Going into Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring episode titled “The Life and Legends of Harley Race”, I found myself really curious about what new and interesting could possibly be revealed about “The Greatest Wrestler on God’s Green Earth.”

Harley Race, who died in 2019, was a man celebrated for decades, someone who was always happy to talk about wrestling — times I cherish, and I know others did too. He had that slow cadence, talked with importance and emphasis, just the same as he did in his many promos for the years. Harley had won every award there was, had been inducted into every Hall of Fame, had written a book, done shoot interviews.

So what was new?

Some truly amazing family stories, photos and home movies, perhaps the best score yet by the people behind the Dark Side of the Ring series.

And hearing from ex-wife Evonna Hedbávný Race, and their son, Justin, who both added so much to the episode.

Setting aside the “dark side” aspect of things, this was really a quick run through the life and times of Harley Race.

Nothing earthshaking here, as the stories have been passed around in wrestling lore for years and years:

  • as a teenager, he worked on a farm owned by legendary shooters Wladek and Stanislaus Zbyszko, and they stretched and trained him; he earned his first paycheck as a wrestler before he could legally drive
  • he was given the task of driving around the massive 700+ pound Happy Humphrey — and washing him down after the matches
  • his first wife was killed, pregnant with their child, at Christmas 1960, in a car accident
  • finding fame wrestling in a tag team with Larry Hennig (disappointingly, they never mentioned that the Crusher dubbed them “The Dolly Sisters”, one of the best nicknames for a heel team ever
  • he liked guns and had fired more than once
  • he turned down Vince McMahon’s attempt to buy him off and not drop the NWA World title to Ric Flair at Starrcade ’83
  • he once went into a WWF show in Kansas City, where he was a partner in the Central States promotion, with a gun, looking for Hulk Hogan, and, since he didn’t find him, set the ring on fire
  • after his eight NWA World title runs, he jumped to the WWF as “King” Harley Race
  • he was briefly a manager in WCW, helping along young Big Van Vader (Leon White) and Cactus Jack (Mick Foley)
  • Harley was the not-so-hidden major name on the NBC expose Exposed! Pro Wrestling’s Greatest Secrets
  • he set up a wrestling school with his wife BJ Race (no mention was made of their World League of Wrestling promotion)

Even the talking heads were familiar in Jim Cornette (“There’s probably nobody in the history of wrestling that gave more of themselves physically, and their effort, and their determination, and their credibility than Harley Race did.), Jerry Brisco (Harley was a “bad ass heel”), and Mick Foley.

A childhood friend, Danny Keever, and famed wrestler/trainer and fellow gun enthusiast Eddie Sharkey were both there briefly, but if they hadn’t have been, it wouldn’t have interfered with the storyline.

Trevor Murdoch, who was trained by Harley, was the fresh “new” face and spoke with reverence, respect and love about Harley.

With so much familiar ground, it’s time to celebrate the new.

Getting his wife of 24 years to recount their lives together was terrific. She had been a flight attendant when he courted her, and she said her father didn’t want her to date Harley. “I always knew I would marry an athlete, but I didn’t know I’d be marrying into wrestling,” Hedbávný Race said.

One of the many rare Harley Race photos in Dark Side of the Ring.

One of the many rare Harley Race photos in Dark Side of the Ring.

As great as the wedding photos were, there was just so much amazing vintage video, whether it was them goofing around for the camera, or on tour in Japan. Seeing random people at a gas station trying on the NWA World title was mind-blowing.

“It was fun being with him,” said Hedbávný Race.

Until it wasn’t.

There as a build to the revelations of spousal abuse (“rough with me at times”), the letters that she found from other women addressed to Harley.

“I was stuck, I was afraid,” she said, saying that he had threatened that he’d get rid of her if they ever separated. Today, she regrets not going to the authorities.

Instead, it was an ugly divorce. The Kansas City media compared the movie War of the Roses to the War of the Races.

Justin Race, caught in between, was a calm talking head in this. When his father got hurt in the WWF, wrestling Hulk Hogan, puncturing his intestines when a table spot when wrong, it was Justin who found his father near death in his apartment. There was some vintage shoot interviews with Harley, including the matter of fact recollection, “My gut blew apart and they rushed me to the hospital and said, ‘If we can’t get this shut down, that’s it.'” There were multiple surgeries, and 300-400 stitches inside of his body.

How tough was Harley Race? He still returned to wrestling, albeit not on such a major scale.

Another accident, this one while Harley was drunk at night, driving a boat and apparently hitting an unlit boat in the middle of a lake, resulted in an arrest and a lawsuit.

Shades of Tony Soprano hiding it from his crew, but Hedbávný Race noted that she called Harley’s psychiatrist after the accident, and that was who told her it was time to leave the marriage. Harley Race saw a shrink? Imagine what they talked about!

This episode should be required viewing for any pro wrestler today, if only because, as Foley said, the things Race did in the ring are still being done today.

But we’ll leave the last words to Cornette, who was more of a narrator, carrying the story along, than the actual narrator, Chris Jericho.

“In a land of tough guys, he was considered the king tough guy,” said Cornette.

TOP PHOTO: Harley Race competing at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Photo by John Arezzi