By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
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By Jake Rossen
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"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."
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.
"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."