Vol. 38: The Great American Bash ’85: Freedom Challenge

The inaugural edition of The Great American Bash was held on July 6, 1985, at The American Legion Memorial Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. Much like the early Starrcades and the first WrestleMania, the show was carried on Closed Circuit television because Pay-Per-View TV was still largely a new concept.

Continue reading “Vol. 38: The Great American Bash ’85: Freedom Challenge”

Vol. 37: Jim Crockett Jr. and the Story of Jim Crockett Promotions Rise to National Popularity

Today we have another career tribute for somebody that was not a wrestler. To tell the story of Jim Jr. (or Jimmy) we first have to look at the family and the business at the time. Jim Crockett Sr. (aka “Big Jim”) was a promoter of many sports and entertainment, including pro wrestling. Vince McMahon talked about how much his dad respected Big Jim, and that he was a good promoter and a good man.

Big Jim ran Jim Crocket Promotions from 1935 until his sudden untimely death of a heart attack in 1973 at the age of 63. The company was originally meant to go to John Ringley. who was married to the oldest sibling, Frances Crockett. However, he got caught cheating on her and the reigns were handed over to Jim Jr.

It’s worth noting that even in the 1970s a woman owning and running a business was still uncommon. It’s also worth noting that Ann Gunkel tried running a wrestling promotion after her husband Roy passed away and was not very successful.

One of the main changes Jim made after taking over the promotion was to bring in George Scott and focus on singles feuds for bigger arenas. He is also credited with creating the NWA Mid-Atlantic US Title, which has a lineage still recognized by WWE to this day. He also helped forge what would become a vital part of wrestling, the major show PPV like Starrcade.

When you look at it from a per capita standpoint, he ran the #1 territory for a while. In 1985 he famously bought the timeslot of 6:05 PM ET Saturday Night timeslot for TBS replacing the WWF show and beating out Bill Watts. The first two or three years after that were some of the best years of any wrestling promotion ever. While, JCP still was running in the southeastern part of the US (Georgia, The Carolinas, Virginia, and Florida), they still managed to sell more tickets to wrestling events than Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, which had expanded nationally.

Unfortunately, despite outselling WWE in ticket sales in 1986, Jim Crockett Promotions wound up over one million dollars in debt in 1988. The family had no choice but to sell the company to Ted Turner’s media company.

As mentioned during the show, Crazy Train was a guest on The Willis Show.

Vol. 36: Pat Patterson (1941-2020)

Pat Patterson, widely considered one of the most influential men in wrestling for the 20th Century, passed away on December 2nd, 2020. He was also looked at as Vince McMahon’s best friend and right-hand man from the WWF Expansion through the Attitude Era and into the 21st Century. His contributions over many decades are too numerous to name. No matter what style or era, Patterson had some level of impact on the wrestling world.

Modern fans will likely remember him most as being one of Vince’s “stooges” along with Gerald Brisco. The previous generation would remember him as the first-ever WWF Intercontinental Champion. The generation before that would remember his legendary tag-team with Ray Stevens as The Blond Bombers in Roy Shire’s Big Time Wrestling. And the generation before THAT might remember his run in Portland for Don Owen’s Pacific Northwest.

Pierre Clemont was born in Montreal Quebec in 1941 and started his wrestling training as a teenager. He was inspired by Buddy Rogers and Killer Kowalski, so he took the bleach blond hair and moveset of Rogers, but also wore Kowalski-like purple tights. He quickly developed a reputation of making others look great in the ring, which impressed a young Mad Dog Vachon.

Patterson moved to The States where he first worked for Big Time Wrestling in Boston, not to be confused with Roy Shire’s San Francisco promotion of the same name. There he met Louie Dondero, who became his real-life partner. He also had a rendezvous with Johnnie Mae Young.

Pacific Northwest

After spending a year in Boston, Pat got a call from Vachon, who told him to go to Oregon and work for Don Owen. Pat was not asked about this beforehand and no-showed the tryout. This angered Vachon, who called him again and threatened to beat the hell out of him if he did it again. All you have to do is look at a picture of Maurice Vachon and you can see why that would be scary. Pat was not a shooter.

Would you want this man angry at you?

Pat and Louie moved to Oregon where Pat started working for Owen. Over the next few years, Pat would work in other territories as part of a talent exchange, which was common on those days. In these other states (Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, etc.) Pat started using effeminate stereotypes to enhance his gimmick. Things like lipstick, cigarette holders, and flashy attire. Louie worked as a valet.

