King of the Ring: Harley Race

 

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Book Review: King of the Ring: The Harley Race Story

By Harley Race with Gerry Tritz

I’m going to begin this with a confession.  As a reviewer, I feel I need to tell you straight up front that I was never a Harley Race fan. But in the immortal words of Gene Snitsky, “IT’S NOT MY FAULT!” You see I was brought up a WWE fan and we were trained to think of the NWA, or any other wrestling promotion for that matter, as an inferior version of wrestling. Whether it was true or not is beside the point, it was brainwashed into my head until it became a universal “truth.” Wrestling is not the only area in my life where I have inexplicable brand loyalty. As a Coke drinker, I’d rather go thirsty than drink Pepsi. Being a born and bred New Englander, my hatred for anything that has to do with the New York Yankees is a given. In fact this summer while watching the movie The Day After Tomorrow I could only think how better the movie better would have been if it would have shown Yankee Stadium, full of fans, getting destroyed by that giant tidal wave. So it should come as no surprise that, in the world of wrestling, a person like myself just doesn’t put the Ric Flairs and Harley Races of the NWA on the level of guys like Shawn Michaels or Steve Austin.

The folks over at Sports Publishing LLC were kind enough to send over a copy of King of the Ring: The Harley Race Story and I was really interested in checking it out after watching Race’s induction to the WWE Hall of Fame recently. After an introduction by Bret “The Hitman” Hart, in which, in one paragraph, he ends an amazing five out of six sentences with an exclamation point, the book had several guys write a “testimony.” Now I have never seen this before in any book and a testimony sounds like something I would read in a Vince Russo book on scriptures. However it is just two regular guys putting over Harley Race as a good person. When I finally finish Derek Burgan: Misunderstood Genius I’m going to try and get testimonies from Wade Keller, Bruce Mitchell, Johnny Fairplay, Sam Raimi, Britney Spears, and the Great Gonzo.

I was barred from school property until I apologized to the shaken but unhurt principal. I’m not the apologetic type of guy, so it would become a lifetime suspension. I was only 15, but I already knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wouldn’t recommend this tactic for anyone else, but getting kicked out of school cleared the way for me to pursue my dream: a career of professional wrestling.

Harley Race lived a tough life and the early chapters of the book have some unbelievable stories of his childhood and entrance into wrestling. He started his career on the carnival circuit and explained why kayfabe was invented, so that the “marks” wouldn’t know what was going on inside the ring wasn’t actually real. See, back then a carnival gimmick would be for a wrestler to challenge anyone in the crowd and invariably there was another carnival worker in the crowd as a plant. However, Race says several times a rowdy customer would get into the ring before the plant and it would be a legit shoot match. Make no mistake, when Harley had to fight a “real” opponent he was ruthless, oftentimes immediately headbutting them so hard that he broke their nose. While traveling, Race was often paired with a 700 pound wrestler named Happy Humphrey. Harley described the man as one of the nicest guys you will ever meet, but after you read how Harley had to bathe Humphrey you’ll probably want to gag. Around this time Harley was driving in a bad snowstorm with his wife of one month when they got into a very bad accident. Race woke up to find out his wife had passed away and the doctors felt he would never walk again. 

Like Robert DeNiro in Analyze This, Harley bottled up all his feelings and went home to his parent’s house to rehab. Race told the doctor that said Race would never wrestle again that in Race’s first match back he’d have two front row tickets waiting for the doctor. Sure enough, 21 months later, Race was back in the ring and the doctor was there to watch. Besides losing his wife, Harley’s inept lawyers somehow squandered $25,000 of his $35,000 accident settlement and Race didn’t sue because the lawyers were friends with the promoter he was working for at the time. Welcome to wrestling!

