School of Hard Knocks: Halfway down the road to ruin, ex-pro wrestler turns his life around through teaching

School of Hard Knocks: Halfway down the road to ruin, ex-pro wrestler turns his life around through teaching
Jennifer Silverberg

Harley Race might be the toughest son of a bitch to ever put on wrestling trunks. He'd drink a case of beer and smoke a pack of Marlboro Reds then get up the next day and slam his body around the mat for 60 minutes against guys like Ric Flair and Terry Funk, selling their moves so furiously that he helped turn them into stars. And he'd do it night after night, 350 or so days a year, shuttling around the world in stuffy vans and cramped flights, for three decades, from the Kennedy administration to the first George Bush.

So these days he limps when he walks, says he's toned down the drinking and sticks to light cigarettes. His transition into post-wrestling life has been marred by lawsuits, financial troubles and the suffocating withdrawal that comes when the roar of the crowd fades into memory. He's 68 years old, with a trunk as thick as a rhino's and a head full of short brown curls. And he isn't done turning wrestlers into stars.

His Harley Race Wrestling Academy, pocketed in the corner of the small central Missouri town of Eldon, has been training new generations of grapplers since 1999. And it's here, off a winding road in a metal warehouse that houses his school, where you can find Race on most evenings.

One of the biggest stars of his generation, Harley Race often wrestled up to 350 matches a year, defending his NWA World Heavyweight Championship against the top names of each territory.
Jennifer Silverberg
One of the biggest stars of his generation, Harley Race often wrestled up to 350 matches a year, defending his NWA World Heavyweight Championship against the top names of each territory.
Facing challenging odds, Race's students hope the academy offers a springboard to their dreams: a WWE contract.
Jennifer Silverberg
Facing challenging odds, Race's students hope the academy offers a springboard to their dreams: a WWE contract.

On a rainy and gusty one in mid-December, Race leans forward in a chair in his makeshift office just a few feet from the wrestling canvas. In one hand he holds a smoldering cigarette. In his other hand, a pen that he uses to scribble notes onto a desk calendar.

"Wrestling is around, should be around, and as long as I have anything to do with it, is gonna be around," he says, his voice gravelly and plodding just like in all those classic prematch promos. "It's been the only thing I've ever done."

Framed photos of scowling hulks in tights drape the plywood walls of his office. High over his shoulder, encased in glass, hangs the scuffed and bulky National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship belt that Race first won in 1973. In front of the desk calendar a black nameplate reads: "8 Time Champ: Harley Race."

Just past dusk the half-dozen pupils currently enrolled in the academy begin to filter in for practice. They've come to this isolated backwater from all across America — Charlotte to San Francisco — to train under the legendary Harley Race, the godfather of an old-school style of wrestling that emphasizes grappling talent over microphone skills.

"Shut Up and Wrestle" is the official motto at Race's academy. It's a theme noticeably absent from the current formula over at Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), where out-of-the-ring histrionics drive story lines as much as the battles inside the turnbuckles.

"The easy way out is to let the guys talk about the bullshit without being able to do the bullshit," Race says. "You can't talk for sixty minutes."

Soon Race's current crop of students is in the wrestling ring sharpening their craft.

During the past twelve years, Race has graduated a handful of wrestlers onto the major leagues of the sport — the WWE. Most of those students hailed from wrestling's royalty. Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat sent his son to Race's academy. So did the "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase and "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig. Those pupils all made it to the next level. A few others — CM Punk and Trevor Murdoch — made it to the big time despite the one-in-a-thousand odds. Some of those alums may even appear at the Scottrade Center later this month when the WWE brings its Royal Rumble to St. Louis.

"My dad said I was going nowhere else but Harley," says Ted DiBiase Jr., who trained at the academy for a year before signing with the WWE in 2008. "He said, 'If you're gonna learn to do this, you're gonna learn from one of the best.'"

But the twentysomethings grinding it out in Race's ring on this December night? Chances are they'll never see the bright lights of the WWE. It's not that they're no good. It's just that wrestling has changed dramatically since Race first stepped into the square circle.


Harley Race was a thirteen-year-old farm boy growing up in the northwest Missouri town of Quitman when he saw his first wrestling match on TV. Two years later his high school expelled him for punching his principal after the administrator tried to break up a fight. Race could have returned if he had apologized to the principal. Instead, he began working a few odd jobs that would soon lead him to wrestling.

