The bell has rung on the life of one of the greatest wrestlers ever to step into the squared circle. At 12:50 pm on the 1st of August, Harley Race lost his battle against lung cancer. Tributes have been pouring in all over social media from fans and wrestlers alike, a testament to the great affection Harley was held in by everyone who knew of him. He was a great raconteur, his stories legendary (my personal favorite involving Hulk Hogan and a gun).
Making his pro debut in 1960, he traveled around Nashville and Texas making his name known, and arrived in Verne Gagne’s AWA in 1965, teaming with “Pretty Boy” Larry Henning to become one of the top heel tag teams in the territory. They held the AWA tag team titles on three occasions.
Making his way across the NWA, Race truly made his name with hard-hitting, bruising feuds with the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Jack Brisco, and Terry Funk, while he won the first of an astonishing eight NWA heavyweight championships from Terry’s brother Dory Funk Jr in 1973.
Over the next ten years, he would dominate the NWA, holding the world heavyweight title a further seven times and beating top contender after top contender. He even engaged in title vs. title matches with the WWE (then WWF) champion Bob Backlund and AWA heavyweight champion Nick Bockwinkel, a rare occurrence at the time and considered a real honor.
In 1983, he passed the torch on by engaging in an ultra heated feud with all-time great ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair, offering a bounty of $25,000 to anyone who could put Flair out of action for good. They settled the score by main eventing the first Starrcade mega event, which was to become one of the industry’s major shows. Flair beat Race in a bloody and tense steel cage match, officially ushering in the era of the ‘Nature Boy.’ But it wouldn’t have happened if Race hadn’t made Flair look like a million bucks.
Known as the man in a man’s sport, Harley Race was the real deal. To step into the ring, you knew he could handle himself in the ring and on the outside. You wouldn’t make the mistake of pissing him off if you could help it. It was this rugged, authentic attitude that won him the love of the fans and the respect of the locker room.
In later years he was a manager, successfully representing two WCW heavyweight champions (one of them, Big Van Vader, is considered one of the all-time greats). He also ran his own promotion, World League Wrestling.
Thank you, Harley. You were, and always will remain, the real deal and one of the all-time greats.