Harley passed through the Amarillo, Texas territory and was introduced to the Funk family which included Dory Funk Sr. and his two sons, Dory Jr. and Terry. Race said that on the day John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Funk Sr. demanded that the wrestling show scheduled that night still go on. This is not unlike Vince McMahon, years later, having SmackDown taped two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This is wrestling, THE SHOW MUST GO ON! Race went from Texas to California to Kansas City and finally ended up in Omaha, Nebraska where he ran into a young Verne Gagne. The two men hit it off and Gagne paired Race up with Larry Hennig for a tag team in the Minnesota based American Wrestling Association, which at the time was one of the larger wrestling promotions around. “Handsome” Harley Race and “Pretty Boy” Larry Hennig had an instant feud with two AWA franchise heavyweights, The Crusher and Dick the Bruiser, because the latter two played into the stereotypical “man’s man” character. While Race gave many great stories about the feud between the four men, eventually Race grew tired of tag team wrestling and longed to be a singles star.

Harley greatly enjoyed playing the role of a cocky heel, but soon found out how seriously some people take wrestling when he was stabbed on his way back to the dressing room after a match. The police, when informed of what happened, told Race they didn’t believe Race’s story and for all they know the knife could have been his. Later Harley told a story in which the “heel heat” he was getting caused someone to set fire to his car outside an arena and the cops said that it was pretty much Race’s fault for stirring up the people through his promos. I’m wondering if this is a case of “idiot cop” or “asshole cop.”

As a booker, I tried never to use the power of the position to promote myself over other wrestlers. That might boost me as a wrestler in the short run, but in the long run it would better serve me and everyone if I made decisions based on business and not my own agenda.

Race seemingly wanted to get into the business side of wrestling and was first hired by his old friend Dory Funk Sr. to help run the Amarillo territory. Race does a good job explaining how the NWA territory system worked at that time and gave several examples of how wrestling was booked at a time when there were no weekly TV shows. The bookers matched up wrestlers who would be the biggest draws in the towns they were going to, so, for example, if a guy named Ricky Romero - who was unknown in most places - was very popular with the fans in El Paso, he would get a top slot on the cards in El Paso. This is a complete 180 from what I saw in wrestling over the last 10 years when WCW would bury, sometimes literally, Ric Flair in his native North Carolina and the WWE seemed to go out of their way to embarrass Jim Ross anytime they traveled to Oklahoma. Race’s philosophy of putting guys over in towns they are popular in should be one of the main focuses of anyone trying to learn “Booking 101.”

After staying in Texas for a while Harley moved over to the All Star Wrestling promotion, based in Kansas, where he became a minority owner. Harley talks about a pair of fans, the Hite sisters, and it had me laughing out loud because all I could think about was growing up watching WWE Prime Time Wrestling on the USA network and seeing the Rosetti sisters all the time. Vince McMahon would go out of his way to embarrass those girls all the time but they must have been the biggest WWE marks in the world because they always came back. If the WWE ever puts out a Best of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan DVD, his interaction with those girls better be on it because it was all comic gold. Anyway, being behind the scenes can only satisfy a man like Race for so long, as soon he had the itch to go on the road full time again.

That short stint of being the champion tested me in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I knew I’d have to travel around the country defending my title. What I didn’t know is that some of the territories would put me up against men who, quite frankly, couldn’t wrestle their way out of a paper bag. So my challenge was to make it appear to the audience that these guys could actually hold their own with me. After wrestling enough of these journeymen, I started to pride myself on being able to wrestle a mop and make the mop look like it’s whipping my ass.

The NWA was looking for a wrestler to replace its champion, Dory Funk Jr., who wanted to get away from the grind of being on the road. Several members of the NWA committee wanted Jack Brisco to win the belt, but Funk said he didn’t want to lose to a babyface like Brisco as it would make himself, and his championship reign, look too weak. The alternative plan was for Funk to lose to Race who would then do a job to Brisco. What was supposed to be a one week reign ended up lasting two months because Race caught on with the fans. What really is amazing while reading this is the length of title reigns back in the day and how the belts really meant something because of it. After Race eventually lost the title he would recount many instances where the fans would laugh at him for holding the belt for such a short time. TWO MONTHS! We’re talking about a time when champions would go a year, or often times much longer, before doing a job. And what was the effect? When people won the title they became instant stars. In fact, the belt was so over that just a person being in the ring with Race or whoever was holding the belt was seen as a big deal. This type of commitment to a belt and a wrestler can be seen in the company Ring of Honor and they had the same results.

