Inducted by LWO4Life
Legend has it that Andre the Giant was afraid of very few people. In fact, only two.
One was Haku, the legendary tough man who bite the nose off someone’s face, and the other, Harley Race. With the second most NWA title reigns in history, and third all time in total days as champion, Race dominated the NWA title in an era when being champion meant something. While the WWWF title of New York, the WWA title in Los Angeles, and the AWA title in the Mid-West all had legitimate claims to being World titles, these champions never left their territory. But Race not only toured the territories, defending against each regional champion, he also wrestled in unification matches against these other world champions. It is also fitting that Harley Race was the last holder of the NWA “Crown” belt, which started in 1959, and he was the first holder of the NWA “10 Pounds of Gold” belt, the belt which he popularized in 1973.
It’s hard to talk about Harley Race without talking about the way he conducted himself as champion. Race completely changed the way the NWA title was thought of. Prior to his reign, the NWA title was dominated by Lou Thesz, who was a babyface wrester that was seen as a take all challengers wrestler. Yes, a person like Buddy Rodgers might have the belt for a few years, but rarely did a heel dominate like that. Often hard fighting babyface champions held the title, as they would take on the local hero in sort of a Batman vs. Superman type match. And that formula did work for a while, that was until the people realized they wanted to see Batman vs. the Joker instead.
Race was one of the few great sellers in the industry whose style could be watched in any era and appreciated. Trust me, you can try to watch a Strangler Ed Lewis match, but today’s fans will more than likely play games on their phones instead. With that said, Race was different. Race had a much more animated style of sell. Punches that landed on Race seemed to have a little more pep to them. Race had mastered the fine art of not only being seen as a legit touch man in the eyes of the audience, but also being beatable enough that the local fans thought tonight is the night our hero will beat the champ. Often a heel like Gorgeous George was too weak, or Buddy Rodgers as too cocky, and everyone paid to see them get beat. But with Race, what the fans really paid for was the curiosity of, “does our hero even have a chance?” And by the end, not only did the fans leave thinking their hero should have won, they could argue that their hero was cheated. Wrestling would never treat World titles the same after that.
To understand what makes Harley Race so great, you must go to the beginning of his career. During his childhood, Harley Race would survive a battle with polio, one of the worse diseases of the time. But that would not be the worst tragedy to hit Race in his youth.
In 1960, a young 17-year-old Harley Race had just married the love of his young life, Vivian Jones. Five weeks into his marriage, Race and his pregnant wife were in a bad car accident, an accident which killed his wife, and left Race with a leg injury so bad that the doctors nearly amputated his leg. At the time, Race was going by the name Jack Long and he had a kayfabe brother John Long. Though he returned to the ring by 1961, he wasn’t at 100 percent. In 1963 the young Race would travel to the North Eastern territories, where he went by the name the Great Mortimer. This would be the turning point of his career. Once he was done in the North East, his father would give him advise that would change Race’s career forever, Race should never work to make anybody else’s name famous again. From that moment on, Harley Race would be his name out, and in the ring.
Now “Handsome” Harley Race, Race would become a cocky heel with bleach blond hair. Spending much of the 60’s in the AWA, Race would team with “Pretty Boy” Larry Hennig to form one the AWA’s best tag teams. Also, starting in the late-60’s, Race would take many trips to Japan, and he would change the way the Japanese viewed American wrestlers. Before, many American wresters would go to Japan and basically dominate the wrestlers there. But Race was willing to sell and have competitive matches. This endured him to the Japanese wrestling scene, which would be a source of income in his upcoming years. From there it would be his run in the 70’s which really made his career.
As I mentioned earlier, Race would change the way the NWA champion was seen. Carrying the 10 Pounds of Gold everywhere, Race would talk with his harsh, raspy voice oh so calmly. He carried himself like the champion. He was no longer Handsome; he was just simply the champ. As a heel, he would lose his title multiple times, as well as win it back. Unlike Thesz, people wanted to see Race lose. So, to keep the crowd interested, he had to lose at some point. Without question, Race was seen as the top guy in all the 70’s. Which would mean it is only natural that the top guy of the 70’s would help create the top guy of the 80’s.
We know the spot. Ric Flair flips over the rope, lands on his feet and gets on the top rope, only to get thrown off. Well Flair kept going for this because it was a cross body from the top rope. Flair had won the title before; it wasn’t until he beat Race that people truly saw him as the legitimate champion. From there, Race would leave the NWA territories to join the WWF. He’d be called the King, and because of his long reputation he added a sense of legitimacy to a silly gimmick. With that said, he was still very feared in the business. Not only would Andre fear him, but Race would be the guy WCW put in charge of Vader, making sure Vader was kept in check.
I am honored to write about such a great champion. Harley Race redefined the NWA title for a whole generation. Many old school fans couldn’t have imagined a great heel champion holding the title, teasing that their hero could win, only to take it all away in the end. Maybe one of the most overlooked wrestlers who should be in everyone’s Mt. Rushmore. Thank you, Harley, you changed wrestling forever.
- 8-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion
- 9-time NWA Central States Heavyweight Champion
- 7-time NWA Missouri Heavyweight Champion
- 3-time NWA Mid-America Heavyweight Champion
- NWA United States Heavyweight Champion
- 3-time AWA World Tag Team Champion with Larry Hennig and Chris Markoff
- 2-time NWA North American Tag Team Champion with Baron von Raschke and Roger Kirby
- PWI Wrestler of the Year in 1979 and 1983
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter Wrestler of the Year in 1980 and 1981
- WCW Hall of Fame Inductee
- WWE Hall of Fame Inductee
- Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame Inductee
Wrestling Headlines.com welcomes Harley Race into the Hall of Fame class of 2021.
Related Links: Ken Resnick and Bill Apter Discuss The Career Of Harley Race, How Vince McMahon Always Took Care Of Veterans
Doctor’s Orders: The Doc’s WrestleMania Era Star Ratings History (1983-Present) – A Resource Guide (Updated Through WrestleMania 34)