When former South Carolina First Lady Iris Campbell passed away recently, one of the first people to call and express condolences was Ric Flair.

The bond between the 16-time world heavyweight champion and the Campbell family is a strong one that dates back to the early ‘80s when Mike Campbell, youngest son of Iris and the late S.C. Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr., first met his pro wrestling hero.

Since that time, Mike Campbell has shared some of Flair’s greatest wrestling moments, even going on tour with him at times, and traveling with him during the glory days of The Four Horsemen.

So when Campbell’s beloved mother passed away at the age of 77 last month, Flair was one of the first people to make the call.

Still shell-shocked, Campbell says he couldn’t imagine losing both his mother and Flair, who survived a near-death ordeal in August, in such a short span of time.

“She was a rock to all of us, she was Dad’s number one adviser, and they were a true partnership,” says Campbell, who works as a judge presiding over state workmen’s compensation cases. “I feel blessed, though, because she never had any long-term illness and never had to experience what Dad had to go through. She went peacefully. Mom had a real strong faith, and I know she and Dad are back together.”

Campbell’s father, who served as governor of the state from 1987-95, passed away in 2005 at the age of 65 of a heart attack following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

“I told Ric I couldn’t imagine losing him and then losing my mom. That would have devastated me. I’m just glad that things didn’t go any worse for him than what they did.”

Flair, 68, was hospitalized in August and underwent emergency surgery. He was in the early stages of kidney failure, on the brink of congestive heart failure, in need of a pacemaker, and he had a section of his bowel removed.

Doctors gave Flair, with rapidly failing organs, only a 20 percent chance to live. But after 10 chilling days on life support, the “Nature Boy” kicked out, just like he had done so many times over a 40-year wrestling career.

“People say it’s a miracle,” Flair said after surviving his near-death ordeal.

“It certainly was a miracle,” echoes Campbell. “But it probably wasn’t surprising to those who know him.”

Meeting the Nature Boy

Campbell first met Flair during the early ‘80s while his dad was serving in Congress and living in Greenville.

“I was an avid wrestling fan as a kid,” he says. “Occasionally Dad would take me to the wrestling matches. Because of who he was, we would enter through the backstage door. All the wrestlers would come up and talk to him and that sort of thing. I was a big fan of Ric and got to meet him then.”

The two would cross paths again in 1986 while Campbell’s father was running for governor.

“We had just flown into the private aviation area in Charlotte, and Ric also had just flown in. Dad was doing an interview with a television station and Ric came by, so I started talking to him. Because he was living in Charlotte, he had kept up with the governor’s race in South Carolina through the local newspaper.

“He asked me where I would be living if my dad won the election. I told him we would be moving into the Governor’s Mansion in Columbia. He said that if I ended up moving down there, that they still do shows at the Township (Auditorium) and at the (Carolina) Coliseum, and that they’d love for me to come over.”

About seven months later after the family had moved into the Governor’s Mansion, Campbell found out that wrestling was coming to town. “We sent word to the folks at Crockett Promotions and extended an invitation to Ric to come by the Governor’s Mansion.”

Flair accepted, and from that point on, says Campbell, the two became close friends.

“So many people for so many years thought that I met Ric through my parents. It was actually the other way around. He and I became friends, and then I finally introduced him to my parents. We just kind of hit it off and became big buddies, and I’ve considered him one of my best friends for the past 30 years.”

Campbell, 49, says he would sometimes get to go on tour with Flair, particularly when he was in college during summer break.

“That friendship grew, and I was with him during some of his biggest matches. We hung out the day in Charlotte the day he had the big match with Vader at (1993) Starrcade. I flew up with him and his family (to Baltimore) when he wrestled at the (1990) Great American Bash and lost the title to Sting. We were also there at Wrestlemania (24 in Orlando in 2008) for his retirement match. Over the years he has been like a big brother to me.”

The experience of “styling and profiling” with the greatest stable in pro wrestling was a far cry from politics and the Statehouse.

“It was quite a thrill growing up running around with Ric and the Four Horsemen and going on tour with them. In my early to mid ‘20s I was having the time of my life.”

The fact that Flair happened to be one of the greatest performers in the world may have initially prompted Campbell to be a fan, but their friendship developed organically.

“I may have met him initially because he was Ric Flair, but he’s somebody who would be my friend regardless. Our friendship has grown beyond that of him being Ric Flair.”

Campbell, who attended the University of South Carolina from 1988-92, also helped forge a friendship between Flair and former frontman of Hootie & the Blowfish and current country music superstar Darius Rucker, who was a buddy and classmate of Campbell at USC.

“Darius was a huge Ric Flair fan, and he thought it was cool that Ric was one of my best friends,” says Campbell. “I later got Ric to start coming to the Monday After the Masters (Celebrity Pro-Am golf tournament in North Myrtle Beach). They had asked me several times if I could get him to come. They love him there.”

On the campaign trail

Campbell’s father served as Southern Regional Chairman for George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 1988. In 1992, when Bush was up for re-election, Mike Campbell approached Flair about taking part in a whistlestop train tour around the country.