Harley was a big fan of going to Japan as he felt both the companies and the fans were of a class rarely seen here in the United States. Race put over All Japan wrestler, booker and owner Giant Bab big time and tells a story of how a fight into the streets of Japan led to him seeing Baba bow for the only time. Baba’s bow is equivalent to Vince McMahon admitting he made a mistake, which despite the utter failure of such things such as the World Bodybuilding Federation, the XFL and the WCW InVasion, he has yet to do. Race also tells of a culture shock type of moment when sat next to, of all people, Culture Club’s Boy George on a plane flight to the Orient.

Like anything popular, people were finding ways to make money off someone else’s product….Wrestlers have borrowed other wrestler’s moves and monikers, and storylines have been rehashed time and time again. But someone took it too far when the decided to wrestle as C-3PO….As I slid into the ring and looked across the other side, I saw the gold-colored robot. Actually, it was a Mexican wrestler dressed in a cheesy cloth version of the robot. The whole thing screamed “trademark violation,” but I guess the guy - probably correctly - figured he would fly under the tractor beam of George Lucas.

Is that quote f---ing money or what? It reminds me of reading in the Torch about wrestlers dressing up as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Mexico during the 90s. As you can imagine, Harley was NOT impressed by a wrestler “doing the robot” and wrestling like C-3PO would presumably wrestle (as in, barely moving and using his arms in as stiff a manner as possible.) I was laughing so hard during this and Harley went on to “shoot” on the wrestler, almost knocking him out. In the dressing room the rest of the Mexicans weren’t happy at all with Race’s antics, but Race threw a beer bottle at a mirror and broke another bottle to lay next to him in order to keep the other wrestlers from jumping him. I’m sure they thought this was one crazy gringo. All I could think of while reading all of this was how much I wished Vince Russo would have seen this tape because I’m sure he would have tried to duplicate the angle in WCW.

Harley admits to being a gun nut and in the 60’s had already amassed a collection of hundreds of guns. Harley told a wrestling story about a gun that was absolutely hilarious and it had to do with Johnny Valentine replacing Jay York’s asthma spray with lighter fluid. There’s good ribs and then there’s attempted homicides. Anyway, York came back the next show, came in the locker room, and shot Valentine in front of the boys. York then turned the guns on others and watched them almost piss their pants until he turned around to look down the barrel of Harley’s gun. York said it was all a rib as Valentine was “shot” with a blank. Throughout the book there are several stories which end with Race pulling a gun on someone and all I can think of is what a great interview he would have been for Michael Moore in his film, Bowling for Columbine. Forget asking questions to a near-corpse like Charlton Heston, I’d like to see Moore try to grill Race about guns and get stretched as a result.

One interesting part of the book for any wrestling fan is Race’s account of Vince McMahon taking over the wrestling business. Until now we mostly got the WWE version of how Vince took wrestling “out of smoky pool halls” and into the limelight, but Race gives the other side of the story and what it was like watching the rest of the wrestling promoters try to backstab each other as McMahon came in and devoured them all. A truly amazing story came about when Vince McMahon had Race and his wife fly up to Stamford two days before the big NWA show, Starrcade, where he was to main event against Ric Flair. Vince took Race out to dinner and said he would give Harley $250,000 on the spot to double-cross the NWA and take his championship belt to the WWE. Race said he had to look himself in the mirror the next day and declined the offer. In what I just can not believe followed, as they were leaving the restaurant a pissed-off McMahon tried to jump Race but was quickly beat down. Can you imagine?! I have heard so many great stories about Vince McMahon, not just his generosity and barely-reported kindness, but also of complete psycho moments like this attack on Race. Jeff Hardy step aside as Vinnie Mac is the true “charismatic enigma.” And yes, this is the same Vince McMahon who went OUT OF HIS MIND years later when Eric Bischoff paid big bucks to have WWE stars jump to WCW. I honestly can not wait to read Vince’s auto-biography.

