Tom Sorensen

Remembering the age when Charlotte was ruled by wrestlers at Bennigan’s

Wrestling, including Ric ``Nature Boy'' Flair, is a part of Charlotte lore.
Wrestling, including Ric ``Nature Boy'' Flair, is a part of Charlotte lore. AP

I heard from a lot of readers last week about ESPN’s 30 for 30 Ric Flair biopic, and about an interview I did with Flair and a column I wrote about him.

A theme emerged: Nostalgia. Readers warmly remember when wrestlers ruled both Charlotte and the bar at Bennigan’s near SouthPark.

In the 1980s, Charlotte looked more like Greensboro than it did Atlanta. I remember walking down Tryon St., and passing two older women. One said, “He must be a Yankee.”

I was just a guy with a place to go, as most of us now are.

The ‘80s belonged to wrestling. The NBA didn’t arrive until 1988, the NFL not until 1995, and in ’95 the Carolina Panthers played their home games in Clemson. From Charlotte, home games were a two-hour drive unless there was traffic, and there was always traffic.

Until the Charlotte Hornets brought the NBA to Charlotte, we had two major league sports – racing and wrestling. I know this is tough to believe for anybody who has moved to town in the last 20 or 30 years, but wrestling was major league.

The wrestlers belonged to the National Wrestling Alliance, and gathered at Jim Crockett’s studio off South Boulevard, on Briabend Drive. I wrote one column a week on the grapplers and met some compelling people, none of whom said, “no comment.”

Well, there was one guy, a space alien, who spoke no known language. But when I asked questions, sounds came out of his mouth. He tried.

Many of the wrestlers chose to meet me at Bennigan’s next to the Burger King on Sharon Road. This was a time before wine bars and microbreweries, before apartment complexes with yoga, dog parks, valet dry cleaning and fire pits. Back then your apartment was upscale if it offered walls and a ceiling.

The wrestlers were a big deal. Yes, they were jet riding. They also were autograph signing. Fans loved and hated their grapplers. Ric Flair was the best of them, but there were so many other great ones, including Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Dusty Rhodes and Abdullah the Butcher.

One of my favorites was the Boogie Woogie Man, Jimmy Valiant. I sat down with Jimmy for a column and asked him how old he was. He said, “Thirty-three.”

Jimmy clearly wasn’t 33. He clearly was way beyond 33.

I said, “You can’t be 33.”

“I can’t?”

“You can’t.”

Jimmy thought for a minute and then for another minute as we sat across from each other, silence filling the room.

“I’m 34,” he said.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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