The King, the Legend, Harley Race, 1943 – 2019
August 1, 2019, is a date that will long live in the memory for fans of professional wrestling for all the wrong reasons, it is a day where all around the world fans are united in sadness and fans are paying tribute to the Legend, the King Harley Race as he passed away at the age of 76.
It is impossible to do the great man justice in this one tribute or indeed discuss his every accomplishment in professional wrestling. In fact you could write a large series of books documenting his contribution to the sport but one thing is for certain, for so many fans throughout the world he will be simply remembered as a legend and the toughest guy to ever lace up a pair of wrestling boots, and a man who dedicated his life to the sport that he loved that being pro wrestling.
Harley Leland Race was born in Quitman, Missouri on April 11, 1943, although as his wrestling career progressed he would eventually be billed as being for Kansas City. After being expelled from High School for starting a fight with the principle, Race was reportedly 6’2 and 220 pounds decided to enter professional wrestling and was trained initially by Buddy Austin, Ray Hrstich, Stanislaus Zbyszko and Wladek Zbyszko. Race was first signed in 1960 by Gus Karras a promoter based in St. Joseph, he did odd jobs for the promoter during the infancy of his career, one of these jobs was to be the driver for the largest professional wrestler of all time the 800 pounds Humphrey. Race received further training from some of the veterans who worked for Karras before moving to Nashville, Tennessee at the age of 18 where he wrestled under the name Jack Long. Race formed a tag team with his brother (Kayfabe) John Long and win the Southern tag team championships. It was during this period that Race endured his first major hurdle on the road to stardom and it is one of many examples of just how tough he was. Race was involved in a car accident which not only devastated him mentally as it killed his wife instantly but he faced the prospect of not only being told his career was over but having his leg amputated. However through sheer guts and physical and mental determination Race was able to defy Doctor’s predictions and make a full recovery in under a year and returned to the ring in the Boston territory wrestling as the ‘Great Mortimer’. In 1964 Race moved to Amarillo, Texas where he wrestled for the Funk family and he would finally use his real name. It was here Race would meet Larry the Axe Hennig (Curt Hennig’s father), they would form a tag team and join Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (AWA) promotion.
Booked as cocky arrogant heels who would cheat to win, they would feud with Verne Gagne and various partners like Cowboy Bill Watts, over the AWA tag team titles. Race and Hennig captured the AWA tag team titles on three occasions. However, in 1967 Race would be without a partner as the Axe needed some time off and he was written off TV when Verne Gagne ‘broke his leg’. To defend the tag team straps Race would choose Chris Markoff as his partner but they were relieved of the titles by Pat O’Conner and Wilbur Snyder on November 1967. Hennig would return to the ring in 1968 but he and Race would never recapture the tag team titles and Race would sign for the promotion where he would achieve his greatest success the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA).
Race would hold the NWA championship on eight different occasions feuding with fellow all-time greats such as Nature Boy Ric Flair, The American Dream Dusty Rhodes, Dory Funk Jr., Terry Funk and Jack Briscoe amongst many others. In 1973 Race would get his first reign as World Heavyweight champion defeating Dory Funk Jr. in what was at the time considered a major upset. However, his first title reign would only last a few short months before losing it to Jack Briscoe in July of 1973, making the length of his first world title reign approximately two months. Race was determined to regain the World title and would wrestle for the NWA in various territories holding titles in Stampede Wrestling in Canada, becoming the first Mid Atlantic United States champion in 1975 (the version the current WWE United States title takes its lineage from), the NWA United National Heavyweight and PWF World Heavyweight championships both based in Japan for Zero One and All Japan Pro Wrestling respectively.
In 1977 Race fulfilled his quest of regaining the NWA World Heavyweight title when he defeated Terry Funk in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It was during his second reign that Race would famously bodyslam Andre the Giant on October 13th 1978. He would also have famous ‘title vs. title’ matches with WWWF champions Superstar Billy Graham and Bob Backlund as well as AWA champion Verne Gagne. Throughout 1979 and 1980 he would lose and regain the title from opponents such as Dusty Rhodes and Japanese legend Giant Baba. In 1981 Race lost the title in an upset to Wildfire Tommy Rich but would regain it a day later before again losing it to Dusty Rhodes.
In 1983 Race would win his seventh world title from the Nature Boy Ric Flair but his time at the top of the NWA was coming to an end. In one of the most famous storylines of the 1980s, Race would feud with Flair, the number one contender, placing a $25,000 bounty on Nature Boy’s head for someone to take him out of wrestling. The plan failed and Race would have to defend his championship against his nemesis at the very first Starrcade titled ‘A Flair for the Gold’ on November 24, 1983. Although Race lost the NWA World title, in later years Flair would pay tribute to his elder stating that Harley Race ignited his career. Harley Race would have a final eighth title reign one that would only last two days when he won the belt briefly in Wellington, New Zealand.
In 1986, Race would join the rival company the World Wrestling Federation (as it was at the time) as he thought NWA President Sam Muchnick was not doing things correctly. During his two-year tenure in the WWF, Race would become “King” Harley Race and was managed by Bobby Heenan, the two would make a formidable duo. Race had a notable feud with the Junkyard Dog culminating at WrestleMania III where he would be victorious, and Race would also have a short feud with the company’s top star Hulk Hogan. Race would leave the WWF in early 1989 and with his career winding down he made appearances in the World Wrestling Council (WWC) in Puerto Rico, and World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Race would actively retire from in-ring competition on December 7, 1990, when he injured his shoulder. That would not keep him out of the ring long as in 1993 he wrestled Ric Flair on several occasions at house shows in Florida.
Race would go on to contribute on screen in a different way becoming a fantastic manager most famously for Vader but also for Lex Luger when he turned heel in 1991. Race’s skills at cutting promos contributed to getting Vader over in a huge way, helping Vader look like the unstoppable force in WCW. However 1995 would be the year Race would have to retire for good as another car accident, hip surgery and years of built-up injuries meant he couldn’t perform anymore.
In 1999 Race would form World League Wrestling, and he would have his own wrestling academy using his knowledge to help future stars of the business training amongst others Curtis Axel and Tommaso Ciampa.
Harley Race contributed his life to make sure the fans went home happy, happy that they paid money to watch professional wrestling and he never left anyone disappointed. Whether it was his skills inside the squared circle or his promo abilities Race made fans worldwide suspend disbelief and brought a sense of realism to professional wrestling. When professional wrestling is done right it is an art form and Harley Race was without question an artist when he wrestled on the canvas inside the squared circle. There was nobody like him before and there never will be again. Harley Race thank you for the memories, thank you for sharing your abilities with the world, and thank you for the matches you put on that as fans we are privileged to have seen and enjoyed the toughest ever to lace up a pair of boots. Harley Race a true legend, Rest In Peace.