Living the Dream: Harley Woman: Tales from the Open Road
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Framed photos of scowling hulks in tights drape the plywood walls of his office. High over his shoulder, encased in glass, hangs the scuffed and bulky National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship belt that Race first won in In front of the desk calendar a black nameplate reads: "8 Time Champ: Harley Race. Just past dusk the half-dozen pupils currently enrolled in the academy begin to filter in for practice. They've come to this isolated backwater from all across America — Charlotte to San Francisco — to train under the legendary Harley Race, the godfather of an old-school style of wrestling that emphasizes grappling talent over microphone skills.
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It's a theme noticeably absent from the current formula over at Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment WWE , where out-of-the-ring histrionics drive story lines as much as the battles inside the turnbuckles. During the past twelve years, Race has graduated a handful of wrestlers onto the major leagues of the sport — the WWE. Most of those students hailed from wrestling's royalty. Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat sent his son to Race's academy.
Perfect" Curt Hennig. Those pupils all made it to the next level. A few others — CM Punk and Trevor Murdoch — made it to the big time despite the one-in-a-thousand odds. But the twentysomethings grinding it out in Race's ring on this December night? Chances are they'll never see the bright lights of the WWE.
Living the Dream: Harley Woman: Tales from the Open Road
It's not that they're no good. It's just that wrestling has changed dramatically since Race first stepped into the square circle. Harley Race was a thirteen-year-old farm boy growing up in the northwest Missouri town of Quitman when he saw his first wrestling match on TV.
Two years later his high school expelled him for punching his principal after the administrator tried to break up a fight. Race could have returned if he had apologized to the principal. Instead, he began working a few odd jobs that would soon lead him to wrestling. The brothers, who made names for themselves in the s and '20s as two of the greatest matmen in the world, owned a nearby farm.
In exchange for bailing hay and doing other farm chores, the brothers taught Race wrestling moves. By the age of sixteen Race had joined the carnival wrestling circuit of promoter Gus Karras.
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It was a good show: Race would stand in the middle of a ring under a tent and taunt the locals in attendance, mocking them for how weak they all looked or how sorry their town was. Then he'd offer a cash prize to any man who could beat him in a fight. Another wrestler on the circuit, posing as one of the townspeople, would accept the challenge, and the two would duke it out. A year later Karras gave Race a shot wrestling on his Midwest circuit based out of St. By the time he was eighteen, Race was earning a living as a professional wrestler and working his way up the ranks.
He'd also married a girl named Vivian from his hometown. The two were expecting a child when they got into a car to visit Race's parents on Christmas night Seventeen inches of snow fell that day. Their car collided with a tractor trailer along the highway. Vivian died instantly. Race's doctor said he would never wrestle again.
The accident shattered one of his forearms and damaged his right leg so badly that doctors contemplated amputation.
They give you a reason for wanting to go on, for wanting to succeed. Had I not been able to go back to what I was doing, God only knows what would have happened. It was his first belt. He was As champion, Race traveled across the country to defend his crown against the top names of dozens of wrestling circuits, wowing packed crowds with his innovative moves — such as his hanging vertical suplex or his flying headbutt from the top turnbuckle.
He was a 6-footinch, pound slab of equal parts muscle and flab who knew how to work a crowd into a frenzy with his barroom-badass ring demeanor.
He understood what he did and how it related to the crowd. Harley Race was not afraid of real heat. He'd fight six or seven times most weeks, in six or seven different cities, sometimes twice in a single day. He was a main-event draw with a tenacious work ethic. If you wrestled Harley Race, Ric Flair once said, you wrestled him for an hour. His archive of celebrated matches would fill a car trunk with VHS tapes. There were the highly anticipated title showdowns against Bob Backlund and Dusty Rhodes.
There was the time Race was annihilating Jack Brisco for most of a match, before Brisco suddenly kneed Race in the chest as he flew off the top rope, then slammed him to the mat for the pin. And there were the 30 or so times Race and Terry Funk beat each other with chains and leather straps. He considered himself the world's greatest card player, the world's greatest driver, the world's greatest drinker, the world's greatest shooter, whatever. And the world's greatest wrestler. And I'll be damned if he wasn't all of those things.
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One of Race's most memorable matches was his bloody battle with Ric Flair in a steel cage in in Greensboro, North Carolina. Race was the venerable champion, and Flair a rising star. In a television promo a few weeks before the bout, Race put out a hit on Flair: "Flair, you have pushed me as far you're going to push! And it goes to any human being that can eliminate Ric Flair from wrestling!
That night in Greensboro, when Race walked past the curtain, onto the ramp leading to the cage, there was no entrance music, no pyrotechnics, only an unremitting outbreak of boos. Cloaked in a red-and-white polyester robe with "Race" stitched in sequin cursive on the back, he stood at the top of the ramp flanked by policemen and breathed in the swelling jeers. He puffed out his chest, put his hands on his hips then defiantly turned his head left and right to scan the sold-out arena, holding the pose for half a minute before leisurely sauntering to the ring. That night was the beginning of the end for both Race's career and the NWA.
In , with the world he knew changing all around him, Race joined the WWF. He was a star, to be sure, but never again as bright as he was on that night in North Carolina. Now guys like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Flair, whose career took off after beating Race in the cage, were the headliners of the business. In Hogan slammed Race through a table, and the steel band wrapped around the edge of the tabletop snapped and stabbed his abdomen.
A week later, while at home in Kansas City, he felt a sharp pain in his stomach and then passed out. When he woke up in the hospital, he noticed the colostomy bag beside him. His intestine had inflamed and ruptured. After that, state athletic commissions wouldn't license him to wrestle. So Race took his act overseas to Europe and Japan.
Also in the late s, Race divorced his third wife, with whom he had raised two children. The split was a "drawn-out process that seemed like an eternity," he says. His drinking habits turned more reckless than usual. Drug-taking on flights, wild festival-themed staff parties and Run-DMC office concerts.
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