Steve Cook, an old school fan at heart, shares his thoughts on one of the greatest of all time, the late, great, Harley Race.
I’ve spent the last few days reading stories about the late Harley Race from people that knew him. Through his wrestling, promoting & training careers, Race touched a vast amount of lives throughout the American Midwest and the world. Personally, I never met the man.
While I’m well aware of his accomplishments & standing within the industry, I’ve never seen the vast majority of the work that made him famous. Its not like there’s a ton of surviving footage of his tag team with Larry Hennig, or for that matter, most of his work before the 1980s. From most accounts, the man wearing a crown & cape while calling himself King in the WWF was a shell of his former self. Those who were around at the time were surprised that Race even ended up there.
Reading stories about Race’s life seem like reading Chuck Norris Facts, except that most of these things probably actually happened. Race’s career nearly ended years before he achieved stardom as NWA Champion. He was involved in a car accident that led to the death of his wife & the near-amputation of his leg. Polio couldn’t beat him. One of his first jobs in the business was driving 800 pound Happy Humphrey from town to town. He was the ultimate traveling champion, perfect to represent the NWA because nobody could beat him in a shoot.
Race commanded a large amount of respect from other wrestlers during his career, and wrestlers that came afterward learned to respect him as an elder statesman. Every time a major promotion came through Kansas City, ol’ Harley had a big barbecue & everybody was invited. Word on the street is that CM Punk even took a shot of alcohol one time at the behest of Harley Race. I mean, that’s what Bruce Prichard said, so it must be true.
I was surprised to learn that Race was only 76 years old when he passed. I would have pegged him in his 60s when he was managing Big Van Vader in 1992. The man always looked & sounded grizzled. It gave him an extra air of wisdom in my young eyes. Having watched Race take on Ric Flair on multiple occasions, I never would have guessed they were within six years of age. Flair looking up to Race like the father he never had would also made me think they were at least twenty years apart.
Harley Race was the man that came up with the idea to dive head-first onto an opponent. Later on, after suffering injuries due in part to doing that move every single night, he wished that he hadn’t, and he warned others not to do it. Dynamite Kid didn’t listen. Chris Benoit didn’t listen. Daniel Bryan didn’t listen. There were others, of course, but those three immediately come to mind, and all three men suffered neck injuries that were career-threatening. People will insist that sort of a thing is a coincidence, but I can’t help but think that diving head-first onto somebody with minimal protection night after night might cause some issues. Maybe.
For an old school kind of guy that promoted basic wrestling for the last two decades of his life, Race was considered one of the daredevils of his time. He was willing to take risks to help put his opponents over–like going through a table in the video above against Hulk Hogan. For being such a tough guy, he wasn’t afraid to play the clown if that’s what it took. Race’s character traits in the ring were often contradictory to his reputation outside of it.
To me, Harley Race is less of an actual person than an ideal of what a pro wrestling champion should be. A champion should be tough. They should be able to handle anybody daring to question the legitimacy of the craft. Any wrestler should value their promotion’s main championship more than anything, including life itself. They should take a less than serious business very seriously. They should be supremely talented in the ring & on the microphone.
Back in Race’s day, the NWA World Heavyweight Championship was the biggest prize in the game. There was no argument about this. There weren’t periods like you see now where titles are rendered meaningless. Almost everybody promoting wrestling on a major level agreed that the NWA World Heavyweight Champion was the top dog in the industry, holding the richest prize a wrestler could hope to obtain.
The promo below illustrates how most of us fans with an old school mentality want our champions to present themselves:
I mean, that’s a ridiculous outfit that dates the interview, but Harley Race could get away with wearing that.
Harley Race was a symbol of what professional wrestling used to be. We’re running out of people that can remember what things were like before the days of sports entertainment. The days when the phrase “blood & guts” wasn’t meant as an insult. Fortunately, Harley influenced so many people within the business that those old school values he personified won’t go away.
Old school might be dying off, wrestler by wrestler, but it’ll never rest in peace.