There aren't many wrestlers still around who remember Ric Flair before he became the "Nature Boy."

But Blackjack Mulligan, one of the top stars in the business during the '70s, was one of Flair's mentors who helped the young Minnesotan make the transition to one of the most colorful characters and greatest performers in the history of the business.

Mulligan, 67, points out that Flair, who will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame on March 29, is the last of a breed of touring, old-school world champions.

"Randy (Orton) was trained by the Ortons. He has a smidgen of it. But Ric was NWA all the way," said Mulligan, a 2006 Hall of Fame inductee. "Wow ... it's going to be really sad. I knew it was going to happen, but here it is, just a short time away."

Mulligan hopes that Flair, whose last match is expected to be March 30 at Wrestlemania 24, can make the next - and often difficult - transition to a life outside the spotlight of the wrestling world.

"I really, really worry about Ric. My mother was a single parent, and I was a survivor from a young child, throwing papers on the street. So when I left the business it didn't matter. I was a survivor. I could leave and do things. I tripped up a little and got confused a little bit like other guys do. I made some mistakes. But it's a horrible, terrible feeling when you leave the business."

Mulligan, whose real name is Bob Windham, says he learned from his mistakes. He spent two years in a federal prison after running afoul of the law and being convicted of federal counterfeiting.

"I made some bad decisions hanging around lawyers, with people in the real estate business, and it cost me a couple years of my life. They never wind up in jail - the fall guy does. I learned that lesson. I thought I was going to be a tycoon, but I wound up being in a typhoon. And I got very wealthy. That's the reason I didn't make the move from Florida. But then all of a sudden one of my bankers, my lead guy, moved to Charlotte and built a shopping center. I was so strung out on money that when the dominoes started ... you make bad decisions. You make strange, weird decisions that you normally wouldn't make. And you're 50 years old."

Mulligan and youngest son Kendall Windham were arrested by the U.S. Secret Service in a joint investigation with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for counterfeiting in 1990. Both father and son spent 24 months in a federal prison as a result of a plea agreement and were released in 1992.

Health issues also have plagued Mulligan, legitimately one of the biggest wrestlers of his era at 6-7 and well over 300 pounds, although the wrestler continues to persevere.

"You've seen it all when you've lived as long as I have. The average age for NFL guys is 53, and here I am at 67 still kicking. I don't believe it. I probably should have been dead a long time ago. I sometimes wonder what I'm still doing walking around. God knows when he's going to stop this heart."

Mulligan, who now runs a used car lot in central Florida, became a dive master at the age of 50 and, at 60, was the oldest person to make 300 dives in the ocean. He literally got his feet wet while serving in the Marines in Guam in 1960 as part of an underwater demolition team. He earned a deep-diving and wreck-diving certificate 30 years later.

Mulligan, a master storyteller inside and outside the ring, was offered a shot at Hollywood, but he was making too much money wrestling to take a cut in pay.

"They wanted you to work as extras and work your way up. I was making so much money wrestling, around $1,500 or $2,000 a night, that I couldn't afford to do it. A guy came up to me and said, 'Jack, how many parts are there really for Frankenstein? You're so big, and they're only going to use you for so many things, and then you're used up,' like (Big John) Studd found out. But if you're smaller, you go to acting school and do like The Rock, and really blend in. And there's a whole bunch of roles for you. So I guess the demand for us carny pitchmen out in front of the snake show are over."

Mulligan says he hopes Flair's good-natured personality doesn't hurt him in his life after wrestling.

"He trusts so many people so much. They take his money and run off with his money. He and I tried a couple of things that just didn't work. We thought we were going to be wrestling promoters running a territory that had already been so beat to death that a dog wouldn't come to it. Only an idiot would have bought Terry Funk's (Amarillo) territory after they killed it."

Unfortunately, he says, he and business partner Dick Murdoch did just that.

Mulligan's entrepreneurial endeavors, however, didn't end there.

"Ric and I also bought Knoxville - yet another territory that had been beat to death. Here I am carrying $50,000 in a briefcase. Jim Barnett hated me with a passion. He picked me up in a limo, and he couldn't wait to get the $50,000, which went away in about 20 seconds. Then they wouldn't let me have Ric. We had The Sheik and Big John Studd for a few houses, but after that who was I going to work with?"

Mulligan and Flair's out-of-ring antics were more outlandish than their entertaining in-ring theatrics.

"We did so many things that were unbelievable. I can't tell most of them because we're both married and want to stay married to our wives," he jokes.

