Thursday, October 13, 2011

Harley Race Is The King Of The Ring

In the 1950s, professional wrestling was not glamorous. Wrestlers worked hard. They spent most of their time on the road. They did not get compensated very well.

There was no merchandising, pay-per-view Wrestlemania, or sold-out arenas. There was just wrestlers in the ring.

This was also the era when a teenaged Harley Race entered the ring. He was, at age 15, a big strapping lad who dreamed of a life beyond working as a farmhand in Missouri. He had already been kicked out of school for hitting the principal who tried to break up a fight between Race and another student. It was 1959.

Harley Leland Race had no need for fabricated moniker. He was real. 

Yes, Harley Leland Race is his real name. Even as a teen, it was the name that people remembered as he met and impressed a few key people in the wrestling world. It didn't take long before he picked up the occasional match.

He found other odd jobs too. One of them was being charged with driving another wrestler, Happy Humphrey, to and from various venues. The car was custom. Humphrey weighed over 800 pounds.

His fondness for Humphrey, other humorous stories and personal recollections make King of the Ring—The Harley Race Story everything that it is. It's human and engaging, a success story without the promise of a celebrity-sized payout.

That is not to say Race didn't achieve star status. Inside the ring, he became known as Handsome Harley Race. It was there that he spent the better part of four decades clawing his way from reliable babyface to legendary “heel” and beloved champion. He also also served as a promoter, manager, league owner, and mentor along the way.

Few can dispute that the man is truly worthy of being called King of the Ring. It’s a title well-earned, not just for Race’s longevity, but also for his disciplined work ethic and innovative style in the ring. Everything Race did rightfully earned him a place in wrestling history.

King Of The Ring is exceptionally detailed but never longwinded. 

Race tells his story in his own words, with some assistance from writer Gerry Tritz. Race's style is conversational, much like it would be if you sat down with the man to have a few beers and listen to a few yarns.

He painfully describes the car accident that claimed the life of his first wife, Vivian. It nearly cost Race a leg. He shares everything: earning his stripes in the ring; the birth of son Justin; divorcing from second wife Sandra Jones; clinching the National Wrestling Association championship belt eight times; and his acrimonious divorce from his fourth wife (whom he never mentions by name). Toward the end, all of it nearly bankrupted him and sent him into a depression.

While Race goes a bit too easy on most of his personal life, he lights up when he mentions meeting and marrying B.J., his fourth wife. Overall, it solidifies the impression that he is a private man who would much prefer to share secrets from the ring. He prefers talking about his team partnership with Larry “The Axe” Hennig, and friendships (and matches) with everyone from the Funk family (Dory, Sr.; Dory, Jr. and Terry) and Dusty Rhodes to Andre the Giant, Ric Flair and the British Bulldogs.

The most intriguing aspect of the book is Race’s perspective on the growing threat to the NWA by Vince McMahon Jr. and his fledgling WWE in the 1980s. Race cautioned the loosely connected NWA promoters that they needed to work together. Instead, they looked out for their own best interests, giving McMahon the opportunity to swoop in and edge them out of their own territories.

Race stayed loyal to the NWA to the end, a hallmark of his personality. But eventually, the writing was on the wall and even he had to join the WWE, even knowing he would lose the money he'd invested in the NWA. It was under McMahon that Race was crowned "King of the Ring," a way to recognize Race without giving making him WWE champion (since there already was one).

He might have worked the squared circle for many more years but another car accident ended the King’s pro wrestling career. After, he continued to play a role in pro wrestling as the manager of Lex Luger and Vader. Eventually he opened the Harley Race Wrestling Academy in Eldon, Missouri, which has trained the offspring of many famous wrestlers: Reid Flair (Ric Flair’s son), Joe Hennig (grandson of Larry Hennig) and Ricky Steamboat, Jr. (son of Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat).

King Of The Ring —The Harley Race Story Slams A 6.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Race is one of only a handful of pro wrestlers to ever be inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame, WCE Hall of Fame, and Professional Wrestlers Hall of Fame. He does a fine job with the book despite many fans (myself included) wishing it would have been longer (a mere 180s pages, with photos).

His academy is still in full swing and recently moved to a new and bigger location to accommodate its growing roster of students. Race's latest endeavors are updated on his website.

King of the Ring-- The Harley Race Story is available on Amazon. The book has sold out at Barnes & Noble. On Amazon, however, you can also find The Professional Wrestlers' Instructional and Workout Guide, which he co-authored with Ricky Steamboat, Les Thatcher, Jim Ross, and Alex Marvez.
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