“They were doing a swing through the South. I didn’t have any idea whether Ric was on tour or not, but I asked him if he would be interested in going on the presidential train with us to campaign for President Bush.”

As it turned out, Flair had just come off an injury in a match with The Ultimate Warrior. He was experiencing vertigo, and had undergone treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis.

“Ric had time off and agreed to do the tour,” says Campbell. The next day, Flair drove to Columbia and met Campbell at the Governor’s Mansion. A SLED agent drove them to Georgia where they met the train.

Not surprisingly, Flair once again stole the show.

“We went through all these small towns around the South, and they would introduce Dad and Strom Thurmond and the president,” recalls Campbell. “These were rallies for the president, but Ric was getting a louder ovation than the president of the United States was. People were going crazy. I even had the Secret Service guy tell me that they had had every person imaginable on this train, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Bruce Willis and everybody in between, but they had never seen that kind of response for anybody like they had seen for Ric.”

Campbell also recalled a humorous incident that occurred on the train’s club car involving his mom and the Nature Boy.

“(Political strategist) Mary Matalin was talking to somebody and just going crazy about something. My mom just kind of rolled her eyes at what was being said, and she looked at Ric, held her glass up and said, ‘You know Ric … the only thing absolute on this train is the vodka!’”

“Ric loves that story and tells it all the time,” laughs Campbell.

Campbell also prodded Flair to campaign with him for 2008 presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee.

“Huckabee knew who Ric was, but he didn’t know him that well. Ric came with us to the Clemson-Carolina game to campaign. They did a live shot of Ric and Huckabee on Fox, and they could hardly get through the interview because everyone was wooing so loud. It was funny because Mike Huckabee said he was going to take Ric Flair with him everywhere; he had never seen anything like that.”

The whole story

Campbell says he had mixed feelings after watching ESPN’s recent “30 for 30” documentary on Flair.

“When I watched the ‘30 for 30,’ I was disappointed because I felt like it didn’t tell the whole story. It wasn’t the Ric Flair we know. They never talked about his generosity to total strangers … and that’s not to diminish any of the other things that were discussed as far as things that have gone on with his marriages and family and such. I adore his family. They’re like my family. At the same time, I felt like it just didn’t tell the whole story.”

While instances of Flair’s kindness and generosity are too numerous to mention, says Campbell, he vividly recalls one particular evening following a match.

“We were leaving the arena and getting ready to get into the car, and there was a special needs youngster who had been waiting at the back door. It was cold and kind of misty, and he and his parents had been waiting there all night, just hoping to get a glimpse of Ric as he came out. He had a Ric Flair T-shirt on, and Ric spotted him. He went over and talked to him and his parents for a while.”

“Wait right here, I’ll be right back,” Flair told the youngster.

“Ric went back into the building, and I guess he approached someone in merchandising. He brought back one of the replicas of the world title belt, gave it to this kid, and signed it ‘To The Real Champ!’”

Campbell also recalled an evening the two were having dinner in a Columbia restaurant.

“Before we left, Ric stopped by the restroom, and right across the hall was a private dining area where a rehearsal dinner was being held for this family. They got real excited when they saw Ric go by. One of the guys asked me if I thought Mr. Flair would come in and take a picture with them. I told him that I was sure he would be happy to.”

There were probably 25 or 30 people in the room, says Campbell. “Ric went in and talked to them, met the bride and groom, and took pictures with them. The guy told Ric about how they had to save up all this money to pay for the rehearsal dinner and the wedding. Before we left, Ric went over, unbeknownst to these people, and basically paid for the rehearsal dinner.”

“There are a million stories like that,” says Campbell. “That’s why I was concerned about the image that was painted in the ’30 for 30’ piece, because that’s what a lot of today’s generation is going to hear about Ric Flair. And that just doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s just part of the story. And it really bothers me when I see people writing stuff or reporting things about him who have never met him and don’t know the first thing about the man.”

What also bothered Campbell was how Flair was referred to in the past tense.

“He may not be in the ring lacing his boots up every night being the ‘Sixty Minute Man’ anymore, but he’s still The Man. Look at the number of sports arenas around the world where they still do the ‘woo.’ People go crazy about it, and they know exactly where it’s coming from.”

Beating the odds

Campbell also was in the Georgia hospital room when Flair first opened his eyes after being put in a medically induced coma last summer.

“I was completely blown away when I first walked in to see him,” says Campbell. “He was still in a medically induced coma at that time. I sat with him and his family for two days. They were all so worn out because they had been staying around the clock with him. The doctors said they were going to start taking him out of sedation, and I told the family that I would call if anything happened. Lo and behold, just as soon as everybody left, he opened his eyes. It was just me and Ric in the room, and I immediately jumped up to call for a nurse.”

With Flair still in a fragile and guarded state, it wasn’t until a couple weeks later that he even knew Campbell had been sitting with him and was there when he first opened his eyes.

“The frustrating thing about that was I had to go find somebody, and David (Ric’s son) was still there at the hospital. I found him and told him that his dad was waking up. We went running back, but they wouldn’t let David and me back into the room because they were moving another patient into ICU, and they made us wait for 45 minutes.”

