411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2006: Harley Race
Harley Race started his wrestling journey on a farm in Missouri. The farm belonged to Stanislaus and Walter Zbyszko. Stanislaus was a former world champion in the 1920’s and his brother Walter was also considered an accomplished wrestler. In his teens Harley worked the farm all day and then after the work was done then came the training. He would head to the barn where Stanislaus and Walter would take to stretching him. After a long session Harley would rest and just when he started to feel a bit better, he was stretched again. It was through this that Harley decided that he wanted to be a wrestler. His first “break” came when promoter Gust Karras allowed race to drive wrestlers back and worth from the airport. It was through this that Race met Buddy Austin and Ray Gordon. Two very experienced workers that took a liking to Race, and were a huge part of his training. Race would debut in Tennessee under the name of Jack Long and win the Southern Tag Titles with his partner John Long. Shortly into his run he suffered and injury, and would return home to recuperate. It was then after a talk with his father that he decided to wrestle under his name, Harley Race.
As injuries healed and the 60’s were in their beginnings Race took to the Amarillo Territory. This is where Race would begin his longtime feud wit not just one, but all 3 Funks in Dory Sr., Dory Jr. and Terry. He had long and brutal matches will all 3, but more so with Terry. After his short time there, he moved on to the Minneapolis based American Wrestling Alliance. Race would team with Larry “The Ax” Hennig and on January 30th of 1965, they captured the AWA Tag Titles from Crusher Lisowski & Dick the Bruiser. Race and Hennig would go onto have many brutal battles with the Crusher and Dick the Bruiser over then next few years. He and Hennig would wear the AWA tag titles 4 times, as well as the IWA tag titles one time. Race was the only partner that Hennig actually stuck with for any period of time. Before leaving the AWA Race would win his 5th AWA Tag Title with Chris Markoff.
Race left the NWA and was a free spirit of sorts as he spent time with several different territories. He went back to the Amarillo territory where he and Terry Funk rekindled their rivalry and it quickly became a blood feud. After a series of matches with Funk, Race returned to his home area of St. Louis and the Central States territory in 1971. Upon his return to the area he won the Central States Heavyweight Title. Race would dominate the territory with multiple wins of the Central States and Missouri heavyweight titles. He was given the nickname “Mad Dog” Harley Race after attacking TV announcer Bill Kersten. Eventually he would win tag gold with Roger Kirby as they captured the Central States Tag Titles in 1972. Harley was highly regarded for his individual work in the Central States area, but many felt he was only a regional draw, but that would change in a big way.
In May of 1973 Race got his opportunity to face off with current NWA Champion against old nemesis Dory Funk Jr. The two men had a classic battle and to the surprise of almost everyone Race walked away with the NWA World Title. He would hold the title for 2 months until Jack Brisco defeated him. As disappointing as the defeat was, the initial NWA Title victory secured Race’s place in the business as a proven main eventer and a true threat to any title he challenged for.
Race returned to the Central States area and worked to regain his slot as the number one contender to the NWA title in hopes of regaining it. He would go on to win the Missouri heavyweight title a total of 7 times, and the Central States title a total of 8 times. He then traveled to other territories and secured the Mid-Atlantic title, the NWA Georgia Heavyweight title, as well as the Calgary Stampede North American Heavyweight title. He then would travel to Florida and defeat Dusty Rhodes for the NWA Southern Heavyweight title as well as the NWA Florida Tag-Team tag titles 2-times with 2 different partners, Roger Kirby and Bob Roop.
Once 1977 hit Race was obsessed with the NWA Title. He went to Toronto and faced off with another old nemesis Terry Funk. Taking advantage of a badly injured knee, Race locked in the Indian Death lock to defeat Funk. Race was the NWA champion for most of the next 4 years. Tommy Rich, Dusty Rhodes and Giant Baba each held the title for short times, but race always found a way to win his title back. Race would have intense battles with Dusty Rhodes, The Von Erichs, Dick the Bruiser, and Ric Flair. He also would battle in inter-promotional matches with the WWWF’s Bob Backlund, and Superstar Billy Graham as well as the AWA’s Nick Bockwinkel. Unfortunately for fans these matches always ended in a time limit draw, tied one fall apiece or a disqualification finish.
In 1981 Race lost the NWA title to Dusty Rhodes and was then tied with Lou Thez with 6 world title reigns. He would win his 7th against Ric Flair in 1983. This would serve to set up bigger things for Flair, and the wrestling world as a whole. He put a bounty on Flair, which Bob Orton Jr. and Dick Slater decided to act on. They destroyed Flair, injuring his neck and causing the apparent retirement of Flair. But Flair would return, and at the initial Starrcade, Flair defeated Race in a steel cage match to win the NWA title and in many people’s eyes pass the torch to the Nature Boy.
Flair and Race would face again though for the NWA title in 1984. They battled in New Zealand and Race walked away with the title. Three days later in Singapore Flair regained the title. The switches were picked up by the Japanese press, but ignored in the US until the early 1990’s when the NWA officially recognized the switch and Race was then an 8-time champion.
It was at this time where decided on becoming more of a promoter than a wrestler. His dream was to make the St. Louis territory the best of the NWA. He succeeded and was under constant fire from Vince McMahon Jr. Race eventually would lose upwards of $500,000 and has to sell to Jim Crockett. Race needed to become an in ring performer again, and in the most unlikely of places.
At first he toiled on the Independent territory circuit, but eventually came to a deal with Vince McMahon Jr. Race was signed to a good deal out of respect and debuted with Bobby Heenan as his manager. In 1986 he won the Sam Munchnick Tournament as well as the King of the Ring. Now known as the “King” of wrestling Race went on to appear at WrestleMania 3 in front of the record setting crowd, as well as the first two Survivor Series. Eventually severe internal injuries sidelined Race and he would leave the WWF as the 1990’s started.
After he was able to recover he once again hit the North American wrestling scene, not as a King or a wrestler but as a manager in WCW. He managed the likes of Paul Orndorff, The Collossal Kongs, Super Invader, Yoshi Kwan, Vinnie Vegas and Mr. Hughes. His biggest successes as a manager came as he led both Big Van Vader and Lex Luger to WCW World Title runs. After his induction to the WCW Hall of Fame in 1994, Race faded into the background of the wrestling business.
In 1999 Race started his own small promotion WLW (World League Wrestling.) He ran much of the same area as the St. Louis territory he had operated previously and started his own academy of wrestling. This helped complete a void in Race’s life that left when he was doen as a performer. In these past few years Race has appeared for the NWA TNA promotion as an NWA Official and member of their championship committee. He was inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004 and made an appearance as a manger at the recent Wrestle Reunion seconding Mike Graham and Dusty and Dustin Rhodes to victory over CM Punk, Abdullah the Butcher and Kevin Sullivan.
Why was selected…
There is no arguing the fact that Harley Race is a first ballot Hall of Famer. Race proved he was more than a small time worker and took all of his training and determination and became an 8-time World Champion. I don’t think anyone can deny his place in wrestling history and I for one am pleased to induct him into the 411 Wrestling Hall of Fame.