“There will never be another Harley Race,” Ric Flair said. “I’ve got so much respect for him. He was the last real world’s champion.”
The legendary Harley Race succumbed to his battle with lung cancer on Thursday afternoon at the age of 76.
A genuine industry icon, Race was a prominent piece of the wrestling landscape for the past seven decades. His legend was first established during his tenure in the NWA, where he had eight different runs as World Heavyweight Champion. Race worked throughout Japan, in the AWA and WCW, and had a memorable stint during the late 1980s in Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, feuding with Hulk Hogan, Junkyard Dog, and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan.
WWE Executive Vice President Paul “Triple H” Levesque first met Race in 1994 during their time together in WCW, but he had spent countless hours watching, learning from, and admiring the craft of Race’s cutting-edge work in the ring.
“There are certain guys in the business that are great, and there are legends, but then there are the ones who transcend the business,” said Levesque. “Harley Race took the business from the era that it was in and moved it in a different direction.
“Harley changed the business in his generation, combining that technical expertise with a brawling, tougher-than-nails style. He was also an innovator in the business. There are still moves you see today that Harley brought to the table that really took the business in a different direction. In his prime, he changed the direction of an entire industry.”
After an expulsion from high school, Race broke into the business in 1960. And professional wrestling was never again the same.
His first opportunity was working behind the scenes with wrestling giant Happy Humphrey, serving as his driver and helping the 600-pounder with basic everyday tasks that were troublesome to a man of his excessive size.
Race won his first NWA world title in May 1973 over Dory Funk Jr., and his feuds with Dory and Terry Funk remain engaging and compelling nearly a half a century later. Race’s 1983 Starrcade steel cage match against Ric Flair elevated Flair into superstardom.
“Without Starrcade, without Harley Race, there is no Ric Flair,” said Flair. “He was already a made man, and Harley made me that night.”
Known to a newer generation of fans in the 1990s as the manager of the fearsome Vader in WCW, Race was also involved in all levels of pro wrestling, from promoting to grassroots training.
Race leaves behind a lasting impact, with his fingerprints all over the industry. His blood, toil, and tears helped transform wrestling into a serious form of combat that was rich in storytelling.
One of Race’s greatest rivals in the ring was Terry Funk, and the two shared an enormous amount of respect for one another, with a reverence toward each other’s work in the ring.
“What sticks out in my mind about Harley, honestly and seriously, is the way he loved the world of wrestling,” said Funk, who was heartbroken by the news of Race’s death. “He loved the fans and he loved giving them their money’s worth. We’ll never see someone like him in the ring again.”
Race had legendary feuds with the Funks, Dusty Rhodes, and Ric Flair, in addition to memorable moments while managed by Bobby Heenan in the WWE.
“Harley gave every inch of his body to give the fans his best performance, and he did it for years,” said Funk. “That’s what took his life from him. He was that dedicated to the fans. He gave his body to the fans.”
Jim Ross first met Race in 1974. Then only 22, Ross was inspired by the way in which Race proudly represented pro wrestling.
“Harley was not a Karl Gotch-trained guy, he was trained on the streets, fighting for money to feed himself as a teenager,” said Ross. “I loved Harley Race. I loved what he stood for, I loved his character, his professionalism, and his mental and physical toughness that were beyond reproach.”
His first in-depth interaction with Race came only a few years later during an NWA world heavyweight title match in Tulsa, when Ross refereed the main event between Race and Dory Funk Jr.
“Harley came in from Kansas City on a Monday night, in what must have been 1977, to work that night with Dory Funk Jr. and I remember getting introduced to him,” said Ross. “I was in the locker room, and there was Dory Jr., calm and cool like he was sitting in the front row of a church pew, and Harley was smoking those damn Marlboros like there was no tomorrow.
“Since I was the referee that night, Harley said to me, ‘Show me how you count.’ So I got down on the floor of the locker room and counted to three, and Harley said, ‘Is that the way you count every time?’ And I said, ‘Yes it is, unless you tell me you want it done differently.’
“Harley was still sucking on that Marlboro when he turned to Dory and said, ‘What do you want to do tonight?’ Now they were doing a 60-minute draw. Dory said something like, ‘We can do Kansas City, or we could do Amarillo, or we could do St. Louis. That St. Louis match we had was pretty good.’ And Harley said, ‘Fine with me.’ They didn’t call spots, they remembered matches.”
Ross refereed the match at the Fairgrounds Pavilion in Tulsa, and he distinctly recalls never once hearing either wrestler call a spot in the ring.
“I never heard them say a word to each other, and they went 60 minutes,” said Ross. “They were such artisans that they played off the crowd’s emotions and they told a story.”
Ric Flair first met Race in 1972. Although Flair is now one of the most recognizable faces to ever step foot in the business, he entered the business looking up to Race and the manner in which he conducted himself.
