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Harley Leland Race (born April 11, 1943) is a retired Americanmarker professional wrestler and current promoter. During his career as a wrestler, he amassed seven National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight Championship reigns at a time when wrestlers rarely repeated as champion, and worked for all of the major wrestling promotions, including the NWA, the American Wrestling Association (AWA), the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), and World Championship Wrestling (WCW). He was the first NWA United States Heavyweight Champion. Race is regarded by wrestling purists as one of the greatest champions of all time.

Early life

Race was an early fan of professional wrestling, watching programming from the nearby Chicagomarker territory on the DuMont Network. After overcoming polio as a child, he began training as a professional wrestler as a teen under former world champions Stanislaus and Wladek Zbyszko, who operated a farm in his native Missouri. While in high school, an altercation with another classmate led to the principal kneeing Race in the back of the head as he tried to break up the fight. Enraged, Race attacked him, resulting in his expulsion. Already and , Race decided to get his start in professional wrestling.

Professional wrestling career

Early career

Race was recruited by St. Joseph wrestling promoter Gust Karras, who hired Race to do odd jobs for his promotion, including chauffeuring the wrestler Happy Humphrey. Eventually, Race started wrestling on some of his shows, and some of Karras' veteran wrestlers helped further Race's training. At the age of 18, he moved to Nashvillemarker and began wrestling under the ring name of Jack Long, forming a tag team with storyline brother John Long. The duo quickly captured the Southern Tag Team Championship. Race was seen as a rising star in the business with a bright future, until a car accident put him out of action, with his leg coming close to being amputated. His pregnant first wife, Vivian Louise Jones, died instantly; they had been married for little over a month. Karras heard about his employee's condition, went rushing into the hospital, and blocked the planned amputation, declaring it "over my dead body". In doing so, he saved Race's leg. Although he recovered, doctors told Race that he might never walk again, and his wrestling career was over. Undaunted, Race endured grueling physical therapy for several months and made a full recovery.

He returned to the ring in 1964, wrestling for the Funks' Amarillo, Texasmarker, territory. This time, he wrestled under his own name, after his father told him that he should not work to make anyone else's name famous. Race never again used a different ring name. In Amarillo, Race met fellow up-and-coming wrestler Larry Hennig (later Larry "The Axe" Hennig and father of "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig). The two formed a tag team and moved to the American Wrestling Association.

American Wrestling Association

In the AWA, Race and Hennig branded themselves as "Handsome" Harley Race (which was actually a moniker given to him by fans in Japanmarker) and "Pretty Boy" Larry Hennig, a cocky heel tag team with a penchant for breaking the rules to win matches. They quickly became top contenders, and in January 1965, they defeated Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher to capture the AWA World Tag Team Titles. Race and Hennig continued to feud with the Bruiser and Crusher and other top teams for the next several years, amassing three title reigns. Verne Gagne, in particular, was a hated rival of the team, and recruited many different partners to try to defeat Race and Hennig during their AWA run. In October 1967, Gagne was credited with "breaking" one of Hennig's legs, thus giving him some much needed time off from the ring. Race (as the storyline went), was allowed to choose a new partner and retain the AWA tag belts. Harley's choice was Chris Markoff. The duo lost the title in their first defense of the belts to the babyface team of Wilbur Snyder and Pat O'Connor in November 1967. For the next several months, Race teamed with Hard Boiled Haggerty (Don Stansauk) who over the years presented Verne Gagne with some of his greatest matches. Together, Race and Haggerty often battled Gagne and "Cowboy" Bill Watts. In March 1968, after Hennig's return to the ring, he and Harley were back together, though the two never recaptured the AWA World Tag Team Title. Despite his tag team success, Race left the AWA after several years at the top of the division to pursue a singles career in the NWA.

Race returned to the AWA in 1984 to wrestle Curt Hennig. The confrontation was fueled by Larry Hennig confronting his former tag team partner at the end of the match. Race would also wrestle former AWA World Champion Rick Martel at part of WrestleRock '86. Toward the end of his in-ring career, he would challenge Larry Zbyszko for the AWA World title in October 1990, in the main event of an AWA broadcast on ESPN. However, all of these matches were basically just special appearances.

