Harley Race, 76 years old and eight times the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, died Thursday from complications related to cancer. He was hardly a young man—he was 13 years older than Vader, the monster heel he managed in WCW—and had been dealing with health problems for the better part of the past decade and managed chronic injuries throughout his career, a medical history galling even inside the masochistic wrestling world. But Race’s greatest attribute, his legendary never-say-die toughness, had him beating the odds, the evens, the imaginary numbers, and the hapless jabronis who crossed his path for so long that the news of his death seems almost impossible to believe. And yet there we have it: The Missouri sharecropper’s son, the carnival wrestler whose ferocious headbutts cost plenty of rubes and marks their hard-earned pay, finally went down for the count.
It’s safe to say they won’t be making them like Harley Race anymore. In fact, they probably weren’t making too many of them even when the 15-year-old Race was toiling on the Missouri farm owned by Stanislaus and Wladek Zbyszko, two great grappling legends of the 1910s and 1920s. The brothers had won their share of shoot matches, and Stanislaus in particular knew a thing or two about winning the hard way, having wrestled noted world-beater the Great Gama to a draw and later using his amateur skills to steal the world wrestling title from college football star Wayne Munn in a match that was supposed to be worked but ended up legit. After Race performed the backbreaking manual labor that developed his great grip strength—strength that, years later, allegedly would allow him to defeat World’s Strongest Man Bill Kazmaier in a game of “mercy”—the Zbyszkos would put Race in submission holds. “They’d put me in one, and say: ‘Try to get out,’” Race wrote in his autobiography. “The more I tried, the more I wore myself out or hurt myself. The sight of me hobbling around their farm for days on end wasn’t uncommon.”
This resistance to punishment stood Race in good stead when he tried to catch on with Missouri wrestling promoter Gust Karras, who had a bunch of wrestlers try and fail to stretch the teenager. Karras realized that the 6-foot-1, 230-pound youngster had potential and put him to work in another throwback to wrestling’s hoary past—carnival exhibitions. Race would usually serve as the local kid who loses to the carnival shooter, but he also found himself “facing some legitimately tough old farmers who knew it was their chance of a lifetime to prove their mettle in public against a real wrestler—or as close to one as you can be at the age of 16.” If Race was defeated, the local got the money and Race didn’t, but if Race got disqualified, he kept the money. So whenever one of those “mean old bastards had [him] on the ropes for real,” Race would simply smash his head into their noses and earn his pay.
Karras also put Race to work in 1960 doing something he truly loved, but which would also cause him grievous harm throughout his life: driving. In exchange for five bucks a day, he was assigned to transport the 700-pound wrestling hayseed Happy Humphrey to his matches in a 1951 Pontiac that had been redesigned to accommodate the man’s vast bulk. Race would earn $25 whenever he refereed or wrestled on the undercard, usually against Humphrey in matches where he was expected to lose to the popular attraction, making Humphrey look like the kind of superman who could hold his own in superfights against the likes of 600-pound Haystacks Calhoun, another massive hayseed in the venerable and crowd-pleasing Man Mountain Dean tradition. Because Humphrey didn’t fit in most showers and could develop a strong odor if he wasn’t bathing regularly, Race would have the huge grappler lie naked on the floor, coat him with soap, scrub him with a mop, and then rinse him off with a garden hose.
But only a year later, while driving with his pregnant wife, Vivian Jones, Race was involved in a terrible accident when a tractor-trailer swerved into his lane to avoid a snowdrift. According to Race, both he and his wife were pronounced dead at the scene. Vivian and the baby she was carrying did die. Somehow, Race managed to survive but was told he would need to have his right leg amputated. Karras said he ran into the hospital and declared that the amputation would happen “over my dead body,” and a last-ditch operation by a specialist managed to save the leg, although Race was then told he’d never walk again, much less wrestle. He refused to accept that prognosis, and tried to bury the memories of his wife’s death by throwing himself into intense rehabilitation, ending up back on the road and in the ring with Happy Humphrey by late 1963.
Race also briefly used a stage name around this time, working as “Jack Long” in the Nashville area alongside a lookalike grapper who wrestled as John Long. He kept challenging fans to get in the ring with him, much as he had during his carnival days, and dispatching them with submission holds and headbutts before they could prove too much of a problem. But when he returned to Missouri, his father mentioned his name was already unique, certainly much better than “Jack Long,” and he went back to calling himself Harley Race. Even the man’s given name had a hard edge.
