When Ric Flair pulled up in his brand new Cadillac Fleetwood behind the former County Hall for the first time, he had no clue that 40 years later he would be widely regarded as the greatest wrestling performer in the history of the business.

Less than two years into his fledgling mat career at the time, Flair says he considered himself blessed to be able to wrestle in a territory that would afford him the chance to learn from some of the most ringwise veterans in the business.

"I had so many great folks to look up to and admire," he says, mentioning the likes of Wahoo McDaniel, Blackjack Mulligan, Dusty Rhodes and George Scott.

Teaming at the time with longtime Carolinas heel Rip Hawk, the two held the Mid-Atlantic tag-team championship, Flair's first official title and the first of many to come, including a record 16 runs as world heavyweight champion.

It was a much different world then - one long before the advent of the sports entertainment genre that would be introduced by Vince McMahon.

Richard Nixon was still president, Watergate was in full swing and Hank Aaron had just hit his then-record 715th home run.

That's a lifetime ago for most, but in the Ric Flair timeline, it's just part of a fabulous career that has spanned generations and shows no signs of stopping.

Four decades later, the charismatic Flair remains a relevant figure not only in the pro wrestling world, but in pop culture as well.

His trademark "Woo!" - a phrase he picked up after listening to "Great Balls of Fire" by Jerry Lee Lewis on the radio - can be heard in sports stadiums and wrestling arenas around the world.

His wide circle of friends includes star athletes and celebrities.

"I grew up watching the Nature Boy," says country music star and local resident Darius Rucker. "He is the greatest I've ever seen. I'm proud to call him my friend."

Flair says he's a lucky man to have achieved the pinnacle of success in a sport he passionately loves.

"I still have such a great group of friends I'm close to, and I'm blessed. I've got friends everywhere, and it's just a tremendous feeling to have that kind of respect."

Since his pro debut in 1972, Flair has been the one constant in the wrestling business, bridging generations of fans and styles.

The "Nature Boy" isn't really a gimmick for Flair. It's a colorful lifestyle he has led outside the ring. It's also what has endeared him to millions of fans over the years.

"Ric is from an era in wrestling where people lived their gimmick ... they were who you saw on camera," says Rucker. "Ric's the Nature Boy. Through and through, he's the Nature Boy. I love him for it."

The self-proclaimed "limousine-riding, jet-flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin' dealin' son of a gun" will return to the Lowcountry this weekend as part of a Big Time Wrestling show to be held Saturday night at the Charleston Area Convention Center. Flair will take part in a meet and greet beginning at 5 p.m. (extra fee for autograph/photo packages), and will make a special in-ring appearance on the show that starts at 7 p.m.

"I haven't been to Charleston in about five years, and I'm really looking forward to coming back. It's such a great town," says Flair.

Loves the nightlife

Flair's first documented match in Charleston was in June 1974 when the then-25-year-old Minnesotan teamed with the veteran Hawk to defeat Danny Miller and Bob Bruggers at County Hall, a venerable venue that hosted events ranging from pro wrestling to James Brown to the Harlem Globetrotters before being eventually converted into an affordable housing complex.

On hot summer nights, spectators might sweat as much as the wrestlers in the ring, with the only forms of cooling being a few box fans and an occasional breeze from outside the auditorium.

It was more the building than his opponents that first night that left an impression with Flair.

"I had been all over the country, but I didn't even know where North or South Carolina was," says Flair, who was recruited to play football at the University of Minnesota but left school early to pursue a wrestling career. "But I'll never forget the building. It must have been 120 degrees in that place. I wrestled several times in that building for an hour. Each time I'd lose nine or 10 pounds."

"Hence, 20 beers on the way home," he laughs.

There have been thousands of matches and hundreds of venues around the world since Flair made his first stop in the Carolinas.

Charleston, he says, will always hold special memories.

"The Jukebox, one of the greatest (nightclubs) of all time," Flair exclaims without a hint of hesitation.

"I'd stay at the Omni (hotel) back then and couldn't wait to get to the Jukebox. When that part of town opened up, I started spending the night."