By the time they returned to Oregon full-time, Pat was a bonafide main-eventer. He stopped using the effeminite gimmicks and became more serious. He won several titles over the next few years before starting the next chapter in his career.

Fellow wrestlers in Portland recommended he move to San Francisco and work for Roy Shire’s Big Time Wrestling. Patterson did the common practice of losing matches before he left the territory. One such loss was to a young Antonio Inoki. Another was a Loser Leaves Town Match to his rival Pepper Martin. After that loss, Pat and Louie packed their things and moved to San Francisco

San Francisco

Shire told him was if he was going to be a top guy, he had to look the part and get his body into shape. Pat hated working out, but the philosophy of looking like a main-eventer stuck with him for the rest of his life. It was also something he passed on to the next generations of wrestlers.

One of his first matches in San Francisco was at the legendary Cow Palace. At the time, circa 1965, The Cow Palace was one of the premiere venues in the country. It was like the Madison Square Garden of the West Coast. Patterson wrestled, and impressed, Red Bastien that night. So much so that Bastien sang Pat’s praises backstage over how good Pat made him look. That vote of confidence massively helped Patterson’s reputation backstage.

Big Time Wrestling held an annual battle royal every January as one of its major events. Shire would call in talent from several territories to be part of the all-star match. One year, Shire wound up on the wrong end of a fight and was out of commission. Pat stepped in and booked the match, which he had the clout to do as one of the top stars for the company. Pat would then help Roy book the battle royal every year after. These January battle royals would be the main inspriation for the Royal Rumble event WWE holds to this day.

The Blond Bombers

Eventually, Patterson did start teaming with Ray Stevens. The duo adopted the name The Blonde Bombers, which was previously used by the team of Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson. This began what was probably the biggest run in Patterson’s career. The Blond Bombers won the tag titles and held them for the better part of two years until Pat left to go on a tour of Japan.

By the time Patterson returned to San Francisco, Ray Stevens had turned babyface. The team split and the two men feuded over the territory’s United States title. Pat started to wear a mask. His cover story was that he was too good-looking for the audience to see his face. In reality, the mask was loaded, which allowed Patterson to knock out opponents with a devastating headbutt. Stevens ultimately won the title in a Texas Death Match.

Pat turned babyface after Ray Stevens left the territory to work for Verne Gagne’s AWA. He did away with the mask and feuded with top heels like Lars Anderson and Ernie Ladd. He also teamed with fellow babyface Rocky Johnson to win the tag titles. Stevens flew in on occasion to team with Pat as a babyface team for big matches. Patterson returned the favor by teaming with Stevens as heels in the AWA.

During all this time, Patterson was helping Shire book the territory in addition to being pushed as a top star. Pat asked Roy for partial ownership of the promotion. Shire refused, and Pat left the territory. He spent the following year in Florida working for Eddie Graham.

The Blond Bombers reunited in the AWA as a heel tag team, this time with Bobby Heenan as their manager. They were awarded the AWA Tag Titles after The High Flyers vacated them and held them for approximately eight months.

World Wrestling Federation/WWE

Pat Patterson was the inaugural Intercontinental Champion

Patterson began working for Vincent J. McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation in 1979 where he ultimately would remain for the rest of his life. It’s worth noting that he was still working for The AWA at the time. He defeated Ted DiBiase for the WWF North American Title and took that belt on a tour with New Japan Pro Wrestling.

This is also around the time Pat infamously “won” the newly christened Intercontinental Championship in a fictitious Rio De Jeanero tournament. It is a common misconception that the North American Title quietly became the Intercontinental Championship. What actually happened is Patterson lost the North American Title to Seiji Sakaguchi. For whatever reason, New Japan simply stopped using the belt.

Another little known fact about the Intercontinental Championship is it was created to give Patterson heat for his feud with WWF Champion Bob Backlund. He did not win the World Title, of course, but the matches drew big for Madison Square Garden.

Patterson also had a legendary feud with Sgt. Slaughter that culminated in the famous Boot Camp Match. Even by today’s standards, that match very violent and bloody.

Backstage Influence

The 1980s saw Pat transition from in-ring competitor to backstage office worker. He became heavily involved with booking major events, helped talent develop their characters, and also created inventive gimmick matches. He is perhaps most known for creating the Royal Rumble concept based on his experience booking battle royals in San Francisco. In addition to helping book matches and work with talent, Pat also headed up talent relations. This was the job JJ Dillon, Jim Ross, and John Laurenitis did in later years.

