WWE is saddened to learn that WWE Hall of Famer Harley Race passed away today at age 76 due to complications from lung cancer.
Harley Race captured the NWA World Heavyweight Championship eight times. To this day, only a handful of Superstars can claim to have won more World Heavyweight Championships than Race. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Race was the National Wrestling Alliance’s most dominant champion, winning the sport’s oldest World Heavyweight Championship from the likes of Dory Funk Jr., Giant Baba, Terry Funk, Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair.
The tough-as-nails Race was so universally respected that WWE, despite having seceded from the NWA and having its own World Heavyweight Champion, chose to recognize Race’s title status as well. As a result, Race was the first NWA Champion to engage in title unification matchups against WWE Champions like “Superstar” Billy Graham and Bob Backlund. The relationship soured when Vince Snr, an NWA board member and old friend passed away and his son, hell bent on national expansion took his place. Harley, who was the promoter of Saint Louis at the time took to the changes with his usual vigour and tried intimidation tactics against WWF personnel and vandalised their equipment but when it was clear that Vince Jnr had the war won, Harley acquiesced and Muhammad moved to the mountain.
In what seemed unthinkable at the time, Race, one of the NWA’s most influential figures of all time, joined WWE in 1986 during the company’s national expansion. After winning the King of the Ring tournament, Race was the first to don regal robes and a crown. “King” Harley Race was managed by Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and was introduced to a new generation of fans. Race battled all of WWE’s top heroes and pinned Junkyard Dog at WrestleMania III in front of a record-setting attendance of 93,000 fans.
WWE extends its condolences to Race’s family, friends and fans.
The worldwide world of wrestling is grieving one of its Legends, whatever the promotion or the country, whoever the wrestler. Harley Race was not only a WWE Hall of Famer, like the company’s eulogy says, but he has been an example for generations of wrestlers and fans all over the world. For nearly 4 decades, Race had wrestled for AWA, NWA, All Japan Pro Wrestling, WWE and WCW. His final high profile roles were presenting the NWA Title to Satoshi Kojima at Wrestle Kingdom eight and being named the GHC President the following night for NOAH. He was an innovator, a fighter, a trainer, a promoter, and mostly a source of inspiration for generations of wrestling fans.
Race was an early fan of professional wrestling, watching programming from the nearby Chicago territory on the DuMont Network. He began training as a professional wrestler as a teen under former world champions Stanislaus and Wladek Zbyszko, who operated a farm in his native Missouri. In 1960, Race was recruited by St. Joseph wrestling promoter Gust Karras who hired Race to do odd jobs for his promotion, including chauffeuring the 800 lb (360 kg) Humphrey.
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 ring name of Jack Long, forming a tag team with storyline brother John Long. The duo quickly captured the Southern Tag Team Championship. Race was seen as a rising star in the business until a car accident put him out of action, with his leg coming close to being amputated. Karras heard about his employee’s condition, went rushing into the hospital, and blocked the planned amputation, declaring it “over my dead body”. In doing so, he saved Race’s leg.
Although he recovered, doctors told Race that he might never walk again, and his wrestling career was over. Undaunted, Race endured gruelling physical therapy for several months and made a full recovery. Race next went on to face Jack Pfefer and Tony Santos in the Boston territory as the Great Mortimer in 1963. He returned to the ring in 1964, wrestling for the Funks’ Amarillo, Texas, territory. This time, he wrestled as Harley Race, after his father told him that he should not work to make anyone else’s name famous. Race never again used a different ring name. 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 (AWA).
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 (villain) 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 three title reigns.
Race jumped from territory to territory in the early 1970s. He was seen as a gifted territorial wrestler, not quite ready for the worldwide spotlight, until 1973. As a singles wrestler, he held the NWA Missouri Heavyweight Championship as well as the Mid-Atlantic version of the NWA United States Heavyweight Championship. He also started what would be many tours to Japan where he faced Giant Baba. Forming a friendship that would last throughout their lives.
Race was determined to eventually regain the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, often moving between territories and collecting several regional titles, including eight Central States Heavyweight Championship, and becoming the first-ever holder of the Mid-Atlantic United States Heavyweight Championship, still defended today as the WWE United States Championship. This kept Race in contention for the NWA World Heavyweight 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. The NWA World Heavyweight Champion once again, Race this time established his dominance, defending the title up to six times a week and holding it for almost five years, excluding extremely short reigns by Tommy Rich, Dusty Rhodes, and Giant Baba. Race feuded with many of the legends of the NWA including Dory Funk, Dusty Rhodes, Dick the Bruiser, Pat Patterson and Angelo Poffo.
