Harley Race, one of the greatest in-ring performers of all-time, passed away today.
Race, 76, had been battling lung cancer. He took a turn for the worst recently when going to Knoxville for a wrestling convention.
Race is probably best known for his eight reigns as NWA World Heavyweight Champion between 1973 and 1984, the first being under very unique circumstances, as was the last.
Between 1977 and 1981, Race would have been generally considered the top pro wrestler in the industry on a worldwide basis due to his role as traveling World Champion. He went all over North America, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and even Mexico. He would have been the most-traveled World Champion in history.
He had a reputation as a fierce street fighter, which played a part in his being picked to beat Dory Funk Jr. for the title on May 24, 1973, in Kansas City. The NWA had trust issues with Funk Jr., who suffered a severe ranch accident just days before he was to lose the title to Jack Brisco.
The Funk family had immense respect for Race, and if they didn’t, the NWA felt confident Race, wrestling in his home market, would take care of any issues. Race at the time was only meant to be a transitional champion, to get the title to Brisco, who the NWA had been building as its new top star for years.
But Race did so well as a worker during his short run as champion in 1973 that he became an instant star in all the major territories. From that point forward he was one of the biggest stars in the world. In 1975, when Brisco asked out of the title, the two names voted on were Race and Terry Funk. Funk got a 4-3 edge in the voting, but Race was promised the next run, which happened when Funk decided to relinquish the title to attempt to get back with his ex-wife in 1977.
Race faced every major star in the industry over the next four years, including one-week losses to Dusty Rhodes, Giant Baba twice, and Tommy Rich. His big reign ended at the Omni in Atlanta in 1981 to Dusty Rhodes, who later dropped it to Ric Flair.
Race got two more reigns, one in 1983, beating Flair in St. Louis and losing it back at the first Starrcade, and a two-day New Zealand/Singapore run with Flair in 1984.
In 1983, when Vince McMahon was attempting to garner what was the most recognized World title at the time, to go along with the WWF title that he owned, to create the idea of a unified champion, he made a huge offer to Race to no-show the planned title loss to Flair. No doubt the idea was for Race to lose to Hulk Hogan, who would have beaten both the NWA and WWF Champion enroute to being positioned as the top star in the business at a time when the perception of the World Championship in all combat sports was far stronger than it is today.
Race, as part-owner of Central States and St. Louis, battled against McMahon for a few years, but his companies started losing money and he instead took a job in 1986 with the WWF. Because Race had such a rep as a tough guy, McMahon kept him away from Hulk Hogan early until they trusted him, and then booked the matches where Hogan beat Race. Race was older at the time and his matches with Hogan didn’t draw nearly as well as expected in cities like St. Louis and Kansas City.
He suffered a terrible injury doing a diving headbutt through a table in a match with Hogan that was televised, and while he wrestled after that, it started to wind down his career.
Race later worked as a manager for people like Big Van Vader and Lex Luger in WCW. In recent decades, he ran his wrestling school and World League Wrestling promotion out of Eldon, Missouri and later Troy, Missouri
Race picked up every possible honor in pro wrestling, including being one of only six men in the WWE, NWA, Wrestling Observer, Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, and Tragos/Thesz Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, the St. Louis Wrestling Hall of Fame, and the Stampede Wrestling Hall of Fame, and was voted Wrestler of the Year the first two years of the Observer poll in 1980 and 1981.
Before his run as NWA Champion, Race & Larry Hennig were three-time AWA Tag Team Champions, a legendary team which had a rivalry with Dick the Bruiser & The Crusher that was one of the biggest tag team rivalries in wrestling history. Bruiser & Crusher were largely made into arguably the most legendary babyface tag team of all-time through their matches with “The Dolly Sisters,” as Crusher nicknamed Race & Hennig.
He held championships everywhere he went, won matches of the year in the U.S. and Japan, was the first local name anyone in the Central States would mention when it came to territorial wrestling, and was one of the biggest stars of the Wrestling at the Chase era in St. Louis, headlining the city’s big shows as often as anyone in the 70s and 80s when St. Louis had the nickname of being “The Cadillac of Wrestling Promotions.”