The writing was on the wall though and Harley knew the end would be sooner rather than later. While he tried valiantly to help the NWA through its tough time, eventually he had to get out before losing everything. As it was he knew he would have to accept that his $500,000 stake in the Heartland Wrestling Association was as worthless as millions of shares of Pets.com stock options. Harley met with the NWA board and said he was going to the WWE. It was in the WWE where Harley was given the gimmick of “the King” and this was done so that McMahon could push him as a champion yet not acknowledge the NWA or Race’s history at all. Yes, wrestling was like this not that long ago. Actually, it still is that way now that I think about it seeing that the WWE brought in guys like Spanky and Paul London while ignoring their past. The equivalent to this would be Sony Pictures signing away Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson from New Line and making him a highly paid gaffer. Anyway, over time Race learned to love the King gimmick and considers it a highlight of his career. I wonder if Dusty is going to write in his book that he loved the polka dots?

Harley Race on the juice? It’s true. Race described being paired with the British Bulldogs while in the WWE and Dynamite Kid convinced the aging Race that using horse steroids would help build a better physique, even though Harley had a decent one, it just wasn’t huge or ripped or anything like that. Race also said he was the first wrestler to use the breaking of a table in his matches, first in St. Louis early in his career, and later during his WWE run when he would do a diving headbutt and end up destroying a table after his opponent rolled out of the way. Race said this gave him major problems health wise and once was near death thanks to an inflammation of his internal organs. Later Race talked about going to WCW and getting injured again, this time needing a second plate in his hip. During his long recovery Race got to watch the entire O.J. Simpson court case. If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit.

The night Owen Hart fell from the rafters at the Over the Edge PPV was discussed as Race was backstage for the show and recalls talking to Owen. Race said that Owen didn’t want to do the stunt because he was afraid, but felt obligated to go through with it. Race said he was the one who called Stu Hart after finding out from the doctor that Owen wasn’t going to make it. This was engrossing and made me think back to the book Broken Harts. I hope this doesn’t come across as crass, but I honestly did not appreciate how much I really liked Owen Hart until after his death and reading all the accounts of his life really get to me unlike any other death in the industry.

Harley finished up his book talking about his current situation in life, including being inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004 along with running a wrestling training school. He certainly lived quite the life and was rightfully proud of what he had accomplished and he’s especially excited to be involved with independent wrestling again because he feels it’s the guys who drive hundreds of miles for no money, because they just love wrestling, that reminds him why he wanted to get into the business in the first place.

Overall Thoughts: I would say the only real drawback to Harley Race’s book is the fact that it isn’t long enough. There are so many good stories and such a great amount of places that Race has been to in his career that it only could have helped the book to elaborate on more. It’s just a great wrestling book about a seemingly long gone era when kayfabe was strictly adhered to. The book also has a color section of photos which I was asking for in my review of the Jerry Jarrett TNA book.  I was surprised how much I laughed at some of the stupid only-in-wrestling moments that Harley lived though, such as his match against C-3PO down in Mexico. The book has given me more respect for Harley Race and I hope one day that the WWE, or anyone, puts together a DVD of Harley Race in his prime because he sounded like quite the character. If you are a Harley Race fan, or a fan of Old School wrestling and want to hear what it was like from the Triple H of another era (in a good way), this is the book for you.  Click Here to purchase King of the Ring: The Harley Race Story.

 

Copyright © 2005 Derek Burgan. All rights reserved.