Former pro wrestler Tom Prichard tweeted Thursday that Race was “the toughest man on God’s green earth.”
He had to be. Race, who died Aug. 1 at the age of 76, overcame adversity many times during his life. Professionally, he earned plenty of accolades. But he was always known as a tough guy.
How tough? On Feb. 12, 1965, Race saw 25-year-old Jack LaRue slap a woman during an argument outside the Chestnut Tree restaurant in Minneapolis. Race then intervened, and knocked LaRue out with one punch, the Minneapolis Star reported. A friend of LaRue’s then stabbed Race, who was taken to a hospital and had to miss a tag team title defense with Larry “The Axe” Hennig against Dick the Bruiser and the Crusher.
Race won the NWA world heavyweight title seven or eight times — pick one: His three-day reign in 1984 after beating Ric Flair in New Zealand has been alternately disputed and acknowledged. He also held numerous regional titles as a singles star and a tag team competitor. Race and Hennig held the AWA tag team titles three times.
Race competed in the AWA, the NWA and the WWF (now known as WWE). He has been acknowledged as one of the greats. He is one of only six men in the NWA, WWE, Tragos/Thesz, Pro Wrestling and Wrestling Observer halls of fame. He also belongs to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, the Stampede Wrestling Hall of Fame and the St. Louis Hall of Fame. When he joined what is now the WWE, he was billed as “The King.” He wore a crown, and after beating his opponents bow and kneel in front of him.
Real-life reverence came from Race’s peers after his death was announced.
Flair, who won the NWA heavyweight title nine times, called Race “a great personal friend” and in his estimation, “the one and only real world champion.”
“Without Harley Race, there was no Ric Flair,” Flair tweeted. “I tried my hardest every day to live up to his standard in the ring.”
“Everything about Harley Race commanded respect,” Triple H tweeted.
“This (title belt) is symbolic of being everything that any human being ever wanted to be,” Race said in one of his more memorable promos. “That man is Harley Race.”
Race was popular in school and was elected Quitman High School’s freshman class president in 1957. But a year earlier, he attended a pro wrestling match with his father and brother near Quitman. It changed his life.
“I told them both that’s what I was going to do,” Race told Wrestleville.com in 2017.
Race told the website he purposely picked a fight with the principal at Quitman High School when he was 15.
“I punched him I the mouth and I got kicked out of school,” Race told Wrestleville.com. “Once my parents realized that wrestling was what I wanted to do, they let me go down and train.”
By his 16th birthday, Race was wrestling in St. Joseph, Missouri, training under the watchful eye of promoter Gus Karras. He wrestled in carnivals, and within a year his matches at arenas were being shown on television.
According to Cuyahoga County records, Race married a widow, Vivian Jones Thompson, on Nov. 14, 1961, in Ohio. Tragedy struck a month later, however.
Race was driving his 1958 Chrysler on U.S. 71 toward Maryville on Dec. 26, 1961 (many sites have incorrectly listed the year as 1960), when he hit a tractor-trailer that was headed in the opposite direction. According to the Stanberry (Mo.) Headlight, Race and the driver of the truck, Leonard Clark Fowler, had slowed down on the highway, which had been narrowed to 17 feet because of snow piles. Fowler pulled to the right, his truck hit a snowbank and the truck jackknifed. Race’s car hit the rear wheels of the truck and his car was demolished. His wife was killed.
According to her death certificate, Vivian Race suffered a brain laceration after receiving a blow to the head. She was 23.
Race broke his left arm and right leg and suffered cuts on the left side of his head.
“I have had a half dozen screws in my right knee since then,” Race told Wrestleville.com. “The left forearm worked out pretty good because I’m left-handed and after it healed, it worked well with cracking somebody in the jaw.”
Doctors talked about amputating his leg, but Race told them rather pointedly to forget it. Race had another scare in May 1962 when a truck rear-ended his car a half-mile north of St. Joseph, according to the Maryville Daily Forum. Although his car was demolished, Race was not hurt.
Race wrestled in Tennessee and other territories under the name of Jack Long before deciding to use his real name.
Race reached the pinnacle of his profession May 24, 1973, in Kansas City when he defeated Dory Funk Jr. in a best-of-three falls NWA title match. He only held the title for 57 days before losing it to Jack Brisco on July 20, 1973, in Houston. But Race regained the title Feb. 6, 1977, defeating Terry Funk—brother of Dory Funk Jr. — in Toronto. He would lose and regain the NWA crown five more times — in 1979 (twice), 1980, 1981 and 1983. Throw in the 1984 title change, and that’s quite a record.
Another wrestling legend is gone. Harley Race was a hard and tireless worker. Flair has called Race “a man’s man.” And, as Jeff Jarrett tweeted Tuesday, Race was “a champ’s champ.”
Ring the bell 10 times.