He was the Greatest Wrestler on God’s Green Earth. He was Handsome. He was Mad Dog. He was the King. He was Harley Race, and now he’s gone at age 76, from a myriad of health issues through the years, including lung cancer.
His official Twitter account, run by the same people who take care of his training facility and wrestling promotion, World League Wrestling, confirmed the news on August 1, 2019. “Today at 12:50, we lost the man that fought up until the very last of his existence. More information will be released soon, but just know that he loved pro-wrestling and the fans that loved him.”
Race wasn’t the biggest, nor the smoothest, nor the most technical, but when you talk about the toughest and most believable wrestlers in history, his name will always come up.
Ric Flair once called Race “the toughest man on the planet.”
Then there were Race’s eight reigns as NWA World champion.
That meant that on eight different occasions, he had wrestling’s greatest heat-getter in his possession. “Ninety per cent of the places that you went, you went in there, anyone who booked you always wanted their fans to cheer their local guy. Whether you’re a heel or a babyface fan, you want to see that title change hands in front of you,” said Race in The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels. “I just let the title be the biggest part of the heel.”
That’s not to say that Race couldn’t be a heel in his own right, with dastardly tricks and mean stomps to his opponents. He could. Race was as tough as they came, and the fans recognized that. Their hero would have to go through hell to take that gold from his waist.
Race doesn’t believe that he ever really studied the art of being a heel. “With me, it just came kind of natural. In the making of a good heel, you’ve got to be where you respond to the people, you acknowledge the people; you treat your opponent and referee in the same fashion, and then have the moves and the technique to pull it off.”
Of course, few others can say that they worked on the farm of former world champion Stanislaus Zbyszko, and his brother Wladek, as a teen, and then that they helped bathe the massively obese, 700-pound gimmick wrestler Happy Humphrey. But those are only part of Harley Leland Race’s credentials.
Some others: Born April, 11, 1943, in Maryville, Mo.; kicked out of high school at 15, he stayed on the family farm until he got up the moxie to approach Gust Karras for a spot on his wrestling show in a traveling carnival; old pros like Buddy Austin, Ray Gordon and Bobby Graham got him ready for pro wrestling; he debuted at age 16, and began driving Humphrey around before landing a role as John Long’s tag team partner (Harley was Jack Long); he also survived a car crash that killed his new bride Christmas night 1961 and kept him on the shelf for 21 months.
The first major spot for the 6-foot, 238-pound Race came in the AWA, where he was “Handsome” alongside “Pretty Boy” Larry Hennig, whom he had met in Texas. “Harley came in here as just a young kid to Minnesota. Harley’s about seven or eight years younger than I am,” said Hennig. “Harley came to Minnesota and wrestled on TV. They just threw us in one day together and all of a sudden, it was unbelievable. We were a good team because we didn’t do the same things. I was more surface transportation and he was more air express. It worked out real good for us.”
The pairing ran from 1964 to 1969, and it was beer-drinkin’, gravely-voiced folk hero, The Crusher (Reggie Lisowski), that nicknamed them the Dolly Sisters.
Initially, the team took on an effeminate air with the mannerisms, tights, and affectations of pretty boys. “The Dolly Sisters aren’t even good amateurs. Larry Hennig can’t drink beer worth anything, and Harley Race goes to a hairdresser. What kind of men would do that?” The Crusher asked in a 1967 interview.
In fact, they were just the opposite of the way rivals Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher portrayed them. Eddie Sharkey recalled an incident in Denver when fans piled onto Race and one maniac bit the wrestler’s finger. Race responded with a real life eye gouge, Sharkey said. “He could be a street fighter when he needed to be,” Sharkey said.
“I worked with Harley Race and Larry Hennig probably close to a thousand times. They were great,” an admiring Rene Goulet said. “When they were getting the heat on you, the people believed it. But you had to work good with them too.”
It was in the AWA that Race’s star began to rise, and he became respected as one of the best bump-takers in the business — his diving headbutt can still be pictured in the mind’s eye. His reputation as a tough guy lives on as well, and not just with the homemade tattoos on his arms. “Harley could whip just about anybody. Boy, we had some pretty good fights out on the street there and never lost,” said Sharkey. “[AWA promoter] Verne [Gagne] never really cared if you got in a fight. If you lost, you were out. As long as you won, it was fine.”
Race bought into the Kansas City promotion in 1970, in part to start a family, it didn’t stop his combative ways. “For years, we challenged everybody,” recalled Roger Kirby, who was Central States and Florida tag champ with Harley — now dubbed “Mad Dog” Race. “We never backed down from anybody, truck drivers, anybody, weightlifters. Anybody who wanted to challenge us in the ring, if you could beat us in 10 minutes, we’d give you $1,000. Neither one was ever beaten, and this went on for 10 or 15 years. But Harley was tough. Marks are unbelievably stupid.”
Race also had the respect of his peers as a booker, which included stints in Amarillo, Florida, Atlanta and in Kansas City and St. Louis, where he was hands on when he was there, and still involved when he was on the road. He kept all his old booking records. “I’ve got them here in my desk. They go back to the late ’70s through the ’80s when I hooked up with Vince [McMahon of WWF],” said Race years ago.
