in Charlotte, where she and Reid lived a life of privilege as the only daughter of perhaps the greatest wrestler of all time and his second wife, Elizabeth Harrell.

How much money was “Nature Boy” making at the time? “My parents had a dollhouse built for me,” she wrote in her book. “I don’t mean the Barbie Dreamhouse in my bedroom with a pink Corvette next to it. ... This was my own house.

“Just off our deck was a little white wood house — something off the pages of my mom’s Southern Living magazine. Once you passed the planted flowers in the front, you’d open the door and walk on Italian marble floors, stroll under elegant ceiling fans in each room, and see a ladder that led to a second-floor loft that was a bedroom.”

Growing up, she excelled in myriad activities: She was a ballet dancer and, at one point or another, on basketball, swimming, diving and track and field teams. She competed internationally in gymnastics for seven years. She won three cheerleading national championships with Charlotte All-Stars.

Ashley Fliehr at age 18, when she was a star outside hitter for the Providence High School volleyball team — and the Charlotte Observer’s player of the year. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

But she shined most brightly on the volleyball court — as a Providence High School senior, she was named the area’s best high school player by her hometown newspaper, and after graduating in 2005 took an athletic scholarship to play at the Division I level at Appalachian State University in Boone.

In 2006, not long after Charlotte’s father and mother were officially divorced, Ric Flair married Tiffany VanDemark, a woman Ashley has said she initially resented for playing a part in breaking up her family.

She wrote in the book that she “said a lot of hurtful things to my dad,” but recalls forgiving him the weekend he retired from the WWE in 2008: “Seeing how happy he was with us from the moment we arrived in Orlando to the time we said goodbye in the hotel, that process began and I didn’t even realize it. ... Wrestling kept him away from his family more than he wanted, but it was wrestling that brought us back together.”

It would still be years, though, before she warmed to the idea of taking up the sport herself. Fliehr left App State after her sophomore year, transferred to N.C. State, and graduated with a degree in public relations. Eventually, she wound up living in Charlotte and working as a personal trainer.

The switch didn’t flip for Fliehr until March 2012, when she was in Miami to attend her dad’s induction, with the Four Horsemen, into the WWE Hall of Fame.

That weekend, her family had dinner with a WWE executive who asked Charlotte why she hadn’t pursued a career in the business. She says she’d never thought about it. After that, her brother Reid couldn’t stop thinking about it — or talking about it. He worked on her relentlessly, excitedly pitching it as something they could do together.

Reid Flair with with his father, Ric, and brother, David, prior to Reid’s debut match December 6, 2008, in Charlotte. (Photo by CHRISTINE J. COONS/Coons Photography) Christine J. Coons

She still can’t explain why, other than to say she loved her brother, but he eventually wore her down: Less than four months later, she was packing up a U-Haul and heading to Florida to start training in the WWE “development territory,” now called NXT (which loosely stands for “next generation”).

For years — before and during Fliehr’s time in the NXT — women’s professional wrestling struggled to be taken seriously at the highest level: on the WWE’s “Monday Night Raw” and “SmackDown Live” shows. But in February 2015 — after a three-hour WWE Raw event made room for just one “Divas” match that lasted only 30 seconds — the tide started turning.

The hashtag #GiveDivasAChance started trending on Twitter before the show had even ended, as fans protested what they viewed as a gender-biased snub. It snowballed over time, and ultimately, the WWE leadership started giving its female wrestlers significantly more airtime, just as Fliehr was about to enter the fray (having won the NXT championship and rookie-of-the-year honors in 2014).

Charlotte Flair made her “Raw” debut in July 2015. Less than a year later, the WWE dropped the “Divas” name and for the most part just started called them “Superstars,” just like the men.

Women’s wrestling hasn’t been the same since.

“I’m 100 percent confident,” Charlotte Flair says. “You have to be. I’ve played the good guy, I’ve played the bad guy. And also being Ric’s daughter, I’ve had to get very thick skin. But, I mean, if they’re talking about you, you know you’re doing something right.” Craig Melvin

Focusing on the positive

Yet she still regularly hears via social media from people who — for whatever reason — hate her.

And it can sometimes get extremely ugly.

Last year, someone tweeted: “The Wrong Flair child died March 29, 2013…”

This was another case in which she made the decision to respond.

“I will pray for you. I don’t know how someone could be so mean and hateful. I pity the women in your life and I’m so sorry for whoever HURT you so badly.”

But don’t expect to now see her jumping down the throat of every troll who takes a shot at her. Particularly when it comes to her father — who she’s spent chunks of her life being pretty angry at, who wrote in their book that “I won’t go down in history as the greatest father ... because I was so focused on myself” — she chooses to focus on the positive.

On the good times.

Like that night in 2017, with him appearing out of nowhere, and the hug.

It had come just a few months after he’d almost died in the hospital, organs beginning to fail after his decades of admitted alcohol abuse. “It’s one of those moments that are once-in-a-lifetime,” Ashley Fliehr says.

“The scenario — a title match in Charlotte, and then winning it, and then the fact that my dad surprised me afterwards, after being ill and not knowing if he was gonna make it or not, and considering what I have done for women’s wrestling — I mean, being able to continue that legacy in Charlotte was just ... it gives me goosebumps thinking about it.”

It was a hugely emotional, dramatic moment — seemingly tailor-made for prime-time television.

So: Did she really not know he was going to show up, or was that scripted?

She laughs at the question.

Then she says, “I can’t give away all the magic,” almost too quietly to be heard.

— — —

WWE SmackDown Live

In addition to the Charlotte Flair taking on Asuka for the SmackDown women’s championship, AJ Styles will face off against WWE champion Daniel Styles with Rowan. Others on the card include: 2019 Royal Rumble winner Becky Lynch, “The Viper” Randy Orton, Rey Mysterio, The New Day, Tag Team Champions Shane McMahon and The Miz, U.S. champion R-Truth, and more.

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesday.

Where: Spectrum Center, 333 E. Trade St.

Tickets: $18.50-$108.50.

Details: 800-745-3000; www.ticketmaster.com.

Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes

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Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.