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#16 Harley Race
Renowned for being one of the toughest professional wrestlers of all-time, Harley Race would enjoy a legendary career that saw him anchor the National Wrestling Alliance for more than two decades. An eight-time world champion, Race was always available when the NWA needed him, and he finished with one of the most respected and revered careers in wrestling. A true "old-school" wrestler, Race was a throwback to heels of an earlier era, like Johnny Valentine and Bill Longson, he would claim to be the toughest guy in wrestling and then back it up whipping his opponent all over the arena.
Race grew up in Missouri and was a fan of professional wrestling from an early age. Race actually was diagnosed with polio as a child, but managed to overcome that illness and would go on to tremendous success in the field of athletics. When he was a teenager he was kicked out of high school because of fighting, later deciding that he wanted to be a professional wrestler. Fortunately for Race, Stanislaus and Wladek Zbyszko, brothers who were among the most popular wrestlers in the world during the first half of the 20th century, ran a wrestling camp in Missouri on their family farm. Race broke into the industry in Missouri, starting out by running odd jobs for the St. Louis promotion, most notably being the personal driver/assistant to Happy Humphrey, a 700-lb attraction who was too large to drive. According to Race, Humphrey was too large to fit in normal showers so he would lie naked on the ground while Race hosed him down and scrubbed him. Breaking into the wrestling industry isn't always easy.
Race made his debut in 1960 and began to wrestle in the Nashville territory, wrestling under the name Jack Long, the storyline brother of another wrestler, John Long. The Long brothers would win the Nashville version of the world tag team titles and Race was viewed as a rising star in the industry who impressed older wrestlers with his dedication to the business and his willingness to learn. Unfortunately, Race's career was very nearly ended when he was involved in a brutal car accident, one that took the life of his pregnant wife who he had married only a month before. Race's leg was nearly amputated and according to legend, he was on the operating table but wrestling promoter Gust Karras intervened and prevented Race's leg from being amputated.
Told that he would never walk again and that his career was over; Race spent months going through grueling physical therapy and ended up defying the odds and returning to the ring in 1964. His reputation firmly entrenched as a legitimate tough guy, Race worked on some of the first shows in the World Wide Wrestling Federation and would move on to working for Verne Gagne and the American Wrestling Association. Throughout 1964 Race would begin to wrestle under his real name and formed a tag team with Larry "The Axe" Hennig.
Race and Hennig's tag team worked well as cocky heels who constantly broke the rules to pick up victories. At the time, tag team wrestling was largely seen as a novelty. Popularized by Australian tag team The Fabulous Kangaroos during the previous decade, the idea of a tag team match was still in its infancy during the early 1960s. The AWA would become the hottest promotion in the country when it came to tag team wrestling, and Race and Hennig would help establish that reputation. In January of 1965, Race and Hennig would defeat the popular babyface tag team of Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher for the AWA World Tag Team Championships. Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher were known for their wild, brawling style and their clashes with Race and Hennig were some of the most physical matches of the decade.
Race would work for the AWA pretty much exclusively for the next several years, tagging with Hennig and feuding with Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher and other tag teams, including various teams involving AWA head honcho Verne Gagne. They would swap the titles several times with Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher, their longest reign coming in their final run as champions, lasting over 300 days in 1967. In 1969 Race decided to leave the AWA to pursue a singles career in the NWA.
In the early 1970s Race wrestled in several territories in the NWA and began to build his reputation as a feared singles villain. A big feud for him was with Terry Funk in the Amarillo territory; where Funk was already a hometown legend. The physical, heated brawls between Funk and Race in Texas were recognized as one of the most intense feuds in the NWA and Stan Hansen would later say that those matches made him turn to professional wrestling as a potential career option.
In addition to his work with Funk, Race would become the kingpin of wrestling in his native Missouri. In 1972 Race would defeat Pak Song in a tournament final to crown a new NWA Missouri Heavyweight Champion, a regional belt whose history dates all the way back to 1899. Race would become one of the most prominent territorial stars in the NWA, capturing the championship on seven different occasions and working big-time programs with the likes of Johnny Valentine, Dory Funk Jr., Bob Backlund and Jack Brisco. In 1973 Race began working with All-Japan Pro Wrestling and became a top challenger for Giant Baba. Race would challenge Baba for the Pacific Wrestling Federation Heavyweight Championship in September of 1973, losing in a two-out-of-three falls match.
In 1973 Race found himself in the middle of a real-life feud between Jack Brisco and The Funks. The NWA administration wanted Dory Funk Jr. to drop the NWA World Heavyweight Championship to Brisco; but Funk was apprehensive about dropping the title to another babyface. When Funk was scheduled to drop the championship, he was involved in a car accident on the family ranch and was unable to wrestle on the assigned date. The accident was rumored to have been a planned stunt by The Funks to get Dory out of dropping the championship to Brisco.
Since Dory didn't want to drop the championship to a fellow babyface, an emergency heel challenger was called in. Since Race was seen as an up-and-coming main event level heel, he was given the opportunity. Race was also viewed as a rough-and-tough streetfighter who would could handle Funk in the ring if he decided to get cute. Race challenged Funk for the championship in Kansas City, and legend has it that Race was told by the NWA to not allow Funk to leave the ring as champion. The orders proved to be unnecessary, as Funk willingly dropped the championship to Race.
Race's original title reign was short-lived, as he fulfilled his obligation to the NWA by dropping the championship to Brisco several months later. Despite the brevity of his championship reign; the victory did wonders for Race's career. Since it was not uncommon for an NWA championship reign to last several years, there were very few active wrestlers who could claim to be a former NWA World Heavyweight Champion, which made him one of the most in-demand draws in wrestling. It also proved to the NWA that fans would accept Race as a world champion and put him in contention for a more serious reign down the line.
