Gathering recalls Charlotte's headlock on wrestling world

Long before Charlotte became the center of NASCAR, it was home to a different breed of sport: professional wrestling.

From the first televised matches in the 1960s to the reign of Ric Flair's elite "Four Horsemen" wrestling team through the late-1980s, Charlotte served as the Mid-Atlantic center stage for the bone-breaking, over-the-top world of professional wrestling.

"It was a blast. The wrestling business was on its first real wave at that time," said former "Four Horsemen" team member Tully Blanchard, referring to wrestling's peak in the late 1980s.

This weekend, the NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest at the Hilton Charlotte University Place is taking Charlotte back to those glory days, starting with a free barbecue with the voice of WWE's Monday Night Raw, Jim "J.R." Ross.

Event organizer Greg Price said the convention, which runs through Sunday, promises to be a "wrestling fan's heaven" complete with chances to meet more than a hundred of the sport's most legendary athletes. Price expects more than 1,000 visitors this year.

Blanchard, now 64, said for him the weekend is about getting out of character and in touch with fans.

"Twenty-five or 20 years after the fact, it is neat to hear the impact of what you did that touched people, that entertained people," Blanchard said.

Tom "Tommy Angel" Barrett, who wrestled in the 1980s, said the event got its start when promoters started asking legendary wrestlers to make appearances at contemporary matches.

"The response was tremendous," he said. "They decided to try to round these guys up in one place."

Price said the event's popularity has grown steadily since its start in 2004. He said he's seen fans from 44 states and four foreign countries, including Japan.

Blanchard said it makes sense for Charlotte to be the center of a wrestling convention.

"Charlotte was always the hotbed of the Mid-Atlantic area," he said.