National Wrestling Alliance

Race jumped from territory to territory in the early 1970s, renewing his rivalry with Terry Funk in Amarillo and winning a regional title. He was seen as a gifted territorial wrestler, not quite ready for the worldwide spotlight, until 1973. In 1973, Race faced NWA World Heavyweight Champion Dory Funk, Jr. in Kansas City, Kansasmarker. Race emerged from the battle as the new World Champion in what was perceived by fans a stunning upset. Though Race held the title for only a few months, losing it to Jack Brisco in Houston, Texasmarker in July, he became a worldwide superstar and perennial championship contender. Race was determined to eventually regain the NWA World Championship, often moving between territories and collecting several regional titles, including eight Central States Titles, seven Missouri Titles, the Georgia Heavyweight Championship, the Stampede North American Title in Canadamarker, the Japanmarker-based NWA United National and PWF Titles, and becoming the first-ever holder of the Mid-Atlantic U.S. Title, still defended today as the WWE United States Championship. This kept Race in contention for the World Championship, and Race vowed that he would only need one chance against the champion to regain it.

Race finally got his wish in 1977, facing familiar rival Terry Funk, who had become the champion since their previous encounters, in Torontomarker. Race won the title by submission with the Indian Deathlock, a rarely used submission move but one that put great pressure on Funk's injured leg. The NWA World Champion once again, Race this time established his dominance, defending the title up to six times a week and holding it for four years (excluding extremely short reigns by Tommy Rich, Dusty Rhodes, and Giant Baba). At the time, the NWA, AWA and WWF were on good terms, and Race engaged in title versus title matches with WWF Champions "Superstar" Billy Graham and Bob Backlund, as well as AWA World Champion Nick Bockwinkel. Race toured extensively all over the country and the world, including many stints in Japanmarker, where he was already well-known from his visits with Larry Hennig.

Race lost the title to Dusty Rhodes in 1981, and despite many matches, never regained it from the popular fan favorite. Rhodes lost the title to up-and-coming star Ric Flair, though Race was able to defeat Flair in St. Louismarker in 1983 for his seventh reign as champion, breaking the record previously held by Lou Thesz. What followed was one of the classic angles of the 1980s, which led to the first-ever NWA Starrcade event. Determined not to lose the title again, Race offered a $25,000 bounty to anyone who could eliminate Flair from the NWA. Bob Orton, Jr. and Dick Slater attacked Flair, inflicting what appeared to be a career-ending neck injury, and collecting the bounty from Race after Flair announced his retirement. Flair's retirement was a ruse, however, and he eventually returned to action, much to Race's surprise. NWA officials set up a championship rematch, to be titled "NWA Starrcade: A Flare for the Gold". The match was to be held in Flair's backyard, Greensboro, North Carolinamarker, which enraged Race. Race lost the title to Flair in the bloody and memorable Starrcade cage match (with Gene Kiniski as the special referee) in November, 1983. He would regain the NWA title for a short two-day reign in New Zealandmarker in 1984 (a change not recognized by the NWA in the U.S. until 1996, making Race an eight-time champion), but his loss to Flair at Starrcade was largely seen as the torch-passing from Race to Flair. Flair would go on to an unparalleled 22 reigns as World Heavyweight Champion (10 of those reigns as NWA World champion) and largely credits Race for igniting his career.

Earlier in his career, Race became involved in the ownership side of wrestling, buying a portion of the Kansas City and later St. Louis territories. St. Louis was a stronghold of the NWA, and around this time in 1984, WWF owner Vincent K. McMahon began his invasion of NWA territories, including St. Louis, in his ambition to build a truly national wrestling promotion. Race was enraged, famously confronting Hulk Hogan at a WWF event in Kansas City. (In his autobiography, Hogan claims Race tried burning down the ring; Race denies it in his). Race lost over $500,000 as an owner of the Kansas City territory, and despite his championship years being at an end and wishing to retire from active competition, was forced to rely on continuing to wrestle to make a living. He continued to travel in the US and abroad, and signed with McMahon's WWF in 1986.

World Wrestling Federation

In May 1986, Race entered the WWF managed by longtime friend Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, bleaching his hair blond and billing himself again as "Handsome" Harley Race. During a time when the WWF did not recognize the existence of other promotions and the accomplishments a wrestler made there, WWF officials came up with a solution to recognize his wrestling pedigree by having him win the King of the Ring tournament. After this, he referred to himself as "King" Harley Race, coming to the ring in a royal crown and cape, to the ceremonial accompaniment of the tenth movement (known as "The Great Gates of Kiev") of Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky. After winning a match, Harley would make his defeated opponent "bow and kneel" before him. Usually Bobby Heenan would assist the defeated opponent to "bow and kneel" by grabbing their hair and forcing them to bow before King Harley Race.

