Harley Race passed last Thursday of lung cancer at just 76 years old.
I say “just” because it seems he must have been around so much longer, and I mean that as the highest compliment. This week you’ll come across many articles that discuss his working in pro wrestling in seven different decades. For someone that left us just shy of his eighth decade, it means he gave his whole life to the business.
The night I was born was the night Harley passed the torch. He’d wear belts again after that, he’d wrestle and manage on bigger stages after that. But the first Starrcade, held November 24, 1983, is considered the torch passing. That night, Race did the job to Ric Flair in a steel cage, giving the Nature Boy his time in the spotlight with the NWA World Title. Flair never forgot it, and never passed up a chance to hype Harley, be it in shoot interviews or on the stick cutting a promo. “Harley Race” is always mentioned by Flair as one of the icons of wrestling.
It’s well deserved, and, today at TWM, we honour that legacy by remembering Harley Race.
If you’re around my age, 35, your first impression of Harley Race was probably as Vader’s manager in WCW in the early 1990s. He managed and, literally, drove Vader show to show. But it was as chauffeur to another big man that Race got his start in wrestling.
My uncle, born in the 1940s, never got over the bout of polio he contracted as a child. For the rest of his life his feet and heart were swollen and his back humped. Harley Race, born in 1943, was afflicted with polio as a child too. Unlike Uncle Kenneth, Harley Race overcame the disease and worked hard to build his body up. In high school, he gravitated toward pro wrestling, training with the Missouri farm owning, Polish-born Zbyskos (yes, those to which Lawrence Whistler paid homage when he adopted the ring name “Larry Zbysko). The Zbyskos were legendary wrestlers from the teens and twenties. As Harley Race would do up to the end of his life, after wrestling the Zbyskos trained up-and-coming wrestlers from their rural Missouri headquarters. Alongside Race, they trained legendary father of Greg Valentine, Johnny Valentine too.
It was through this pro wrestling connection that after being expelled from high school for beating the crap out of his principal that Harley Race was able to break into professional wrestling as the driver and valet to the 800-plus pound Happy Humphrey in 1960.
For five bucks a day, the 17-year-old Race was commissioned to drive Humphrey and help him with tasks too tough for such a big man. Race recalled once that because Humphrey was too big for the showers, Race had to mop Humphrey’s big naked body with liquid soap and then hose him off with a garden hose. The gig had perks for Race though as Humphrey taught Race how to bump and eventually Race was put on the card occasionally to wrestle Humphrey.
Writers researching Vader marvel at how dedicated Race was to Leon White in WCW, both in the ring and out of it, taking care of him as both a wrestler and a person. It’s easy to see where that came from though with Race and Humphrey.
It’s a bottom-up story and that’s what makes it so fascinating. How did Harley Race go from the guy taking care of Happy Humphrey to one of the biggest legends in wrestling history?
At 18, Race moved on and took the ring name Jack Long in Nashville, quickly winning the tag belts with kayfabe brother John Long. He was an up and comer. Then, a terrible car wreck took his pregnant wife of just over a month and nearly cost Race his leg. According to the legend, doctors were going to amputate but wrestling promoter Gust Karras did something to dissuade them. However, as with his polio, it looked like Race may never walk well again.
But he did. He spent several months in physical therapy and rehabilitated to the point of being able to get back into the ring. He returned with the Funk promotion in Amarillo under his own name, Harley Race, and never used a shoot name again.
From there he went to the AWA and teamed with Mr. Perfect’s dad, Larry the Axe Henning. He was the transitional heel NWA champion between Dory Funk Jr. and Jack Brisco in 1973 (because the NWA didn’t want a babyface to lose to a babyface with Funk losing to Brisco). From there he became a territorial legend, claiming a number of state titles and promotional titles, including being the first holder of Mid-Atlantic United States Heavyweight Championship which is still defended in the WWE today as the United States Championship via the WCW acquisition.
In 1977 the NWA was ready to put him over, not just as a transitional heel champ, but as the guy to carry the NWA. He beat Terry Funk for the NWA World Title using the Indian Death Lock submission (yes the same one Triple H has used in homage to his wrestling idol).
