They say all good things must come to an end. And so it was with Fanfest.
For the past decade, the annual four-day event had become a destination for thousands of fans who traveled from every nook and cranny of the country, and locales as far away as Japan and Australia, to converge for a weekend of wrestling nostalgia.
For fans here in the Carolinas, the event had become an annual rite of summer, taking them back to the days when wrestling shows were held on a weekly basis in arenas and auditoriums throughout the territory.
It was a kinder and gentler time - much like the family-friendly event promoter Greg Price put together for the past 10 years.
The "lovefest," as Price called it, offered fans the rare opportunity of rekindling special memories and interacting with some of the very same stars they cheered - and jeered - many years ago.
Those fans were taken back to a time when their childhood heroes once again basked in the spotlight, relating old war stories that only seemed to get better with age.
Sadly, though, those stories will now become part of the history that has connected fans over the years.
With three exceptions (Fayetteville, N.C., in 2004; Rockville, Md., in 2006; and Atlanta in 2011), the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest has been held each year in Charlotte, which served as the pulse of wrestling in the old Carolinas territory that was run by Crockett Promotions.
One of the most vibrant circuits on the wrestling landscape in those days, the Mid-Atlantic area was known as the hotbed of tag-team wrestling in the 1960s before spawning young, singles-oriented stars like Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat in the '70s.
With Flair as its resident world champion, Charlotte during the '80s became a wrestling mecca as well as headquarters for Jim Crockett Promotions.
Pro wrestling was part of the culture back then.
"We were the pro sports celebrities. The wrestling was so good and stars that came from there have been so remembered," recounted manager Jim Cornette, comparing Charlotte during that period to the mythical Camelot in a 2010 interview.
Business reached its peak in the mid-1980s, but those glory days, too, came to an end when the company was sold to media mogul Ted Turner and eventually morphed into WCW.
While Charlotte may have long succumbed to pro wrestling's national expansion and the sports entertainment genre, for a weekend each year it became the center of the wrestling universe once again, thanks to Price's brainchild.
One by one, the legends of Mid-Atlantic wrestling all returned over the years for Fanfest, from Flair and Steamboat to Johnny Weaver and Rip Hawk.
The final bell, though, tolled for the beloved gathering last weekend at the Hilton Charlotte University Place hotel, where fans and the legends returned for one final bow.
'Slice of heaven'
The event was bittersweet for the multitude of fans who looked forward each year to making their summer pilgrimage to a city that had provided so many memorable mat moments over the years.
"Fanfest is a part of wrestling history," said John Natoli of Charleston, who never missed an event. "Not only have I gotten to relive moments watching wrestling with my dad growing up, fest goers are a very real family. Without Fanfest there's a big loss."
To Alan Williams of Charlotte, Fanfest represented "a slice of heaven."
"It meant the chance of a lifetime to meet heroes, guys like Jerry Jarrett, that I'd never seen but only read about," said Williams. "To get to know guys like Jim Cornette, J.J. Dillon and so many others, just for the chance to shake their hands and say thank you for letting us be a small part of their careers."
"It means the absolute world to me," added Aaron Phipps of Gloucester, Va. "I'm a disabled veteran, and besides my family, this is all I have to look forward to every year."
Many fans lamented the fact that they will no longer have that date on the calendar to share the experience with others they have met over the years.
"It was a ton of fun meeting new friends and seeing old ones. Just seeing the smiles on all the legends when they talked to each other. Priceless," said event-goer Jim Constance.
"(It was) family coming together," remarked Daniel Anderson of Knoxville, Tenn.
'Fun for everyone'
Numerous factors played a role in Price's decision to close the curtain on Fanfest.
The downturn in the economy several years ago affected attendance, and a one-year move to Atlanta three years ago fell short of expectations.
The logistics of putting on such a massive event requires a yearlong commitment. Price was forced to cancel Fanfest two years ago due to health reasons, and the stress of dealing with multi-faceted issues concerning the event had begun to take a toll.
No one, however, would have come to that conclusion by merely observing the promoters's laid-back demeanor. "I didn't do anything" was a familiar Price refrain when thanked by appreciative fans for his gargantuan efforts.
The event became a labor of love for the North Carolina promoter, who ran his first legends reunion on Super Bowl weekend in 2004.
"I don't sleep for five days. I don't want to miss any of it, so when it's all over, I'm practically dead. But it's a lot of fun," Price said in a 2008 interview.
To his credit, he kept the event alive as long as he could. The driving force, he would say, was his love for "what used to be Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling and the NWA."
"If it wasn't something that I enjoyed so much, I probably wouldn't be doing it. It was fun for everyone," said Price, who logged hundreds of hours in preparing for the event.
"It's like a lovefest. There's something to be said when you walk into a huge hotel ballroom full of people, and they all absolutely love the same thing that you do."