After his first title reign Race would continue to build his reputation in different NWA territories, capturing several regional championships. Central States Wrestling, Jim Crockett Promotions, Georgia Championship Wrestling and Championship Wrestling from Florida were just some of the different territories that Race contended for championships in. One of the regional championships that Race would hold would be the Mid-Atlantic United States Championship, becoming the first man in history to hold the title that would last through three different promotions and is now the WWE United States Championship.
In February of 1977, Race would recapture the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, this time dethroning Terry Funk for the championship in Toronto, meaning that Race took the world title from both Dory and Terry Funk. Race would prove to be perhaps the most durable champion in history, wrestling a hellacious schedule, typically defending the championship up to six times per week and wrestling over 300 matches each year. As the former NWA champions, such as the Funks and Jack Brisco, began to drift more into regional stars, Race carried the NWA flag all over the world, working harder than any other man in professional wrestling.
In the late-1970s the NWA World Heavyweight Championship was recognized as one of three "true" world championships in the United States and Canada. The other two were the AWA and WWWF world titles; and during Race's title reign the NWA had a solid working relationship with both promotions, meaning that Race got to wrestle some dream matches against the champions of those promotions. He wrestled then-WWWF World Heavyweight Champion "Superstar" Billy Graham and Bob Backlund, the latter taking place at a supershow in the Orange Bowl in Miami. He also squared off with AWA kingpin Nick Bockwinkel in a series of other highly anticipated matches. On the international level Race began to achieve iconic status. Not only did he frequently travel to AJPW, but he also made title defenses in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and other countries.
Race's second NWA World Heavyweight Championship reign lasted well-over two years and featured title defenses against the likes of Andre the Giant, The Sheik, Dusty Rhodes and other top stars. His reign would be ended by Rhodes, who defeated him in August of 1979 at a show in Tampa, with Race regaining the championship just five days later in Orlando. A similar title switch would take place later that year, with Giant Baba taking the championship off of Race at the beginning of a tour in Japan and Race regaining the championship at the end of the tour. In 1980 it would happen again, Baba won the championship from Race only to drop it back to Race five days later. In 1981 Race would lose the championship to Tommy Rich at a house show in Atlanta and would regain the championship just four days after.
To recap, from February of 1977 to June of 1981 Race held the NWA Championship for a combined 1,575 days, and everybody else combined to hold it for 21 days. Race winning the championship eight times in his career is kind of an inflated number because of all the quick title swapsóbut that isn't what matters. What does matter is that for a four-and-a-half year span, Race was the NWA World Heavyweight Champion and he defended it everywhere on the planet.
The most memorable part of Race's career is perhaps his promos. Race had a very unique speaking voice, harsh and gravelly that seemed to come from the deepest part of Race's gut. The look of Race staring directly into the camera and calmly but intensely uttering his threats and making his claims is one of the most iconic images from the heyday of the NWA. Unlike a lot of the stars from his era he wasn't a screamer and he hardly showed any emotion, but it worked tremendously for Race; setting him apart from the rest of his contemporaries. The guys who yelled and cut fiery promos were the same guys who had week-long title reignsóthe pretenders. The guy who didn't have to yell in his promos was the real champion.
Rhodes would take the championship off of Race in 1981 and Race would fail to regain the championship from Rhodes as Rhodes dropped it to Ric Flair. Flair would hold the championship until June of 1983, where he would go from being a heel to a tweener and then a babyface. Race would emerge as the next champion, taking the title off of Flair and turning Flair into a babyface. The NWA would then build the very first Starrcade event, a massive event that would change the course of wrestling history by promoting an annual supershow that served as a the pinnacle of the wrestling calendar, around Flair chasing Race for the championship under the slogan "A Flair for the Gold". Flair would defeat Race for the championship, although Race would regain the title in March of 1984 during a tour of New Zealand and would drop the title three days later to Flair in Singapore, ending his eighth and final NWA World Heavyweight Championship reign.
Following his final loss to Flair, Race would begin working mainly for the Kansas City territory, which he had a significant ownership stake in. He would wind up on the losing end of Vince McMahon's war against the wrestling establishment, eventually running Race out of business and forcing Race to continue to wrestle despite wanting to retire because Race had lost so much money in Kansas City. Race would work in the WWF in 1986, winning the King of the Ring tournament and going by the moniker "King" Harley Race, complete with a crown and cape. His most notable feud in the WWF was against the Junkyard Dog, which culminated in a match at the mammoth WrestleMania III event that saw Race win. He would spend 1987 feuding with Hulk Hogan and later Hacksaw Jim Duggan. He would suffer a hernia injury which largely ended his wrestling career, although he came back briefly in 1989 and would actually contend for the AWA World Heavyweight Championship against Larry Zbyszko at the final AWA tapings. After retiring for good in 1991 Race served various functions in wrestling, most notably as a manager for Vader in WCW and later would open his own wrestling academy.
Race is about as old-school of a wrestler that you will find. He starred during an era where it was important that the champion exude toughness and being the champion required working an incredible schedule. Race proved to be one of the most capable champions in wrestling history, emanating all of the best qualities of a heel champion while going on to be one of the well-known wrestlers on an international scale in history. A true wrestling lifer, Race went from being the personal assistant to Happy Humphrey, to one of the best tag team wrestlers in wrestling, to an international superstar as the NWA champion, making him one of the most decorated and revered wrestlers in the industry.
Next week #15 will be revealed, at over 300lbs this superheavyweight didn't need many title victories to remain a top draw in two different decades.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu
19. Dusty Rhodes
18. Dory Funk Jr.
16. Harley Race