Perhaps the biggest story involving Patterson in the mainstream news was a scandal in the late 1980s involving young male ring crew complaining of sexual harassment. While Pat was never formally implicated, nor was he tried for any crimes, he was let go from his job because of the scandal. Vince McMahon hired him back sometime later after the controversy had died down.

Just about any wrestler or personality that worked in WWE over the last 40 years likely has some personal story or memory of Pat Patterson. His fingerprints were all over the creative direction, especially when it came to finishes for big matches. His influence on the wrestling world is unparalleled and will continue to be felt for generations to come.

Vol. 35: The Armstrong Family

There are many famous families in the world of pro wrestling. The Harts may be the most well known, The Anoa’i family may be the largest. But the focus of this volume of Classic Wrestling Memories is dedicated to The Armstrong Family: Bob, Scott, Brad, Steve, and Brian.

Bob Armstrong was born Joseph Melton James in Georgia in 1939. He first saw wrestling as a child and trained to wrestle as a teen. After serving as a United States Marine in the early 60s, Bob became a firefighter. Bob Armstrong retired from full-time wrestling in 1988. He would still wrestle on independents for another 30 years and acted as commissioner for Jim Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling. He was inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2010. He passed away from cancer in 2020.

Brad Armstrong was born Robert Bradley James on June 15th, 1962. He made his in-ring debut in 1980 and quickly found success teaming with his father Bob in Southeastern Championship Wrestling. In the following years, he also won tag team championships with Magnum TA and, of course, with Tim Horner as The Lightning Express.

Scott Armstrong, born Joseph Scott James in 1961, is the oldest of the Armstrong brothers. Like his father, he started wrestling in the Georgia territory. He wrestled in mainly preliminary matches and in lower card tag team matches with his brother Brad.

Like the rest of The Armstrong Family, Steve started out in Southwest Championship Wrestling. His first major program was teaming with Johnny Rich against Ron Fuller’s Stud Stable, which included a young Arn Anderson. Steve teamed with Tracy Smothers as The Southern Boys and won the tag team titles in Eddie Graham’s Florida Championship Wrestling. The two also won the tag titles in Fuller’s Continental Championship Wrestling.

Brian and Billy Gunn formed the very successful tag team that would become known as The New Age Outlaws. They spent the next four years at the top of the WWF card as part of Degeneration X where they held the WWF Tag Team Championship four times.

Vol. 34: Halloween Havoc 1991

It’s the month of Halloween, so we decided to review an infamous WCW PPV from what may be the silliest era in the company’s history, Halloween Havoc 1991. This show is readily available on the WWE Network and is widely considered a display of the good and the bad of the company.

Team #1 beat Team #2 in a Chamber of Horrors Match – Yes, those were the team names. Team #1 consisted of Sting, The Steiner Brothers, and El Gigante faced Team #2 of Cactus Jack, Abdullah The Butcher, The Diamond Studd, and Big Van Vader when Cactus Jack accidentally shocked Abdullah The Butcher in the Chair Of Torture.

PN News and Big Josh b. The Mysterious Creatures when PN News pinned one of The Creatures with a top rope splash – Basically a glorified squash match. Big Josh would go on to become the original Doink The Clown. Bobby Eaton p. Terence Taylor with The Alabama Jam – Taylor was part of The York Foundation, headed by Alexandra York, the future Marlena/Terri Runnels.

Johnny B. Badd p. Jimmy Garvin with a Left Hook – Garvin was accompanied by an “injured” Michael P.S. Hayes.

World Television Champion “Stunning” Steve Austin (w/ Lady Blossom) d. Dustin Rhodes – A 15-minute time-limit draw.

Bill Kazmeier s. Oz with a Torture Rack – Oz would go on to be Diesel/Kevin Nash.

Van Hammer p. Doug Sommers – Another squash match

Brian Pillman p. Richard Morton to become the first-ever Light Heavyweight Champion – Morton was also part of the York Foundation and grossly miscast as a heel.

The Halloween Phantom p. Tom Zenk – Effectively another squash match to introduce Rick Rude.

