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Few men have ever dedicated so much of their lives to professional wrestling. Although the word "tough" will be the most frequently-used adjective when describing the life and career of Harley Race, it wasn't just toughness that defined Race. He was also arguably the most passionate man in the world when it came to professional wrestling; it is hard to imagine someone who loved the business more than Race. It was that passion that was highlighted on his personal Twitter account in the moments after he died:
"Today at 12:50, we lost the man that fought up until the very last of his existence. More information will be released soon, but just know that he loved pro-wrestling and the fans that loved him."
To understand Harley Race, and what made him the legend that he would become, you have to go back to the beginning. As a youngster growing up poor in a family of sharecroppers, Race was diagnosed with polio, but was able to beat the disease. Unusually large as an adolescent, Race was known for getting into fights in school and was kicked out of high school when according to his autobiography, he assaulted his principal when the principal tried to break up a fight between himself and another student.
Directionless, Race ended up working on a farm that was run by Stanislaus and Wladek Zbyszko, two wrestling brothers who were huge draws during the first half of the 20th century and also feared shooters. The Zbyszko's trained Race for wrestling, and he made his debut when he was only 16. Race's knowledge of old-fashioned hooking techniques, taught to him by the Zbyszkos, as well as his natural toughness and reputation as a street fighter, helped cultivate the image that Race was the toughest man who ever walked God's green earth.
Race broke into the industry working for promoter Gust Karras, who ran towns throughout Missouri, and served as a gopher and errand boy for the biggest stars who came through the bustling territory. His most notable job was as the personal driver and assistant of Happy Humphrey, a 700lb novelty wrestler who was popular at the time. Since Humphrey was too big to fit in most conventional showers, Race was in charge of spraying the naked Humphrey with a hose while he bathed outdoors. It wasn't quite training with the Zbyszkos, but that kind of experience probably toughens a man up quite a bit.
Race began to get some traction in the Missouri territory as a young hand, and in 1960 married Vivian Jones who was pregnant with his child. One month into their marriage, Race was driving when his car was involved in a terrible accident. Race nearly had his leg amputated, and he tragically lost his bride, along with his unborn child.
Race was told he might never walk again; but he had already beaten polio as a child and the doctors who told him that clearly didn't know who they were dealing with. Through grueling physical therapy, Race not only managed to walk again, he was able to return to the ring and continue his promising career; moving to Amarillo to work in Dory Funk Sr.'s territory, meeting Larry "The Axe" Hennig who he would then form a tag team with in the AWA, leading to his first major success as a wrestler feuding with The Crusher and Dick the Bruiser.
Race's career would then be on an upwards trajectory, his tough-guy persona and calm arrogance on promos made him a reviled heel across the world, and along with Bruno Sammartino and Andre the Giant, his presence epitomized wrestling in the 1970s in the United States. From 1973 to 1983, Race held the NWA World Heavyweight Championship for 1,799 days, just a shade under five years.
As champion, Race bridged a gap between classic, territorial wrestling to the flashier, national era. In the early days of the NWA, the world champion (most of the time it was Lou Thesz) was always presented as a master wrestler, who would come into territories and quickly beat his challengers, with the idea being that the goal was to always get over whoever held the world title as an unbeatable force, thus legitimizing the championship. Thesz was quiet, reserved and didn't necessarily engage in traditional feuds. That makes him sound unimpressive, but in those days that is what fans expected from the NWA World Heavyweight Champion.
Like Thesz, Race was a Missouri guy who kept St. Louis as the wrestling capital of the world. Thesz was famous for being nearly impossible to beat in a shoot fight, which made him a secure champion because he could never be double-crossed or cheated if a promoter or wrestler decided to go into business for themselves. Race carried on that tradition, even tough wrestlers balked at the thought of getting on Race's bad side. Like Thesz, he was always very classy and presentable in interviews.
However, like the man who would replace him as the perennial NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair, Race did have a lot of charisma. His promos were legendary; he would talk so slow, like every word was carefully being chosen before he said it, in a distinctive, gravel-infused voice. The threats he made and the claims he staked were not simply said in the spirit of competition, they were cautiously thought out in advance. Guys like Dusty Rhodes and Tommy Rich may have had more fire and passion on their promos, but those guys had short title reigns; Race was the champion for life.
By the time Flair had taken over as champion, wrestling had changed and been ushered into the modern era. Race isn't mentioned alongside Rhodes and Superstar Billy Graham, who were clearly ahead of their time when it came to showmanship. However, perhaps more importantly, Race was the champion who bridged the gap between the classic, Theszian-days of the NWA into the modern, new era of professional wrestling and brought the change along slowly while maintaining the old-fashioned dignity that the NWA was built on.
Even as he got older and retired from active wrestling, Race remained a passionate and legendary figure. Mick Foley had a telling anecdote about working with Race in WCW. Race was managing Vader, who was feuding with Foley at the time. The two were scheduled to have a match and WCW at the time had banned blading. In order to circumvent the ruling, Foley and Race plotted to have Race open up a cut on Foley's forehead by splitting Foley's eyebrow with his knuckles, a lost-art that only a few true old-school grapplers knew how to do.
During the match, Foley ended up getting busted-open inadvertently and was already bleeding heavily by the time Race was supposed to punch him. Foley wrote in his autobiography, "Have a Nice Day!" that Race was incredibly disappointed that Foley was already busted open, rendering his punch unnecessary. That enthusiasm, followed by sincere disappointment that he was no longer going to punch a man in the face, was a perfect portrait of who Harley Race was.
After leaving WCW, Race remained a fixture in wrestling, training students in his native Missouri and frequently criss-crossed the country for signings and speaking engagements, even as his health was declining. As wrestlers will attest, Race was extremely giving with his time and influenced countless wrestlers with his advice and perceptive knowledge of the industry.
Some wrestlers, like Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin and The Rock may have drawn more money and been bigger overall stars, but it is hard to name anyone who was bigger to the wrestlers than Harley Race. As Cody Rhodes said following his death; ten pounds of gold never looked better on anybody.