Over the next 6 years, Race became, as Flair would say, the man. Over that span, Race had epic matches with guys that would become the other legends of the NWA including Dory Funk, Dusty Rhodes, Dick the Bruiser, Pat Patterson and Angelo Poffo. Because then the NWA and AWA and WWF all had decent working relationships he also went champion against champion with the likes of Superstar Billy Graham and Bob Backlund. яндекс
In the early 80s, Race and Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair would trade the NWA world title between them. Starrcade ’83 largely wrapped the Flair and Race rivalry up while Flair and Rhodes would continue to battle for a couple more years.
Because Race was so territory worn, had won almost all the major territory belts, and defended the NWA belt against the AWA and WWF, Flair now refers to Harley Race as “the last real world’s champion.” High praise from the man who, along with Hulk Hogan, would dominate the 80s and 90s in pro wrestling.
Unfortunately, the late 80s are the times’ many mainstream fans remember Harley Race from. This is when he finally landed with the WWF. Unfortunately, by that point, he was well out of shape and had the rotund gut to prove it. His matches were slow, and he certainly never sniffed a belt in the WWF.
It’s worth noting that the WWF tried to do Race right. In a time when Vince refused to acknowledge past promotion success, Race was treated slightly different. Vince mocked Dusty Rhodes when he came in by giving him polka dots and making him a dancing bear. Go further and you’ll find the wrestler Virgil was named for Dusty’s real name, Virgil Runnels, and Hakeem the African Dream was a mocking of “the American Dream.” Vince thought a black man with Rhodes’ name and a white man trying to be black were the perfect way to rib Dusty who Vince felt acted and talked “black.” Kerry von Erich was reduced to the “Texas Tornado” with no mention of the von Erich wrestling family or his NWA world title run in 1984.
Vince renamed the most successful tag team of the 80s, the Road Warriors, the Legion of Doom. He just had to remake (and knockdown) the guys who made it elsewhere without him or the WWF. Harley Race was allowed to keep his name though, and, in lieu of actually acknowledging his past promotion successes, they gifted him the moniker of “King of Wrestling” such that he was “King” Harley Race. Though an underwhelming run, even Vince respected Race and how he would be portrayed.
He retired in the 90s to manage on-screen for WCW full time when he took on the role of Vader’s caretaker. Since then, he’s made special appearances for both the WWE and TNA/Impact. Given the laudation Cody and Dustin have heaped on Race, I’m sure he would have popped up in AEW too.
As a youngster, I couldn’t quite comprehend the revere announcers gave Race over other managers. Why was he so dangerous? So noteworthy? Why did they talk of Race in a way that Fuji or Cornette never got?
Once you dig into the archives though it becomes clear. He’s one of the guys that married street-tough antics with a cocky heel persona. He could mat wrestle with the best of them on top of the ability to whip everyone in the bar. He was his day’s Stone Cold. A tough-looking son of a bitch from Missouri that blue-collar fans could love.
His moves were pretty innovative too. The diving headbutt that Dynamite Kid used to perfection? That’s a Race in-ring innovation. The bridging Fisherman’s suplex that you all know as the Perfect-Plex? Race popularized that one too. We’ve already covered where Trips got his Indian Death Lock.
In a way, Race pioneered the look of the modern wrestler too. The eighties and nineties were filled with pretty boys or big oafs with few exceptions. Almost all were carnival freaks of size and character in one way or another. Today, wrestlers come in many shapes and sizes and appearances. Many, like Race, don’t look so different from a guy you’d meet at the hardware store. No cartoony gimmick. The most dominant look across all wrestler shapes and sizes in the 2010s has become the tattoos. Who do you know from the 70s and 80s that were tattooed up and down their arms? I can only think of Race.
After he left the spotlight he maintained a wrestling promotion in Missouri along with his own wrestling school. In addition to linking his promotion with Pro Wrestling Noah and getting some worldwide exposure for his guys, Race trained the next generation of von Erichs, Ross and Marshall, as well as former NXT Champion and NXT Tag Team Champion (with Johnny Gargano), Tommaso Ciampa. In the same way, the Zbyskos helped him, Race paid it forward.
No doubt, with Triple H at the helm, a loyal Harley Race disciple (remember when HHH grew the sideburns into moustache ala Race?), WWE will find a way to honour Race in perpetuity. That’s okay though, Triple H has this one right. Honour him, laud him, never forget him.
Rest in Peace Harley Race.
You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.