Flair was a connoisseur of nightlife from Charlotte to Tokyo and all points in between. Charleston, he says, could hold its own.

"I loved coming to Charleston. Great place, great food, great fan base ... and great nightclubs. Oh, God, I had such great times."

"Ric Flair is a connoisseur of fine wine and the fans of the Carolinas feel the same way about Naitch ... now going on 40 years together. Ric's fans have stuck by him better than some of his wives," jokes WWE Hall of Fame broadcaster Jim Ross.

Ready to return

His once-flowing bleached blond locks now considerably thinner and his classic one-hour Broadways (time-limit draws) a thing of the past, the 65-year-old Flair (real name Richard Fliehr) still commands a following wherever he goes. A recent appearance on WWE's flagship show, Monday Night Raw, drew one of the highest quarter-hour ratings in recent months.

A blood clot he developed in his leg more than a year ago has cleared up, and he's itching to get back on TV.

"I'm down to 228 now, and I'm in the best shape I've been since TNA."

Flair hasn't actively competed since he last wrestled for TNA in August of 2012. It's the longest stretch he's been out of the ring since he joined the pro ranks in 1972.

Flair, who is scheduled to wrestle for a Japanese promotion in September, says he could take one of his signature high back body drops right now without any problem.

"(Heck) yeah! I'm excited. I've got so much energy, it's ridiculous."

Flair, however, doesn't expect to get the green light to wrestle again in WWE, considering colleague Jerry Lawler's near-death experience two years ago after suffering a heart attack during a live Raw broadcast.

In lieu of being an active in-ring competitor, Flair says he'd like to have an on-air role, possibly managing someone like Dolph Ziggler.

"I think he's awesome. He'd be a great guy to manage. He looks like a million bucks. He just can't find his gimmick. He needs to work on his entrance. I could help him with that."

Gold standard

Few wrestlers have been emulated more than "Nature Boy" Ric Flair.

A host of wrestling superstars admittedly patterned their styles after Flair.

"Ric Flair is the icon," says former wrestling champ and current Hollywood star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

"Ric Flair is in a class by himself," adds Shawn Michaels, who retired several years ago after a Hall of Fame career.

Current WWE executive and former world champion Paul "Triple H" Levesque says Flair inspired him to get into the business.

"When I became a wrestler myself, I didn't want to become a guy who just got in the ring and earned a paycheck. I wanted wrestling to be my life. I wanted to be great. I wanted to be the 'Nature Boy.' ... No one ever could, of course."

Perhaps it was Ross who best captured Flair's essence while describing a match during Starrcade '88. "If wrestling can be considered an art form, then Ric Flair is using oils and the many others merely watercolors."

Flair remains the only performer to have been twice inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

While he hasn't wrestled for nearly two years, Flair is as busy now as he has ever been, making appearances around the country.

When he leaves Charleston, he has bookings scheduled for Seattle, Niagara Falls and an appearance for John Elway in Canton, Ohio. After coming home for a couple of days, he's on the road again to locales like San Diego, Knoxville and Phoenix.

"It's all good," he says.

It's also therapeutic.

Flair experienced the lowest point in his life last year when youngest son Reid, an aspiring pro wrestler, passed away at the age of 25.

"Not a day goes by where I don't think of him," says Flair. "He was such a big part of my life. He was my best friend."

Flair has three other children - son David and daughters Megan and Ashley.

"I have the most wonderful children and support system in the world," he says.

These days Flair is buoyed by the fact that youngest daughter Ashley is well on her way to making the main WWE roster. On Thursday night, she defeated WWE diva Natalya (Nattie Neidhart) for the NXT (WWE's Orlando-based developmental branch) women's title.

"She will be the greatest Flair of all time," Flair declares with a bit of fatherly exaggeration.

Ashley, 28, known in NXT as Charlotte, is regarded as one of the most athletic performers on the roster.

"Her credentials speak for themselves," says Flair. "I'd put her resume up against anybody."

In high school she was a highly touted gymnast as well as a four-time All-American cheerleader. A two-time state champion and player of the year in North Carolina, she played college volleyball at Appalachian State.