Race’s first big break came after he wrestled amateur standout Verne Gagne. Gagne recognized Race’s potential and brought him to his American Wrestling Association territory in Minneapolis and paired him with the lumbering Larry “the Axe” Hennig (father of Curt Hennig and grandfather of Curtis Axel), whom Race had become friends with on the Texas circuit. Hard as it is to believe now, with visions of their grizzled majesty in our memories, the then-20-something pair were billed as “Handsome” Harley Race and “Pretty Boy” Larry Hennig, and thrown into a money-making feud as the arrogant heels against the barrel-chested, cigar-chomping, punch-and-kick everyman team of Dick the Bruiser and the Crusher. Race, always precocious, was only 22 when he and Hennig won the titles from those perennial Midwestern favorites. They had a strong multiyear run, followed by another good run against ex-NFL player and future TV bit player Hard Boiled Haggerty.
Race’s home base was always the central states region, Kansas and Missouri, and after his successful run in the AWA ended, he spent the next several years working primarily around there, building a reputation as that region’s undisputed top singles star. He could wage bloody matches or technical ones, delivering both top-rope headbutts and impressively stable vertical suplexes. And when NWA champ Dory Funk Jr.—at the behest of his father—declined to drop the strap directly to Jack Brisco (who had jobbed to Dory Jr. early in his career), Harley was chosen to serve as the transitional champion between the two.
It would be a role Race would fulfill frequently throughout his time as the NWA’s frontman, with only four of his eight title reigns lasting more than 100 days (the NWA recognizes only seven of them, but Race claimed all eight). He got to take the strap for a second time in 1977, defeating longtime friend Terry Funk. This commenced his longest stretch with the belt, lasting 926 days and featuring untold numbers of 30- and 60-minute matches against area contenders. It would’ve lasted longer if he hadn’t dropped it for weeklong stretches to Dusty Rhodes in 1979, All Japan boss Giant Baba in 1979 and 1980, and Georgia heartthrob Tommy Rich in 1981. Take those interruptions out when Race was “doing business” to help vibrant markets and curry political favor—he was a tough-minded businessman too, always focused on the bottom line—and his reign would have checked in at around 1,500 days, about as long as Dory Funk Jr.’s run with the belt from 1969 to 1973.
Race’s last great run with the belt came in 1983, when he took the strap from Ric Flair and set up a climactic generational showdown at the first Starrcade closed-circuit supercard. In that steel-cage match, both men got bloodied, Flair showed off an arsenal of moves far more varied than the late-career “routine” for which Bret Hart mocked him in his autobiography, and Race stepped aside as the business’ top dog. (A later title change, in which Race beat Flair in New Zealand before losing the title back to Flair a few days later, was claimed by Race but not recognized by Flair.)
All of that is just nuts and bolts, though. During his time on top, Race came to represent everything larger-than-life about the last-gasp heyday of wrestling’s territorial era. He refused to drive less than 85 mph and preferred to drive with his headlights off at night, according to Ole Anderson and many others who had the pleasure of riding with him. He broke arms and wrists in arm-wrestling matches while smoking a cigarette or drinking a beer with his other arm. Flair, who called Race the “toughest man on the planet” in a 2017 interview, noted that “there was no better indoctrination into the business than driving more than 400 miles in a snowstorm across the Rocky Mountains with Harley Race and Ray Stevens passing around two quarts of Southern Comfort, with Harley gunning this old station wagon 100 miles an hour down these snowy, winding roads, and me heaving out the back window.” Harley Race, a man who had lost his wife and nearly his life in a car wreck, just could not slow down when it came to getting behind the wheel. Maybe he wanted to test his invincibility. Maybe he wanted to speed his way back to all that he lost that night. Maybe he just didn’t care.
