Before the death of kayfabe, those of us in our youth who stumbled across the fascinating characters and antics of the professional mat world on television knew something wasn’t always quite on the up and up about the whole deal. However, there were times when the things we saw looked more real than at other times and the people doing those things more legitimate than some of their conspiring colleagues.
Pro wrestling lost one of its most legitimate legends this past week with the passing of eight-time NWA world heavyweight champion and WWE Hall of Famer Harley Race at the age of 76 due to complications from lung cancer. Race, one of the toughest, most respected and successful grapplers of his era, died this past Thursday afternoon at home in Missouri after being hospitalized in July in Nashville after being stricken ill while on his way to a fan convention. He was still heavily involved in wrestling at the time of his death as a promoter of a small indy group related to a wrestling school he ran in suburban St. Louis.
Condolences and platitudes immediately poured in from wrestling contemporaries and fans alike on social media. WWE quickly put up a series of special clips on its network that gave fans a glimpse at the storied career of the man who began wrestling during the carnival days as a 16 year-old, almost lost his life in a tragic car accident that took the life of his first wife at 18, and reportedly had to have doctors talked out of amputating his leg at the time, a move that would have obviously ended his career before it really got started and radically changed the course of pro wrestling history.
Wrestling’s top-rated radio show, Busted Open, dedicated its entire program to memories of Race and had several of the sport’s biggest names who knew or worked with Race on as guests to share their memories of “The King,” as Vince McMahon renamed him, when Harley joined the “opposition” very late in his active career after spending most of his best years working at the top of the cards for the National Wrestling Alliance as its champion or as a top contender.
Viewed as one of the toughest men in a profession filled with some pretty tough guys during his heyday, Harley’s NWA title reigns were marked by extensive world travel as he defended the infamous 10 pounds of gold, not only across most of the regional territories of the United States, but in such places as Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and elsewhere.
When Race showed up on magazine covers in the early 1970s as Missouri State Champion and a bit later as the new National Wrestling Alliance world heavyweight champion, he looked like a very interesting individual. Keep in mind that at that time, the only pro wrestling we saw locally on TV was the WWWF version of the sport. Bruno and Pedro Morales as champions, for the most part, battled larger, slower villains and ultimately overcame those opponents with fiery comebacks that typically employed mostly punching and kicking.
One late night, while aimlessly fumbling through some of the newer VHF channels from Philly, I discovered Championship Wrestling From Florida was airing its program on Channel 29. Maybe things generally feel more serious at midnight than during the day (unless you are with college friends watching “Saturday Night Live” in the dorm), but it seemed to be a much more realistic type of wrestling that combined a lot of the amateur style with the pro rules, employed storylines centering around personal grudges or the pursuit of titles and, perhaps most critically, employed more skilled thespians in the various roles.
Race was one of the most compelling wrestlers on the microphone or in the ring, either as champion or, as a top contender during the mid 70s through the mid ’80s. When he would be interviewed by the equally credible and articulate Gordon Solie, it made fans want to see his matches to a degree that has rarely been duplicated down through the years. He could literally talk people into wanting to buy a ticket to see if his opponent could beat him and knock the arrogance off his smug countenance. Race took himself, his profession and his possession of the world title seriously and that was a huge part of his allure.
He defeated Dory Funk Jr. in Kansas City in May 1973 to capture his first NWA title and made such a positive impression during his transitional reign before dropping it as scheduled to Jack Brisco that he was kept in the exclusive NWA loop and given it a second time in 1977 after a Terry Funk reign was to end at Funk’s request so that he could get off the road and back in the good graces of his wife, who was likely fed up with the absence of her husband having to tour the world as NWA champion. Missouri’s finest would drop the crown to Dusty Rhodes after a three-year plus reign where he really established his legacy and regain the gold in 1983 from Ric Flair, who had beaten Rhodes. Race lost the belt to Flair at Starcade after reportedly turning down a lucrative financial offer from Vince McMahon to bring the title to the WWF at the start of his national expansion efforts. Loyalty and integrity were obviously also two of his personal characteristics, things attested to by many he worked with or against after his passing.
Race did ultimately work for WWE at the very tail end of his in-ring career, where he sustained serious internal injuries on one of his patented dives onto a table. He returned to WCW to manage Vader and Lex Luger before retreating to Eldon, Missouri, where he had opened a wrestling school and small indy promotion to provide opportunities for his students to develop their skills. One of his trainees was the son of a former Shamokin resident who spoke highly of Race and brought the Insider an autograph and personal note for my copy of his most interesting book King of the Ring-The Harley Race Story.
There was plenty of other news this week in pro wrestling as well as AEW reportedly sold 10,000 tickets on Friday for its first TV show in Washington on Oct. 2. That was a virtual sellout, but there may be a few more seats available after they determine exactly how many their production needs require after blocking off a couple of thousand for that effort. That is obviously a great start, but what they can sustain is the real unknown at this point.
WWE ratings were down this past week for both Raw and Smackdown. We will have the complete card for SummerSlam next week, expected to be a 14 or 15 match marathon. If you don’t like spoilers, stop reading right now. Reports indicate they will be adding Goldberg vs. Dolph Ziggler and Daniel Bryan vs. Roman Reigns to the line-up with angles tomorrow and Tuesday on television.