The great Polish wrestlers Stanislaus and Wladek Zbyszko gave Race his first pointers. The brothers, who made names for themselves in the 1910s and '20s as two of the greatest matmen in the world, owned a nearby farm. In exchange for bailing hay and doing other farm chores, the brothers taught Race wrestling moves.

By the age of sixteen Race had joined the carnival wrestling circuit of promoter Gus Karras. It was a good show: Race would stand in the middle of a ring under a tent and taunt the locals in attendance, mocking them for how weak they all looked or how sorry their town was. Then he'd offer a cash prize to any man who could beat him in a fight. Another wrestler on the circuit, posing as one of the townspeople, would accept the challenge, and the two would duke it out.

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10 comments
Smeyers
Smeyers

Look up wrestling "Icon" in the dictonary and there is a picture of Harley. So many Thursday nights were filled with High School buds @ Memorial hall in Kansas City, KS watching Brody, Murdoch, Rhodes, Bulldog, Rufus R. Jones, Baron Von Rashke, all take on Harley and try to pin him. Many tried, few succeded. The first sentence of the article said it all. He was 'One Tough Son of a Bitch"...

Tdm5050
Tdm5050

What a great weekend it would be to have a tribute card (well planned and well adertised) to Harley at the Lake.

Cliffhanger
Cliffhanger

Those were the days. The WWE can't hold a candle to the old circuits.

Michael Cusortelli
Michael Cusortelli

This is a great story, and I really enjoyed reading it.Harley Race was on the card of the first pro wrestling show I ever saw in person -- it was January 1976 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. He was in the battle royal, and I think maybe another match later on.Fight on Mr. Race!

Doug Mendoza
Doug Mendoza

Great wrestling memories brought back by the story, besides being agood story on its own merits.

Still remember when I was getting my hoozh on at a Kiel Auditoriumwresting event - Dick the Bruiser beat Harley Race with a flying crossbody block & pin. In follow up Wrestling at the Chase interview,Harley said he didn't know Dick the Bruiser even knew a wrestlingmove. I know it's all (semi-)scripted. But the way Harley was glassyeyed and shaking out the cobwebs walking past me up the aisle to backto the dressing room, I think he really did slam his head back intothe mat as he fell.

Can't believe the reporter left out my favorite, and I believe thefirst, moniker that Harley Race had: Harley "Mad Dog" Race!

Pete Pepper
Pete Pepper

This is a great article. And it makes you wonder why these old guys are left by the wayside despite all they brought to this art form. Maybe its time for Harley Race to get some time in the lime light, one last time. Who wouldnt like to see him walk the ramp at RAW? Would be better than what they have been pushing lately.

Lordsnot1
Lordsnot1

Great article about one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. I dont think there was anyone more believable as an ass kicker than Harley Race. This line is a perfect description of him. "He was a 6-foot-1-inch, 245-pound slab of equal parts muscle and flab who knew how to work a crowd into a frenzy with his barroom-badass ring demeanor."

Terry6579
Terry6579

An excellent article on Mr. Race, his career, school & students. I got to see him against Bulldog Bob Brown here in Wichita when Central States Wrestling was still running. Alsosaw Ric Flair take on Bruiser Brody that night in (I think) '87.

Rockj49
Rockj49

I remember watching Harley Race battle Ice Man King Parsons in St.louis when I was a kid. It was one of the most special moments of my young life because I got to share it with my dad. God bless you King Harley Race!

Prplepassion7
Prplepassion7

Really enjoyed reading this story!! 95% of the people that I know don't know that in my late teens I worked as a valet for a couple of semi-pro wrestlers. I met a lot of the top, classic wrestlers, and 99% of them were the sweetest guys I've ever met (with the exception of one, that was obnoxious as hell.) 20 years later, I still smile when I look back at those few years. The wrestler I valeted for most of the time was a close friend, who I still talk to, from time to time. He stills wrestles professionally, both in the states and overseas.

I love the courage and self esteem that my experiences gave me. My mom still has some of the photos of me, ringside--I learned to run in high heels!

I went on to graduate from college, go on to graduate school, and become a "regular" person. I'm married and in my mid 30's now, but I tell ya, I still have a little bit of that "hollywood flair" to my personality, and I owe a lot of it to being around pro wrestlers. ;-)

 
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