WWE STARS TRAVEL at least 265 days a year, often more. They work holidays. "Our only off-season is if you get hurt," Fliehr says.
When she's on the road, Fliehr gets her workouts delivered from her trainer via her phone. She finds a local gym, follows the instructions to the letter, an athlete first.
Today, as she pumps out several sets of clean and jerks, she explains she wants "to be the female John Cena." She takes a slurp of water from a jug. "I want to be that standard-bearer. I want a female revolution."
After Fliehr attended her first wrestling camp, she gradually rediscovered her old self, the lifelong jock, the risk taker, the beast. The harder she trained, the tougher she got in the ring and the less hold the ugliness of her recent history possessed, until one day, as if being shook from a nightmare, she stepped outside into the Florida sun and realized she was free.
"With Charlotte, I forged a new identity," she says. "After a while, I'm like, 'Dang, why can't I act like that in real life?'"
Fliehr moves on to squats, donning a weight belt emblazoned in rhinestones with the word "queen." A gift, she says sheepishly.
"Wrestling is less buns and guns now," she continues. "I'm proud of the athleticism. With Ronda [Rousey] coming in, she's an Olympian, not a reality-TV star, not just eye candy."
Fliehr sees WWE's investment in Rousey and other bona fide athletes as a trend elevating women in wrestling, shifting the focus from sexy-time aesthetics to badass sports performance -- a pivot she welcomes.
"I never viewed myself as glamorous. I didn't ooze sex appeal. I was a tomboy, the girl next door." She points at her scalp, indicates the blond extensions she's wearing. "I'm learning."
Fliehr confides she was woefully unprepared for the physical scrutiny she endured when she first got into the ring, naively assuming her incontestable athleticism would be enough.
"Social media and all these dirt sheets said that Charlotte wasn't modelesque, she wasn't pretty, that 'she looked like her dad in a wig.'" Criticism further fueled by her WWE-assigned moniker.
"'Genetically superior,' they came up with that," Fliehr explains of the tagline that was initially burdensome to her. When Charlotte Flair debuted in Atlanta in 2015, the whole arena booed her. "I can't say that it didn't get to me, because it did."
Ironically, everything changed when she went full Queen, a shift she says stopped her worrying about physical perfection and making nice.
"They hated me no matter what. So instead of shying away from it, I decided, 'I don't care if you like me or not.' I was arrogant, cocky. And my career took off."
Fliehr loved being a "bad guy," believing it played to her size, "I'm bigger than all the girls," and to her lineage -- her father a heel for the ages.
Freed from the pleaser confines of the sexy, pretty girl, "fans noticed my athleticism and my performance." They observed what Fliehr could do with her body rather than the body itself. "They learned to respect me."
The standard wrestling ring is 20x20, the ropes basic cordage wrapped in tape. The floor simple canvas layers topping a metal frame. There is very little give or bounce. When your skin rubs against the rope or flooring, it chafes as if rubbed by sandpaper.
"I'm built for wrestling," Fliehr says. "I have a high pain tolerance. My nose has been broken a couple times. Black eyes."
She recently knocked out her front teeth while competing in Germany, flew home to the States for emergency dental work and returned a day later to continue the European tour as if nothing had happened. (Fliehr also had a damaged breast implant repaired June 19, which will take six weeks to heal, an enforced break she finds trying.)
"Ashley's absolutely fearless," her dad says. "Her moonsaults? I could never do any of that s---. She's the best athlete in the company, man or woman."
In the WWE's developmental league, "I was told I couldn't moonsault off the top rope because it was too dangerous," Fliehr says. She did it anyway, flipping through the air flying-squirrel style for the first time at WrestleMania 32, in 2016. Now the stunt appears in every WWE highlight reel.
Though she's recently gone back to being a baby face, Fliehr hasn't lost her regal air, her pomposity. She still dons the ornate robes, a nod to the baller pimp fashion of her dad. She also adopted his "Woo" and wiggle walk -- gloaty affectations atypical of America's sweetheart.
"It's not about the moves," she explains. "It's what you make the audience feel."
"Ashley is unique," observes Amato, herself a former pro. "She has a different kind of motivation. It just means so much more to her."
ALL REID FLIEHR ever wanted to do was follow his father into the ring. As kids, he and older sister Ashley were tight as ticks.
"My dad traveled so much, Reid and I shared a bed with my mom when we were little," Fliehr says. The siblings stayed close, best friends in high school, occasional roommates in their 20s.
Unlike her younger brother, Fliehr didn't watch much wrestling growing up. She preferred "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Dawson's Creek," "Felicity." When their father was on TV, she made zero effort to tune in.
