"There were a lot of places to go in Harley's era," he says. "Every week there were shows. Three, four times a week. You'd be lucky if you'd have a day off. Unfortunately there's only one place a guy like me or anyone else here can go, and that's the WWE."


It's addictive owning an arena full of fans, driving their emotions with the drop of an elbow or the turn of a phrase.

"We love it so much," says Terry Funk, Race's legendary ring rival. "The really great ones, they wouldn't be great if it wasn't our fix, our shot in the arm. It's our narcotic, just to go out there. Do we miss it? Yeah. Absolutely."

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.

It's no surprise, then, that even today you can turn on the TV and see Hulk Hogan at 58, or Ric Flair at 62, throwing their wrinkled frames around the mat.

Funk, 67 years old, continues to wrestle on the independent circuit every few months. Harley Race, by comparison, does nothing more strenuous than an afternoon of boating or a round of golf. Still, the taste lingers.

"Until the day I die, I'll miss that nightly hour in the spotlight," he says.

The 1995 car wreck that forced Race to leave wrestling warranted fourteen screws and two metal plates in one hip. Soon after recovering from the injury, Race married a banking executive named B.J. They settled down in a modest condo on the Lake of the Ozarks, about ten miles south of Eldon. For a couple years, Race moonlighted as a process server, but it didn't satisfy him the way his old job did. Wrestling, he says, is all he has ever known. And the one thing he could still offer the sport, he figured, was his knowledge.

"It's about the only thing left to do to keep myself involved in wrestling at a high level," he says of his decision to open the wrestling academy. "When I finally knew for sure that I wasn't going to go any further in wrestling, the next thing was to build a new Harley Race to keep the image alive."

Now Race and his wrestlers have become one of Eldon's main attractions, filling the community center or the high school gym when the WLW holds an in-town event.

Race partners with local institutions, such as the fire department and little league program, having them sell concessions at his wrestling matches for a share of the profits. Many residents also mark their calendars for Race's annual wrestling camp in October, when big names such as Ricky Steamboat or CM Punk come to town.

"Harley really has been a benefit to the Eldon community," says Tom Collins, sports editor at the Eldon Advertiser. "Whether or not you like wrestling, the things that Harley has done for the community of Eldon, you can't really not like that. There's a lot [that] some of the civic organizations couldn't have been able to do if it wasn't for Harley."

In the fall of 2009 B.J. died unexpectedly, following a bout with pneumonia. Ever since, Race hasn't been spending as much time at the academy. Nor does he spend much time socializing around town anymore. Long gone are the screaming crowds to numb the pain.

"He seems like he's slowed down quite a bit," confirms Eldon's fire chief Randy Vernon, who's known Race since the academy's early days. "We really thought a lot of B.J. And she really helped him out, kept him in line."

On the last night of training before the Christmas break, Race hobbles over to the stretching table and gingerly leans against the padding. He observes his wrestlers grappling on the canvas and barks out pointers with a slight smirk on his face. After about twenty minutes, he raises his hand, smiles and tells the wrestlers, "Good night, everybody." "Good night, boss," they all respond, pausing for a moment as Race shuffles out the door.

But the old wrestler remains an inspiration to new generations.

On a recent day, two wide-eyed boys visit the academy. They walk over to the ring, surrounded by wrestling memorabilia spanning the past five decades.

Jones introduces himself. The boys, brothers Kenny and Jeff Peterson, say they've come all the way from Marshville, to sign up for the Harley Race Wrestling Academy.

"OK, why do you want to do this?" asks Jones, arms crossed, leaning back on his heels.

"Just everything about it," says Jeff, a round twenty-year-old with a budding mullet. "It's all we know how to do. "All the other kids wanna grow up to be quarterbacks and astronauts. We wanted to grow up to be professional wrestlers. We've been suplexing each other in the back yard and stuff."

"Since we were old enough to walk, we were drop kicking each other," chimes in Kenny, a skinny nineteen-year-old wearing a red flannel shirt, camouflage cargo pants and black boots.

"Our school's rough," says Jones. He doesn't tell them that 75 percent of wannabe wrestlers who try out never come back. "It's definitely not a cakewalk. We don't make you a superstar overnight."

The brothers nod.

"It's crazy," Jeff remarks. "We're in the same building as Harley Race right now."

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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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