He was “The Greatest Wrestler on God’s Green Earth.” And if you didn’t believe him, well, you would have been hard-pressed to prove him wrong.
Truth is, he very well just might have been.
Professional wrestling lost a sizable chunk of its storied and colorful history when Harley Race passed away on Aug. 1 at the age of 76 after a months-long battle with lung cancer.
Known throughout a 30-year ring career as “Handsome,” “Mad Dog” and “King,” he was a legend among legends, the toughest among the toughest.
The gruff-talking, gravelly-voiced Missourian won the National Wrestling Alliance world heavyweight title, regarded as the gold standard of championships, a record-setting eight times between 1973 and 1984. Many regarded him as the greatest NWA touring champion of all time.
“He was the one and only real world champion,” 16-time titleholder Ric Flair said after learning of his longtime friend's passing. “Without Harley Race, there was no Ric Flair. I tried my hardest every day to live up to his standard in the ring.”
It was Race who had become a mentor of sorts to the greenhorn rookie a decade earlier before giving him the keys to the kingdom at a seminal event in wrestling history known as Starrcade.
“There was no better indoctrination into the business than driving more than 400 miles in a snowstorm across the Rocky Mountains with Harley Race and Ray Stevens passing around two quarts of Southern Comfort, with Harley gunning this old station wagon 100 miles an hour down these snowy, winding roads, and me heaving out the back window,” Flair would humorously recall.
No glitz necessary
Harley Race was a throwback to a bygone era when wrestlers didn't need hip entrance music, fancy ring garb or a catchy line to “get over” with an audience.
He also didn’t need a stage name. Harley Race was his real name, and he wasn’t about to change it for anybody.
He was a street fighter who made fans believe with a convincing, methodical style that gave the business credibility at a time when it mattered.
Moreover, he was a champion’s champion, recognized across all continents and respected around the world. He took the business seriously and treated the coveted gold belt with respect. He always conducted himself like a champion in and out of the ring. Few titleholders have ever carried the belt with such distinction.
“Ten pounds of gold never looked better on anybody,” said AEW star and executive Cody Rhodes, whose late father Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes drew packed houses with Harley during a legendary feud and even swapped the NWA world title on several occasions.
“Harley Race represents the epitome of what the world champion was,” Flair told Sports Illustrated. “Myself, and everyone that followed, we were representing the company but we weren’t the world champion the way Harley Race was.”
‘Afraid of no one’
That Harley Race made it to the age of 76 was a testament in itself to just how incredibly tough the man was.
He had survived death more than once during those 76 years, along with myriad health issues and a laundry list of physical setbacks that included hip and knee replacements, multiple abdominal surgeries, vertebrae fused together and a metal rod for a forearm.
With an affinity for guns and drinking, Race lived hard and fast.
Tales of his intimidating presence abound. He could drink a case of beer and smoke two packs of Marlboros, then get up the next day and go 60 minutes with the likes of Ric Flair and Jack Brisco. There were no nights off for men like Race; the schedule ran seven nights a week, 365 days a year.
On numerous occasions he proved that he was just as tough outside the ring.
Race was having dinner at a cafe in the Midwest when he witnessed a man slapping a woman during a heated argument. Only 22 at the time, Race immediately intervened and knocked out the aggressor with one punch. He was stabbed in the back, however, by the man’s friend, who had taken a knife from one of the tables in the restaurant.
It would be just one of many times Race’s mettle was tested, and in most cases, those trying him wound up deeply regretting their decision.
Two years ago, at the age of 74, Race broke both legs in a fall at his home in Troy, Mo. His left leg was shattered in several places. He needed four blood transfusions during emergency surgery.
Not surprisingly, he had to be convinced to go to a local hospital.
But that was just Harley Race.
“Harley is the toughest man I’ve ever met, and he’s afraid of no one,” Flair said in his autobiography “To Be The Man.” “I’ve watched him wrestle hurt, yet never show it in the ring.”
