In 1986, with the world he knew changing all around him, Race joined the WWF. He was a star, to be sure, but never again as bright as he was on that night in North Carolina. Now guys like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Flair, whose career took off after beating Race in the cage, were the headliners of the business.

In 1988 Hogan slammed Race through a table, and the steel band wrapped around the edge of the tabletop snapped and stabbed his abdomen. A week later, while at home in Kansas City, he felt a sharp pain in his stomach and then passed out. When he woke up in the hospital, he noticed the colostomy bag beside him. His intestine had inflamed and ruptured. After that, state athletic commissions wouldn't license him to wrestle. So Race took his act overseas to Europe and Japan.

Also in the late 1980s, Race divorced his third wife, with whom he had raised two children. The split was a "drawn-out process that seemed like an eternity," he says. His drinking habits turned more reckless than usual. On June 9, 1990, Race took his ski boat out on the Lake of the Ozarks, as he did on many days. This day he was drunk.

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.

Race plowed the vessel into another boat, injuring several of the boaters onboard the other craft. The wrestler settled out of court with most of the victims for an undisclosed sum of money. One of them pushed forward to trial, and a jury awarded her $250,000 in compensatory damages. Race filed for bankruptcy shortly after.

His body breaking down, he retired from wrestling in 1991. Without the rigors of the job to neutralize his alcohol consumption, Race ballooned to more than 300 pounds.

"You start realizing the fact that you are not out there in front of those people performing," says Race. "And you're not doing the thing you've done all your life."

Race remained in the business for a few years as a manager, promoting World Championship Wrestling stars such as Lex Luger, Steve Austin and Vader. Then, after a night of drinking in January 1995, he crashed his car into a concrete barrier in Kansas City. The impact fractured his forearm and crushed his hip. Race hasn't set foot in a big-league wrestling ring since.


That red-and-white polyester robe from the Flair match now dangles high on the wall of his academy's main room. The ring takes up most of the space, flexing out a couple of feet from the banners and photos that pepper the walls and lockers in the back.

This facility is supposed to be a temporary one. It is much smaller than the last place, which fit two rings. That facility's landlord kicked the academy out after the building housing his janitorial supply company burned down and he needed a new space. So now when the wrestlers train, they must talk over a lumberyard's chain saws buzzing through the woods on the other side of the walls.

Jack Gamble, an acrobatic 22-year-old with short brown hair and a lean build, says he was drawn to wrestling because it makes him feel "larger than life."

Ryan Drago, a tall 29-year-old submission artist, says he knew he wanted to be a wrestler the first time he attended a live show a decade ago. Drago watched in awe as the high-flying Rob Van Dam, folded steel chair in his hand, soared off the top rope, clear across the ring to the opposite turnbuckle, and drop-kicked the chair into his opponent's face.

"The entire building blew up," Drago says. "Just everyone went crazy. And I stopped dead, and I thought, 'I wanna make people feel this way.'"

When Race's students get into the ring and divide up for a fifteen minute tag-team match, they grapple and grunt and groan as if surrounded by a building full of people waiting to blow up.

Inside the academy's ring Stacey O'Brien, a chipper 24-year-old and one of two females enrolled in the school, grabs Brian Breaker's arm and twists it around. Breaker, a 26-year-old with shoulder-length black hair and a linebacker's physique, grimaces. O'Brien pulls Breaker's hand toward her face and exaggeratedly chomps down on his middle finger.

"Aaaaarrrghhh!" he yells, as he snatches his arm away and jumps up and down, nurturing the finger. Then he straightens up, extends the digit so that he's now flipping off O'Brien's tag-team partner, Jack Gamble. He follows that up by socking O'Brien in the head and dragging her by the hair toward the corner, where his partner Ryan Drago looks on from behind the ropes. Drago swings his leg over the top turnbuckle, and Breaker slams O'Brien's face into his partner's boot.

"Oh, come on!" shouts Gamble, shooting a glare at Lucy Mendez, a slender 29-year-old with long brown hair who is serving as referee for the match. "Come on, ref! They can't do that."

Mendez shrugs then wags a finger at Breaker.

"Hey! Hey! Hey!" she exclaims.

None of this has been choreographed. The grapplers flow in and out of moves, constructing a convincing narrative on the spot. They tell a story through body language, facial expressions and fighting styles.

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