World Tag Team Champions The Enforcers (Arn Anderson & Larry Zbyszko) b. US Tag Champions The Patriots (Todd Champion & Firebreaker Chip) when Anderson pinned Chip with a Spinebuster – The Patriots came across as an attempt by WCW to be WWE “Sports Entertainment”.

World Heavyweight Champion Lex Luger b. Ron Simmons in a Two-Out-Of-Three Falls Match – The first fall saw Simmons quickly pin Luger. The second fall ended in a DQ when Luger went over the top rope. The third fall had Luger pin Simmons with a Piledriver.

Vol. 33: Mr. Wrestling I and II

Seth and Train talk the two men that donned the mantle of Mr. Wrestling, Tim Woods, and Johnny Walker.

3:15 – Mr. Wrestling

Woods went to the Omaha territory where promotor Joe Dusek gave him the name Mr. Wrestling. Dusek wanted Mr. Wrestling to wear a mask, despite most masked wrestlers in America were villains. He gave Woods a white mask and white singlet to wrestle in because he wanted Mr. Wrestling to be a babyface. The gimmick worked, and Mr. Wrestling was born. Mr. Wrestling would see his greatest success in the south and southeast territories. Leo Garibaldi promoted for months ahead of time that this mysterious man who was such an accomplished wrestler, no major star would be willing to face him if they knew his identity.

44:42 – The Famous Plane Crash

In 1975, Woods boarded a private plane with Johnny Valentine, David Crockett, and a young Ric Flair. The plane crashed breaking the backs of the other three wrestlers and killing the pilot. Woods gave his real name of George Woodin to the authorities and claimed to be a promotor. This was to cover the fact that he was the only babyface on the plane because if word got out that a babyface was in the same plane as heels, it would hurt the image of pro wrestling being legitimate. Especially if people learned that Tim Woods and George Woodin were one and the same.

40:18 – Mr. Wrestling II

Johnny Walker began his career as “The Rubberman” due to his flexibility. Unfortunately, he physically looked older than he was. So much so that he retired at the age of 30 because he looked like he was in his mid-40s. But if you put a mask on him, his aged look went away. He and Woods formed a team for a while. When he started work in Mid-South, he turned heel against top babyface Junkyard Dog. This brought about the infamous botch where II was supposed to pin JYD with a kneelift. II unfortunately missed by a mile with the kneelift but JYD still sold it like it killed him. This infuriated the crowd and caused a massive dip in business. He also teamed with and feuded against Magnum TA for The Crocketts.

1:07:00 – Wrap Up

Mr. Wrestling II retired in the early 80s and simply went home and returned to the life of Johnny Walker. Legend has it he didn’t acknowledge his past in wrestling and simply went by his name. His wife also had a knack for making flashy robes and suits for wrestlers and entertainers.

Vol. 32: WrestleMania (1985)

A look at the original WrestleMania and the Rock & Wrestling Connection that built up to it.

7:08 – The WWF Goes National

Vince McMahon began his national expansion for The World Wrestling Federation in 1984. He spent the year assembling an all-star roster from several of the competing territories. The biggest acquisition, of course, was Hulk Hogan. Hogan had already established himself as an international star by working in Verne Gagne’s AWA and New Japan Pro Wrestling, and by having a memorable role as Thunderlips in Rocky III.

13:53 – The Rock n’ Wrestling Connection

It’s common knowledge that Vince used the “Rock n’ Wrestling Connection” branding during the expansion. Live specials aired on MTV that utilized Cyndi Lauper. Hogan made media appearances all over the country. Vince created Tuesday Night Titans for USA Network. He even bought the coveted 6:05 PM Saturday Night timeslot that had become a staple on TBS. Legendary manager Lou Albano appeared in Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” music video. This lead to an onscreen confrontation between the two. Albano was a heel at this time, and he played the part of a male chauvinist. The two agreed to a match with each one hand-picking their wrestlers. Albano chose WWF Women’s Champion The Fabulous Moolah, while Lauper backed Wendi Richter.

24:42 – Enter Roddy Piper

Roddy Piper debuted in the WWF in early 1984. However, he did not wrestle regularly for several months. This was due to an ear injury suffered at Starrcade in a match with Greg Valentine. Since he couldn’t wrestle, he acted as “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff’s manager. He also hosted Piper’s Pit, his talk show which often led to matches and angles on TV. By the end of 1984, Piper had become the top heel in the promotion. The Rock n’ Wrestling Connection was in full swing, so Piper naturally claimed that he hated rock music and insisted on playing bagpipe music. In December of 1984, the first shot was fired which would lead to WrestleMania. Dick Clark, another legit A-Lister in the entertainment world, presented Albano with a gold record award at Madison Square Garden. Piper, Orndorff, and Bob Orton Jr. crashed the party and smashed Albano with his own award. During the melee, Piper also managed to kick Lauper in the head. Hogan ran out to make the save.

