Harley Leland Race (April 11, 1943 - August 1, 2019), was a American professional wrestler and promoter. During his career as a wrestler, he amassed eight National Wrestling Alliance NWA World Heavyweight Championship reigns at a time when wrestlers rarely repeated as champion, and worked for all of the major wrestling promotions, including the NWA, the American Wrestling Association (AWA), the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW). His ring skill, legitimate toughness, and classic matches with the icons of professional wrestling make him a legend in the business.
Race was an early fan of pro wrestling, watching programming from the nearby Chicago territory on the DuMont Network. He began training as a pro wrestler as a teen under former world champions Stanislaus and Wladek Zbyszko, who operated a farm in his native Missouri. At age 15, while in high school, an altercation with another classmate led to the principal kneeing Race in the back of the head as he tried to break up the fight. Enraged, Race attacked him, resulting in his expulsion. Already 6'1" and 225 pounds, Race decided to get his start in pro wrestling.
Race was recruited by St. Joseph wrestling promoter Gust Karras, who hired Race to do odd jobs for his promotion. Eventually, Race started wrestling on some of his shows, and some of Karras' veteran wrestlers helped further Race's training. At the age of 18, he moved to Nashville and began wrestling under the alias of "Jack Long", forming a tag team with "brother" John Long. The duo quickly captured the Southern Tag Team Championship. Race was seen as a rising star in the business with a bright future, until a car accident (his first wife died instantly while pregnant - they had been married for little over a month) put him out of action, with his leg coming close to being amputated. Karras heard about this and went rushing into the hospital and blocked the planned amputation, stating "Over my dead body"; by doing this, he saved Race's leg. Although he recovered, doctors told him that he might never walk again, and his wrestling career was over. Undaunted, Race endured grueling physical therapy for several months and made a full recovery. He returned to the ring in 1964, wrestling for the Funks' Amarillo, Texas territory. This time, he wrestled under his own name, after his father told him that he shouldn't work to make anyone else's name famous. Race never used a different ring name again.
In Amarillo, Race met fellow up-and-coming wrestler Larry Hennig (later Larry "The Axe" Hennig and father of "Mr Perfect" Curt Hennig). The two formed a tag team and moved to the American Wrestling Association.
In the AWA, Race and Hennig branded themselves as "Handsome" Harley Race (which was actually a moniker given to him by fans in Japan) and "Pretty Boy" Larry Hennig, a cocky heel tag team with a penchant for breaking the rules to win matches. They quickly became top contenders, and in January 1965, they defeated Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher to capture the AWA World Tag Team Championship. Race and Hennig continued to feud with the Bruiser and Crusher and other top teams for the next several years, amassing four title reigns. Verne Gagne, in particular, was a hated rival of the team, and recruited many different partners to try to defeat Race and Hennig during their AWA run. Despite his tag team success, Race left the AWA after several years at the top of the division to pursue a singles career in the NWA.
Race returned to the AWA in 1984 to wrestle Curt Hennig. The confrontation was fueled by Larry Hennig confronting his former tag team partner at the end of the match. Race would also wrestle former AWA World Champion Rick Martel at part of WrestleRock '86. Toward the end of his in-ring career, he would challenge Larry Zbyszko for the AWA World title in October 1990 in the main event of an AWA broadcast on ESPN. However, all of these matches were basically just special appearances.
NWA singles career
Race jumped from territory to territory in the early 1970s, renewing his rivalry with Terry Funk in Amarillo and winning a regional title. He was seen as a gifted territorial wrestler, not quite ready for the worldwide spotlight, until 1973.
In 1973, Race faced NWA World Heavyweight Champion Dory Funk Jr. in Kansas City, Missouri. Race emerged from the battle as the new World Champion in a stunning upset. Though Race held the title for only a few months, losing it to Jack Brisco in Houston, Texas in July, he became a worldwide superstar and perennial championship contender.
Race was determined to eventually regain the NWA World Championship, often moving between territories and collecting several regional titles, including eight Central States Titles, seven Missouri Titles, the Georgia Heavyweight Championship, the Stampede North American Title in Canada, the Japan-based NWA United National and PWF Titles, and becoming the first-ever holder of the Mid-Atlantic U.S. Title, still defended today as the WWE United States Championship. This kept Race in contention for the World Championship, and Race vowed that he would only need one chance against the champion to regain it.