"She didn't care about it," Flair says of his daughter's interest in his career. "My son was crazy for it, but you know..." He cuts himself off, doesn't finish.
In 1998, Reid won the AAU National Wrestling Tournament. By 2009, he'd been arrested multiple times for narcotic and alcohol-related offenses, twice blowing his auditions for WWE with drug-test failures.
"It was the constant battle of what rehab to send him to," Fliehr says. "It just got worse and worse." And then, "my dad brought him home so he could see me wrestle for the first time."
That night, March 29, 2013, Reid Fliehr was found dead at a Residence Inn in Charlotte. An autopsy revealed the cause was an overdose of heroin along with traces of prescription drugs. He was 25 years old.
"He'd asked me to come home and see him for Christmas," Fliehr says, tears streaming down her cheeks. She declined, chose to stay in Florida, keep training, said she'd see him another time.
"It sticks to me," she says of the decision. She pauses, wipes her face with a tissue. "I didn't want to be a wrestler because of my dad. I wanted to be a wrestler because of my little brother. I'm living his dream."
Fliehr turns her head to the side. "I go back and read his Twitter sometimes," she says softly. "Just to see the stuff he was doing."
MUSIC BLARES DURING the tech run-through at the Royal Farms Arena as wrestlers practice their entrances, some more elaborate than others, a giant, electronic clock above the ring ticking the seconds 'til doors open.
Backstage, a trio of seamstresses hunch over tables laden with costumes, hurriedly replacing sequins, doubling seams. Behind them, male wrestlers get greased up like Christmas turkeys. They walk in circles, breathing deep, boots laced, manties skin tight.
Soon, Fliehr joins the other competitors in the waiting area. She's dressed in a shiny, silver-blue bustier, matching bloomers that V at her navel, knee-high, black boots, "CF" sewn into the sides. She closes her eyes, hears the rumble of the crowd.
Minutes later, Charlotte Flair charges through the backstage curtain, a floor-length, jewel-studded, royal-blue robe strung across her shoulders. She struts toward the ring, hips jutting, shoulders thrown back, untying the cape, which skims down her legs, pooling around her ankles.
She gives a slight hop step, clearing the robe to execute a flawless front handspring, then slides under the lowest rope into the ring and onto the mat in a full straddle split, which she converts into a back roll, pushing up from her hands to her feet.
“Ashley's absolutely fearless. Her moonsaults? I could never do any of that s---.”
Ric Flair on his daughter, Ashley
The impressive gymnastics prompt enthusiastic "woos" and chants of, "Go, Charlotte!" from the 8,000-plus fans in the audience. Her opponent, Peyton Royce, gets a more muted reception, the house clearly with Flair, especially when she is thwarted, thrown off the mat and double-teamed by Royce's wrestling partner, Billie Kay.
In the crowd, little girls scramble to stand on their seats. They don't look at the Jumbotron. They look at the women wrestlers in the flesh. They stare directly at Flair, drinking in her thick thighs and muscled abs, marveling at her flips and pins and locks, screaming, "Nooooo!" when she goes down, clapping wildly when she rises.
"Ashley knows you have to give them everything, every night," her father says. "She's like me."
A dedication rough on the body, if buoying to the soul.
"I was so hard on him," Fliehr says of her and her dad's rocky period. "I was like, 'Why can't you just give it up? Why can't you walk away?' Now I understand."
Her match done, a victorious Fliehr loads up the rental for the long drive to her next event. She'll arrive well after midnight, waking early to hit the gym. She likes driving, belting out Alanis Morrisette and Pat Benatar lyrics while the highway blurs by.
Among Fliehr's multiple tattoos is a quote from Proverbs inked on the left side of her torso. Guard your heart above all else, for it will determine the course of your life. On the right side, a cross honors her brother Reid. Fliehr says she thinks of Reid every time she enters the ring. She believes he's watching her.
"I had so many growing pains. Things that I needed to figure out. What path to take."
She says she's got a better handle on what it means to be herself. That Charlotte, in part, taught her that.
"I can't say that when I'm not in the robe, I'm not insecure," she confesses. "But the more I grow into this character, the better my life gets. At 32, I'm the most confident I've ever been in my own skin."
Fliehr pauses a beat, shudders.
"I don't know what would have happened to me if I hadn't found wrestling." She glances over her body, takes stock of her fresh bruises, cracks her neck. "The ring is my safe place."
Allison Glock has been a writer with ESPN for more than 15 years. The author of seven books, her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Outside, Men's Journal and many other publications. She has also written and produced for television and is developing a series with A&E.
Header photo WWE