Pulse Wrestling’s Top 100 Wrestlers of the Modern Era: #33 – Harley Race

He is one of the most respected wrestlers in the history of wrestling. And it all started with a fight in high school.

33. HARLEY RACE

AliasesJack Long
HometownEldon, Missouri
Debuted1960
Titles HeldNWA United National; NWA World Heavyweight (8x); PWF Heavyweight; AWA World Tag Team (5x – 4 with Larry Hennig, 1 with Chris Markoff); NWA Central States Heavyweight (9x); NWA Florida Southern Heavyweight; NWA Florida Tag Team (3x – 2 with Roger Kirby, 1 with Bob Roop; NWA United States Heavyweight (Mid-Atlantic); IW North American Heavyweight; NWA Georgia Heavyweight; IWA World Tag Team (with Larry Hennig); NWA Mid-America Heavyweight (3x); NWA Missouri Heavyweight (7x); Stampede North American Heavyweight; WWA World Heavyweight; WWC Caribbean Heavyweight; 1986 WWF King of the Ring
Other AccomplishmentsWinner of PWI Match of the Year award in 1973 (vs. Dory Funk Jr.); Winner of PWI Match of the Year award in 1979 (vs. Dusty Rhodes); Winner of PWI Wrestler of the Year award in 1979; Back-to-Back Winner of Wrestling Observer Newsletter Wrestler of the Year award in 1980 and 1981; Winner of PWI Match of the Year award in 1983 (vs. Ric Flair); Winner of Wrestling Observer Newsletter Match of the Year award in 1983 (vs. Ric Flair); Winner of PWI Wrestler of the Year award in 1983; Ranked by PWI as #8 of the top 500 singles wrestlers during the PWI years; Member of WCW Hall of Fame (inducted 1994); Member of the Ring Chronicle Hall of Fame (inducted 1994); Member of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (inducted 1996) Member of the WWE Hall of Fame (inducted 2004); Member of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (inducted 2004); Recipient of Cauliflower Alley Iron Mike Mazurki award in 2006; Recipient of PWI Stanley Weston award in 2006; Member of the Stampede Wrestling Hall of Fame

Harley Race began training after he was expelled from high school following an incident when the principal had kneed Race in the back of a head while trying to break up a fight and Race attacked him. He trained under Gus Karras, a promoter in St. Joseph.

In 1961 Race headed to Nashville and began competing under the name of Jack Long, who was teamed with his “brother” James Long. His talent was beginning to be recognized until a car accident. Race’s pregnant wife was killed and doctors planned to amputate one of Race’s legs. It was Gus Karras who rushed to the hospital to protest the operation and save Race’s leg. Despite this, the doctors told Race he would likely never walk again and would certainly never wrestle again.

Race refused to accept this and attacked physical therapy with a vengeance, eventually regaining full use of the leg. In 1964 he returned to action in Amarillo, Texas where he worked for the Funk family. This time, however, he was competing under his own name after a visit from his father during his recovery. His father had advised Race not to work to make somebody else’s name famous. Race competed under his own name for the rest of his career.

While in Amarillo, Race met another young wrestler- Larry Hennig. The two joined up as a tag team and headed to the AWA, where they became known as Handsome Harley Race and Pretty Boy Larry Hennig.

Race and Hennig defeated perennial AWA stars the Crusher and Dick the Bruiser on January 30, 1965 to capture the tag team titles. The Crusher vowed revenge and allied with Verne Gagne to recapture the belts on July 24. They held the belts for barely a month before Race and Hennig regained them. The following May, Crusher turned back to Dick the Bruiser and won the belts back. This time it took until January for Race and Hennig to regain the gold.

There was an interesting title switch in March. Gagne and Don Leo Jonathan won the belts in Winnipeg but the change was not recognized by the AWA outside the city. The belts were soon returned to Race and Hennig.

In November Race began defending the belts with Chris Markoff. Hennig, needing time off from the ring, had had his leg broken by Gagne during a match in Winnipeg. On November 10, 1967 Race’s final AWA tag team reign came to an end when he and Markoff were defeated in their first defense by Pat O’Connor and Wilbur Snyder.

Race left the AWA soon thereafter and began traveling from territory to territory, including a return to Amarillo.

The return to Amarillo also saw one of Race’s darkest days. While wrestling Man Mountain Mike on July 2, 1969, Iron Mike DiBiase (stepfather of Ted DiBiase) collapsed during the match. Race realized that DiBiase was having a heart attack and rushed to the ring where he performed CPR on DiBiase. Race then rode to the hospital with DiBiase, where he was pronounced dead.

Race spent the next several years traveling the territories and racking up numerous regional title wins, but a world title shot still evaded him.

That changed one May night in 1973. Race had been given a title shot against NWA World Heavyweight champion Dory Funk, Jr. Although he went into the match an underdog, Race fought with all he had and walked out of the match as the new world heavyweight champion. Although Race lost the belt to Jack Brisco in July, he had established himself as a definite contender.

Race continued to travel the territories, earning title after title but still found himself without a title shot. Still, Race vowed that all he would need would be one opportunity to regain the belt.