Race finally got his wish in 1977, facing familiar rival Terry Funk, who had become the champion since their previous encounters, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Race won the title by submission with the Indian Deathlock, a rarely used submission move but one that put great pressure on Funk's injured leg. The NWA World Champion once again, Race this time established his dominance, defending the title up to six times a week and holding it for four years (excluding extremely short reigns by Tommy Rich, Dusty Rhodes, and Giant Baba). At the time, the NWA, AWA and WWF were on good terms, and Race engaged in title vs. title matches with WWF Champions "Superstar" Billy Graham and Bob Backlund, as well as AWA World Champion Nick Bockwinkel. Race toured extensively all over the country and the world, including many stints in Japan, where he was already well known from his visits with Larry Hennig.
Race lost the title to Dusty Rhodes in 1981, and despite many attempts, could not regain it from the popular fan favorite. Rhodes lost the title to up-and-coming star Ric Flair, though, and Race was able to defeat Flair in St. Louis in 1983 for his seventh reign as champion, breaking the record previously held by Lou Thesz. What followed was one of the classic angles of the 80s, which led to the first-ever NWA Starrcade event.
Determined not to lose the title again, Race offered a $25,000 bounty to anyone who could eliminate Flair from the NWA. Bob Orton, Jr. and Dick Slater attacked Flair, inflicting what appeared to be a career-ending neck injury, and collecting the bounty from Race after Flair announced his retirement. However, Flair's retirement was a ruse, and he eventually returned to action, much to Race's surprise. NWA officials set up a championship rematch, to be titled "NWA Starrcade: A Flair for the Gold". The match was to be held in Flair's backyard, Greensboro, North Carolina, which enraged Race. Race lost the title to Flair in the bloody and memorable Starrcade cage match (with Gene Kiniski as the special referee) in November, 1983. He would regain the NWA title for a short two-day reign in New Zealand in 1984 (a change not recognized by the NWA in the US until 1996, making Race an eight-time champion), but his loss to Flair at Starrcade was largely seen as the torch-passing from Race to Flair, who would go on to an unparalleled 20 reigns as World Heavyweight Champion (10 of those reigns as NWA World champion) and largely credits Race for igniting his legendary career.
Earlier in his career, Race became involved in the ownership side of wrestling, buying a portion of the Kansas City and later St. Louis territories. St. Louis was a stronghold of the NWA, and around this time in 1984, WWF owner Vincent K. McMahon began his invasion of NWA territories, including St. Louis, in his ambition to build a truly national wrestling promotion. Race was enraged, famously confronting Hulk Hogan at a WWF event in Kansas City. Race lost over $500,000 as an owner of the Kansas City territory, and despite his championship years being at an end and wishing to retire from active competition, was forced to rely on continuing to wrestle to make a living. He continued to travel in the US and abroad, and signed with McMahon's WWF in 1986.
Race entered the WWF managed by longtime friend Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, bleaching his hair blond and billing himself again as "Handsome" Harley Race. During a time when promotions did not recognize the existence of other promotions and the accomplishments a wrestler made there, WWF officials came up with a solution to recognize his wrestling pedigree by renaming the WWF Wrestling Classic to the King of the Ring tournament and making Race the eventual winner. After winning the 1986 King of the Ring tournament, however, he referred to himself as "King" Harley Race, coming to the ring in a royal crown and cape, to the ceremonial accompaniment of the classical music piece Great Gates of Kiev by Modest Mussorgsky. After winning a match, Harley would make his defeated opponent "bow and kneel" before him. Usually Bobby Heenan would assist the defeated opponent to "bow and kneel" by grabbing their hair and forcing them to bow before King Harley Race.
He participated in a notable feud with the Junkyard Dog, culminating in a match at WrestleMania III at the Pontiac Silverdome. He would spend 1987 feuding with Hulk Hogan and Hacksaw Jim Duggan, the latter of which highlighted by an extended brawl at the 1987 Slammy Awards. In early 1988, he suffered an abdominal injury in a match against Hogan in which he tried to hit Hogan, prone on a table at ringside, with a swandive headbutt. Hogan moved out of the way and Race impacted the table inwards. The metal edge forced its way up into Race's abdomen giving him a hernia. Following this incident and during his recovery, the WWF ran an angle where they claimed Race had died and would show vignettes of him looking down from heaven. He left the WWF in early 1989, following a brief comeback from hernia surgery and a failed attempt to regain his crown from the new "king," Haku, at the Royal Rumble). While Race never won the WWF Championship (at the time dominated by Hulk Hogan), his career was notable enough to earn him an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004. He continued to wrestle until the Spring of 1991, most notably with WWC in Puerto Rico, the NWA, and the AWA. After retiring from competition, Race joined the NWA (WCW) in July 1991 as an adviser/manager to Lex Luger.