Raw-boned and rugged with one of the hardest punches in the business, the 6-foot, 240-pound grappler was universally respected by his peers. Legitimate shooters and hookers knew better than to challenge the eight-time world champion.
Even Andre The Giant went up cleanly for a Harley Race body slam in 1978, nine years before Hulk Hogan would boast of the feat at Wrestlemania 3.
“The only two men in the world that Andre The Giant feared were Meng and Harley Race,” Bobby “The Brain” Heenan would claim.
“The toughest man on the planet,” said Flair.
“One of the baddest dudes to ever step into the ring,” echoed “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
It was an opinion most in the business shared.
“To truly beat Harley, you had to end him,” former Olympian and pro wrestling star Bob Roop posted on social media. “That’s the ultimate in toughness; only suicidal nut jobs would willingly take on Harley Race in order to fulfill their death wish.”
Andre or Harley?
“Given a choice of him or Andre, I’d fight Andre,” said Roop. “I might have been able to outrun him. I might also have been able to outrun Harley, but knew a day would come when I’d walk around a corner and there would be Harley, baseball bat in hand and maiming on his mind. He was the very best and loyal man to have as a friend, the absolute worst to have as an enemy with revenge for a slight on his mind.”
The son of Missouri sharecroppers, Harley Leland Race overcame obstacles from the day he was born. He battled and survived polio as a child before taking up wrestling.
Shortly after he began his pro career in 1960, Race was involved in a collision with a tractor-trailer that claimed the life of his pregnant new bride on Christmas night 1961. Both were pronounced dead at the scene; only when Race moved slightly in the ambulance did medical personnel realize he had a pulse. He regained consciousness several days later in the hospital.
The accident shattered one of Race’s forearms and nearly cost him a leg. Shortly before his right leg was to be amputated, a local promoter stepped in and told doctors that his leg would be amputated “over my dead body.” The leg was salvaged, but doctors told Race he would never walk again.
But with months of intense physical therapy, Race returned to the ring less than two years later. The doctor who operated on Race was at ringside to cheer him on.
“Harley was a survivor,” says Bruce Hart, whose legendary father, Stu Hart, greatly admired Race’s never-say-die toughness. “That was one reason why his body was so beat up. He was always taking those big, crazy bumps.”
Hart recalled a Stampede Wrestling show where Race was defending his NWA crown against a young Jake Roberts in Billings, Montana.
“We had a big show and in typical Calgary fashion, the ring crew got their signals crossed and took the ring to Butte instead of Billings. We had a pretty good crowd that night, but no ring. My dad wasn’t sure what the hell to do, but Harley stepped up and said we’ll wrestle with no damn ring.
“Harley worked with Jake that night just on the floor at Shrine Auditorium. I don’t know if he was trying to get over with the crowd or setting an example for the boys, but he took those big, high backdrops right on the hardwood floor. It might not have saved the show, but it told me a lot about his character. He was the world champion at the time. He could have easily said the hell with it and that he wasn’t going out there (to risk injury). He could have taken his money and canceled the show. But he didn’t.”
Hart says Race came by that work ethic honestly.
“Harley always dedicated himself to the business. He was old school and paid his dues the hard way. He was broken in by a couple of old ‘crowbars’ (Stanislaus, a former world champion, and brother Wladek Zbyszko) from the Frank Gotch era.”
Not only was Race broken in on the mat, but he also toiled on the Missouri farm owned by the two brothers, no doubt contributing to the insanely powerful grip that he would later exhibit during his wrestling career.
“Mostly what they taught me were submission holds,” Race wrote in his autobiography, “King of the Ring: The Harley Race Story.” “They’d put me in one and say, ‘Try to get out.’ The more I tried, the more I wore myself out or hurt myself.”
A traveling carnival wrestler in his teens (he was kicked out of high school after slugging the principal, who was trying to break up a fight between Race and a fellow student), one of Race’s first jobs in the business was chauffeuring the 700-pound Happy Humphrey, who was noted for being the heaviest pro wrestler of all time.
