Famed pro wrestler Ric Flair has been visiting Tampa Bay a lot lately, to see a woman.
WWE fans familiar with Flair’s roguish reputation might figure he’s dating an exotic dancer here.
Truth is, he’s stepping out of character with this relationship by playing the role of father to a daughter who happens to be following in his footsteps.
The Charlotte, N.C., resident known as “The Nature Boy” resides in Indian Rocks Beach when visiting his 27-year-old daughter Ashley who is training to be the next star of World Wrestling Entertainment at WWE’s Performance Center in Orlando.
Flair comes to Tampa Bay to be near her. She is his daughter, he explained, and he misses her.
“I tell everyone in the world that I have always been the best father I could be and that I was the worst husband,” Flair said with a laugh rooted in his many divorces.
“Wooo!” he exclaims, his trademark shout.
Is the 64-year-old Flair concerned that Ashley has chosen such a potentially hazardous career path?
Well, he worries she carries baggage.
“There will be added pressure on her,” he said, “because she is my daughter.”
There’s no telling whether Ashley sees the relationship as a plus or minus. WWE prohibits trainees from doing interviews.
But Cody Rhodes has some opinions on the subject.
The legend of his father, the good guy Dusty Rhodes, was born in the wrestling halls of Tampa in the 1970s, and by the time he retired, had spread across the world.
When he broke into the WWE, the fans didn’t want to see “Cody Rhodes,” they wanted to see “Dusty Rhodes Junior.”
Nostalgic, they were looking to satisfy their longing for the days when his father was king.
“A lot of people preferred me to pander to those fans,” Cody Rhodes said. “They wanted me to dye my hair blonde like my dad, do his moves like the jab and the elbow, and talk like him.”
But Rhodes said he was warned by wrestling veterans that copying his father would make him an instant star at the cost of career success.
Nostalgia has a shelf life, they told him, and “Dusty Junior” would grow stale.
So he kept his hair black. He stayed away from his father’s signature moves. He played the villain.
It made for a longer journey, Rhodes acknowledges. In the beginning, many fans were upset he didn’t channel his famous father. He had to work to win them over. And he succeeded, wrestling today as one of the WWE’s top stars.
Still, for every Cody Rhodes there are a handful of second-generation wrestlers who failed because they couldn’t escape their fathers’ shadows, he said.
Flair casts one of the largest.
“Flair is easily one of the top wrestlers of all time,” said wrestling journalist and historian Jason Powell. “If there was a Mount Rushmore of professional wrestlers, he would definitely be on it. He is in a league of his own. His daughter will have a hard time not being compared to him.”
So Flair refrains from burdening her with advice, he says.
He wants her to develop her own character. His trips to Tampa Bay are more about visiting with her than pushing her.
His stays in Tampa also bring his life full circle. He travels to where she wrestles. When she was a child growing up in Charlotte, it was the other way around.
As a big name in the industry, Flair was in constant demand, crisscrossing the world for appearances in and out of the ring. The schedule made it hard for Flair to be home, so he often brought his children with him.
“I’d take them to Japan, Australia, all of Europe,” Flair said. “The quality of time you can spend with someone on a long flight is significant. We wouldn’t watch a movie or read a book. We’d talk.”
It was on those trips that the seeds of a career in professional wrestling were probably planted.
“I never pushed any of my kids into it,” Flair said. “I pushed them away from it because I know how difficult it is.”
Cody Rhodes said his father also tried to push him away from wrestling. But when you attend the events, watching as hulking, larger-than-life gladiators are cheered by thousands of fans, the attraction can grow.
“How could you want to do anything else?” he asked. “How could I not have wanted to be a hero like my father was in Tampa?”
Flair’s two sons already tried to follow in his footsteps.
He doesn’t talk about his youngest son, Reid, who was finding success as a professional wrestler overseas before he died of a heroin overdose in early 2013.
His oldest son David made the big-time, earning a contract with the now defunct World Championship Wrestling in 1999 when it was equal in status to the WWE. But his career lasted only a few years.
“It just wasn’t for him,” Flair said. “One thing about this business is that you better love it because it is hard. He is happier now than he ever was when he was part of it.”
Ashley, on the other hand, has a natural love for the ring.
Flair compared her talents to those of the great acrobatic wrestlers, saying she can perform the type of high-flying moves that illicit “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd.
“What I hear, she does have tremendous athletic ability,” Powell says. “We’ll have to see how that translates in the ring.”
Ashley began training with the WWE in 2012. When she is ready for prime time is up to the WWE.
Flair said he wants her to succeed more than he wanted his own success. But there is little he can do for her once she sets foot in the ring.
That’s why he’s making more trips to Tampa now.
If she struggles with the pressure, he wants to be there for her. That’s what a dad does, even if he made a living hitting other men over the head with steel chairs.
“She’s strong mentally,” Flair said. “She can handle anything. She is going to be fine. She’s a winner.”
So who would win this all-star, father-son, father daughter tag-team match — Dusty and Cody Rhodes or Ric and Ashley Flair?
“Why don’t we find out,” Flair says. “We can do it right in Tampa Bay next time I’m here. Woo!”