Mulligan's tales of his adventures with the Nature Boy are numerous, and some indeed are better left to those who shared them.

"We had parties at our houses when the wives were out of town. Sometimes we'd be in the front yard and they'd show up, and we'd run," he laughs.

There is, however, a tidbit passed on by Mulligan that perhaps exemplifies the swath the wrestlers cut through the old territories.

"I woke up one morning with his shirt and his toe in my mouth," Mulligan recalled. "He was naked, the room was destroyed and bodies were laying all over all over the place. His hair was all matted, he woke up and went, 'Wooo!' He was nuts."

Mulligan, who like Flair had trained under wrestling great Verne Gagne, was a fixture in the Mid-Atlantic area from the mid-1970s through 1981, and some of his greatest programs involved Flair as both an opponent and a partner. The two also were one of the major reasons for the territory's phenomenal success during that period.

Flair and Mulligan were no strangers, though, since Mulligan had helped indoctrinate Flair earlier in Texas. Flair, nearing the 300-pound mark at the time, had wanted to emulate Dusty Rhodes, even considering the mat moniker Rambling Ricky Rhodes. Mid-Atlantic booker George Scott, however, had bigger things in store for Flair, giving him the Nature Boy gimmick, complete with the signature figure-four finisher, hoping he would follow in the footsteps of "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers.

The next time their paths crossed in Charlotte, Flair had trimmed down, was sporting bleached blond hair and his own unique style. Scott convinced Mulligan to come to the Carolinas and take over the No. 1 heel spot until Flair, still learning the business but already considered championship material, was ready to take over.

Flair and Mulligan traveled together - via car and plane - and shared the NWA world tag-team belts. The two eventually became next-door neighbors and even went in together on a van.

"We bought these little old tract houses in Charlotte that this guy sold for $49,500. These were $200,000 places, so I bought four and Ric bought a couple, and we wound up next-door neighbors. And what a thing that was."

Before he knew it, he says, Flair had Mulligan's 15-year-old son, Barry Windham, chauffeuring him in a Cadillac limousine Flair had bought from the beach music group The Tams. Problem was, says Mulligan, that Barry wasn't even old enough to have his driver's license.

"I'm missing my daughter, Stephanie, one day, and she was 14 looking about 18. I'm trying to find Stephanie. And I hear this 'one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four,' and I look over the fence and Ric's got all the girls, giving them swimming lessons. I said, 'Flair, what are you doing?' He said, 'Mully, I'm giving them breathing lessons.' I said, 'You're about to get some breathing lessons.'"

"It almost killed me," laughs Mulligan, adding that he wouldn't trade those times for anything in the world.

Their extracurricular escapades took them from every major nightspot in the Carolinas and Virginia to across the Mexican border to Nuevo Laredo. The Sweetwater, Texas, native recalls one such trip in which he took a group that included Flair, Wahoo McDaniel and Wahoo's dad, whom Mulligan refers to as "the real Wahoo," to a questionable establishment in Laredo with "a hacienda and 200 of the most beautiful women in the world."

"The most you could spend was $40, but Ric spent a grand," says Mulligan. The proprietor was so impressed that he asked Mulligan if he could "bring Blondie back."

"He fell in love with this one," Mulligan said. "He took her to Houston and later sent her back home."

The two even owned a van together. They used real-life experiences to develop a lucrative storyline where the aging Mulligan, turning babyface for the first time in his career, parted ways with the younger, boisterous, cocky Flair. Dubbed "The Hat and the Robe," it was one of the most famous angles in Mid-Atlantic history, with Flair tearing up a cowboy hat given to Blackjack by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and Mulligan in return destroying Flair's prized $7,500 peacock robe.

Whether it was in a small high school gymnasium or in front of 15,000 fans at the Greensboro Coliseum, Mulligan and Flair treated the fans to a performance they'd always remember. The "Mully and Rickus" show never failed to deliver.

"Those were some fun times," says Mulligan. "I've had some real highs and some real lows, but I've been very blessed."

Ric Flair, who will in Columbia for the Raw show Monday night at the Colonial Center, will be recognized earlier in the day in a ceremony at city hall.

"Ric Flair is a legend with thousands of fans in the Columbia area. He is a great friend of Columbia, and he generates a lot of business within our city. We are proud to honor him," Columbia Mayor Bob Coble said in a news release.

The day will be proclaimed Ric Flair Day in Columbia.

The Ric Flair memories from fans throughout the country continue to roll in, and due to popular demand, here are a few more.

