A year later Karras gave Race a shot wrestling on his Midwest circuit based out of St. Joseph. By the time he was eighteen, Race was earning a living as a professional wrestler and working his way up the ranks. He'd also married a girl named Vivian from his hometown. The two were expecting a child when they got into a car to visit Race's parents on Christmas night 1961.

Seventeen inches of snow fell that day. Their car collided with a tractor trailer along the highway. Vivian died instantly.

Race's doctor said he would never wrestle again. The accident shattered one of his forearms and damaged his right leg so badly that doctors contemplated amputation.

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.
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.
Harley Race in his office with a Harley Race action figure.
Jennifer Silverberg
Harley Race in his office with a Harley Race action figure.

Nearly two years after the accident, he returned to the ring.

"The wrestling helped me cope with it," Race says of the tragedy. "That's one of the amazing things about being out in front of live audiences. They give you a reason for wanting to go on, for wanting to succeed. Had I not been able to go back to what I was doing, God only knows what would have happened."

Soon after his recovery, Race joined the American Wrestling Association, Verne Gagne's renowned Minnesota circuit, and in 1965 he won the AWA World Tag Team Championship. It was his first belt. He was 22.

Race won the National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship for the first time in 1973, by defeating Dory Funk Jr. with a ring-rattling suplex. As champion, Race traveled across the country to defend his crown against the top names of dozens of wrestling circuits, wowing packed crowds with his innovative moves — such as his hanging vertical suplex or his flying headbutt from the top turnbuckle. 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.

"He read the crowd well," says Larry Matysik, a long-time wrestling play-by-play announcer and author of three wrestling books. "He understood the audience. He understood what he did and how it related to the crowd. Harley Race was not afraid of real heat."

Race became the highest-paid wrestler of his day, earning $350,000 a year through the late '70s and early '80s. He'd fight six or seven times most weeks, in six or seven different cities, sometimes twice in a single day. He was a main-event draw with a tenacious work ethic. If you wrestled Harley Race, Ric Flair once said, you wrestled him for an hour.

"I was as good or better than anyone that ever stepped in there," says Race with a satisfied grin.

His archive of celebrated matches would fill a car trunk with VHS tapes. There were the highly anticipated title showdowns against Bob Backlund and Dusty Rhodes. There was the time Race was annihilating Jack Brisco for most of a match, before Brisco suddenly kneed Race in the chest as he flew off the top rope, then slammed him to the mat for the pin. And there were the 30 or so times Race and Terry Funk beat each other with chains and leather straps.

"What really made him a great wrestler was that Harley Race never considered himself anything other than the very, very, very best," says Funk, who has wrestled Race more times than he can remember. "And it wasn't just wrestling. He considered himself the world's greatest card player, the world's greatest driver, the world's greatest drinker, the world's greatest shooter, whatever. And the world's greatest wrestler. And I'll be damned if he wasn't all of those things."

One of Race's most memorable matches was his bloody battle with Ric Flair in a steel cage in 1983 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Race was the venerable champion, and Flair a rising star. In a television promo a few weeks before the bout, Race put out a hit on Flair: "Flair, you have pushed me as far you're going to push!" said Race, standing next to a silver briefcase brimming with cash. "Right here is $25,000. And it goes to any human being that can eliminate Ric Flair from wrestling!"

That night in Greensboro, when Race walked past the curtain, onto the ramp leading to the cage, there was no entrance music, no pyrotechnics, only an unremitting outbreak of boos. Cloaked in a red-and-white polyester robe with "Race" stitched in sequin cursive on the back, he stood at the top of the ramp flanked by policemen and breathed in the swelling jeers. He puffed out his chest, put his hands on his hips then defiantly turned his head left and right to scan the sold-out arena, holding the pose for half a minute before leisurely sauntering to the ring.

"I always enjoyed being able to make that crowd do what I wanted them to do," he says. "And you can do that a hell of a lot easier by making them dislike you than by making them like you."

That night was the beginning of the end for both Race's career and the NWA. Soon Vince McMahon would buy out most of the major circuits, including the one Race owned in Kansas City, called Heart of America Wrestling, and turn his World Wrestling Federation (later changed to World Wrestling Entertainment) into a national brand.

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
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. ;-)

 
Loading...