“Harley Race represents the epitome of what the world champion was,” said Flair. “Myself and everyone that followed, we were representing the company but we weren’t the world champion the way Harley Race was.
“I knew Lou Thesz and I know other tough guys in the business, but none of them are as tough as Harley Race. That’s not even an argument. He was the real world’s champion. That was 24/7, from eight in the morning to when he walked down that aisle. If a fan said something, he’d call him to the ring. I’ve seen it more times than I can count.”
Race built a prominent reputation as one of the meanest, toughest guys in all of wrestling, and he was just as tenacious outside the ring.
“Harley wasn’t interested in chasing girls, he was interested in challenging everybody at the bar,” said Flair. “Harley put his body on the line in the ring, and then he did it again in the bar after the matches were over. He represented wrestling like no other man.”
There is no shortage of road stories about Race’s toughness, and many of them center around shooting pool.
“Harley would go to a beer joint and there would be 10 quarters on the table for the order of who’d play the next game,” said Ross. “Harley would walk by the table, knock all the money onto the floor, and put his quarter on the table. And nobody would do a damn thing.”
Flair can still close his eyes and see the fear creep into the eyes of men who thought they could tangle with Race.
“Harley would put his money down and say, ‘I’m next,’” said Flair. “That was Harley Race. I’ve seen him tell Ray Stevens, I’ve seen him tell everybody in the world, ‘If you have a problem, let me know ‘cause I will deal with it now.’
“Harley was a man among men. I can’t compare him to anybody. He lived for every form of competition known to man: who could drink a beer the fastest, who could beat him in arm wrestling, just name it. And I never saw him lose at anything.”
Race’s influence on the business remains steady. One of his more recent students, Tommaso Ciampa, helped elevate NXT to a place where it was one of the top promotions in the world when he was atop the card.
The leader of NXT is Paul Levesque, who has created his own Hall of Fame career both as a performer and an executive. He was also deeply impacted by the work of Race.
“There was nothing that made you skeptical about what he did for a second,” said Levesque, who marveled at Race’s ability to increase the speed of the industry. “It was to the core.”
Levesque first met Race in 1994, when Race was managing Vader in WCW.
“Harley still had that aura,” said Levesque. “He still carried that presence in the locker room in front of the boys and commanded respect. He dressed the role, he acted the role, he looked the role, and he carried a presence at all times.”
When Levesque first entered the business, he did not drink. This was viewed as an anomaly to many of his peers, and some reacted harshly when Levesque politely declined a beverage.
“When I first met Harley, for whatever reason, and maybe it’s because I was trained by [Walter “Killer”] Kowalski, he took a liking to me,” said Levesque. “I remember a night when a bunch of the boys were in the lobby at the Marriott. There were a lot of top guys there, and they were really pressuring me to drink. And I kept saying, ‘No, I’m all set.’
“Harley looked at me and said, ‘I respect that. But have one with ‘The King.’ And I said, ‘Harley, for you, I will.’ I drank about a half a beer with Harley and we clinked glasses.”
Levesque also saw a different side of Race.
“As tough as nails as he was, he was also a gentleman,” said Levesque. “My wife was just talking about how shortly after our daughter was born, Harley came to see us with a pair of earrings for her. He picked those out for our daughter.”
The business of professional wrestling is faster and more lucrative than ever in 2019. Guaranteed pay rates have replaced receiving a percentage of the gate, and live television has wiped away the importance of buying a ticket to live events. But the heartbeat of wrestling is healthy, with the business at its most sublime when two opponents are facing off against one another in the ring, creating a story with an inherent tension—all areas Race helped refine with his peers, which still benefit the modern-day era.
While lamenting his loss, Funk stressed that Race’s ability to evoke emotion from the crowd was also a critical part of his mystique.
“Harley believed,” said Funk. “I believe in my sport, and I believe in the way it was. I loved it that way, and so did Harley.
“This is a very tough loss. I can’t describe how much of an influence Harley had on so many people in the business. He was as tough as they come, and there will never be another Harley.”
Ross believes Race’s legacy should continue to grow, as the women and men who earn a living through pro wrestling should use his career to help them define theirs.
“Harley should be respected, honored, and studied by today’s wrestlers,” said Ross. “I have tremendous respect for him and I’m so sad to hear of his passing. It’s a big loss for our business.”
With Race’s passing, Flair expressed that wrestling lost its last true founding father.
“There will never be another Harley Race,” said Flair. “I’ve got so much respect for him. He was the last real world’s champion.”
In many ways, Levesque is the gatekeeper to past eras of pro wrestling—and he plans to keep Race’s legacy alive in WWE.
“Harley exemplified professional wrestling, and he was the ultimate champion,” said Levesque. “With all his contributions to the business, he will never be forgotten.”