Some of Darius Rucker's favorite childhood times were spent watching pro wrestling on television and attending live grappling events at the former County Hall.
The territory days are long gone, and County Hall is a relic of the past.
But his love for the "old days" and one particular performer has never waned.
"Ric Flair was such a huge part of my childhood and teen years. He's an icon," says Rucker, now an icon in his own right in the entertainment world.
Rucker, former frontman of Hootie & the Blowfish and current country music superstar, has been one of the Nature Boy's biggest boosters for years.
The Charleston native and Mount Pleasant resident once bought a robe worn by Flair and has a replica of Flair's world championship belt on display in his home.
"Years ago at the Jimmy V (celebrity golf tournament), Ric auctioned off one of his robes. I just turned to my band and said, 'I'm getting this. I don't care what it cost me ... I'm getting this.'"
Despite heavy bidding for the 16-time world champion's flowing robe, Rucker says he was undeterred.
"It was a live auction, and this other guy really wanted it. But I wanted it a little more. It got up there pretty high. It cost me a pretty penny, but it was worth it."
Among other sports memorabilia on display at his home are a variety of jerseys, including two that were given to him by NFL quarterbacks Dan Marino and Brett Favre.
But the Flair swag remains his favorite.
"I've got some great stuff in my sports memorabilia collection. But my favorite thing by far is the robe. I actually have a Ric Flair robe with 'the Nature Boy' on the back. That's awesome. When I look at it, it brings back so many memories of my childhood and my teen years."
Rucker, 48, is no novice fan. He's extremely knowledgeable of the business, with a passion for the territory days.
He still vividly recalls when Flair first set foot in a Mid-Atlantic ring. A virtual rookie with less than two years in the business, Flair made a strong impression on local fans when he burst upon the scene in 1974.
Rucker was impressed with Flair's bravado and impeccable style.
"I'll never forget the first time I saw him on TV... this big, thick kid who was a (storyline) cousin of the Anderson Brothers and nephew of Rip Hawk. I remember when Ric teamed up with Rip to fight Swede Hanson and Tiger Conway Jr. I remember that feud well."
Rucker also recalls being glued to the television set of his West Ashley home on Saturday afternoons watching the stars of Mid-Atlantic wrestling.
"I was an 8-year-old who loved wrestling and watched it religiously every Saturday at one o'clock."
It was a good time to be a fan, he says, with some of the greatest talent in the business working for the Charlotte-based Jim Crockett Promotions.
And he was always more than happy to tag along with his mother or grandmother whenever they'd go shopping for groceries.
But, he admits, he had an ulterior motive.
"When my grandmom or my mom took me to the grocery store, while they shopped I would go straight to the magazine rack and go through Pro Wrestling Illustrated (magazine) and all the other stuff I could read before we had to leave. I used to love looking at PWI just to see who the No. 1 wrestler was. You had three or four world champions back then. It was great."
As avid a wrestling fan as Rucker was, his grandmother may have been even more fanatical, he laughs.
"My grandmother was a huge wrestling fan. She loved wrestling so much that there was a time when she couldn't watch wrestling. She had heart problems and her doctor told her that wrestling wasn't good for her to watch because she would get so excited when she'd watch it. It wasn't good for her heart. She had to stop watching for a while."
"But I watched it religiously with her all the time," he adds. "I've been a Ric Flair fan and watched his career since then."
His grandmom, though, didn't share his adoration of the Nature Boy.
My grandmother hated Ric Flair to no end. Everytime he turned babyface, she would say, 'You can't trust that Ric Flair. Watch him ... he's going to turn.' But that's what he wanted. That was his personality."
Mat Mount Rushmore
Flair would be at the very pinnacle of a pro wrestling Mount Rushmore, says Rucker.
"For me, the Mount Rushmore of greats would be Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Hulk Hogan, Bruno Sammartino or Lou Thesz. You can do either one of them in that fourth spot. But I think Ric Flair is the greatest of all time. He's the greatest I've ever seen ... on the mic and in the ring.
"Hogan gets all the accolades because he was up in New York with (WWE owner Vince) McMahon. But when you talk about on the microphone or in the ring, he doesn't hold a candle to Ric Flair. When you watch Ric on TV, that's who he is. He's the Nature Boy 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I just love him. He's the most personable guy."
With 16 world titles and four decades to his credit, Flair is an easy pick, says Rucker.
"That argument over who is the greatest of all time is such a big thing. All those New York guys say Hogan. I've watched a lot of wrestling, and even now I'll YouTube a lot of stuff that I haven't seen, like old Bruno matches or Lou Thesz matches that you can get on there. You can watch all the greats. But Ric Flair is the greatest of all time."
Rucker also pays homage to former NWA world champion Dory Funk Jr. and his remarkable four-and-a-half-year reign as kingpin from 1969-73.
"The Funks are terrific. Dory Funk Jr. is one of the greatest champions of all time," says Rucker. "What I liked about Dory is that he was a scientific wrestler who was a heel. I always thought that was cool. I'm a huge Dory Funk Jr. fan."