As the territorial era waxed and then waned, Race saw his financial fortunes rise and fall, the way many other veterans did. He would hoard money by traveling cheaply on the road, only to lose vast sums when he suffered a major business reversal. He had plowed a lot of his earnings back into the NWA-affiliated Kansas City territory, and the expansion of the then-WWF in the early 1980s soon threatened his livelihood. And so in 1984, when the WWF came to town to run a show in Kansas City’s large Municipal Auditorium on the same night he was wrestling Flair in a smaller 3,000-person venue, Race allegedly drove across town to visit the competition. When he got to the Municipal Auditorium, in Race’s version of this tale, he walked backstage and slapped an unaware Hulk Hogan in the ribcage, badly stunning him. When Hogan—who was no slouch, having been trained to handle himself in Florida by Hiro Matsuda and Eddie Graham and who claims he choked out Verne Gagne when Gagne tried to shoot on him—turned to face Race, the always heavily armed former NWA champion was pointing a .38-caliber handgun at him. Hogan told a much stranger tale on Ric Flair’s podcast back in 2015, saying that he was on the toilet when Race arrived and came out without wiping after Race’s arrival had been announced, only to see Race holding a gun and threatening to blow his kneecaps off. Hogan then claimed Race said he wanted to work with him instead of injuring him, and Hogan facilitated Race’s later run in the WWF (Race says in his autobiography he reached out to Vince McMahon himself, needing money because his own territory was no longer viable).
Either way, it was this older, somewhat-reduced WWF version of Race that I and many other children of the 1980s first came to know. We never knew the golden original, only the older model that nearly every wrestling announcer insisted on reminding us was among the hardest men in the world. This “King” Harley Race, so dubbed on account of his winning the second King of the Ring, went over the Junkyard Dog cleanly at WrestleMania 3 and then, like ex-NWA champ Terry Funk before him, feuded around the circuit with Hulk Hogan in 1987 and 1988. Race was still in decent condition then, feeling ferociously strong after trying steroids for the first time (an admission made in his autobiography) and still working at a brisker pace than most WWF performers of that period. However, his run in the main-event picture came to a screeching halt after he attempted to headbutt Hogan while the Hulkster was laid out on a ringside table. That daring move, particularly so by the standards of that musclebound era, backfired when Hogan rolled to the side and Race’s abdomen caught the metal edge of the table, causing a terrible hernia.
Race rehabilitated from that injury as he had all the others, returning to wrestle a few WWF matches in 1989 that I don’t remember and some AWA matches against champion Larry Zbyszko in the waning days of that promotion that very few people likely watched. He also reappeared in WCW as an active wrestler, looking visibly older in a program against Tommy Rich that you can watch on the WWE Network (their surprisingly good 1990 Great American Bash match is on there). He was still hitting pretty crisp piledrivers and suplexes in spite of his purple singlet and granddad bod, but the Race who really stands out to me was the guy who donned a suit and cut gravelly-voiced promos for an evolving stable of heels that included Lex Luger, Vinnie Vegas (Kevin Nash doing one of his pre-Diesel characters), Super Invader (Hercules Hernandez under a mask), and, of course, Vader.
Although Luger’s time with Race coincided with him holding the WCW title, I mainly remember Race throwing top-rope headbutts in support of Vader and calling Ron Simmons a “boy” when head booker “Cowboy” Bill Watts was attempting to use the same playbook he’d employed when making a star out of the Junkyard Dog. Vader and Race went together almost as well as Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman, but once again Race’s run ended with a car wreck—this one in January 1995. The accident forced him into hip replacement surgery, and forever out of the limelight (save for occasional spots when he’d reappear on WWE TV to have someone like then–“Legend Killer” Randy Orton spit in his face).
Race retired to Eldon, Missouri, and launched a wrestling school and independent promotion, creating a pipeline of skilled workers like NXT star Tommaso Ciampa and his son Leland Race, sending some of his top students on Japanese tours through a working agreement with Mitsuharu Misawa’s Pro Wrestling NOAH promotion. Although his training helped launch many careers, the last decade of his life was one of pain and debilitation, the result of numerous surgeries to his neck, hips, knees, and vertebra. He suffered a bad fall in 2017, breaking both legs, and yet he carried on as he always had and seemingly always would.
But finally, yesterday, he didn’t, because he couldn’t. Harley Race, once the toughest man alive, now wasn’t. And it shocked me, the same way it did when my own hardman of a father died, because I had only ever seen both of them rage against the dying of the light hastened by their own carelessness and violence. With my father, I would look at clippings of his football heyday, wondering who this man had been. And with Race, I would turn to moments like that epic match against Flair at Starrcade and marvel at the fact that anyone had ever executed such menace and moved with what can only be described as a “methodical swagger,” because how could they? Race was 76 yet his roots reached a century deep into pro wrestling’s carny past. His legacy has the permanence of nature and the legend of his grit and strength seems to go back eons. We will never see his like again, and we should count ourselves lucky that we even got to see his like while he was still here.