In addition to being Humphrey’s “traveling partner,” the 16-year-old was paid 25 bucks a night (plus room and board) to wrestle the gargantuan grappler.
He also was given the unenviable job of bathing Humphrey each night (the big man couldn’t fit in most showers), which consisted of having the massive wrestler strip down and lie on the ground while Race soaped up his body, scrubbed him with a mop and rinsed him off with a garden hose.
“Not the glamorous job you might think,” laughs Hart. But Race, still a teenager at the time, enjoyed the work and the opportunity to prove himself.
It was in 1965 when Race first became a major star, not as a singles performer, but as part of a three-time world championship tag team with Larry Hennig (father of future wrestling star “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig) in the Midwestern-based American Wrestling Association
Known at the time as “Handsome” Harley Race and “Pretty Boy” Larry Hennig, the twosome became one of the top duos in the business, engaging in a bloody series of matches with The Bruiser and The Crusher that sold out arenas throughout the territory.
It was also during his AWA run that Race began to attract attention as a big-time bump-taker and legitimate tough guy.
“Harley could whip just about anybody. Boy, we had some pretty good fights out on the street there and never lost,” veteran Eddie Sharkey related in “The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels.” “(AWA promoter) Verne Gagne never really cared if you got in a fight. If you lost, you were out. As long as you won, it was fine.”
Race, by that time a 13-year veteran with an impressive resume, won his first National Wrestling Alliance world heavyweight title in May 1973 in Kansas City, Kan., ending Dory Funk Jr.’s incredible 4½-year reign as champion of the world’s oldest pro wrestling organization.
The two were far from strangers, as Funk had met Race years earlier when Race was working the Amarillo territory promoted by Funk’s father, Dory Sr.
“Harley and I learned a lot from my father,” Funk says. “Harley was a fabulous worker. Wrestling was something that came natural to him. But he did some wild stuff too. He had a steel plate in his arm, and you didn’t want to get hit with that.”
Funk said he would marvel at the punishment to the body that Race would absorb during the course of a match. And many of their mat classics went the full 60 minutes.
“He was a bump machine. And he was incredibly tough. He didn’t come up through football or amateur wrestling ... he ended up fighting his way into the business.”
As for the match that ended Funk’s reign as world champion and set Race on a path that would lead to eight world titles, Funk recalls the circumstances leading up to the switch.
“What I remember most is the car accident,” says Funk, describing how a pickup truck he was driving plunged into a creek while his father and brother Terry were moving cattle on Funk Sr.’s Flying Mare Ranch in Texas.
Funk separated his shoulder and was out of action for two months, prompting the cancellation of a scheduled world title defense against top rival and contender Jack Brisco.
“I had the accident and couldn’t face Brisco for the world title. There was a lot of disbelief and speculation over that. But my first match back was against Harley,” says Funk, who at age 26 had become the youngest NWA world champion ever when he dethroned Gene Kiniski in 1969.
The decision to put the strap on Race was a good one, says Funk.
“It worked out good for me because Harley was a great opponent and I had a lot of good matches with him.”
As for Harley Race the man, Funk had nothing but respect and admiration.
“He came up through some very difficult circumstances. He took some rough hits. But he went to the top of the wrestling business. And I think he should be remembered for that.
“It was never easy for Harley Race. I was fortunate to work with Harley during the beginning of both our careers. My father was kind of my teacher and Harley’s teacher at the same time. And then, of course, someone named Terry Funk came along. We had to take care of him too,” laughs Funk. “He was a mixture of my father and myself gone crazy. He was the wild one. Still is.”
And like Dory, his future world champion brother Terry would enjoy his own epic encounters with Race, a bloody rivalry that catered to a more hardcore fan base.
Like he had done nearly four years earlier to Funk’s older brother, Race dethroned Terry on Feb. 6, 1977, in Toronto, Ontario, to capture his second NWA world title.