39:43 – The War To Settle The Score

The biggest angle leading into Wrestlemania happened on February 15th, 1985 on MTV called The War To Settle The Score. This saw Piper and Hogan collide with the WWF Championship on the line. Hogan brought his friend Mr. T to sit at ringside. The match erupted into strikes right off the bat. No lockups. No staredowns. Orndorff and Orton again interfered, resulting in a disqualification. Mr. T ran in to make the save.

45:37 – The Road To WrestleMania

By this time, The WWF had gathered considerable national attention. There was this nexus or dichotomy, whatever you want to call it, with the top babyface in Hogan, and a legit top Hollywood star in Mr. T, against the two top heels. It made pages of Sports Illustrated. Hogan and T hosted Saturday Night Live.

On the heel side, what was real and what was worked may be clouded but there were countless stories of Roddy Piper not liking the outsider in Mr. T coming into the wrestling world. T went on record saying that he didn’t hate Roddy, but there was animosity between the two.

55:00 – Filling Out The Undercard

The main event of Hogan & Mr. T vs. Roddy Piper & Paul Orndorff was set. As was the semi-main of Wendi Richter challenging Leilani Kai for the Women’s Championship. As for the undercard, Bobby Heenan had recently made his WWF alongside Big John Studd to feud with Andre The Giant. The US Express of Barry Windham & Mike Rotunda (years before he was I.R.S.) defending the tag titles against Nikolai Volkoff & The Iron Sheik (w/ Freddie Blassie). Junkyard Dog challenged Greg Valentine for the IC Title, despite Valentine’s feud being with Tito Santana. Brutus Beefcake faced David Sammartino, who was accompanied by his legendary father Bruno. Ricky Steamboat faced a pre-Doink Matt Borne. King Kong Budy (fresh of his run in Mid-South) facing SD Jones in the longest nine seconds in the history of time.

Vol. 31: “Soulman” Rocky Johnson (1944-2020)

Rocky Johnson may be known by modern fans as the father of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but he had a Hall Of Fame worthy career in his own right. His in-ring charisma and ability to connect with the crowd made him a top draw everywhere he wrestled. Rocky’s six-foot-two inch 260-pound bodybuilder frame had amazing athleticism. In fact, many consider his dropkick to be among the greatest of all time.

NWA Territories (1965-1980)

Johnson made his debut in Ontario, Canada for Frank Tunney. Before long, he was a major attraction in San Francisco for Roy Shire, and in NWA Hollywood for Mike Lebell. He feuded with the likes of “Classy” Freddie Blassie and Pat Patterson. Rocky Johnson gained additional fame in the Florida territory for Eddie Graham. Then, over in Georgia Championship Wrestling, he became the first African-American Georgia Heavyweight Champion. Not only that, he held the Georgia Tag Titles simultaneously with Gerald Brisco. During these years, Johnson had NWA Heavyweight Title matches with Jack Brisco, Terry Funk, Harley Race, and Ric Flair. He even toured New Japan where he had matches with Antonio Inoki and Riki Choshu.

NATIONAL FAME

Rocky was part of The World Wrestling Federation’s national expansion in the mid-1980s. Johnson teamed with Tony Atlas to form the popular tag team The Soul Patrol. They were a hit with the fans. So much so that they won the WWF Tag Team Championship in late 1983 from The Wild Samoans. While the team was popular, the two had notorious differences. As a result, they lost the tag titles and disbanded shortly afterward. Rocky would go on to feud with the likes of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and The Magnificent Muraco. WWF Tag Team Champions The Soul Patrol Image: WWE

Retirement and Post-Wrestling Life

Rocky Johnson retired from full-time competition after leaving The WWF in 1985. He made sporadic appearances for the next few years. His final in-ring WWE appearance was at WrestleMania 13. When The Iron Sheik and The Sultan attacked a young Rock, Johnson ran into the ring to protect his son. Rocky Johnson won over 25 titles in his career. In 2008, Rocky was inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame along with his stepfather Peter Maivia. The Rock himself made the induction speech.

