Sixteen-time world heavyweight champion Ric Flair has made a career out of generating excitement and creating controversy.
It's just second nature (no pun intended) to a performer who is arguably the greatest practitioner of his profession in the annals of grappling history.
But when Flair returned to WWE television last week after a lengthy absence, few expected the headlines to be of an NFL variety.
Flair, who turns 65 next month, attracted national attention when he flew into Green Bay last weekend and pledged his unbridled support to the home team's playoff opponent.
Wearing dark sunglasses and making his entrance to the music of "2001: A Space Odyssey," the wrestling legend surprised the San Francisco 49ers at the end of a Saturday night meeting and offered words of encouragement before a wild-card game with the Packers.
"It definitely provided some extra juice," 49ers running back Anthony Dixon said. "That's Ric Flair, that's what he's about, juice."
"I've always been a big fan and it just all came together," said defensive tackle Justin Smith, who initially pitched the idea of Flair being a pregame speaker to 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. "Getting him here for a playoff game was just awesome."
The 49ers used that extra motivation to defeat the Packers, 23-20, in frigid Lambeau Field in one of the coldest NFL games ever played.
The reception Flair later received in his adopted hometown of Charlotte, however, was even colder.
During Flair's entertaining and inspirational pep talk to the 49ers, he went one step further, assuring the team that he would have their backs throughout the playoffs.
"Ric Flair's heart is with the 49ers all the way to the end," he told the team.
All the way to the end, however, included the following weekend's stop in Charlotte - the 49ers' next destination.
"That's my hometown,'' the two-time WWE Hall of Famer chuckled. "Cam (Newton) ain't going to like that, either."
Probably no more than Packers' assistant coach and former Panthers linebacker Kevin Green and quarterback Aaron Rodgers - both friends of the Nature Boy - liked his declaration last weekend on their home turf.
But Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a long way from Charlotte, North Carolina.
Flair has been one of that city's most famous citizens and sports icons for the past four decades.
"Ric Flair: Wooooo! My heart's in San Francisco with the 49ers," a headline in the local paper proclaimed, adding more fuel to the fire.
Many of the city's loyal Panthers fans and even some of the players have been up in arms over Flair's controversial allegiance.
WWE released a video of the Flair-49ers meeting that went viral. Many Panthers, including star wide receiver Steve Smith, were not amused.
Smith owns a Ric Flair robe and wanted to wear it out of the tunnel for the 2007 home opener before former Panther QB Jake Delhomme talked him out of it.
"As a guy who actually has a Ric Flair robe I'm real disappointed in seeing that. Real disappointed," Smith told the Charlotte Observer. "That San Francisco bridge has been burned."
Former South Carolina standout and current Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, along with cornerback Drayton Florence and safety Mike Mitchell, had taped a video of the trio shouting "Wooo!" to play on the stadium's JumboTron.
That was before the 49ers' motivational speech.
"I'm sure they gave him (Flair) a little money," Munnerlyn told The Observer. "But, no, I don't feel betrayed. We said the chant and they (the 49ers) brought him in. At the end of the day it's a football game going to be played."
A little history
Flair said he enjoyed his experience in Green Bay despite the frigid temperature. WWE flew him in a Learjet to Appleton, Wis., where the 49ers were staying. The jet had to retrieve him and get him to Baltimore for Raw the next evening.
"I was going to go to the game, but the weather was so bad we had to leave," he said. "We had to wait five hours for the jet to pick us up."
Obviously his endorsement was all the 49ers needed to advance.
But back in Charlotte, it was as though the Nature Boy had delivered one of his patented knife-edge chops to the chest of the venerable Queen City.
Flair is to Charlotte what Elvis is to Graceland.
But should Charlotteans really be in such an uproar over the self-proclaimed "dirtiest player in the game?"
They should realize by now that Flair has turned heel more times than Carter has pills.
It's been part of the charismatic Nature Boy charm that, for the past four decades, has made him both loved and hated (often at the same time) by millions of fans around the world.
That's what Ric Flair does. It's in his DNA. If he's not causing folks to talk, then someone better check his pulse.
All those fired-up fans, however, might want to first digest some relevant information and a little history.
Flair, who began his career in 1972 (before any current NFL player was even born), was an avid 49ers fan long before the city of Charlotte ever had thoughts of fielding an NFL franchise.
"I hated the Cowboys, so naturally I loved the 49ers," he explains. "Joe Montana and all those guys."
Secondly, Flair, who of late has been living in Atlanta and Tampa, has been a supporter of the Panthers over the years, and counts Newton and Smith among his many friends on the team.
"What's the matter with having two favorite teams? In my opinion, that doesn't make you a bad person," 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh told the Charlotte Observer.
"I think Ric Flair's a fantastic guy. I had a chance to spend quite a bit of time with him, half-hour, hour or so on Saturday. And then, of course, he spoke to our team ... He spoke very highly of Carolina and his friendships with the Carolina Panthers."
Even Panthers coach Ron Rivera was surprised at how much attention the story has received.
"Ric's a good man and I'm excited that he's friends with both of us," Rivera said. "Ric's a good dude. I've met him a couple of times and I've appreciated our conversations. It's not that big a deal to me. I get it, I understand. And the best part about it is Ric doesn't dress up and get on the field."
Most importantly, Flair's trip to Green Bay last weekend was sponsored by his employer, WWE, and subsidized by the 49ers' organization.
"What are you going to do? WWE sent me," explains Flair.
There was another important reason for the Nature Boy making the endorsement.
Wrestlemania, which is to the WWE what the Super Bowl is to the NFL, will be held in March 2015 at Levi's Stadium, a new $1.3 billion structure in Santa Clara, Calif., where the 49ers will play next year.
"Wrestlemania next year is in San Francisco. And when Vince (McMahon) tells you to do something, you do it," says Flair.
And, uh, there's one more small piece of business.
Flair, through agent Melinda Morris Zanoni, issued a statement Thursday saying he wouldn't be attending the playoff game between the Panthers and the 49ers. No reason was stated.
She acknowledged many Carolina fans' feelings of anger and betrayal on social media - some even reportedly offering death threats to Flair.
"We know fans are passionate about their teams, but some of the choice language we have
been receiving is scaring off our interns," said Zanoni.
Now that's real heat.
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.
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