Andy Laudano, Fort Worth, Texas

I grew up in Connecticut, so my first wrestling exposure came from the WWWF. As a kid I remember getting mad that then-champion Bob Backlund never defended the title against other fan favorites/babyfaces. I held it against him when the wrestling magazines said that Ted DiBiase, Tito Santana and "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka all left the territory because they couldn't get a title shot. It was through those same magazines that I first learned of other federations and of NWA champ Ric Flair. Here was a REAL champ that gave everyone a title shot - "good guy" or "bad guy." One night he'd defend the belt against Ivan Koloff or Harley Race, and the next it was Ricky Steamboat or Dusty Rhodes. I became a big fan long before I ever saw him wrestle.

I moved to San Antonio, Texas, in the early 80's, shortly after the David Von Erich memorial show and while World Class Wrestling was still strong. I was thrilled to learn WCCW was coming to town and Flair was defending the title (in a match where if he got disqualified during the match, the title would change hands) against Kerry Von Erich at the Freeman Coliseum. I was determined that I was going to meet Flair and get his autograph.

The semi-main event was The Rock and Roll Express (on loan from Mid-South) vs. their old rivals The Midnight Express. I had snuck my way to the back of the arena near the heels dressing room and was waiting in the shadows as the R-n-R's music played. Next I heard the Midnight's music and knew all the WCCW security would be escorting Jim Cornette, Bobby Eaton and Dennis Condrey though the crowd. This was my big chance, and like the clueless kid I was, I walked into the locker room. There was The Champ, bigger than life, sitting on a bench lacing up his boots.

Flair looked up as I nervously approached him and asked, "Mr. Flair, could I please have your autograph, sir?" Despite looking slightly puzzled at how I got back there and obviously knowing I wasn't supposed to be there, Flair still signed for me. He asked me who I was with and I stuttered, "Um ... World Class Wrestling?" Just then he looks up and sees promoter Jose Lothario entering, and greets him with a loud "Jose!"

I knew that was my que to get the hell out of there and that The Champ had just given me the "heads up" so I could escape without getting into trouble!

I made my way back to my ringside seat with a HUGE grin on my face. The autograph read, "Best Wishes, Ric Flair" in some of the nicest penmanship I'd ever see. Even his handwriting had "Flair." The sold-out arena was solidly behind their home state hero, but none of them were more vocal or cheered louder than I did for The Champ! Flair and Kerry gave us a one-hour draw that night and a memory I'll never forget. One of many, many great memories.

Steve Clem, Spartanburg, S.C.

I am fortunate to live in Spartanburg, S.C., which is in the middle of the greatest wrestling territory ever, bar none and include them all. I know some will disagree with this, but it will be hard to prove otherwise. But from the 70's to late 80's, the Mid-Atlantic area ruled.

Many weeks I was fortunate to travel the circuit like this. Sunday afternoon in Asheville N.C., follow some of the wrestling greats to Charlotte, N.C., for the evening show. Monday night meant Greenville, S.C. Saturday afternoon or evening would be Spartanburg, S.C., and follow the greats up I-85 to close the weekend again in Charlotte.

During the latter years of Jim Crockett Promotions, I was fortunate to be a ringside regular for the weekly tapings. Especially in Spartanburg.

I have a personal photo collection that I took, that will rival anyone's, including the great Bill Apter. These photos cover some of the greatest angles in Mid-Atlantic history. Two of my favorites were taken away from the ring, but still were centered around the legend himself, Ric Flair.

The first was on my birthday in the early 90's after a Sunday afternoon card in Spartanburg. A large crowd was gathered in the back to see the wrestlers leave. The parking area was roped off, but that was not going to stop me, it was only a rope and Ric was a legend. I took off toward Ric and The Midnight Express , holding up some of the greatest photos of "the woo." The cops said stop, but Ric said come on down. Who was I going to listen to, one of Spartanburg's finest or the world's greatest wrestler? Ric seemed to generally like the pics and signed them.

The other was taken in the Charlotte airport on the day Ric returned to the WWE. My daughter, Bailey, and I waited patiently as he made it through security, yes they even screen legends. As he finally made it through, I asked if we could take a picture. He said we had to hurry because the plane was waiting on him. As he left, I told him to take care of himself and also to take care of business. As he turned to go he let out a "woo," and the world was about to be right again.

A few hours later in Orlando, I was watching Raw, and the Nature Boy strolled onto our TV screen. Bailey screamed, "That's the guy we had our picture made with today." I laughed and told her that no matter how many pictures we made this week, no character can bring as much joy to anyone's life as Ric Flair did and has to mine. To this day we still have that picture, and she tells her friends about it every time someone is watching wrestling with us.