The added responsibility behind the scenes was welcomed by Race, who enjoyed the challenge of making new stars. “I always kept myself in a position of power that if something happened, or somebody left, I could step back in and take over,” he explained. “It’s always easier, and you can keep your heat a lot longer, if occasionally you go out there and work with a young talent that you’re trying to get over anyhow. You can make that talent and keep your heat at the time, and then you’re just putting somebody else in line that can draw money for you.”
Attention to detail is what Rick Martel remembers about Race. “Everything’s paced with Harley, it was always about the technicality of the moves, how he was doing those moves. That was important to him. Everything had to be precise, how he landed — when he landed the bump, everything would hit at the same time. The co-ordination this guy had was unreal.”
Some memories stick around. “Harley was such a great heel. On TV in El Paso, he took a brick. He kept hitting himself in the head with a brick and he got a hard way with it. That was real. He was busting himself open, live on camera,” recalled Tom Prichard. “He was crazy. He’s a beer drinking, whiskey drinking, smoking, filthy, dirty rotten son of a gun. In real life. He’s really not, but he is.”
His first NWA World title reign is still his sweetest memory from the business, though he held other prestigious belts, including the PWF World title in Japan, and the Missouri State and Central States belts on many occasions. Working earlier with the Funks in Amarillo meant that he had their trust, so that when the NWA decided to take the title from Dory Funk Jr. and get it to Jack Brisco, and the Funks balked, Race was the interim champion. What few counted on was that he would be back again and again and again as champion.
His partner in the Heart of America promotion, Bob Geigel, credited Race’s longevity to good health and the ability to fit where he was needed. “He talked like wrestling fans understood him,” said Geigel years ago. “He could change his style with the different wrestlers in the ring. You knew that if he went someplace to work as a heel, he could work as a heel, he could work as a babyface, it didn’t make any difference.”
In late 1985, having turned over the NWA World title for the final time to Ric Flair, Race told his partners in the Kansas City promotion that he was done, and was jumping to the WWF. It was a shocking move to many traditionalists, who saw the growing WWF as a cartoonish fad that insulted the history of wrestling.
Soon after his arrival, the company decided to make Race their “King” in the second King of the Ring tournament. Race saw the title as his transformation from hated heel to beloved elder statesman. “I hated it. I was always my own man, and I didn’t care for the glitz, I was just Harley Race,” he said. Given Bobby Heenan as a manager meant automatic heat anyway, though Race admits that the WWF style of fan hatred was different than what he was used to. “Well, it was a cheaper type heat,” he said. “I didn’t change my style, I was just a little more cockier at doing it.” After runs against Hacksaw Duggan, Hulk Hogan and Junkyard Dog, Race left in 1988, competing even after hospitalization for peritonitis.
He would resurface in WCW in 1991 as a manager, and took two more men — Lex Luger and Vader — to the world championship. An auto accident in 1995 derailed his career. It took a few years to recover and decide what he wanted to do with his life. He let his body heal, then tried bounty hunting.
With his third wife, Beverly “B.J.,” whom he met in 1990, Race opened up the Harley Race Wrestling Academy and World League Wrestling, based out of Eldon, Missouri, beginning in 1999.
Of course, “Handsome” Harley taught the art of being a good and bad guy. “There’s an art to being either one of them, and if you learn them both, that’s the best of both worlds,” he said. “It’s much easier if you start right at the beginning when you’ve got them. Then as you bring them up and you start testing them, I’ve got a couple of kids now where I’m in the process now of one night or one weekend, they’re going to be a heel. The following weekend, I’m going to put them with somebody and they’re going to be the babyface. I want them to learn both ways.”
The late Kansas City announcer Bill Kersten knew Race before he ever became a wrestler. “He was successful because he was a great worker, and a business person,” Kersten said. “Harley was always looking on the positive side of his profession and he was always looking for something better. He has found that now, with the WLW and getting young folks, men and women, interested in the profession.”
B.J. Race handled a ton of the business end of WLW, and used an email address with “WLWMom” in it, and the Cauliflower Alley Club presented her with a special award in 2009. She died October 9, 2009. “She was the most wonderful woman in the world,” said Race in an interview for his wife’s local newspaper obit.
At her funeral, Race used a walker to get around. Over the subsequent years, fans got used to seeing him with a mobility device at various appearances. He may have moved slower than before, but his mind was still sharp, and his voice, growly and the words carefully measured for impact, was the same.
Race faced a ton of health challenges in recent years, including lung cancer and breaking both legs in a fall in the spring of 2017.
Over the last two decades, few have had more honors bestowed upon themselves than Race. He has been inducted to the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (Class of 2004), the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (2005), the WWE Hall of Fame (2004), and, topping it all off, the Cauliflower Alley Club’s Iron Mike Mazurki Award in June 2006. “Like I said with every award that I’ve gotten, it’s always fabulous when a group of your peers honor you for anything. The Iron Mike Award, I guess as far as awards are concerned, would be the highest in wrestling. Of course it makes you feel good.”