He participated in a notable feud with the Junkyard Dog, culminating in a match at WrestleMania III at the Pontiac Silverdomemarker, in which Race cleanly pinned The Junkyard Dog. Race would spend 1987 feuding with Hulk Hogan and Jim Duggan, the latter of which was highlighted by an extended brawl at the 1987 Slammy Awards. In early 1988, he suffered an abdominal injury in a match against Hogan in which he tried to hit Hogan, prone on a table at ringside, with a swandive headbutt. Hogan moved out of the way and Race impacted the table inwards. The metal edge forced its way up into Race's abdomen giving him a hernia. Following this incident and during his recovery, the WWF ran an angle where they acknowledged his injury, and his manager Bobby Heenan vowed to crown a new king. He left the WWF in early 1989, following a brief comeback from hernia surgery and a failed attempt to regain his crown from the new King, Haku, at the Royal Rumble). While Race never won the WWF Championship, his career was notable enough to earn him an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004.

Post-WWF wrestling career

After leaving the WWF, Harley continued to wrestle until the spring of 1991, most notably with World Wrestling Council (WWC) in Puerto Rico, the NWA, and the AWA. Race defeated former NWA World Champion Tommy Rich at the Great American Bash in July 1990. He also received several US Title shots against then champion Lex Luger during his brief stint. Race then received one last shot at a recognized World Title when he faced Larry Zbyszko at the final AWA television taping in August 1990. The match ended in a double countout. After retiring from active competition, Race joined the NWA (WCW) in July 1991 as an adviser/manager to Lex Luger.

World Championship Wrestling

Race excelled as a manager as he had as a wrestler, immediately leading Lex Luger to the WCW World Championship. Later, he led Vader to win the title as well. During his managership of Vader, Race met with racial controversy when Vader was feuding with WCW wrestler Ron Simmons when saying during a promo, "When I was World Champion, I had a boy like you to carry my bags!" This was actually part of the booking strategy of then-WCW head Bill Watts to build support for Simmons, who he would eventually make champion. The wily veteran was popular among the young WCW talent, and developed close friendships with Mick Foley and Steve Austin, among others. As his early wrestling career had been nearly derailed due to a car accident, another car accident forced Race out of the wrestling business altogether. Race required hip replacement surgery, which, along with injuries accumulated after years in the ring, prevented him from even being a manager.

World League Wrestling

Race spent several years away from the business, working briefly as a process server before retiring with his wife in small-town Missouri. In 1999, he started World League Wrestling (originally called World Legion Wrestling, but changed a year later), an independent promotion which runs shows near Race's hometown of Eldon, Missouri and other cities in Missouri including Kansas City. A year later, he started Harley Race's Wrestling Academy, which seeks to train up-and-coming wrestlers who will benefit from Race's unique experience and perspective on the wrestling business. Race's events are family oriented, and usually raise funds for local charities. As well as featuring his students, legends like Mick Foley, Terry Funk, Bret Hart, and even Mitsuharu Misawa make guest appearances. WLW has a working agreement with Misawa's Japanesemarker promotion, Pro Wrestling Noah and have Noah star Takeshi Morishima as a former heavyweight champion. He is credited with training WWE world tag team champion Trevor Murdoch who was then known as Trevor Rhodes and Pro-Wrestling Noah veterans Superstar Steve, Wade Chism, Matt Murphy and Daniel Cross.

Special appearances

Race returned to WWE television as a fan favorite in 2004 shortly after being inducted into their Hall of Fame. On an episode of Raw, Randy Orton confronted Race and spat in his face, to go with Orton's "Legend Killer" persona . Race returned again for Raw's WWE Homecoming episode in October 2005, marking the show's return to the USA Network. Race, along with the other legends who were in the ring, gave Rob Conway a lesson in respect.

In 2004, Harley Race was recruited to be a part of Total Nonstop Action Wrestling as a member of their NWA Championship Committee. Despite reportedly being an authority figure as a member of the committee, he never made any official decisions and only made the occasional on-screen appearance for the company.

