Extra Points: Flair heats up Panthers-49ers rivalry

Philadelphia, PA ( - In the world of American professional sports, there are football towns and baseball towns.

Los Angeles is probably the only basketball-first major city and if you want to expand things to a North American perspective, all of our Canadian cousins are NHL-centric.

If I say Charlotte, though, you may want to think Tobacco Road, the ACC and college hoops, but you'd be wrong. The Queen City is and will always be the domain of perhaps the greatest professional wrestler of all-time, "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair.

Long before the Panthers, Hornets, Bobcats or Hurricanes existed in the Gem of the South, Jim Crockett Promotions was the only game in town and Flair's presence lifted "Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling" into the crown jewel of the old National Wrestling Alliance, the powerhouse in the industry before Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation changed the landscape.

Flair was born in Minneapolis but has called the Charlotte area home since the 1970s and has become larger than life, a worldwide superstar engrained in the city's culture.

If you walk up to anyone over the age of 40 in the Carolinas and mention the name Flair, be prepared to hear about his legendary duels at the old Charlotte Coliseum against pro wrestling royalty like Ricky Steamboat, Harley Race, Roddy Riper, Dusty Rhodes and Wahoo McDaniel, the former Jets and Dolphins linebacker from the 1960s.

A 16-time world champion, Flair is considered to be one of the top two or three "workers" in wrestling history, but that acumen pales in comparison to his work on "stick" or microphone where he was always "The stylin', profilin', limousine ridin', jet flyin', kiss-stealing, wheelin' n' dealin' son of a gun" before punctuating that with his trademark "wooooo."

Flair's "wooooo" has been used to fire up fans over the years by the Hornets, Hurricanes, Bobcats and, you guessed it, the Panthers.

This season, Ron Rivera's club even incorporated the "wooooo" into a locker room ritual with veteran cornerback Drayton Florence chanting: "Let me get two claps and a Ric Flair (clap, clap) wooooo."

"It's like the silliest thing, but it's become our team anthem," tackle Jordan Gross said on his podcast. "We do it after practice and after every win. It's like 100 percent participation. He tried to change it to 'Let me get two claps and a Nature Boy,' but it messed up the rhythm."

Panthers star wide receiver Steve Smith is a friend of Flair and once bought one of his famous $7,000 robes at a charity auction, while Flair himself sent a message to the Panthers before their victory over New England on "Monday Night Football" earlier this season, highlighting another one of his catch phrases by telling Carolina "to be the team, they had to beat the team."

"I really believe the Panthers have the weapons to go all the way," Flair said at the time.

Like most top-tier pro wrestlers, Flair has been both a good guy (babyface) and bad guy (heel) over the years, but he's always been most comfortable as the heel.

And the most compelling part of the wrestling industry is the so-called "heel turn" when the babyface goes over to the dark side like when Larry Zbyszko attacked his mentor Bruno Sammartino in 1980 or "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff, who was once selected by the New Orleans Saints in the 1973 NFL Draft, turned his back on Hulk Hogan in 1986.

The Panthers played the role of Sammartino and Hogan last weekend, getting blindsided when the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey" began to play in an Appleton, Wis., hotel and the now-64-year-old Flair strutted into the room fire up the San Francisco 49ers.

"Ric Flair's heart is with the 49ers all the way to the end," he said.

Problem is, after the Niners took care of business in Green Bay, the road to that end detours through Flair's adopted hometown against his beloved Panthers.

The real story here is Flair is friends with San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, who thought his team would get a kick out of seeing the champ.

Flair, though, is also friends with Smith, Cam Newton and a few other Panthers, some who actually took his "lack of loyalty" pretty hard.

"As a guy who actually has a Ric Flair robe, I'm real disappointed in seeing that. Real disappointed," Smith told the Charlotte Observer. "I'm not sure if he'll (Flair) get the invite here. That Golden Gate Bridge has been burned."

Or has it?

Another of Flair's many nicknames in the wrestling world is "the dirtiest player in the game."

So don't be surprised if "The Nature Boy" is on the Bank of America Stadium scoreboard this weekend ripping off the red and gold for the blue and silver -- the ultimate swerve on the 49ers and perhaps his final babyface turn.

Of course, Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, another Flair fan, had the most sensible take of all.

"I don't feel betrayed," Munnerlyn said. "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. It's not about Ric Flair, it's not about wrestling. It's about playing football Sunday at 1:05."