One more photo story. My wife, Cindy, and I were at the matches in Charlotte one Saturday night. The Horseman were doing an autograph session. It was packed wall to wall. There was no way we were going to make it to front. I held some 8x10's that I had taken up in the air and hollered. The legend said let him through. Just like Moses parted the Red Sea, the crowd parted and we strutted up to the table. He grinned that trademark grin of his and signed every picture that I had. Another memory for life was made.

My two favorite live wresting events were the night in Greenville that he won the U.S. title for the last time against Greg Valentine and the night he won the world title from Vader in Charlotte.

I would just like to thank Ric for the memories. They are the stuff legends are made of. And that is what he is. Bar none and include them all. WOOOOOO!!!!!!

Jay Craven, Summerville, S.C.

I have two stories - both of these are from the County Hall days. Ric and Wahoo would have some of the greatest Indian strap matches, and by the time it was over, you could see strap marks all over Ric's body. And his blond hair was pure red, and he was so red with blood all you could see was his eyes. He said in his book that good old Wahoo helped him earn his "red badge of courage."

And another night at County Hall, while Ric was fighting Greg Valentine, Valentine got in a cheap shot on Ric and out the ring he went on the floor. And there was this little old black lady that was always there in the front row by ringside. And as Greg was through the ropes trying to get another cheap shot at Ric, she jumped up and gave Ric her cane to hit Greg with. And he got back into ring and put Greg in the figure four and won the match. But what was so amazing about that night was that after the match, Ric went out the ring on the same side that lady was seated and went over to her with all the fans there and gave her a hug and a kiss for helping him and raised up her hand to the crowd. Everyone started cheering.

I really just don't know if I can watch wrestling anymore if Ric's not there.

Robert Braswell, Raleigh, N.C.

I have so many great memories of Ric Flair. I have lived in Raleigh, N.C., all my 46 years, and Tuesday night at the Dorton Arena was the place to be. And on Wednesday at the WRAL studios, we would hang out and try to meet the wrestlers. But Ric and Johnny Valentine were my favorites.

But my close encounter with greatness came when a local radio station in Raleigh had a contest in 1980. They wanted you to write three questions you would ask Ric Flair, and if you won you would come to the station and get to ask them on the air. Well, to my surprise I won, and was able to meet Ric. He was nothing like the "Nature Boy" I had witnessed in the ring and on TV. He was so soft-spoken and made me feel at ease.

Two things I remember most was that he that he stayed around and talked to me and the people at the station long after the show and sighed a picture for me. And I forgot to bring my camera.

But it is a day I will never forget. One word for Ric Flair......Class!

Jay Rhodes, Troutville Va.

Living in the Roanoke, Va., area my whole life, Saturdays in the 70's for me was all about Ric Flair and MACW.

In 1990 after a card, my best friend and I went to the Marriott to watch Ric firsthand. I had three friends of mine who met me there (female and hot as hell). Well, needless to say, Ric made contact right off the bat. My buddy and I were getting a kick watching Ric and three of Roanoke's finest. Well over walks Ric with a shooter, grabs the back of my head and holds the glass to my lips. I said, "Give it to me Champ," and he lets out a "Wooooo" and pours the drink down my throat. I put that glass in my pocket and it sits with a Ric autograph in it on my mantle with some other sports memorabilia.

Later on that evening Ric had Melissa on the dance floor. Julie asked me to dance. Bob Segar's "Old Time Rock and Roll" was cranking up. I stuck both hands in the air for a double high five to Ric. He slapped my hands and said, "Let's tend to the ladies."

He was the Nature Boy 24-7. It was not an act. He was so nice and a complete gentleman. About two months later, Ric was in town again and had hooked up with the girls. We lived side by side. I was out of town. When I got back home to check my messages Julie was on the other line inviting me for drinks at their place with Ric. I had two messages from Julie, but the third was a familiar voice. On my machine was, "Jay, it's the Nature Boy, come on over." I have never been so disappointed than missing that evening.

I think Ric Flair is the greatest performer in history. When I say that, I mean he is greater at what he does than anyone else at what they do. He is greater than Jordan, Montana, Earnhardt, Ali, all being equal. He is perfection. Ric you will be missed.

Andy McDaniel, Trade Lake, Wis.

The name Ric Flair means many things to many people. It is one of those names that you can mention and everybody knows who you are talking about. Even the person who tells you they are not a wrestling fan, they still know who Ric Flair is. His journey has been a long one and the memories could fill volumes of books. I do not think even the man himself has any idea how much he has meant to so many people over all these years.

