Harley Race Page 2

In the early 60’s, Race logged a lot of time in the Amarillo territory.  This was the start of perhaps his longest running rivalry, involving the Funk family (Dory Sr., Dory Jr. and Terry).  His matches with Terry were particularly brutal.  When “Iron Mike” DiBiase (step-father of Ted DiBiase) suffered a heart attack and died in Amarillo, Harley Race performed CPR on DiBiase at ringside.  Later that night, it was Race who went to the DiBiase home to inform the family of what had happened.  Ironically, when Owen Hart passed away in a Kansas City wrestling ring nearly thirty years later, it was Race who was given the heart-breaking duty of calling the Hart family in Calgary to inform them of what had happened.

Later in the 1960’s, Race went north to Minneapolis to work in Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association.  For nearly five years, Race and his tag partner Larry “the Axe” Hennig (father of Curt Hennig) terrorized the AWA.  Race and Hennig had some classic slugfests against the team of the Crusher and Dick the Bruiser.  Race also got his first taste of world championship gold in the AWA, holding the World Tag Titles four times with Hennig and once with Chris Markoff.   Hennig was the only partner Race teamed with for an appreciable amount of time, and the two are still close friends today.

Upon leaving the AWA, Race split time between several territories.  He renewed his bloody rivalry with Terry Funk in Amarillo, and began spending considerable time in his Central States home territory and in St. Louis where along with partner Roger Kirby, Race won the Central States Tag Team titles in 1972.  Race was given the nickname ‘Handsome’ Harley Race by wrestling fans in Japan, but for a brief time in the early 70s was tagged with the nickname ‘Mad Dog’ Harley Race after attacking Kansas City television announcer Bill Kersten.  At this point in his career, he was considered a regional star – an experienced and savvy wrestler, but not quite ready for the worldwide spotlight. 

All of that changed in May of 1973, when Race defeated Dory Funk Jr. at Memorial Hall in Kansas City Kansas for the NWA World Title.  The victory was totally unexpected by most wrestling fans.  Race still recalls this match as his best ever, and Dory Jr. still stings from the bitterness of the defeat.  Even though Race dropped the title two months later in Houston to Jack Brisco, he had established himself around the world as a main event wrestler and a threat to every title-holder he encountered. 

Stung by his defeat at the hands of Brisco, Race was determined to regain the title regardless of how long it took or how hard he had to work.  As it did so many times during his long career, Race’s single-minded work ethic and will to win served him well.   Race began positioning himself for another run at the title, holding the Central States title a total of eight times and St. Louis’ Missouri State Title seven times to keep his name on the short list of top contenders for the World Title.  Race also held other regional titles including the Mid-Atlantic US Heavyweight title, the Georgia Heavyweight title and the Stampede North American Heavyweight title. In 1975, Race entered the Florida territory and had great success there defeating Dusty Rhodes for the NWA Southern Heavyweight title, and winning the NWA Florida Tag Team on two occassions, once with Roger Kirby and again with Bob Roop.

Harley Race was probably the ultimate wrestling opportunist.  He figured that if he kept himself in contention for the world title long enough, eventually he would be in position to regain it.  Furthermore, Race figured that once he had the world champ in the ring, he would be able to use his brains, instinct and will to take the title.  In February of 1977, Race did exactly that, taking advantage of a knee injury to defeat his old rival Terry Funk in Toronto for the World Title.  In this match, Race dusted off the rarely used Indian Deathlock to put Funk away.  The victory in Toronto was the start of nearly four straight years with Harley Race as World Champion.  Tommy Rich, Dusty Rhodes and Giant Baba (twice) each had short runs with the title (one week or less) between 1977 and 1981, with Race re-capturing the title each time. 

During this phase of his career, the Funk brothers were no longer Race’s most bitter rivals.  They were replaced by the likes of Dusty Rhodes, the Von Erich boys and Ric Flair.  In St. Louis, Race had a heated feud with Dick the Bruiser.  No matter if it were the NWA or Missouri State belt on the line, and regardless of which one was the defender and which the challenger, these two could always be counted on to deliver a slugfest.  Race also defended the NWA belt in inter-promotional battles against WWWF champions Bob Backlund and Superstar Billy Graham, and AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel.  None of these battles really settled anything though, usually ending deadlocked at one-fall apiece, with the third fall ending in a DQ or going to a time limit draw.

Harley Race also established himself even more firmly as an international star during this time period.  Race started touring in Japan in the early 1960s, and was already a well-known commodity there.  Race gained a great deal more exposure in Japan as NWA champion, defending against most (if not all) of the best competitors Japan had to offer.  Race also did extensive touring in Australia and New Zealand, and claims that the USSR and Communist China are the only countries where he did not wrestle.

