Wrestling’s Country Kitchen – the Legend of Handsome Harley

“The Best Wrestler on God’s Green Earth!”…is quoted directly from the home page of Harley Race. Although not my original statement, I believe it’s true. I grew up during the era of Central States Wrestling and remember many great wrestlers. All of them played a major role in that promotion but Harley Race was the man. Blonde, tattooed, and bad to the bone, Race swaggered into the ring to take out the best of the best. His promos not only made you stop and listen, they were the stuff that sent shivers up and down your spine.

My first live glimpse of Race in the ring was at a very small venue in a very small town somewhere in Missouri – a school gym. He was booed from the second he hit the ring and throughout the match in which he defeated his opponent, as I knew he would. I’ve done my best to remember who his opponent was on that night but all I can remember is seeing Harley Race live and in person. I tried my best to get close to the ring, but my Dad held me back. Throughout the entire match, Dad was hanging onto the tail of my shirt. I groveled, begged, and pleaded all to no avail. After the show other wrestlers hung around to sign autographs, but due to the intensity of his heel routine, Race was gone. He made my childhood home a war zone because everyone hated him. Everyone, that is, but me. I look back now and think his looks could have easily swayed me, but it was more than that because throughout Race’s career, I kept track of where he was, what he was doing and the list of his many victims.

What did Race have that was so special? Handsome Harley wasn’t a body builder and therefore not particularly muscular. Writers described him as being “barrel-chested”. The only gimmicks Race required were a ring, an opponent, and a microphone before or after the match. His “Mad Dog” personality had even Kansas City wrestling fans ready to lynch this home grown Missouri native. He was arrogant, egotistical, cold, calculating and vicious. His promo voice was the gravely, raspy voice of a psychotic killer. His movements were precise whether he was wrestling or brawling. Race put thought into every single move he made. Whether he was delivering his devastating head butt or one of those hard right hands, there was a visible pause, an almost audible click, before delivery. It sounds quite simple but that minor pause made Race’s moves all the more exciting. When I hear Jim Ross shout “Triple H uses that Harley Race knee drop”, I chuckle because not even “The Game” could make that drop look as lethal as it did when Race used it.

I remember him as “Handsome” Harley Race and shortly afterward “Mad Dog” Harley Race. He was the consummate heel and I preferred him in that role, due to his nasty attitude and aggressive in-ring style. The few times Race turned from heel to face, I was never as impressed as I was with the man who pummeled his opponents in the ring, outside on the floor or into the audience.

After being trained by Stanislaus and Walter Zbyszko, promoter Gust Karras discovered him and the rest was history. Harley began his career as Jack Long, teaming with John Long. While recovering from an injury, his father convinced him that he should spend his time making himself famous, not someone else. He began using his real name, Harley Race, and never again worked under an alias for any promotion. He became a mainstay in wrestling from 1959 through 1993. Race not only worked in singles matches but also in tag teams with the likes of “Pretty Boy” Larry Hennig and Roger “Nature Boy” Kirby. Race worked across the United States before making his mark all over the world. The Japanese press declared him a god for his talent in the ring. Race was not once, but eight times NWA World Heavyweight Champion which might not sound so impressive considering how titles are swapped in feuds and hot-shotted to transitional champions today. But back then there was no World Wrestling Entertainment with a championship for each brand. When Race was the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, there was only one world champ.

In addition to the annals of the NWA record books, the name Harley Race graces a host of other titles, including the Pacific Federation World Heavyweight title, the Missouri Heavyweight title, and the AWA Tag Team title with Larry Hennig. His greatest accomplishment in the ring, however, is those eight NWA World Heavyweight Championships. While World Wrestling Entertainment claims Race was only a seven-time world Kayfabe Memories and AlternativeReel indicate Harley Race defeated Ric Flair in New Zealand in April 1984 to make Race an eight-time NWA Champ.

There are many memorable Harley Race matches, including the loss of the NWA title to “Nature Boy” Ric Flair in a steel cage, but the two matches etched in my memory are the Texas Death Match and the first Texas Chain Match between Harley Race and Terry Funk. Race’s feuds with all three Funks (Dory Senior, Dory Junior and Terry) are legendary. These matches were simply great wrestling, great brawling, with no glitz or glamour. Every match was hard fought and no matter who won, the audience got what they paid to see.

I had never seen anyone that I considered as tough as Race but I feared he had met his equal when he faced Terry Funk in that Chain Match and it was terrifying to watch. It was the bloodiest match I had ever seen before, amazing in its brutality but it certainly didn’t stop me from pleading with Race to kill Funk and in the same breath screaming at Funk for shedding Race’s blood. I still snarl when I hear the name Funk. Don’t misunderstand me. It is a very respectable snarl. The three Funks have given their lives to the wrestling business and all were exceptional ring workers. But after what Terry Funk did to Harley Race in that match, from that moment on I was solidly in Race’s corner each and every time he squared off against anyone named Funk. When Race took the NWA title from Dory Funk, Jr. in Kansas City, I may have been the happiest wrestling fan alive.

For wrestling fans who have never seen Race outside of his “King Harley” run in WWF, footage of Race in other wrestling feds is highly recommended such as Terry Funk vs Harley Race and Harley Race vs Dusty Rhodes. His matches with the Funks will always be my first choice but Race fought the best, including Bruiser Brody, Dusty Rhodes, Jerry “The King” Lawler, Dick “The Bruiser” and “Nature Boy” Ric Flair in the States, and Giant Baba and Jumbo Tsuruta in Japan.

Although Race no longer dons the trunks and laces up his boots, his life continues to revolve around the world of professional wrestling. At one point, I believe he may have tried but he couldn’t stay away. He worked as a manager in WCW and later with his wife, BJ, opened a wrestling school in Missouri. Race’s World League Wrestling can be found at HarleyRace.com

In the mid 1980’s the man known the world over as Harley Race came to my place of employment. No longer sporting blonde hair but wearing the scars of a wrestling lifetime, he spoke to me as if he had known me all of my life. When I could find my voice, I asked him for his autograph, and my lifelong idol politely obliged. That autograph, on the back of a pink telephone message sheet, is now safely encased in plastic and is in the top drawer of my desk. Every time I see it, I say a thank you to the man who gave up his home life and his family to travel the world over, the man who stood out among other wrestlers in the ring and made me believe in rasslin’.

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