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A Conversation With Charlotte Flair Ahead of the Royal Rumble

Charlotte Flair has the chance to become WWE’s first back-to-back winner of the women’s Royal Rumble.

The winner of the 2020 Rumble match, Flair—who is Ashley Fliehr—has the chance to repeat as winner at Sunday's Royal Rumble pay per view. After a string of compelling WrestleMania matches the past five years, a Rumble win would place her in a position to main event a part of the upcoming two-night WrestleMania 37.

Flair is currently involved in a story with Lacey Evans, who is courting her father, the legendary “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, but she is also teaming with Asuka as one-half of the reigning Women’s Tag Team Champions. Flair and Asuka also defend their titles later Sunday at the pay per view against Nia Jax and Shayna Baszler.

Speaking with Sports Illustrated, Flair discussed her recent time off from wrestling, her return, and upcoming goal for this year’s WrestleMania.

WWE wrestler Charlotte Flair

Sports Illustrated: Ashley, you pour your entire self into your work, which is evident every time Charlotte Flair steps on-screen. That drive for greatness consumes you, which helps explain your brilliance, but it can also be very taxing on the mind and body. You were off from June to December, which was a much-needed break. I know you love pro wrestling, but how was the time away beneficial for you?

Charlotte Flair: It was most beneficial just to decompress and not be on. I left my robe, I left my gear, I left my boots, and just tried to be human instead of being so wrapped up in every second and every moment. I’m always so overcritical of myself. Here’s the thing—if people ever think they’re hard on me, I’m 10 times harder on myself.

It took me a few weeks. When you’re so used to that lifestyle and the go-go-go, at first it was like, ‘I don’t need to be somewhere? They don’t need me? The show still goes on?’ I’ve never really talked about this with other performers, so I don’t know if they feel this, but everyone is replaceable to an extent. You know what I mean? There will never be another Charlotte, but there will be a place for another Charlotte. Does that make sense?

SI: As in another talent stepping into that role?

CF: Right, another talent stepping into that position. This division means so much to me, so it was hard to step away. Watching Asuka be the backbone, I thought to myself, ‘I pride myself on being so reliable for this division,’ so it was just a matter of letting go and focusing on the medical things I needed to take care of.

By the end of my time off, I realized I should have done this a long time ago. I feel like I’m probably in the best shape I’ve been in since I started. And I couldn’t work out for the first nine or 10 weeks, but I was able to eat pancakes and pizza whenever I wanted. I had to stop that a couple weeks before I came back [laughing].

SI: For me, covering other sports in addition to pro wrestling, it’s always interesting to hear from other athletes about how rejuvenating they find their offseason. That doesn’t exist in WWE.

CF: I think more and more people are becoming more knowledgeable about the grind it takes to be a sports entertainer. Think pre-COVID, when we were on the road doing live events, people don’t realize how gritty the business is. There is no offseason unless you’re hurt, and who wants to be hurt?

SI: And there is the mental aspect, constantly pushing yourself and demanding a standard of excellence in the way you look and perform.

CF: It’s unique. This is an individual business, but it’s also not that way. No one would be they are, and the division as a whole wouldn’t be where it is, without everyone collectively working together. You have to look out for your character and the nuances and keep yourself in shape, but it takes multiple people to make it happen. I’m very grateful to be part of this division.

SI: While you were away, you mentioned watching Asuka, who was phenomenal. Sasha Banks and Bayley also helped carry the WWE product. Did watching them from afar give you a different perspective of their brilliance?

CF: I didn’t necessarily look at it differently. I’ve always believed that everyone who is meant to shine will shine, and that’s exactly what happened. They were incredible. The people who are meant to shine will shine, and they’re exactly where they’re supposed to be.

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SI: After leaving the Performance Center in June, you returned to a far different atmosphere in December with the ThunderDome. I know there is such a dependency and reliance on the crowd in pro wrestling—you’re trained to respond based off their reactions, which is now impossible. What’s it like performing in the ThunderDome?

CF: I think back to Mania, with no audience, with Rhea, and then comparing that with the ThunderDome. It definitely adds another element that helps us as performers, and helps the fans feel as connected as they can to their favorite superstars. And, as a whole, the innovativeness of the ThunderDome is just incredible.

