"The biggest thing in our business that I learned from Harley is the psychology," reflects current WWE star Ted DiBiase Jr. "It's telling a story in the ring. It's good versus evil, and you gotta paint that picture. It's the way you sell things. The way you bring people into what you're doing and let them get lost in it. During your match you just want them to be right there with you, either cheering you on or hating your guts. If you just learn a bunch of moves, you can go just about anywhere to do that. But to do it the right way, and be good at what we do, it's about psychology. And that's what Harley was great at."

In the tag-team match under way at Race's academy on this December evening, Breaker plays the bad-guy role, "the heel." He struts arrogantly around the ring after slamming Gamble to the ground and holds O'Brien's arms behind her back so his tag-team partner can sneak in shots when the ref isn't looking. Gamble plays the good-guy role, the "baby face." He resiliently rises to his feet, determination etched on his brow, and punches Breaker in the gut. He shouts encouragement to O'Brien as she is trapped in a hammer lock, struggling to reach her partner's outstretched arm.

It is an underappreciated art form, a brutal-looking freestyle composition, part theater, part improv comedy, part mixed martial arts, part interpretive dance. While some wrestlers prefer to outline a match beforehand, Race's philosophy stresses extemporaneous thinking.

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.

"Anyone who was ever in the ring with me did it right there," he says. "There was no rehearsal of anything."

Most of the students reside at a nearby apartment complex, where Race knows the owner and can get his pupils a discounted rate. Between training sessions and wrestling cards, they hold down jobs. Breaker waits tables at a Chili's. Gamble works graveyard shifts at a factory, making car seats. O'Brien tends bar 30 miles away in Jefferson City.

Tuition to the academy is $3,000 per six-month session, plus another $50 to try out for the school. But for an up-and-comer longing to get to the big leagues, Race's academy fosters a dream.

"Is it worth spending the $50,000 to go to Cornell?" says Greg Oliver, founder of SLAM!, a wrestling magazine. "Where else are you gonna get that name on your résumé? All these indie guys need the work, and that's the thing Harley can provide. And there's nobody else out there doing it. That's the only way you're gonna get better, and it's totally gone from this business."

In addition to the academy, Race also operates a wrestling circuit called World League Wrestling that he uses to showcase his best grapplers. The WLW puts on about twenty shows a year, traveling the heartland from southern Minnesota to northern Arkansas. The events are streamed online and occasionally broadcast on public-access television stations. Usually the wrestlers perform in high school gyms or community centers, drawing a few dozen spirited fans. They earn $25 to $50 a match. It's a brutish existence, requiring equal doses of skill and serendipity.

"To make that next step, there is a huge element of luck," says Matysik. "You gotta be in the right spot at the right time with the right look with the right politics with the right personalities. And that's tough."

In the early 2000s WWE recruiters discovered Trevor Murdoch, who would become one of Race's most celebrated alums, while scouting a prospect he was wrestling against. The recruiters had been looking for someone to play a hillbilly character, and Murdoch, with his thick red sideburns and pale and lumpy physique, had been using that exact gimmick. Race never really used a gimmick; he fought under his birth name, employing only the moniker "Handsome" Harley Race and later "King" Harley Race when he entered the WWF.

Of the academy's current crop, Breaker is the closest to making it to the next level, which is signing a contract with the WWE's developmental circuit, Florida Championship Wrestling. The league holds about 80 wrestlers, and when one of them gets bumped to the majors, a spot opens up. Breaker, who's been wrestling for four-and-a-half years, is near the top of the list to fill the next slot.

"He knows that to be able to make it he's gotta be able to work in the ring and have a match with anybody," says Race, underscoring a wrestler's ability to dictate the script of a bout. "A lot of guys lack the ability to go in the ring and call what's happening."

McMahon's takeover of the business, while escalating salaries for the superstars at the top, had a stifling effect on the majority of young wrestlers. As the many circuits disappeared, so did all of those roster spots. In the 1970s, 600 guys could make a living wrestling. Now that number is fewer than 200.

That math isn't lost on any of the wrestlers at Race's academy, including Jason Jones, a chiseled 29-year-old veteran who's been training in Eldon since 2008 and now serves as lead instructor at the academy. Race's endorsement gives Jones and other students more credibility and exposure than wrestlers at most other small independent promotional companies. And Race's ties to the industry ensure that his students are first in line for wrestling opportunities on untelevised "dark matches" before WWE events,or for bouts with Pro Wrestling NOAH, one of Japan's top leagues. Yet Jones realizes that he'll only "make it" when — and if — the WWE takes notice.

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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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