“What sticks out in my mind about Harley, honestly and seriously, is the way he loved the world of wrestling,” Terry Funk, now 75, told Sports Illustrated. “He loved the fans and he loved giving them their money’s worth. We’ll never see someone like him in the ring again.
“Harley gave every inch of his body to give the fans his best performance, and he did it for years. That’s what took his life from him. He was that dedicated to the fans. He gave his body to the fans.”
Passing the torch
Ten years after Race won his first world title, he would become a pivotal figure in Ric Flair’s career, passing the proverbial torch to the Nature Boy in the main event of the inaugural Starrcade event in Greensboro, N.C. Named 1983 Match of the Year by Wrestling Observer Newsletter, it was a bout that many fans remember to this day.
The veteran Race effectively passed the torch to Flair, who would become the face of the NWA through the 1980s. It also signaled the end of Race’s run at the top of the NWA hierarchy.
His eight world titles would stand as a record until Flair tied the impressive total in 1991.
“Without Starrcade, without Harley Race, there is no Ric Flair,” said the Nature Boy. “He was already a made man, and Harley made me that night.”
Starrcade, the brainchild of Dusty Rhodes and put on by Jim Crockett Promotions, would be considered a forerunner to the annual Wrestlemania events that WWE (then known as WWF) would begin two years later after Vince McMahon took the Northeastern-based company national.
King of the Ring
Race, who also had operated NWA territories in Kansas City and St. Louis, longtime headquarters of the NWA, would leave the organization to join the World Wrestling Federation in 1986 during the company’s national expansion. With his companies having financial problems as the territorial system was whittling away, Race accepted an offer from the opposition.
Shortly after, he would win the 1986 King of the Ring tournament, defeating former WWWF champion Pedro Morales in the finals, and would transform into “King” Harley Race, replete with regal crown, purple robe and scepter. He was crowned by longtime friend and manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan.
A far cry from his NWA glory days, it was a cartoonish gimmick that forced defeated opponents to kneel and bow before him.
Even in his mid-40s, though, Race still exuded toughness. But the business had changed, never to return to a time when true heat existed and men like Harley Race ruled the roost.
McMahon would finally match Race up with WWF champion Hulk Hogan, but only when he felt secure enough that Race wouldn’t go off script and take liberties with Hogan. Both McMahon and Hogan realized that the Hulkster would be no match for Race in a shoot situation, despite the fact that Race was 11 years Hogan’s senior.
Years earlier a bout between the two would have been a dream match; such a scenario was even pursued by McMahon. Only problem was that Race was NWA champion at the time. It had been McMahon’s hope to bring Race and the world’s most recognized title with him to McMahon’s rapidly expanding company and eventually lose a title unification match with Hogan. Race, demonstrating his loyalty to the NWA and Flair, turned down an exorbitant offer — a $250,000 signing bonus — to no-show a planned title loss to Flair and jump ship to the opposition.
Several years later and with Race at the tail end of his career, he quietly dropped a series of matches to Hogan that neither drew particularly well nor received the fanfare that such a program would have attracted years earlier.
It was during a match with Hogan that Race suffered a serious injury that accelerated the end of his ring career. While performing a diving headbutt through a table, Race suffered a ruptured intestine that forced him to take time off. By the end of 1990, his in-ring career would be over.
With his body beginning to break down after decades of ring wear, Race remained in the business for a few more years as a manager in the Atlanta-based WCW, guiding both Vader and Lex Luger to world titles.
After a night of drinking in January 1995, Race crashed his car into a concrete barrier in Kansas City, fracturing his forearm and requiring two metal plates and 14 screws in his hip.
“The hospital dropped me and I had to have another operation,” Race said. “This time I ended up with an artificial hip.”
Several years earlier he had plowed his ski boat into a cabin cruiser, sustaining injuries that included a broken nose and a slashed leg, but was still able to pull the cruiser’s passengers to safety. He would be sued for the accident, with the judge ultimately ruling that both parties were to blame.
