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.
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.
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.
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.
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.