The singer-songwriter says he was surprised when he recently received a tweet from Funk, 73, who runs a wrestling school in Ocala, Fla.
"I'm just so proud to know that Dory Funk was a fan of mine. That went a long, long way with me. That was awesome. I love Dory Funk. That was a proud day when I saw that."
Not surprisingly, Funk is a big fan of Rucker and his music.
"Darius Rucker is royalty in our house," says Funk.
One of Flair's most admirable qualities, says Rucker, was a willingness to always do what was best for business, and that often meant putting over performers who were much less talented.
"The thing that I love so much is that when you talk to guys who were bookers or you read books from other people, no one ever says Ric wouldn't put anybody over. And that's something I love so much about Ric. Ric Flair was the biggest name in the business, and if you told him he had to lose to Lex Luger or Dusty Rhodes, he wasn't going to (complain) about it. He's gonna put the guy over and he's going to make that guy look great. And that's what it's all about.
"You hear just the opposite about so many other superstars. Even with the big screwjob (1997 Survivor Series) with Bret Hart. He (Hart) didn't want to put the guy (Shawn Michaels) over in Canada? What is that all about? There's a point when somebody as world champion had to put Bret Hart over. It always amazes me when I hear about guys who wouldn't do that. I'm so proud of Ric not being one of those guys. Everybody that talks about Ric says he'd put over a cheese sandwich if that's what he was supposed to do that night."
Perhaps the quality that Rucker admires most about the 65-year-old Flair is the wrestler's ability to overcome adversity - in and out of the ring.
"He's had so many ups and downs. But he's come through with the greatest attitudes and the greatest outlook on life."
Flair, says Rucker, has never disappointed.
In fact, he's everything you'd want an idol to be.
"Sometimes it's tough to meet the guys you look up to because sometimes they don't end up being the cool people you want them to be," says Rucker. "But Ric is 10 times more. He's the nicest guy. He's a great guy. I'm proud to call him my friend."
Many performers play certain roles inside the wrestling ring. To Rucker, Ric Flair is the real deal.
"Ric is from an era in wrestling where people lived their gimmick ... they were who you saw on camera. Ric's the Nature Boy. Through and through, he's the Nature Boy. I love him for it."
"Ric was ahead of his time," adds Rucker. "He would be great in his prime today. He would have been perfect in the Attitude Era. When Ric was on TV, whether he was talking or whether he was wrestling, you couldn't take your eyes off him."
'People love him'
Flair regularly attends Rucker's annual golf tournament, Monday After the Masters, which began in 1994 and has evolved into one of the top celebrity pro-ams in the country.
The event has generated millions of dollars for children's educational programs and the South Carolina junior golf program.
Flair, says Rucker, is one of the most popular celebrities at the tournament.
"He comes to our tournament and talks to everybody and signs autographs and takes pictures with everybody. While all the other celebrities are trying to get backstage and get upstairs, Ric's out in the crowd, talking to people, 'wooing' everybody. Every time somebody asks, he's ready to give them a 'woo.' He loves the people and the people love him. He comes to every one of the events."
"He's an awesome entertainer," Flair says of Rucker. "Moreover, he's a great friend and a great person. And a Gamecock!"
Rucker, a University of South Carolina grad, says he has nothing but pleasant memories following Flair's career the past four decades.
"The Dusty Rhodes feud, the babyface turn with Cowboy Bob Orton and Dick Slater, the greatest work ever. I love him."
At County Hall, the storied King Street structure that housed wrestling events for decades, Rucker remembers many main events that featured the Nature Boy.
"I went to County Hall quite a few times. I saw quite a few Ric Flair matches at County Hall. Those guys did what you wanted to do. They could make you feel certain ways."
Although he still keeps up with the current product, Rucker admits he doesn't have the same attachment to the profession that he did years ago.
"I still watch it at times, but it's all down the middle. Everybody's down the middle. The babyfaces get booed, and the heels get cheered. It all started with The Rock. The Rock was such a great heel. But you couldn't not love him."
Much like he watched traditional country music cross over into more of a pop-based genre, Rucker also observed pro wrestling move from the territories to sports entertainment. He saw new stars and new styles emerge, with the most successful ones borrowing gimmicks from their predecessors.
"For me it's like with music," says Rucker, who won the 2014 Grammy Award for best country solo performance for his hit single, "Wagon Wheel," and is a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
"When you see guys like Ric Flair and The Rock, it's like when you listen to Dwight Yoakum and you go back and listen to some Buck Owens records. You go, 'That's what Dwight was listening to when he was a kid.' When you see The Rock, you know he watched a lot of Ric Flair when he was a kid."
The fact that Flair is still "The Man," four decades after making his presence known in the Carolinas, is a testament to his legendary status, says Rucker. Unlike the territories, which died a slow death with Vince McMahon's national expansion in the mid-'80s, the Nature Boy is still going strong today.
"I understand what Vince did, and I'm not mad at Vince by any stretch of the imagination," says Rucker. "He did a great job, but territory wrestling was awesome. It was just awesome. And Ric Flair was the greatest."
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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