"She's Rey Mysterio but bigger," laughs Flair. "She is going to be the greatest female wrestler and the most famous diva in the history of the WWE."

Still going strong

A resident of Charlotte since 1974 and one its most celebrated citizens, Flair has lived in Atlanta now for more than a year.

"I'm the only wrestler of that generation who never had to move," he boasts. "I stayed in one town forever."

Flair plans to return to Charlotte soon, but doesn't think he'll ever live there again full-time.

"The kids like it down here better," he says.

Flair has been through four failed marriages, but his current relationship with Wendy Barlow is solid, he says.

"Wendy is the most sincere, real woman I've ever met in my life. I finally met the one. We've really connected and bonded. Things happen for a reason."

The two, who have been together nearly two years, met more than 20 years ago when Barlow worked as Flair's valet, the French maid "Fifi," during the "Flair for the Gold" storyline.

"I'm in a good place," he says. "I couldn't be better."

Despite his chronological age, Flair says he still feels like a teenager.

"Do I feel like I'm 65? No. I feel like I'm 15. That's my problem. I'm trying as hard as I can to act like I'm 65, but it's very difficult," he jokes.

And despite having engaged in thousands of grueling matches over a four-decade career, Flair says he has escaped relatively unscathed.

"I feel great. I had a blood clot. It was a bad deal. But when I look at my friends with hip replacements, knee replacements, shoulder replacements, neck surgeries, back surgeries, I'll take the blood clot. I just hate it when they're all having health issues. Without your health, you've got nothing going on. I thank God every day for good health."

Only a physical separates Flair from rejoining WWE. He expects to get that done soon.

He laughs that WWE wants to "make sure the ticker is working."

It would be hard to fathom that it isn't.

Flair attacks his workout regimen with the same ferocity he did in his younger days when he was known to have the best cardio in the business.

"I do close to 30 minutes in cardio at a very high rate. I raise the level of intensity. I do a level 18 on the elliptical at four miles an hour for 20 minutes. That's 360 calories. I want to see someone else try that. The resistance factor at 18 is brutal. No one goes to 20."

Flair's vigorous workout schedule includes an hour and a half in the gym at least six days a week. Not wrestling on a regular schedule, though, has made it that much harder.

"I now have to get myself mentally geared. I was driven when I was younger because I was working every day. It's hard to put that in your brain every day. But I'm in better shape than any 65-year-old guy alive."

A survivor

Flair says he will always have a special place in his heart for the Mid-Atlantic area.

"It's where I got my break in life. It's the highlight of my career."

Flair enjoys meeting fans, young and old, and says he's still blown away by the tremendous response he receives in cities throughout the country.

"Everybody is so respectful. I get a kick when they're older than me, but then they say they saw me as a kid. That line doesn't work, but I hear it all the time."

Advanced technology and social platforms such as YouTube and the WWE Network have given Flair new life among today's generation of fans.

He recently viewed his famous 1989 matches with Ricky Steamboat for the first time.

"I wish we could see a match like that now," he laments.

Flair also credits his agent, Melinda Zanoni, with doing a lot of the heavy lifting and helping get his financial life back on track.

"Melinda has influenced me not only personally, but in business as well. I can't say enough about her. She's a wonderful person that guides my career every day. And she does it effortlessly. She works so hard to make sure everything's right in my life. She's just a wonderful, wonderful person."

"But," he adds, "she's tough as (nails)."

Flair has suffered his share of setbacks. Besides the personal and financial ones, he survived an airplane crash in 1975 near Wilmington, N.C., when a twin-engine Cessna carrying a promoter and four wrestlers fell from the sky. He broke three bones in his back that day, and doctors told him he'd never wrestle again.

He was back in the ring six months later.

Flair is a survivor. He hopes that lightning bolt he's been riding never ends.

"I'll be sad when it's over. What will I do then? They'll have to check me in again," he laughs, alluding to a storyline in the now-defunct WCW where he was briefly committed to a mental hospital.

For now, though, Flair hopes to continue entertaining audiences and generating excitement.

"I'll promise you that. As long as I can."

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or mooneyham@postandcourier.com, or follow him on Twitter @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.