Casual fans or those who watch professional wrestling at a distance almost always misread the task and craft of those who shine most brightly: They think of wrestlers as actors; as stunt performers; as figures drawn from comic books in the flesh. If the former Ashley Elizabeth Fliehr takes any of this as an insult, she doesn’t let on.
The pleasant and unfailingly well-spoken 32-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., has dedicated a lot of thought to pro wrestling. She tried to make sense of it as a kid, partly because she had no other choice. Wrestling shaped her family life and at least in some significant part shattered it. That might have been one large reason why she never aspired to a career in the sport.
Few adolescents and young adults know wrestling is their calling — it’s usually not their first choice and it wasn’t little Ashley’s. One thing led to another, though, and she went all in, putting in hundreds of hours of soul-testing, spine-rattling, glamour-bereft work. And on her tortuous path to stardom in the WWE, she continued to study the game — not just its holds and throws and flips and falls, but its psychological and sociological underpinnings.
Academics have written dissertations on the spectacle that is professional wrestling — is there anyone here who hasn’t read Roland Barthes’s semiotic analysis in his Mythologies? Ashley Elizabeth Fliehr cuts through all the doublespeak and reduces the beating heart of the wrestlers’ art and craft to two words.
“We’re storytellers,” she says.
So dead on the mark.
I’ve been around more than a few professional wrestlers over the years. An uncle was in the business on the other side of the pond in days of yore and, yes, he worked in a leopard-skin loincloth. As a liquor-store clerk I used to serve Lord Athol Layton when, in retirement, he was a Bacardi rep. In a professional capacity, I’ve spent time around champions like Bret Hart and jobbers whose names wouldn’t mean anything to you. I never heard them define their craft as storytelling, never heard them frame it that way, but in retrospect, yeah, they all had stories. They had stories that cast spells.
So does the story of Ashley Elizabeth Fliehr, who these days is known and even devoutly worshipped as Charlotte Flair.
Over the course of her five-year career, Charlotte Flair has won umpteen titles in the WWE, including, at this printing, four WWE Raw Women’s Championships, two WWE Smackdown Women’s Championships and a Diva Championship. These, however, are facts — not the story she has to tell.
Charlotte Flair is also the daughter of Ric Flair, the Nature Boy, God’s and peroxide’s gift to pro wrestling. Chances are you recognize his name if you’ve read this far. Ric Flair is in the running for the greatest wrestling showman of all time and his self-penned thumbnail profile is a fair concentrate of his persona: “The stylin’, profilin’, limousine-ridin’, jet-flyin’, kiss-stealin’, wheelin’-n’-dealin’ son of a gun!” While this is how many people identify or recognize her; while they look for the Nature Boy in her corner at pay-per-views; while they’ve read the compelling, truth-telling joint father-daughter autobiography properly titled Second Nature; while she’s joined him for a WOOOOO! or two; being her father’s daughter is, again, not the story she has to tell.
No, the story she has to tell will inspire you at one turn and make you tear up at another. It positions her as a role model and, yes, a survivor. She’s earned both professional respect behind the curtain and the idolatry of little girls who dress up as her for Halloween and fill her Twitter feed with photos.
Not because of her wins in the ring.
Not because of her birthright.
Because of her story.
Okay, let’s get a couple of things out of the way. A lot of people don’t pay much attention to professional wrestling. Further, a lot of people who do pay attention don’t pay much attention to women’s wrestling. Historically, it was a novelty item, seemingly populated for a half century or so by the Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young, two women who would eye-gouge a career bouncer and pull his hair out by the roots just for fun.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Chyna, a body builder who was married to Triple H and later Sean Waltman, had a run but only as a member of a posse of male heels. She was sui generis, a powerhouse who could credibly work in the ring opposite the likes of Chris Jericho; nonetheless, without any women rivals she didn’t do much for gender equity in the workplace. Others came and went and were quickly forgotten. Women’s wrestling didn’t have an image problem. Really it didn’t have an identity or a following at all.
But when Trish Stratus happened on the WWE scene in early 2000, she served as a catalyst for the evolution of women in the realm, a true trail-blazer. Out with Moolah, Mae et al, and in with the WWE Divas. For more than a decade Stratus was a major player on the scene and deservedly made the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. And today there are more women’s stars than ever, with Ireland’s Becky Lynch — who against all evidence to the contrary uses the stage name “The Man” — and former Olympic judo medalist and UFC champion Ronda Rousey front and centre. Still, none shines brighter than Charlotte Flair, and it only starts with the name.