When Race lost the NWA Title in 1981 to Dusty Rhodes, he was tied with Lou Thesz as a six-time World Champion.  In June of 1983, Race defeated Ric Flair in St. Louis to win the title for a record-breaking 7th time.  Race’s victory set in motion a sequence of events that led up to the historic match against Ric Flair at the first Starrcade.  Race employed Bob Orton Jr. and Dick Slater as bounty hunters to eliminate Flair from title contention prior to Starrcade.  The strategy seemed to work, with Flair suffering an apparent injury and announcing his retirement.  However, the retirement was just a Flair counter-ploy, as Flair turned the tables on Race and his bounty hunters.   Flair went on to take the title from Race in the cage at Starrcade, and the NWA torch was passed from Race to Flair. 

That defeat at Starrcade wasn’t the end of the NWA title story for Race though.  In April of 1984, Race defeated Flair in New Zealand to become an 8-time NWA World Champion.  The victory was covered in the Japanese wrestling press, but was ignored back in the U.S.  For a decade, Race was listed as a 7-time champion until mid-1990s when the new NWA board declared Race’s 1984 New Zealand victory to be an official title change.  Race dropped the belt back to Flair three days later in Singapore, and the circumstances of the title change in New Zealand continue to be surrounded in mystery.  The two met again at the NWA/AWA Star Wars card in February of 1985, where Race was defeated by NWA champion Ric Flair.

Earlier in his career, Race had become involved in the promotional side of wrestling, owning part of the Kansas City territory along with Bob Geigel and Pat O’Connor and buying into the St. Louis promotion with Geigel, O’Connor and Sam Muchnick.  After Muchnick retired, Verne Gagne joined the St. Louis ownership.  Race described St. Louis as the “crown jewel” of the NWA, so it is no surprise that when Vince McMahon set out to conquer the wrestling world, the first shots of the war were fired in St. Louis.  As this was going on, Race had reached a point in his career where he wanted to be less involved as an active wrestler, and more involved as a promoter.   When the St. Louis NWA group decided to cut their losses, Race personally lost upwards of $500,000.  Eventually the Kansas City promotion was sold to Jim Crockett.   So, instead of decreasing his in-ring activity, Race found himself still relying on it to make his living.

Race bounced around between Japan, the AWA, and various NWA and independent promotions for a couple of years (even winning the Mid-America Heavyweight title in 1985) before settling in with Vince McMahon and the WWF.  Race entered the WWF as “King” Harley Race, and was managed for a time by his long-time friend Bobby “the Brain” Heenan.  One of his earliest success while in the WWF was winning the Sam Muchnick Tournament on August 29th, 1986.  Although he never had a run as WWF Champion (remember, the Hulkamania phenomenon was at its height during his time there), Race was well paid and achieved some degree of success there, winning the 1986 King of the Ring tournament and defeating the Junkyard Dog in front of a record crowd at Wrestlemania III.  He participated in the first Royal Rumble in 1988, fought Haku in the 1989 Royal Rumble, and participated in both of the first two Survivor Series.  Serious internal injuries and the complications arising from them brought about the end of Race’s WWF run, and he left the WWF for an uncertain future.

After recovering from his injuries, Harley Race re-surfaced a few years later in World Championship Wrestling, but no longer as a wrestler.   Race was now a manager, and a very good one.  He immediately guided Lex Luger to the WCW World Championship.  Later on, he helped Vader win the title as well.  Race was popular among the young WCW talent, and developed close friendships with Mick Foley and Steve Austin, among others.   Once again, injuries (this time from an auto accident) forced Race out of the wrestling business.  Race required hip replacement surgery, which in combination with other injuries prohibited him from even managing.

Following a few tortured years away from wrestling, Race and his wife BJ started their own wrestling promotion.  World League Wrestling was founded in 1999, running matches in many of the cities where Race operated with Geigel and O’Connor in earlier years.  WLW and Race’s Wrestling Academy provided him with the camaraderie and hands on involvement in wrestling that had been missing from his life for far too long.  

It’s almost impossible to sum up Harley Race’s wrestling career in the space available here.  Race is a man who has truly done it all in the wrestling business, but his success did not by any means come without sacrifice.  Race missed large amounts of time with his family because of the time he spent touring both as NWA Champion and as a constant top contender for the title.  The years of bumps took their toll on his body as well.   Race is still highly regarded by his contemporaries, and by current wrestlers such as Foley, Austin and Dustin Rhodes.   And, as is the case with most wrestlers, the life of Harley Race outside the ring was at least as interesting as the one he lived inside the ring.  Hopefully things will move forward soon on a Harley Race biography to shed more light on the fascinating life and wrestling career of ‘Handsome’ Harley Race.

Chris Owens is webmaster for Harley Race’s Official Website  

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