Last, but not least, was the sobering reality that the once-abundant crop of legends from that era had dwindled with each passing year.
After all, they're not making any new legends.
Many have passed on since the event's inception. Others, slowed by various physical maladies, have continued to attend despite advancing age, displaying the same grit and toughness that had served them well during their wrestling careers.
Fanfest was a mixture of tradition, celebration and fun.
The throng of fans who religiously attended the event each year saw the gathering as more of a family reunion or a homecoming of sorts.
"It breaks my heart to see this come to an end. Where will all of us now meet the first August of each year?" lamented one fan at the end of the event.
Even the legends expressed deep regret.
Like the fans, they enjoyed reliving their glory days, seeing old friends and reconnecting with their fans, if only for a day or two.
Peggy Lathan of Greenville, one of the event's biggest boosters, says she will never forget the friendships that were forged during Fanfest.
"Wrestling fans aren't the only ones who are going to miss it. Wrestlers who haven't seen each other in 25-plus years were reunited with each other, and you can imagine the smiles and hugs (and stories) as old friends and enemies met again. And sadly, some of those legends are no longer with us, but because of the Fanfest events, fans were able to memorialize them through autographs and photos."
"Greg Price set the bar for a Legends Fanfest and every year raised that bar a little higher," said Hall of Fame manager J.J. Dillon. "I personally thank him every year, but I want to publicly thank him on behalf of the fans and the legends for the unforgettable memories he has provided for all of us, and I am sad to see it end."
Former wrestling great Paul Jones, who attended several of the events and was a Hall of Heroes honoree in 2008, agreed that the legends enjoyed the event as much, if not more, than the fans.
"I can't believe that this might be the last one," Jones said. "This has meant an awful lot to a lot of people."
Piece of the past
Fans traveled from all the world to be a part of the festivities with one major objective. And that was to reclaim a little piece of the past.
"I didn't get to attend but a handful, but the ones I did were like a family reunion," said Barry Cain of Knoxville, Tenn. "Just to be in the presence of guys and gals I grew up watching was an awesome experience. I will never forget the chance to meet The Horsemen and the greatest of all-time, Ric Flair."
"Thanks NWA Fanfest for 10 years that will live forever," commented Bryan Gibbons of Kingstree.
"It was terrific to meet some of the wrestlers and just flat-out let them know just how much you loved watching them for years and years," said John Hitchcock of Greensboro, N.C.
Victoria Defreeuw of Sanford, Fla., made her first trip to the event and called the experience "extraordinary."
"This year's Fanfest was my first, and it's disheartening to realize it was also my last," she said. "I went alone, but if it makes sense, I was never alone. I didn't meet a stranger. I met and made so many great friends that I would love to see again next year. And admittedly or not, if anyone complained about anything, we were the same folks chanting 'One more time!' on Sunday night."
Other first-timers shared a similar experience.
"It was my first, but getting a chance to discuss the great Lou Thesz with Ole Anderson is a memory I will cherish," said fan Mark Whitman.
"I only hope there is at least one more, as I want to attend and get it off of my bucket list," joked wrestling historian George Shire.
To Lathan, who attended all but the inaugural Fanfest, last weekend's finale marked the end of an era.
"I didn't think about this while I was in Charlotte because I was too busy having fun with my friends and my wrestling heroes, but once I got back home and reflected back on the weekend, it hit me that this was the last time I would get to do this."
Like many other fans, Lathan chooses to hold out hope for a return of the event.
"Greg has raised the bar so high on his Fanfest reunions that no other reunion even comes close. 'Thank you' just doesn't seem to be enough. I will certainly miss being in Charlotte the first weekend in August each year. If I ever find a genie in a bottle, I would wish for only one thing - that Fanfest would continue each year forever."
"I selfishly pray this wasn't the last Mid-Atlantic Legends Fanfest," said Dufreeuw. "I had the best time in my entire life - hands down - and would attend every year from now on. All those that helped are the bomb. You made an old girl feel young again."
"I believe there's hope; don't put a nail in the coffin just yet," added Phipps.
For many fans, old-fashioned Mid-Atlantic wrestling will never die.
"People always say, 'You can't go home again,' but every time I go to the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest in Charlotte, it feels like I have," said Cornette.
Perhaps the only thing missing at the end of the event was the late great Johnny Weaver, one of Mid-Atlantic's favorite stars, singing his familiar tip of the hat to Don Meredith: "Turn out the lights ... the party's over."
'Night with the Stars'
Miles Road Baptist Church, 816 Miles Road, Summerville, will host "A Night with the Stars" at 6 p.m. Aug. 23.
The free ministry/entertainment event for the entire family will feature old school wrestling stars including former NWA world champion Ronnie Garvin, Del "The Patriot" Wilkes, The Barbarian and George South.
Parking is free. There will be a meet and greet following the show, along with a signed belt giveaway.
For more information, call (843) 873-7887.
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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