First seeing Flair lying in his hospital bed brought back painful memories for Campbell.

“There was one point when I walked in and saw him lying there. It reminded me when I walked in and saw Dad after he passed away. I was so scared.”

Campbell says he is thankful every day that his friend came through it all.

“The guy has nine lives, and he’s already lived nine of them up. Anybody who would ever count him out doesn’t know him.”

Thump in the night

Carroll Campbell, who was only the second Republican governor in the state since Reconstruction, officially proclaimed Sept. 12, 1989, as Ric Flair Day in the state of South Carolina.

“My parents really liked Ric,” says Campbell. “When I first started running around with him and hanging out with him, they were kind of skeptical. How is this guy going to affect our son, and what kind of trouble are they going to get into? But when they got to know him, they really liked him.”

The friendship extended all the way to the Governor’s Mansion where the Nature Boy and Horsemen stablemate Arn Anderson would occasionally stay on trips through the area.

“One particular time he and Arn spent the night with us at the Mansion,” relates Campbell. “That was when Jerry Richardson was trying to secure an NFL franchise, and Dad was helping him with that. Dad had gotten the University of South Carolina to host an NFL exhibition game, and Dad had Richardson and some of the other team owners come and sit in the Governor’s Box at USC.

“Ric and Arn came with us, and I invited them to stay in the Lace House, which was the official guest house, on the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion. That house gets really dark at night, and you have these old-style, very high beds.”

While Flair is known for taking high-elevation back body drops, he wasn’t quite prepared for the one he was going to take, notes Campbell.

“At one point, Ric wakes up in the middle of the night and has to go to the bathroom. Not realizing how far the fall was, he just absolutely does a spread eagle onto the middle of the floor. All (then-wife) Beth heard was this loud thump. She asked him what in the world he was doing. Ric replied, ‘I’m getting ready to sue the state of South Carolina is what I’m doing … I almost killed myself!’ Of course, that was the first thing he told me the next morning. He still tells that story to this day.”

A perfect team

“When Dad died, Ric was one of the first people I heard from,” says Campbell. “He was overseas at the time and just was really concerned about me and how it was affecting me. He talked about what he went through when he lost his father and that sort of thing.”

There was a bond, not just between Mike Campbell and Flair, but between the Campbell family and Flair. And while they may have been a tad skeptical in the beginning, his parents soon came to realize what a good person Flair was, and what a good friend he was to their son.

“After they got to know him, they really liked Ric,” says Campbell. “Dad told him that he really appreciated him taking me under his wing and being such a good friend. And as time went along, my mom also came to realize how much I thought of him and his whole family.”

Campbell revealed that his mom also went through the phase of being a wrestling fan as a youngster.

In fact, he says, she even got to meet Gorgeous George, one of the most outrageous and flamboyant wrestlers of his time.

“Her father was friends with Gorgeous George,” Campbell explains. “When George would come to Greenville to wrestle at the old Textile Hall, he would stop by my granddad’s drive-in, which was one of several businesses my grandfather owned. George would stop by every time he was in town and visit with him. He had these gold pins that he would wear in his hair. Every time he would come in, he would give her one of those gold pins.”

So it came as no surprise, says Campbell, that his mom also came to admire the “next-generation Gorgeous George.”

“My mom and Ric always had a good time around each other and loved to cut up with each other.”

It also was no surprise that after Carroll Campbell’s death in 2005, Iris Campbell became an advocate to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. Campbell had helped build the South Carolina GOP into a political force. And when he was diagnosed with the disease, his wife worked to maintain his image as a successful governor rather than an Alzheimer’s patient.

Mike Campbell says he has been truly touched by the outpouring of love and support since his mom’s passing two days before Thanksgiving.

“We have literally heard from thousands of people from around the world. It really makes us feel good to know they touched that many people’s lives, and that so many people thought so much about both of them. That’s been a comfort through this whole situation.”

They were a true partnership, “a real team” in everything they did, says Campbell, who ran unsuccessfully in 2014 to become the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor.

“They got married when they were 19 years old. They went over to Pickens County and eloped. They came back home and lived with their parents separately, and the parents figured something was up. When they finally set out on their own, they really were a true success story. When they first moved in with each other after they got married, they lived in a one-room apartment. They didn’t have two nickels to rub together.”

Carroll Campbell ended up being a four-term congressman before becoming one of the most popular governors in state history, helping turn South Carolina into a Republican stronghold and recruiting big-name industries.

“They worked their way up, did it together, and all the way to the Governor’s Mansion and beyond,” says Campbell.

After his father passed away following a four-year battle with Alzheimer’s, Campbell, concerned about the void left in his mother’s life, encouraged her to get out and maybe start dating.

“Not necessarily a serious relationship, but just someone to go to a movie or dinner with from time to time,” he says.

She told her son she just wasn’t interested.

“Once you’ve been with the best, nothing else would ever measure up.”

“She loved Dad, but she was never quite the same after he died,” says Campbell. “She was always looking forward to being at his side once again.”

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.

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