Vol. 30: Unpopular Opinions

This volume of CWM is a bit of a departure from the norm. Instead of talking about a specific territory, person, or event, we will talk about three common beliefs from wrestling fans throughout the years. Beliefs that can be disputed, despite them being so common. They may not be popular to disagree with, so that’s why this episode is called Unpopular Opinions.

Unpopular Opinion #1: Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat at WrestleMania III is not the greatest WrestleMania match of all time

Many fans over the years have stated that the greatest WrestleMania match of all time is Savage vs. Steamboat from WrestleMania III. However, when the story of such a bitter rivalry is factored in, the tone of the match becomes illogical. Let us be clear. THIS IS A GREAT MATCH! Anybody that knows Seth knows that Randy Savage is his favorite wrestler of all time. Steamboat is arguably the greatest white meat babyface of all time. So this is no disrespect to either man, but both Steamboat and Savage have let it be known that even they didn’t believe it was their best match. Plus, it’s no secret that Steamboat and Savage had radically different approaches with how they wrestle.

Unpopular Opinion #2: Vince McMahon did not kill the territories

New-School fans and even many old-school fans blame WWE Chairman Vince Mcmahon for the death of the territory system. But when you look at the actual history of the territories in the 1980s, it becomes apparent that the territories were as much a danger to themselves as Vince was. From trying to sign away talent to overreaching their realistic bounds. As Seth states, even if Vince DID do it all himself, somebody else would have if he didn’t. The territories had their chance with Pro Wrestling USA, which held the inaugural Superclash event at Comiskey Park in 1985. But in the end, it folded before it even got off the ground.

Unpopular Opinion #3: Ronnie Garvin’s NWA World Title Win in 1987 was a good idea

Ronnie Garvin’s 1987 NWA Title reign is often mocked by fans and historians, many of whom did not experience the territory firsthand. Fans who saw him on Crockett Television know just how over Ronnie was at the time. And we don’t mean watching the TV that’s available on the WWE Network, we mean living in the territory at the time. One of the reasons Starrcade ’87 was moved to Chicago was to ensure that Garvin would NOT be favored by a heel-friendly crowd when Flair won the title back. As always, let us know what you think. Do you have any Unpopular Opinions about wrestling? Sound off in the comments below or on our Twitter and Facebook pages. Since we’re talking about a lot of wrestling that came from the 1980s, what better accompanying playlist than Crazy Train’s 80s One Hit Wonders!

Vol. 29: Harley Race, The Greatest Wrestler On God’s Green Earth

There are a lot of cliched names for all-time greats, and many of them apply to Harley Race. A Man’s Man. A Champion’s Champion. A Hall Of Famer’s Hall Of Famer. And so on. There’s a reason why on The Wrestling Brethren shows the term “WWHD” (What Would Harley Do?) comes up from time to time. Harley Race was one of the biggest stars in pro wrestling during the 1970s. He won the NWA World Championship A total of four times during that decade, and with the exception of a few short-term losses he held it for over four years.

The Beginning

Unlike a lot of other wrestlers, Harley Race was not a stage name. It was his genuine birth name. Many fans may not know that Harley had a bout with Polio as a child. Fortunately, he was able to make a recovery. The stories of how tough he was date back to his childhood. He may not have ever truly finished a high school education. In fact, Harley was expelled from High School for getting into a fight. When the principal tried to break up the fight, Harley attacked him too.

Early Career

Harley found training with the Zbyzsko brothers, Stanislaus and Wladek. If that last name sounds familiar, these were the men Larry Zbyzsko took the last name of as a tribute. Harley also worked as a chauffeur for Happy Humphrey, a well-known wrestler at the time who weighed approximately 600 pounds. His first matches were in Missouri under the name Jack Long for promoter Gust Karras where he worked tag matches with an onscreen brother John Long. Harley was involved in a serious and tragic auto accident that killed his newlywed wife and unborn child in 1960. Doctors believed Harley’s injuries were so severe they required amputation of his leg. Karras visited the hospital and convinced the doctors not to amputate the leg. Harley was told he would not walk again, let alone wrestle. After many long months of training and physical therapy, Harley returned to the ring under the name The Great Mortimer in 1963. Shortly after this, Harley went to Texas to work for Dory Funk, Sr. There he permanently started using his real name because “Harley Race” was a much better name than “Jack Long”. This was also where he met Larry Hennig and formed a friendship.

