With the global coronavirus pandemic forcing WWE to pre-tape WrestleMania 36 and air it over two nights this past weekend, Charlotte Flair was like any other wrestling fan on Sunday night: sitting at home and watching her win over Rhea Ripley to claim the NXT women's championship.
"Getting to actually eat cake on my birthday was surreal," Flair, who turned 34 on Sunday, told CBS Sports. "It was crazy, it was enjoyable. That part was definitely different, but it was also nice to really sit back and be proud of the company and proud of your co-worker and enjoy the show like everyone else sitting at home."
WWE's decision to move forward with WrestleMania 36 drew criticism from many in the wrestling community. Not only did some take issue with the potential danger of the virus spreading through the WWE roster, but there was a worry the event taking place in an empty WWE Performance Center would lose the magic so many associate with the biggest wrestling event of the year.
Critical response to WrestleMania has been resoundingly positive, however, and Flair's match with Ripley stands out as arguably the best bell-to-bell match of the weekend. For Flair, the lack of a crowd was not an issue, it was an opportunity.
"I just looked at it as an opportunity to show the world that we were going to have the best match," Flair said. "Everyone wonders, 'Was it hard? Was it different?' OK, there's no crowd. OK, it's WrestleMania, so I'm going to have the best match. That's how I looked at it. Honestly, you always need to remember that there are more people watching at home. So, this time I just thought, 'OK, the audience won't dictate the flow, I will dictate the flow.' That was the only thing that was different.
"I think a lot of people, I know it's not wrestling, but if you're having a conversation and there's awkward silence, maybe that is more what people were worried about, the awkward silence. But I just wanted to get so lost in the emotion of the match myself that I hope the audience did the same watching at home. So, I didn't approach the match any different."
The match was not a one-woman show, and Ripley held up her end of the bout as she went hold for hold with the most successful woman in the history of women's wrestling in WWE.
"She has the 'It Factor,'" Flair said of Ripley. "Whether she wants to realize it or not, I think the one thing that has kept me in the game is that I perform really well under pressure, and that's exactly what she did at WrestleMania. That's a good quality to have. I don't know, I feel like with NXT being the third brand, the experience is very much there to a certain extent. But being a star is harder than being a good wrestler and that's what she is. I'm just so proud of her."
The win was, in a way, a moment where Flair's career came full circle. Flair captured the NXT women's championship for the first time in May 2014, winning an eight-woman tournament to claim the then-vacant championship. While it seemed clear she was a future superstar, Flair has exceeded expectations by not only becoming a multiple-time Raw and SmackDown champion but battling Ronda Rousey and Becky Lynch at last year's WrestleMania 35 in the first women's match to close WWE's signature event.
NXT has since risen from a developmental brand to WWE's true third brand, joining Raw and SmackDown. In 2019, NXT's weekly television show moved from WWE Network to USA, in large part to counter rival promotion AEW's own weekly TV efforts. That has led to a change in perception and placement for NXT, but Flair admitted being placed on top of the brand is still a different experience than holding the title on the brands traditionally thought of as the "main roster."
"There definitely is a difference," Flair said. "People don't realize it's much different being able to stay at home rather than traveling the world out of a suitcase. And it's different having a Performance Center to practice out of versus showing up at different arenas every week with people who live all over the country. It's very much different that way. But, in terms of levels of experience, in-ring experience? No. I think that at any moment you can be called up now from NXT -- not even called up now, because it's the third brand -- where you can be called up without people being like, 'Whoa, this is crazy.' The level of talent is just now prepared where as five years ago, you didn't have a roster with 15 girls you could debut on Raw or SmackDown."
There is one more potential full-circle moment for Flair -- at least there will be if she gets the opportunity to face her ideal NXT opponent. Flair said she just has to catch up to the woman whom she faced in her first NXT dark match to make it happen.
"Definitely Mia Yim," Flair said. "My very first dark match at NXT, they brought in Mia Yim to have with me. I was the girl who had no experience and didn't know what I was doing, and Mia Yim obviously did. To see where our careers have gone, with her going to NXT, our paths can cross now four-and-a-half or five years later with myself a completely different person. I'm excited for that. I've been rooting for her this whole time, I just had to catch up."