SI: You just mentioned the WrestleMania 36 match against Rhea Ripley, which was hard-hitting, grueling, and an amazing presentation of professional wrestling. During your run as NXT Champion, you also had the chance to work with Io Shirai, who is one of the best wrestlers in the world. What was it like to work with those Io and Rhea?

CF: Our triple-threat [at TakeOver: In Your House in June] was one of my favorite matches of the year. I want to be selfish and have the opportunity to work with Io more. I also know that, with how Rhea and I finished, our story still isn’t finished. There is a lot more that needs to be told. Whenever that comes full circle, I know it’s going to be a major moment. Rhea and I aren’t done. I had the opportunity to lay the groundwork for two different rivalries with Rhea and Io, and the saga will continue.

SI: On the subject of great moments, you had a career highlight when you won last year’s Rumble—not just because you won, but more so the manner in which you did it. What meant so much to you about last year’s win?

CF: Especially coming off the Rumble the year before, being in the last two with Becky and having the win so close to my grasp, it meant a lot to pull off the win the next year. I wasn’t a fan favorite, so I think it shocked everyone.

The thing that makes the Rumble so unique is that you need that endurance and the ability to work around so many moving parts. And you get to be in there with so many different women, highlighting the past and looking at the ones who are going to be stars in the future.

SI: Your biggest storyline over the past couple weeks has been with Lacey Evans and your father. I know you’ve worked together before, what’s it like working with your father again at this point in your career?

CF: It’s funny. In 2015, I was so nervous, like a little stress ball, wanting so badly to prove myself and make it. Not that some of those same things haven’t changed, but I am now in a much more confident place. The camera guys laugh when they see us together backstage, and I’m saying, ‘Dad, you need to be here. You need to do this, right here, stop that!’ [Laughing]. Part of that promo my dad did where he was like, ‘Hey, I know you’re a big star, but I’m a big star, too,’ there was a lot of truth to that. I never thought that we’d be on camera again on opposite sides, so I’m interested to see where the story goes.

SI: You are not alone with this, as it happens to so many stars that carry their brand or team or company, but you could walk into a room of cheering fans—yet your ears would still somehow catch only those few scattered boos. Even though you are a perfectionist, your work is elite and on an entirely different tier. Do you still hear the cheers, or are you only hearing the boos?

CF: I think sometimes I get defensive about wanting to be understood that maybe I don’t hear as many of the cheers as I do the boos, but I think the boos are what brought the cheers in 2015. I think all my haters do truly want to cheer for me [laughs].

SI: The mind is so complex, often thinking about the losses more than the wins. Before we wrap, and I know this story is a little on the back burner, but I love the potential for you teaming with Asuka. You two share so much history together, and your match at WrestleMania 34 in New Orleans is one of the event’s signature matches. How did the chemistry start between you and Asuka?

CF: I think it’s just the mutual respect. That’s how it all started. When we squared off at WrestleMania 34, I don’t know if she felt pressure, but I sure as hell did. Having that one match, and putting on an instant classic, it meant a lot to us. And there wasn’t really a story behind the match, which ended up making it more special. It was two warriors going at it, The Empress vs. The Queen.

Asuka has always been my mountain. We’re always shoulder-to-shoulder, no matter where we are in the division. I’m proud to be her tag partner. No matter what she’s doing, or what she’s given, she always finds a way to rise. That’s a true performer, and that’s what Asuka is.

SI: It’s incredible to think you have accomplished so much and you are only 34. I know the focus right now is on the Rumble, but so much of your greatness has been defined by performances at WrestleMania. Looking ahead to this year’s event, what is your next goal?

CF: I want to be known as the greatest female performer at WrestleMania. If you think of my track record, with 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, and going into 37, I’ve been on a Mania run. I almost feel bad saying it, but Mania is the one time where there is so much pressure going in, but I love it. And I want to headline this Mania.

I know the main event is always the best story going in, but I’m going to try my hardest to make my story, whether it’s title or no title, the match of the night.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.