Charlotte Flair had never experienced anything like it.
The now 10-plus-year veteran in WWE made her surprise return after an eight-month absence in Tampa three weeks ago and defeated Ronda Rousey for the SmackDown women’s title to become a 14-time world champion in the company.
But an unexpected thing happened as Flair, who has been booed as a heel most of her career, made her walk down the aisle and pinned the former UFC women’s bantamweight champion’s shoulders to the mat. She got cheered. Loudly. The 36-year-old Flair said she “didn’t know how to act” when she heard it because she’s “got the bad guy Charlotte character down.”
This was different.
“I was very overwhelmed,” Flair told The Post in a Zoom interview. “For me to get overwhelmed out there, I’m usually controlling the emotions and the pace and where I’m at. I was just like, I had never had that comeback moment. I never had that feel-good [moment]. Maybe when I won [at] WrestleMania 32, but it wasn’t a surprise. It was a big moment in my career, but no one’s ever missed me. I’m always there.”
She said only four other people outside of herself knew she was returning and she feels really bad about not even telling her dad, Ric — who left the show before she came out. Flair even posted a photo of her and her husband, fellow wrestler Andrade, on a boat in Venice just hours before she appeared on TV.
After delivering the genuine surprise, she almost couldn’t believe it when the referee told her to go celebrate in the crowd — a practice usually saved for uber babyfaces such as Becky Lynch, Bayley early in her career and Bianca Belair. The natural energy has her the most comfortable she ever has been embracing the babyface role, and it’s altered her original plans for her return.
“I was so touched, like it really, really changed the direction that I wanted to go when I came back,” she said. “OK, let the guard down, let the chin down a little bit. What I mean is let people in and try to go where this is going.”
Flair initially wasn’t supposed to be gone as long as she was. She was written off WWE television with an injury angle after dropping the SmackDown women’s title to Rousey in an “I Quit” match at WrestleMania Backlash last May so she could married. But Flair has had dental issues dating back to childhood, including needing to have surgery in 2018 after getting teeth knocked out during a match on a European tour.
She experienced issues that again needed immediate attention. So after her honeymoon, Flair underwent multiple dental procedures after which she could not risk being hit in the face for weeks at a time. Flair said she probably could have been back for SummerSlam in late July, but stayed out longer knowing she still had one more procedure to get through.
“I had to,” she said. “I didn’t have a choice but to take care of these issues.”
The extended time away ended up being a blessing in many ways. As newlyweds, she and Andrade got more time together and traveled — including a weeklong trip to Italy. Though Flair said she had been to the country before with WWE, she never really got to go to the Coliseum, the Vatican, the museums and enjoy the food and the culture. She said it was “so special” to see her family and his — “just two different worlds come together” to celebrate “two people in love” at their wedding in his hometown of Lerdo, Mexico. Through it all she tried not to follow the wrestling business and just disconnect in a way she hasn’t before.
“Usually I’m thinking, even if I do go to the beach while I’m working I could go for a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, but I’m thinking, ‘what am I doing on TV Friday, where are my live events?’ ” she said. “To completely be disconnected and in the moment was so nice and getting that one-on-one time with Manny [Andrade] that I never have had before, it was priceless.”
Flair returned with WWE set to put on its annual Royal Rumble pay-per-view at the Alamodome on Saturday (8 p.m., Peacock). While her status for the show is unknown, she is currently embroiled in an feud with established heel Sonya Deville, who’s been acting entitled trying to get a championship rematch. Flair praised Deville for making it easy to play off her.
“She is doing such a fantastic job, and she’s the perfect person to be opposite of,” Flair said. “She’s great on the mic and that definitely makes it easier as a face. She’s really coming into her own and it’s helping a lot.”
While she’s busy with Deville now, Flair knows maybe the most intriguing feud out there for her is with Belair, the current Raw women’s champion. Belair, who is now one of WWE’s biggest stars, has made it no secret she is interested in becoming the first person to defeat all of the WWE’s Four Horsewomen and Flair is the last one she has not pinned or submitted. Given their standing in the company, Flair agrees that clash would need to be built for a WrestleMania or SummerSlam.
“It’s the two alphas and Bianca obtaining that goal that she has envisioned of beating all the Horsewomen and me being the last because she saw herself the most in me because of our [athletic] background,” Flair said. “This is definitely a storyline that I would never want rushed because there is so much competitiveness and alpha and athleticism and drive.”
Until then, Flair will work on growing into a babyface role. She had to catch herself slipping back into her heel ways at one point. After defeating Deville on SmackDown earlier this month, she snatched her championship away from referee Jessika Carr before quickly apologizing with a “thank you.” Flair said she need to remember people are happy to see her win and to embrace it. She hopes it doesn’t happen again.
“I just get in a mode and I was like, ‘Ah, wait, why did I do that?’ ” Flair said. “I almost hugged her too. What made it worse was that was a woman who I was like being disrespectful to.”
She has asked for one change since coming back and that was to her entrance music. Flair said WWE contacted her prior to her return and felt it was time to make a change to the tune that came to define her in WWE. She warned them she’s “not really good with change.”
She felt OK about the initial tweaks but felt very different walking out to it for her return in Tampa. It felt “way too slow” and she worried the audience would “think my dad was coming out.” What’s being used now feels more like a remix of her original song with the words “All Hail the Queen” worked in.
“My last music hit with the guitar off the bat,” she said. “I’m such an EDM, techno, house-music person. That was the vibe that I wanted. I was like, ‘this needs to come out strong.’ At first, when I first heard it, I was ‘oh this is cool,’ but when it played out on the night I came back I was like, ‘Oh no, we got to go back to the writing board.’”
A few other things have changed in WWE since Flair was last there. Vince McMahon retired and later unretired and Triple H is now head of creative, though Flair in her short time back said she hasn’t noticed a real change in the process. She is also not focusing on what else could change should McMahon decide to sell WWE.
“As a performer, it’s just my job to go to work, show up, do my best and make creative proud and entertain the fans,” she said. “So I really don’t think about it. And two, if say a sale was to happen, that takes months, so I don’t actively think about it. That doesn’t change what I do or what I have done.”
What Flair needs to do now is make the most of her babyface run for as long as the audience wants it.
“Seeing the reaction still, as it continues. I’m just like, ‘go with it,’” Flair said. “Don’t force anything. This is the first time that I genuinely feel right in the good-guy role. I’m not saying how long that will last, but it feels right right now.”