Race excelled as a manager as he had as a wrestler, immediately leading Lex Luger to the WCW World Heavyweight Championship. Later, he led Vader to win the title as well. During his managership of Vader, Race met with racial controversy when Vader was feuding with WCW wrestler Ron Simmons when saying during a promo, "When I was World Champion, I had a boy like you to carry my bags!" This was actually part of the booking strategy of then-WCW head Bill Watts to build support for Simmons, who he would eventually make champion. The wily veteran was popular among the young WCW talent, and developed close friendships with Mick Foley and Steve Austin, among others. However, as his early wrestling career had been nearly derailed due to a car accident, another car accident forced Race out of the wrestling business altogether. Race required hip replacement surgery, which, along with injuries accumulated after years in the ring, prevented him from even being a manager.
Retirement and World League Wrestling
Race spent several years away from the business, working briefly as a process server before retiring with his wife in small-town Missouri.
In 1998 another individual named Harley Race committed suicide. The news led to reports on Internet wrestling sites that Race the wrestler had taken his own life.
In 1999 he started World League Wrestling (Originally called World Legion Wrestling, but changed a year later), an independent promotion which runs shows near Race's hometown of Eldon, Missouri and other cities in Missouri including Kansas City. A year later, he started Harley Race's Wrestling Academy, which seeks to train up-and-coming wrestlers who will benefit from Race's unique experience and perspective on the wrestling business. Race's events are family oriented, and usually raise funds for local charities. As well as featuring his students, legends like Mick Foley, Terry Funk, Bret Hart, and even Mitsuharu Misawa make guest appearances. WLW had a working agreement with Misawa's Japanese promotion, Pro Wrestling NOAH and had NOAH star Takeshi Morishima as a former heavyweight champion. He is credited with training former WWE world tag team champion Trevor Murdoch who was then known as Trevor Rhodes.
Harley was also famous for his barbeques, to which he invites current and former wrestlers and friends.
Harley's autobiography, King of the Ring: the Harley Race Story (ISBN 1-58261-818-6), became available in 2004.
Also in 2004, Harley Race was recruited to be a part of Total Nonstop Action Wrestling as a member of their NWA Championship Committee. Despite reportedly being an authority figure as a member of the committee, he never made any official decisions and only made the occasional on-screen appearance for the company.
Race appeared at TNA Lockdown on April 15, 2007 at the Family Arena in Saint Charles, Missouri and was the "special ringside enforcer" for the Team Angle VS Team Cage main event.
Race made a one-time only return to the now renamed WWE shortly after being inducted into their Hall of Fame. On an episode of RAW, Randy Orton confronted Race and spit in his face, to go with Randy's "Legend Killer" persona. Race returned again for RAW's WWE Homecoming episode, marking the show's return to the USA Network. Race, along with the other legends who were in the ring, gave Rob Conway a lesson in respect.
- Finishing and signature moves
- In his autobiography, he responds to Hulk Hogan's claim of trying to set a WWE ring on fire. He just walked up to the ring (with a gun tucked in his pants) and back. He says he doesn't know where Hogan got such an idea.
- Was left-handed.
- Was the unseen "booker" in he controversial NBC TV special, Exposed! Pro Wrestling's Greatest Secrets.
Championships and accomplishments
- PWF Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
- IWA World Tag Team Championship (1 time) - with Larry Hennig
- NWA United National Championship (1 time)
- NWA United States Heavyweight Championship (Mid-Atlantic version) (1 time) (First champion)
- NWA Central States Heavyweight Championship (9 times)
- NWA Florida Southern Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
- NWA Florida Tag Team Championship (3 times) - with Roger Kirby (2) and Bob Roop (1)
- NWA Georgia Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
- NWA Mid-America Heavyweight Championship (3 times)
- NWA Missouri Heavyweight Championship (7 times)
- PWI Match of the Year in 1973 – vs. Dory Funk, Jr. (May 24, 1973)
- PWI Match of the Year in 1979 – vs. Dusty Rhodes (August 21, 1979)
- PWI Wrestler of the Year in 1979
- PWI Match of the Year in 1983 – vs. Ric Flair (June 10, 1983)
- PWI Wrestler of the Year in 1983
- PWI ranked him # 8 of the 500 best singles wrestlers during the "PWI Years" in 2003.
- Stanley Weston Award in 2006
- The Ring Chronicle
- Ring Chronicle Hall of Fame (Class of 1994)
- Stampede North American Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
- Member of Stampede Wrestling Hall of Fame
- World Wrestling Association (Indianapolis)
- WWA World Heavyweight Championship (1 time)