The learning tree
Race, who was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004, held the distinction of being one of only six men in the NWA, WWE, Wrestling Observer, Pro Wrestling and George Tragos/Lou Thesz halls of fame. He also was a member of various regional halls, including the St. Louis Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
After his retirement from in-ring action, Race continued to make an impact on the world of professional wrestling as a manager, promoter and trainer. Hundreds benefited from being under his learning tree.
He founded World League Wrestling in 1999 near his home in the small central Missouri town of Eldon. The promotion also served as a training school for would-be professional wrestlers and other independent performers from across the region. In 2014 he relocated his wrestling academy and promotion to Troy, Mo., where he built the Race Wrestling Arena.
His training mantra was simple: Shut up and wrestle!”
“The easy way out is to let the guys talk about the (BS) without being able to do the (BS),” Race told the Riverfront Times in St. Louis. “You can’t talk for 60 minutes.”
His annual Harley Race Camp, held at the Harley Race Academy, is currently accepting participants. It’s scheduled to run Labor Day weekend.
“It’s about the only thing left to do to keep myself involved in wrestling at a high level,” Race once said in an interview. “When I finally knew for sure that I wasn’t going to go any further in wrestling, the next thing was to build a new Harley Race to keep the image alive.”
Owen Hart’s tragic death in Kansas City, Mo., in 1999 shocked the wrestling world. Thirty years earlier, Iron Mike DiBiase died of a heart attack during a match in Lubbock, Texas.
Race witnessed firsthand both gut-wrenching events.
Hart, who was only 34, plunged 78 feet from a catwalk preparing for an aerial descent into the ring.
Race recalled he had joked with Hart before the match and told him to make sure his rope didn’t break. He said Hart laughed at his comment before leaving for the catwalk. Race was one of the last people to see Hart alive.
“Owen was always joking,” said Race, who first met the youngest of a family of eight boys and four girls when Owen was only 4 years old. “I had no earthly idea something like this was going to happen.”
Race also vividly remembers the night Mike DiBiase, the stepfather of “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, died.
Race, who was booking the West Texas circuit for Dory Funk Sr. at the time, said the 45-year-old DiBiase had complained earlier that evening about being tired because he had spent most of the day moving.
“I told him that we would work something out if he didn’t feel like going out,” said Race. “He said that he was fine and went out anyway.”
Race, who was watching from the back, said the match was about 10 minutes old when DiBiase grabbed his chest and fell into the ropes, hitting the second rope and falling outside to the arena floor. “The way he went out, I knew something was wrong.”
“He died in my arms,” said Race. “I tried to resuscitate him with mouth-to-mouth and by pumping his heart. We had a pulse going on him when he left, but he apparently died en route to the hospital.”
That death also hit Race hard.
“When something like that happens and you’re there personally involved, it really hurts, especially when it involves someone that you care for. It was a similar thing with Owen.”
No stranger to tragedy, Race was a pillar of strength for the Hart family to lean on.
In the darkest times, I sought out Harley’s support and guidance, and he gave me direct and truthful answers, like my dad,” Bret Hart wrote in Race’s autobiography. “Indeed, Harley was like a father to me and a son to my father.”
‘Sweetheart of a guy’
Respected veteran Les Thatcher was a contemporary of Race and had come up through the business with him. He first worked with Race in 1963 in the Kansas City territory.
“He was 19 and I was 22. I’ve got an old picture somewhere out of one of the local programs of Harley doing a knee drop off the top rope on me. We were working a six-man tag.”
The two have been friends ever since.
“It’s been a pleasure, an honor, to have worked with Harley in the ring, to have worked with him as a coach and trainer, to have done the training manual and workout book we did with Ricky Steamboat. Harley and I were the first to do a training camp at CAC (Cauliflower Alley Club).”
Like everyone else in the business, Thatcher recognized Race’s tough-as-nails exterior. But he also saw another side beneath the gruff façade.
“Everybody talks about the tough Harley. But you know what? He was a caring sweetheart of a guy. We were guests in their home, and they were guests in ours.