AWA

Race and Hennig started working for Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (AWA) where they were known as Handsome Harley Race and Pretty Boy Larry Hennig. Of course, neither man was thought of as particularly good looking so it was a perfect gimmick for a heel tag team. They won the AWA Tag Team Titles on three occasions and had a memorable feud with fan favorites Bruiser and Crusher. In fact, they frequently wrestled Verne Gagne himself, who would team with various partners.

The NWA Territories

Harley Race is regarded as one of the greatest NWA Champions of all time. What is ironic us his first run with the title was not planned in advance. It came about due to friction between then Champion Dory Funk Jr. and top contender Jack Brisco. In the early 1970s, Dory Funk Jr. was the NWA World Champion and had been for many years. Jack Brisco, who was then an up-and-coming babyface challenger, faced Junior for the title in multiple territories. Paul Bosch in Houston, Eddie Graham in Florida, and Sam Muchnick in Missouri all drew major crowds with a Dory Jr. vs. Jack Brisco main event. And they all knew that sooner or later there had to be the payoff of Jack finally winning the title. The plan was for Dory to lose the title to Jack Brisco on March 2nd, 1973 in Houston. However, one week prior to the event, Funk contacted the office and claimed to have been in a farming accident and would be unable to wrestle for six weeks. This upset a lot of people, including the promoters and Jack himself, because it came across as Dory simply didn’t want to lose the title.

Rise To The Championship

Since the highly-anticipated Junior vs. Brisco match wasn’t going to happen, The NWA board picked Harley as the man to win the title since Race had the reputation as a legitimate tough guy. The match happened on May 24, 1973 and Harley defeated Funk to win his first NWA Title. He would hold the title for approximately two months before dropping it to Jack Brisco on July 20th.

Race would not see another NWA World Championship reign until four years later. He spent those years traveling from territory to territory and winning several regional titles. Among those titles was the inaugural NWA Mid-Atlantic United States Championship, now known as the WWE US Championship.

Finally, on February 6th, 1977, Harley would finally regain the NWA World Heavyweight Championship by defeating Terry Funk in Toronto Canada. This began the reign that he is probably best remembered for because outside of a handful of title losses that lasted less than a week each, Harley effectively had the title until the early 1980s. All but one of those losses were business. The one exception was the loss to Tommy Rich in Augusta Georgia on April 27th, 1981. Depending on who you listen to, it was either an accident or a power play by promotors.

Starrcade and return to AWA

Perhaps the most famous match of Harley’s career happened on November 26th, 1983 when Ric Flair defeated him in the main event of the original Starrcade. Harley cut the iconic “Take the damn money!” promo during the buildup to that match.

Vince McMahon, who had recently purchased The World Wrestling Federation from his father, actually approached Harley with an offer to no-show the event and jump to WWF. Race refused the offer because he gave his word that he would pass the torch to Flair at Starrcade.

Race actually regained the title briefly in New Zealand and lost it back to Flair a few days later. That short reign went unrecognized for several years due to the change happening without the approval of the NWA.

Harley returned to the AWA after his final NWA Title run. There he faced the likes of Curt Hennig but never achieved the success he had in the 1970s. Within a few years, he would begin his final run as a full-time in-ring competitor.

The WWF

Vince McMahon was finally able to sign Harley to work for him in 1986. For the first several months Race worked as Handsome Harley. He won the second-ever King Of The Ring tournament and began wearing a crown and scepter to the ring. Some fans found it very odd that a wrestler who took himself so seriously would start using an over-the-top gimmick like a “King”. This run was also notable for the familiar entrance music (“The Great Gates Of Kyiv”) that Jerry “The King” Lawler would use years later.

Race had his first of two WrestleMania matches at WrestleMania III where he defeated The Junkyard Dog. After that, he began a feud with Hulk Hogan over The WWF Championship. He suffered an injury during Saturday Night’s Main Event when he tried to hit Hogan with a diving headbutt on a table. Hogan moved and Harley crashed into the table. This was long before ECW made table bumps a common occurrence.

Retirement and WCW Manager run

Harley showed up in WCW around 1990 and began a new run as a manager. His first major program as a manager was working with Lex Luger during Luger’s first reign as WCW World Champion. He also had a successful run managing Big Van Vader to several WCW title reigns. He was inducted into the WCW Hall Of Fame in w994 and the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2004.