Race’s shot came in February of 1977 as he faced off against longtime foe Terry Funk. Race won the match by submission, an unusual ending, after he locked Funk (who had a wounded leg) in an Indian Deathlock.

Race immediately established himself as a fighting champion, defending the belt up to six times a week. Race dominated the title for the next four years. Although he lost the belt to Dusty Rhodes in 1979, Giant Baba in 1979 and 1980, and Tommy Rich in 1981, Race always regained the belt in a rematch, with none of those listed above holding the belt for more than ten days before Race took it back.

Race became the standard bearer for the NWA. He had become a familiar face on Japanese tours early in his career and continued touring extensively there as well as in Australia and New Zealand. In addition, Race often found himself defending the NWA title against WWF champion Bob Backlund and AWA champ Nick Bockwinkel in matches that would always end indecisively.

In June of 1981 Race’s reign came to an end as he lost the belt to Dusty Rhodes. Race would try repeatedly but would never be able to dethrone the American Dream.

Still, Race was not finished. Although he couldn’t take the belt from Dusty Rhodes, Dusty’s successor – Ric Flair – would be a different matter. Race defeated Flair on June 10 to regain the title for a record-setting seventh time.

However, Flair wanted a rematch. In response, Race offered a $25,000 bounty to anyone who could injure Flair and force his retirement. Dick Slater and Bob Orton Jr. took up the challenge and injured Flair’s neck. Race gladly paid them the money after Flair announced his retirement.

However, it was a trick. Flair returned and the title rematch was set as the main event of the 1983 Starrcade. The match would take place inside a steel cage and would feature Gene Kiniski as the special guest referee. In this match, all of Race’s tricks didn’t help as Flair regained the title at the end of the bloody bout.

Race would have one more unusual title reign. During a match in New Zealand in March of 1984 Race regained the belt only to lose it back to Flair two days later in Singapore. While the change received heavy coverage in Japan it was ignored in the US.

After losing the title a final time, Race began moving toward retirement. He had long before begun investing in promotion ownership and by this point owned part of the Kansas City and St. Louis promotions.

Unfortunately for Race, St. Louis was seen as one of the most prestigious NWA territories, so it was at the top of the list when Vince McMahon began his national expansion. When St. Louis closed, Race reportedly lost over $500,000. Kansas City was later sold to Jim Crockett and Race found himself forced to continue wrestling to make ends meet.

After competing for various regional and Japanese territories, Race signed with the WWF in 1986. He was brought in as Handsome Harley Race and given Bobby Heenan as a manager.

However, the Handsome nickname would not last long. Race won the inaugural King of the Ring tournament and immediately proclaimed himself King Harley Race. He began coming to the ring in a cape and crown. After a match, the loser would be prompted to kneel before him.

Over the next few years Race would feud with the Junkyard Dog, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, and Hulk Hogan himself. It would actually be Hogan who would indirectly be involved in the end of Race’s WWF career. Race was trying to hit a diving headbutt on Hogan, who was lying on a table. Hogan rolled out of the way and Race went through the table, with the metal rim of the table being rammed into Race’s abdomen, causing a severe hernia.

While Race recovered from hernia surgery, the WWF moved on. Heenan announced plans to crown a new King and did so with Haku. Race briefly feuded with Haku but wound up leaving the WWF shortly thereafter.

Race continued to wrestle in various territories until mid-1991 when he finally retired from the ring. Although no longer wrestling, he was quickly picked up by WCW to serve as a manager to first Lex Luger, and then, more famously, to the monster Vader.

A second car accident spelled the end of Race’s career. As a result of the accident, Race required a hip replacement. That combined with the other wear and tear he had suffered over his career caused Race to decide to retire.

Although Race has continued to make occasional onscreen appearances for WCW, the WWE, and TNA, today his primary focus is on his own promotion – World League Wrestling. Race founded WLW in 1999 and opened a training school a year later. His school is well regarded, having produced current WWE star Trevor Murdoch and being the chosen site for children of veterans like Ted DiBiase and Curt Hennig to begin their training. WLW also has close ties with Pro-Wrestling NOAH in Japan, which allows his trainees to interact with various Japanese stars (including Mitsuharu Misawa and Takeshi Morishima, a former WLW champion), and also provides a possible route for his graduates to begin touring in Japan as well.

Harley Race is one of the most respected names in all of wrestling. Although his career was winding down by the 1980 guideline for this countdown, he still continues to work in the wrestling business to this day. As a matter of fact, Race has claimed in interview that he does believe he has one more match left in him.

Race had a stellar thirty-year career as a wrestler, and then stepped aside to manage two of WCW’s biggest superstars. When he was no longer able to manage, he soon opened his own company, once again working behind the scenes and also passing along his knowledge to a new generation of professional wrestlers.

Race is the definition of a professional wrestler. He fought the odds his entire career and, while losing some fights along the way, he won far more than he lost. Race is a star who will always be remembered and has more than earned his position on this list of the top 100 greatest wrestlers of the modern era.

The entire Top 100 Wrestlers feature can be found here.

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