“One of the highlights of my entire 59 years in the business was knowing that Harley respected my in-ring work and my training. He was just a fun guy to be with. I really loved him. I loved working with him. I loved being around him.”
Race will be remembered as one of the greatest talents to ever lace up a pair of boots, says Thatcher.
“Harley gave so much to our business as a wrestler, champion, booker and trainer/coach that his passing leaves a void, but those of us that were privileged to call him friend are better for it.”
Race was a familiar figure at various wrestling events and fan conventions in recent years. Although his health had declined and his mobility was limited to a walker and other mobility devices over the past decade, fans and wrestlers alike loved getting an opportunity to rub shoulders with one of wrestling’s all-time greats.
His body containing almost as much lead as the beautiful gold NWA championship belt he had held eight times during his career, Race was still the man.
But Race, who had been battling lung cancer, was hospitalized in mid-July and was under doctors’ care for a week before returning home. He died a week later.
Anyone who knew Harley would never bet against him. He had made a career out of defying the odds.
Thatcher had known for months about the cancer diagnosis, but had held out hope that his friend, like always, would beat the odds again.
“When it’s Harley Race, you figure he’s going to beat it. You just know he’s going to.”
“He kept fighting till the end,” Race’s son told CNN. “He is the most genuine human being I know. I don’t even think he knew the impact he has had on others.”
‘A man’s man’
Harley Race was old school to the core, but he also built a foundation for today’s wrestling, bridging the gap between eras. And he never stopped missing that nightly hour in the spotlight.
It was a world, as Race told BostonWrestling.com several years ago, that he loved.
“You stepped into a nightmare, but it’s a nightmare that you created, you wanted to be in, and I’ve always said this: If I wanted to take that step backwards, I wouldn’t take it. I’ve done what I love to do my whole life. I’ve had no other job.”
“The wrestling business is going to miss him,” says Dory Funk Jr. “As they do Jack Brisco and many of the greats from that era.”
“No one gave more to the business than Harley. He’s a champion who would rather show you his scars than his medals,” Bret Hart wrote in Race’s 2004 autobiography.
“I will miss the person. I will miss the man who exuded what every champion in the world should be like,” said longtime wrestling journalist Bill Apter, whose magazines featured Race on many covers. “The world of professional wrestling would not be what it was back in those golden days without you leading the pack.”
WWE executive Paul “Triple H” Levesque first met Race in 1994 while both were in WCW.
Race, said Levesque, transcended eras and changed the business. More than anything, his presence commanded respect.
“Everything about Harley Race commanded respect. Today our world mourns with all the respect you deserve. One of my favorite people in the business and in life. See you down the road, my friend,” tweeted Triple H.
“Harley Race was literally the King of his profession for 25 years. Long live the King,” tweeted Levesque’s father-in-law and WWE boss Vince McMahon, who paid Race’s medical bills during his final days.
Superstar Billy Graham, who spilled buckets of blood in his matches with Race, including a famous “Superbowl of Wrestling” show at Miami’s Orange Bowl in 1978 pitting the NWA champ (Race) against the WWWF champ (Graham), had nothing but respect for Race.
“Unlike this ultra-feminized younger generation, influenced by the stupidity of political correctness, Harley Race was a man’s man,” Graham posted on his Facebook account. “He was a very serious man who meant business in that ring and had zero illusions about life and people. The few times that I was fortunate enough to be in the ring with Harley, I knew I was in way over my head. Unlike me, Harley always gave 100 percent with total dedication to his craft and absolute integrity. His moves had mathematical precision with total convincing toughness.”
“Because wrestling is a work, with most performers it’s easy to see they are just acting,” added the WWE Hall of Famer. “Harley Race turned acting into art and the viewer forgot that it was just theater. The lights have gone out for Harley Race. Rest in peace my dear sweet friend, as there will never be another one like you.”
There certainly won’t. He was the real deal.
Reach Mike Mooneyham at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham. His newly released book — “Final Bell” — is now available at https://evepostbooks.com and on Amazon.com.