In 1978, he had a series of violent matches throughout the Midwest with the Sheik, culminating in a bloody “2×4 with a nail in it” match in front of 12,313 at Cobo Hall. The NWA, AWA and WWF were on good terms, and Race engaged in a title versus title matches with WWF Heavyweight Champions Superstar Billy Graham and Bob Backlund, as well as AWA World Heavyweight Champion Nick Bockwinkel. Race toured extensively all over the country and the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and many stints in Japan, where he was already well-known from his visits with Larry Hennig. On October 13, 1978, Harley Race even body slammed André the Giant, way before Hogan did.
His friendship with Giant Baba would lead to Baba’s NWA World Title reigns which where decided over dinner the night before rather than through the usual method of a NWA Board meeting. Harley had discretion to do what he wished, he was that trusted, and he knew dropping the title to Baba would give his friend the edge in his war with New Japan and support the market for the NWA. Race would drop the title at the start of his summer tour in ’79 and pick it up on the way home. An idea that worked so well they repeated the feat the following October.
Race, after many victories over many years over Rhodes and other great wrestlers, lost the title to Dusty Rhodes in 1981. Rhodes lost the title to Ric Flair, though 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. In the 1980s, he would feud with Flair, losing the championship in a bloody and memorable Starrcade steel cage match. His loss to Flair at Starrcade was largely seen as the torch-passing from Race to Flair. Flair would go on to credit Race for igniting his career. Later, Race left the NWA.
In May 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. He quickly won the King of the Ring tournament. After this, he referred to himself as “King” Harley Race, coming to the ring in a royal crown and cape, with a ceremonial accompaniment. 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, in which Race cleanly pinned The Junkyard Dog after a textbook belly-to-belly suplex. As per the stipulations of the match, the JYD was required to bow to Race as the winner, but after he bowed and Race got up, JYD grabbed the chair he was sitting on and attacked Race before leaving with The King’s cape to a standing ovation. Race would later feud with Jim Duggan and Hulk Hogan but, in early 1988, he suffered an abdominal injury which forced him to leave the WWF in early 1989, following a brief comeback from hernia surgery and an attempt to regain his crown from the new King, Haku, at the Royal Rumble.
After leaving the WWF, Harley continued to wrestle until the spring of 1991, most notably with World Wrestling Council (WWC) in Puerto Rico, Stampede Wrestling in Calgary, Alberta, the NWA, and the AWA. Race made his return to WCW at The Great American Bash on July 7, 1990, when he defeated former NWA World Heavyweight Champion Tommy Rich. He received several US Heavyweight Championship title shots against then-champion Lex Luger. But during a house show match in St. Joseph, Missouri on December 7, 1990, he sustained a shoulder injury and would ultimately retire from active competition.
Race made his first subsequent appearance six months later as a guest referee during a house show on June 14, 1991, in St. Louis, Missouri. Race returned at 1991 The Great American Bash to become the adviser/manager to Lex Luger. Excelling as a manager as he had as a wrestler, he immediately led Luger to the WCW World Heavyweight Championship. He managed Luger throughout his title run. In 1992, Race began to add other wrestlers to a stable that would include Big Van Vader, Super Invader and Vinnie Vegas (Kevin Nash). The stable was short-lived, and after Vader defeated Sting for the world championship on July 12, 1992, he became Race’s primary charge. The wily veteran was popular among the young WCW talent and developed close friendships with Mick Foley and Steve Austin, among others. On June 9, 1993, at a TV taping in Lake Charles, Louisiana, he began managing The Colossal Kongs, and on July 7, at WorldWide tapings in Orlando, Florida, Yoshi Kwan joined his stable.
Harley Race returned to the ring a final time on a trio of Florida house shows (November 26, 1993, in Davie, November 27 in Orlando, and November 28 in Jacksonville), when he substituted for an injured Vader to face Ric Flair. His former rival would come out victorious on each occasion. These would be the last wrestling matches of his career.
After losing the title at Starrcade in December 1993, Big Van Vader quickly became Race’s sole stable member again. Race continued to manage Vader in the following months in rematches against Flair, and on May 22, 1994, he was inducted into the WCW Hall of Fame during the Slamboree ’94 PPV. He continued to appear at Vader’s side through the rest of the year. As his early wrestling career had been nearly derailed due to a car accident, another car accident in January 1995 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. He would make a few independent appearances against another Nature Boy, Ric Flair but his body wouldn’t allow him to work anymore.
In 1999, he started World League Wrestling (originally called World Legion Wrestling, but the name was 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 could benefit from Race’s unique experience and perspective on the wrestling business.
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 Trevor Murdoch and NOAH veterans Superstar Steve, Brian Breaker, Jon Webb, Leland Race, Tommaso Ciampa, and Jack Gamble.
Yesterday, wrestling lost a part of its soul with Harley Race passing. RIP “The Greatest Wrestler on God’s Green Earth” Harley Race.
All pics and videos courtesy of WWE, @SethHanson1982 and Classics PuroReso