It does not matter if it was at a high school gym in the 70's tagging with Greg Valentine or in a cage with Blackjack Mulligan or wrestling Rufus R. Jones for an hour or whether it was the 80's in the Charlotte Coliseum wrestling Barry Windham for over an hour or if the Horsemen were whipping up on Dusty Rhodes or in the 90's headlining in Chicago or Korea with Inoki, or even now in the 2000's, Ric Flair has always been THE MAN.

It was always something special when the "Champ" came to town. There are so many words that could be used to describe Ric Flair, but Legend is certainly fitting. That word, along with Icon, has been over used for many years quite frankly by many who do not deserve it, but that is not the case with Ric. I have been a fan from the first time I saw him in Charleston, S.C., against Wahoo McDaniel. To watch it on TV every Saturday was great, but up-close and live was indescribable. These incredible performers were larger than life and truly knew how to keep the people coming each and every week.

It has been a journey that has kept me a fan for over 30 years. The staple for me, though, has without a question been my adoration for the best of all times, the Nature Boy. He has been a constant over my entire life as a wrestling fan. There have been others to make claim to be the best or the greatest, but only one man can stand today and truly make that claim when it comes to professional wrestling.

Long before the days of sports entertainment, there were thousands of adoring and dedicated fans who filled arenas, high school gyms, coliseums, parking lots, ball parks, skating rinks or anywhere they set up the ring and saw their heroes, to quote the Nature Boy, "take each other to school." In the midst of that action, in one of those venues, somewhere in Charlotte, Greensboro, Roanoke, Charleston, Greenville, Chicago, Tampa or any where else you can think of, you would find Ric Flair in the ring doing what he does best. It made no matter who the opponent was, you knew if you saw Ric you had just seen the best there was.

Today Ric Flair is the longtime fans last link to the past. He is "THE MAN" in so many ways and can truly boast of having wrestled the best all over the world. The respect and honor that Ric has garnered is well deserved. I am proud to have been able to watch this journey over all these years, and call Ric Flair a part of my life. He is like the old friend that you think of quite often and just say to yourself, "I hope they are doing well today." Ric Flair is professional wrestling, and in this loyal fan's opinion, always will be.

It is hard to imagine wrestling without the Nature Boy around, but as long his fans are alive the memories will live on forever. Thanks, Ric, you have given your all for so long, you will never know how much you are appreciated. Many have held belts over the years, but there will only be one "Real" Champion of Pro Wrestling and that is without any question the one and only, the kiss-stealin,' wheelin,' dealin' son of a gun, Space Mountain himself, the Nature Boy Ric Flair. WOOOOO!!!!!!

My memories of Ric go back over 30 years. I was 4 years old the first time I saw Ric. He was driving down Interstate 26 heading toward Charleston County Hall to face Chief Wahoo McDaniel. This would be the first of hundreds of times over the next 30 years I would witness the "Man" in action. It was a joy to watch those great matches that unfortunately many will never get to see because they were not taped. The battles between Ric and all the greats of the past are like a who's who of wrestling. He has truly faced them all, from Pat O'Connor to Bruiser Brody to Dusty Rhodes to Ricky Steamboat and, of course, Harley Race. The list could really go on and on for a very long time.

Some of my very favorite interviews over the last few years have been when Ric brings up the old days. One of my all-time favorite memories of Ric Flair comes from a day when he was not even there. It involved my, at the time, 3-year-old daughter Morgan, who Yes!, was named after the Nature Boy. It was her first day of kindergarten and I was greeted by the teacher when I went to pick her up and was asked the question, "What does your daughter know about Ric Flair?" Immediately I thought, "What did she do?" I went on to explain that Morgan had indeed been named after Ric and that wrestling had been a part of my life forever and she was familiar with it because of my involvement at the time as a promoter and sometime worker. The teacher laughed and said, "Now it makes sense." I, of course, wanted to know what happened, so I asked what Morgan had done. The teacher explained that a little boy was picking on Morgan and had pulled her hair, and quickly Morgan turned around and grabbed this boy by the shirt and said, "I got my name from Ric Flair and I will kick your butt!" I have never been so proud; I nearly broke out into the strut and said WOOOO! Ric, my friend, your legend will live on forever. Thanks for the memories, you will never be forgotten.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at (843) 937-5517 or mooneyham@postandcourier.com. For wrestling updates during the week, call The Post and Courier Info Line at (843) 937-6000, ext. 3090.