Harley Race was just 13 years old when he went with his father and brother to his very first wrestling match near his hometown of Quitman, Missouri. At that moment, Harley fell in love with wrestling, and he made a decision that would change his life.
”I told them both that that’s was what I was going to do,” said Harley Race. “A little over a year later, that was what I was doing.”
At the age of 15, Race came up with a plan that would allow him to train in wrestling on a full-time basis. Maybe to his parents, it wasn’t the most popular plan that he had ever come up with.
“To make sure I wasn’t going to have schooling that year, I picked a fight with the Principal. I punched him in the mouth and I got kicked out of school,” said Race. “Once my parents realized that wrestling was what I wanted to do, they let me go down and train.”
By the time Harley was 16 years old, he was in St. Joseph, Missouri, and training with Gus Karras and his veteran wrestlers. At that time, Karras was putting on wrestling shows there. He was sharing a region that covered a four-state area where Karras promoted wrestling matches with Bob Geigle and Pat O’Connor.
“I was wrestling with Gus at some carnivals and in less than a year, I was wrestling on television in St. Jo,” said Race. “Of course at that time he didn’t know how old I was, and if so, I wouldn’t be doing either one.”
Shortly after he started wrestling, he got his driver’s license which allowed him to start taking matches all over Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and other areas in the Midwest.
“I thought I was doing halfway decent with it,” said Race.” I got to wrestler Pat O’Connor, one of the guys who helped me train. I guess at the time that was as big as it could get for me without me having to leave town.”
It was near Christmas in 1960 when Harley was involved in a serious car accident that claimed the life of his wife. He was severely injured and was out of the sport for a little over a year while his body recovered.
“I have had half a dozen screws in my right knee since then. I have two braces and 12 pins in my left forearm,” said Race. “The left forearm worked out pretty good because I’m left-handed and after it healed, it worked well with cracking somebody in the jaw.”
The doctors that were treating Harley at the time were telling him that things wouldn’t be the same for him. Due to the severity of his injuries and the extent of the surgeries, they didn’t think someone in his condition would be able to return to wrestling.
“I told them to stick it in their you know what,” said Race. I would be back when I was physically able to return.”
The accident didn’t stop Harley. He was determined. Not too long after his return, he started wrestling under Verne Gagne’s promotion, the American Wrestling Association.
By 1965, he and Larry Hennig would be dominating the tag team scene and the two would win the first of their three AWA World Tag Team Title reigns after defeating Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher. Race and Hennig were very successful and they traveled the world. Unfortunately, in 1967, Hennig would suffer a knee injury that would sideline him for several months.
Though a good bit of Race’s time in the AWA showed his skills and ability to work as a tag-team partner, he also had his share of single matches, even against Verne Gagne, the AWA World Heavyweight Champion.
“Verne Gagne was very tough. I had a lot of matches with him over the years,” said Race. “His ability and knowledge of wrestling made him very tough.”
On May 23rd, 1973, in Kansas City, Missouri, Harley stepped into the ring with the NWA World Heavyweight Champion Dory Funk Jr. The two men would wrestle in a best of two out of three falls match, and when it was over, Harley would be the new Champion in the first of what would be his eighth title reign with the National Wrestling Alliance.
“I got started in the wrestling business because it was something I watched on T.V. and it was something that I truly loved to do,” said Race. “To be called the World’s Champion at something you love to do, how can it get any better than that?”
It was the beginning of a new era. At the time, the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship was the most prestigious wrestling title in the sport because the NWA was the only promotion recognized for having a worldwide schedule.
“It was the world title that really meant something,” said Race. “It didn’t matter where you went, you were held in respect for holding that belt.”
Being the NWA World Heavyweight Champion has its perks, but it also has a downside. At the time, it meant that as champion, you are going to have to get in the ring, night after night with wrestlers like Jack Brisco, Bobo Brazil, Gene Kiniski, Pat O’Connor, and Terry Funk.
“Being able to go to any territory as a World Champion meant that you were going to go in there and you were going to be placed in the ring with the very best at that time,” said Race. “I loved doing that.”
While Harley was the NWA Champion during the ’70s and the ’80s, he fought some of the greatest wrestlers in the history of professional wrestling. The two wrestlers that stand out for him in his mind that he had classic battles with were Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair.
Rhodes defeated Harley for his coveted belt on August 21st, 1979 in Tampa, Florida, but Rhodes would turn it back over to him just 5 days later in a match that lasted nearly 20 minutes in Orlando.
“When you were about to lock up with him, he would say something so funny, that you would have to turn and walk away from him to keep from laughing or nailing him and getting disqualified,” said Race. “Dusty was a good wrestler. What he lacked in wrestling, he made up for it on the microphone. He was easy to make money within just about anywhere in the United States.”
Between January of 1983 and May of 1984, the NWA World Title would change hands four times between Ric Flair and Harley Race. The two wrestled each other all over the world in countless matches. The record books say that they dominated the grappling sport for nearly two years.
“My matches with Ric were some of the toughest that I had. Ric was a good wrestler,” said Race. “He had the ability to move around the ring and do different things. He could talk and he brought a certain class to wrestling.”
Today, Harley has his World League of Wrestling training school in Troy, Missouri. Wrestling has been a part of his life for 60 years. He is very proud of his accomplishments in wrestling and is grateful that he is still able to pass on the techniques to upcoming wrestlers.
“I was the greatest wrestler of all time. I was able to perform in the ring the way I did all of those years, no matter who I was in there with,” said Race. “I was good enough that I could do whatever I wanted to do when I got in the ring because of my abilities. When my opponent got in the ring with me, he knew he was going to get his butt kicked for a long time.”
Harley Race wins first NWA World Title
Harley Race vs Andre the Giant
Harley Race & Nick Bockwinkle vs Bruiser Brody & Stan Hansen – Japan – 1984
Harley Race vs Terry Funk 1977