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Charlotte Flair didn’t know she needed a break, so in some ways, her recent time off was a blessing in disguise.
Flair, the daughter of pro wrestling legend Ric Flair, had been coming off one of the most successful stretches of her career during the first half of 2020. Having won the women’s Royal Rumble match in January, Flair captured the NXT women’s championship at WrestleMania 36.
Flair’s reign, her 12th since joining WWE in 2012, ended last June and the 34-year-old star would spend the next six months rehabbing an injury and, more importantly, clearing her head.
“It really just made me miss how much I love doing this,” Flair told Yahoo Sports. “Not that I don’t have a lot of hobbies, but now I can’t imagine my life without being an entertainer. I also got a mental break. I was able to leave the robe, the boots and the gear at work and go home and try to be a human, not always feeling like you’re on.”
The process, however, wasn’t easy. After spending the past eight years of her life as a professional wrestler, just up and stopping such a hectic schedule is a task easier said than done.
“As much as I love the non-stop pressure and the schedule, decompressing actually took a couple of weeks,” Flair said. “Part of me realized that the show could go on without me. As a performer that’s also hard. Seeing the show go on and noticing that everyone is replaceable. When you’re used to that grind, letting myself just decompress overall will be better for my mind, my body and my career long-term.”
Adjusting and hitting the reset button
While Flair was away, WWE continued to adapt to the uncertain nature of running a wrestling conglomerate in the midst of a global pandemic. WWE secured deals to hold its various television offerings across several stadiums and arenas in Florida. WWE took up residence at both the Amway Center and Tropicana Field in the second half of 2020, reintroducing fans — albeit virtually — into the equation.
Finally, in December, the stage was set for Flair to finally make her surprise return at WWE’s Tables, Ladders and Chairs event.
“When I walked out at the pay-per-view at TLC, I was just blown away by the innovativeness of the ThunderDome,” Flair said. “It really does feel like a crowd. It’s not as loud and you’re not able to connect in the same way you could by making eye contact with someone, but you can still feel the interaction with the fans because of the noise. Is it the same thing? No, but for how much time and effort that we have put into trying to have our audience be a part of what we’re doing, it’s incredible.”
Unexpected returns are almost always a hit in professional wrestling when pulled off correctly. Although Flair was only off television for six months, it was by far the longest period of time WWE fans had gone without seeing her, and the reaction was fitting.
“I think my consistency the past six years, as much as it’s a positive, it’s a detriment too because fans never got to miss me,” Flair said. “I never went away.”
The absence also allowed Flair and WWE to somewhat hit the refresh button on the character. The often dominant Flair usually toes the line between babyface and heel on WWE programming, but as she returned to team with longtime rival Asuka — who has almost exclusively been a babyface — she was firmly in one camp.
“[Our story] comes full circle,” Flair said. “Being able to team with her, it actually felt pretty natural. She’s so easy to play off of and so lively. It just felt right. It felt light in terms of going out there and being competitive with someone who I respect and admire.”
After winning the WWE women’s tag team championships with Asuka, Flair began a new angle involving her father Ric and fellow WWE talent Lacey Evans. While the father-daughter duo has shared the screen and had their storylines intertwined in the past, as the weeks have gone by, Flair has come across as a more sympathetic figure than has been portrayed in the past.
“The transition to the storyline with my dad, I guess the most important thing the viewers have to see is how much I have grown as a performer from the last time I was on TV with him,” Flair said. “Fathers and daughters fight. It’s now how I handle it. I’ve turned on my dad before, so now it’s looking at it from a perspective of did he turn on me or am I just fed up. People will need to see how it plays out.”
‘I wondered if I should apologize to people’
Although she’s currently playing a good character on television, Flair is not immune to a handful of vocal detractors online. Flair recently took to Twitter to set the record straight about misconceptions regarding how she’s booked on television. It was a rare outspoken moment for Flair, who took umbrage with the notion that she disappears from WWE when she’s not in the title picture.
“I’m very shy on social media and consistent with the same message of women’s empowerment, so much so that even when my character has leaned more toward the bad guy side, I’ve kept my social media positive,” Flair said. “I think the issue is one person can only take so much for so long. It kind of felt like open season on me.
“To say that I disappear, the reason that got me so fired up, was complete and utter BS. You don’t have to like me, I don’t have to be your favorite, you don’t have to even think I’m good, but to question my work ethic and what I have given to this business is not fair.”
The facts are that Flair has had 13 total title reigns during her time with WWE and, along with Sasha Banks, Bayley and Becky Lynch, helped usher in a new generation of women’s wrestling in the company. The criticism really isn’t new for Flair, whose storylines have leaned heavily at times into the notion of her being a “Golden Child,” but it has nonetheless led to brief moments of doubt.
“It’s almost like you get into the business and say you don’t want to be world champion,” Flair said. “You don’t get into the business saying that. You might not like the sports team that’s always making the championships, but that shouldn’t discredit the person. I got to a point where I wondered if I should apologize to people. If someone else was getting these opportunities would they feel sorry for me?
“[Critics] don’t know the time I’ve put into what I’m doing. Damn right I’m going to take every opportunity. Who in their right mind wouldn’t take these opportunities just so they can make these people feel better? I have to tell myself that sometimes.”
All eyes on WrestleMania
With WWE’s Royal Rumble event taking place Sunday, Flair may get another opportunity to win the Raw or Smackdown women’s championship, should she repeat as the women’s Royal Rumble winner.
Although Flair opted to challenge for the NXT women’s championship in 2020, there’s still a story to be told between Flair and Asuka, who had one of the best women’s matches in WrestleMania history in 2018.
“When we had that WrestleMania match in New Orleans at 34, no one knew really what to expect,” Flair said. “Asuka had already made a name for herself around the world and beating her that night cemented my legacy, so I think that with all of the experience, I’d be really interested to see what that match would look like. She was my mountain and I feel like ever since then, I seem to be her mountain.”
Should Flair and Asuka renew their rivalry there’s a chance that they are the main event of WrestleMania 37 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
Two years after performing alongside Lynch and Ronda Rousey in the first women’s main event in WrestleMania history, Flair feels the time for celebrating “firsts” for the women’s division is over. She simply wants to tell the best story and have the best match on the card.
“If the women have the hottest story, they should be the main event,” Flair said. “If the men have the hottest story, they should be the main event. It shouldn’t boil down to gender or the first-ever. Who has the best story should be in that spot, that’s how you feel equal.
“I think being on a pay-per-view card with men and wanting to have the best match, that’s also something women should aspire to do. I want to be on the card with men and say I am having the best match.”
Regardless of her opponent three months from now, simply returning to a stadium atmosphere as the COVID-19 pandemic forced last year’s event to a fan-less WWE Performance Center, will be a step in the right direction for Flair.
“I think it’s almost like a light at the end of the tunnel that we are able to have ‘Mania in a major stadium and that maybe things will get back to seeming normal,” Flair said.
It’s a show and a moment that will almost certainly demand a little extra Flair.
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