You can make too much of the “legacy” storyline in pro wrestling. It’s hard to turn around backstage at a WWE show without bumping into the son or daughter of a wrestling legend. Charlotte’s rivals include Natalya, daughter of former tag-team champion Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, and Tamina Snuka, daughter of Hall of Famer Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka. Wrestling is pro sports’ ultimate family business, handed down from one generation to the next. But that’s not exactly how it played out for Charlotte Flair.
“Interviewers will ask me, ‘How did your father get you into it?’ but the truth is he had nothing to do with it,” she says. “When I was starting out, he didn’t even really care — he cared about me, but he didn’t come and watch me or teach me, not until I started to understand the business a year or two in. It wasn’t that he didn’t give me the time of day — I am his pride and joy. [But] wrestling was what he did for 40 years, and he never viewed the women’s division [seriously] or my capability to understand his craft. Now, when I was starting out I had no clue what I was getting into, so all the inner workings, the politics, the culture we have, the traditional things behind the curtain, I had no idea. People assumed I’d know.”
Charlotte Flair didn’t want to simply trade on her father’s fame, and that turned out to be a shrewd decision. She quickly realized doing so would have been more of an issue than an opportunity. “I was a five-foot-ten blond daughter of Ric Flair, who proclaimed that he was genetically superior to everyone else. That didn’t sound like the kind of performer who could endear herself to the fans or evoke feelings of sympathy.”
Frankly, for all of Ric Flair’s greatness, for all the votes he received for Time magazine’s Man of the Century, he never brought to the ring all of Charlotte’s athleticism. Before going into development with the WWE, she had been a scholarship volleyball player in college and, really, could have picked any sport and excelled. Not for nothing did Sports Illustrated rank her 29th among the world’s fittest women athletes last year. If anything, she could be higher on the list — Serena Williams and Lindsey Vonn don’t have to bring their game 200 nights a year.
That said, athleticism by itself doesn’t suffice in the WWE. Dozens of hyper-athletic wrestlers never got any traction, never generated any heat, because they didn’t have a character or, more to the point, a story. Charlotte Flair does, and it goes beyond her famous father.
“Some would say that the best characters are the ones who find something within themselves, and that’s the true extension of their character,” she says. “So for me everything is built around my brother Reid. What I would say is, yes, what I’ve dealt with in my real life … my brother’s dream to be a wrestler … that plays out every single day and it will never go away. I don’t think that I will ever get over it.”
Flair still finds it tough to talk about. Back in 2008, her younger brother, Reid, was 20 when he wrestled in his first match on the indie circuit, tag-teaming with older brother David in a win over the Nasty Boys. Reid was putting in the work, training with the likes of Harley Race before carving out a niche for himself in Japan. But in 2013, Reid was found dead in a hotel in their hometown, having accidentally overdosed on heroin. That was just a few months after she signed a development deal with WWE, and a few before her first televised match.
Ask Flair what her brother would have gone on to become if he had ever fulfilled his dream to become a WWE star and she’ll take a long, deep pause. She wants every word to be just right.
“I don’t know [what Reid would have become]. I still deal today with people who say, ‘You’re only where you are because you’re Ric Flair’s daughter.’ To be a generational kid is very hard. To be a male and Ric Flair’s son…. Part of why I want to work so hard is to stop the critics [of] my brother, because I just wish I could take all that pain away. I don’t know where he’d be today if he were still wrestling. I know he started in Japan — he was doing really well. Do I think he was talented enough and charismatic enough? One hundred per cent. Physically Reid was bigger and more talented than my dad. I don’t know, but I’m going to do it for him.”
Her parents long ago separated, and her father, ever a risky proposition, has remarried a few times — some seeming to last only a few pay-per-views. There were absences and dark clouds and other bad turns. Even with all that, her father is figuratively and sometimes physically in her corner, her confidant. She’s fine with him joining her in the spotlight. “I don’t know what I’d do without my dad,” she says. “Everything I’m going through, top or bottom, he can relate to.”
Over the years, Ric Flair was as much woe as Woo, and in this way he is both an example and a cautionary tale his daughter can learn from. He’ll admit — as he did in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, Nature Boy — that he drank too much and partied way too hard. His peers accused him of staying too long at the dance more than a decade before his last match, and, yeah, 60-year-old rotator cuffs tend to tear as if perforated. Listening to Charlotte Flair, his mistakes are ones she’ll avoid. “Yes, it’s exhausting to always be on,” she says. “Am I always being Charlotte? If you saw the ESPN special … that was my father’s story. He became his character.”
Which is to say, his was a fictional creation and hers so real it breaks your heart.
Edited by Craig Battle
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