At the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony on March 31, 2007, Race and Dusty Rhodes were "inducted" into the Four Horsemen by Ric Flair and Arn Anderson. On the August 8, 2008 episode of Monday Night Raw, Race sat in the front row and was acknowledged by commentators Michael Cole and Jerry "The King" Lawler. Before the show, Race accompanied then GHC Heavyweight Champion Takeshi Morishima to the ring for a dark match against Charlie Haas.

Race also made an appearance at Total Nonstop Action Wrestling's Lockdown pay-per-view in 2007 as the special guest gatekeeper for the main event. Race made a special guest appearance at the second night of Glory by Honor VI: Night Two at the Manhattan Centermarker on November 3, 2007 in New York Citymarker.

Race made a special appearance on the March 31, 2008 episode of Raw as part of Ric Flair's retirement ceremony. He was the fourth person introduced to congratulate Flair after the Four Horsemen (Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard, Barry Windham and James J. Dillon), Batista and Ricky Steamboat.

Other media

Harley participated in the 1999 NBC special, Exposed! Pro Wrestling's Greatest Secrets. His face was covered to conceal his identity as he broke kayfabe and discussed the inner workings of the business. Harley's autobiography, King of the Ring: the Harley Race Story (ISBN 1-58261-818-6), became available in 2004. Along with Ricky Steamboat and Les Thatcher, Race is author of The Professional Wrestler's Workout and Instructional Guide.

Harley Race played himself as the distinguished ring announcer for a tag-team match involving Mil Mascaras and El Hijo del Santo in the 2007 film Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy.

In wrestling

  • Nicknames
    • "Handsome"
    • "The King of Wrestling"

Championships and accomplishments

*NWA United National Championship (1 time)
*NWA World Heavyweight Championship (2 times)
*PWF World Heavyweight Championship (1 time)

  • All Star Pro-Wrestling (New Zealand)
*NWA World Heavyweight Championship (1 time)

*AWA World Tag Team Championship (3 times) - with Larry Hennig (replaced by Chris Markoff in their final reign)

*Iron Mike Mazurki Award (2006)

*NWA Central States Heavyweight Championship (9 times)
*NWA North American Tag Team Championship (1 time) - with Roger Kirby
*NWA World Heavyweight Championship (1 time)

*NWA Florida Tag Team Championship (3 times) - with Roger Kirby (2) and Bob Roop (1)
*NWA Southern Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
*NWA United States Heavyweight Championship (1 time)1
*NWA World Heavyweight Championship (1 time)

*NWA Mid-America Heavyweight Championship (2 times)

*IW North American Heavyweight Championship (1 time)

*NWA Georgia Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
*NWA Macon Tag Team Championship (1 time) - with Buddy Colt
*NWA World Heavyweight Championship (1 time)

*NWA World Heavyweight Championship (1 time)

*NWA Hall of Fame (Class of 2005)

*PWI Match of the Year (1973) vs. Dory Funk, Jr. on May 24
*PWI Match of the Year (1979) vs. Dusty Rhodes on August 21
*PWI Match of the Year (1983) vs. Ric Flair on June 10
*PWI Stanley Weston Award (2006)
*PWI Wrestler of the Year (1979)
*PWI Wrestler of the Year (1983)
*PWI ranked him # 8 of the 500 best singles wrestlers during the "PWI Years" in 2003

*Class of 2004

*NWA Missouri Heavyweight Championship (7 times)
*NWA World Heavyweight Championship (1 time)

*Stampede North American Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
*Stampede Wrestling Hall of Fame

*IWA World Tag Team Championship (1 time) - with Larry Hennig (First)

*WCW Hall of Fame (Class of 1994)

*WWA World Heavyweight Championship (1 time)

*WWC Caribbean Heavyweight Championship (1 time)

*King of the Ring (1986)
*Sam Muchnick Memorial Tournament (1986) in St. Louis, MO on August 29
*Slammy Award for Best Ring Apparel (1987)
*WWE Hall of Fame (Class of 2004)

*Wrestler of the Year (1980, 1981)
*Match of the Year (1983) vs. Ric Flair at Starrcade
*Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (Class of 1996)

1Though this championship was almost always used and defended in the Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling promotion, there were times when it was won and defended through arrangements with other promotions. Race was awarded the title with the explanation that he defeated Johnny Weaver in a tournament final while wrestling on a card for Championship Wrestling from Florida.



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