King of the Ring: Harley Race

 

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Wrestling legend Harley Race comes up short in delivering his life story.

KING OF THE RING: The Harley Race Story
by Harley Race and Gerry Tritz - 178 pp.

Review by Mike Rickard II


And now, the end is near; And so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I'll say it clear, I'll state my case, of which I'm certain.
I've lived a life that's full. I've traveled each and ev'ry highway;
But more, much more than this, I did it my way. 
    - My Way


Back in the era when an ambitious promoter might try to upstage the world champion by having one of his wrestlers turn a scripted match into a free for all, the champion had to be someone who could defend himself and send a message to anyone who dared to challenge him. The champion would have to be able to endure months on the road as he traveled around the globe to make money by defending the world championship. In a word, the champion had to be tough. When it came to being tough, there was no one tougher than Harley Race.

Born in Missouri, Harley Race was never one to let someone tell him what to do. At the age of 15, he was kicked out of school for punching out his principal. Rather than apologize to the principal and get back in, Race turned his efforts to his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. When his parents relocated to take a new job, Race ran the family farm. Little did he know that his part-time work as a farm hand would start him on his journey to becoming an eight-time NWA World Champion for the farm he was working on was owned by wrestling legend Stanislaus Zbyszko (a popular wrestler during the 1920’s). Race learned the basics from Zbyszko before introducing himself to a promoter named Gus Karras who ran local wrestling shows at carnivals.

It was at these carnivals that Race learned the essentials of wrestling- protect kayfabe and protect yourself. During the shows, a wrestler would challenge someone from the audience to beat him and earn a cash prize. Race started off by posing as an ordinary Joe who would take up the wrestler’s challenge. Later on, he would graduate to being the wrestler who took on the plant in the audience. Unfortunately things didn’t always work out as planned and the plant might not make it to the ring fast enough, which meant that Race sometimes found himself fighting off an ornery farmer or some other would be tough guy out to win his prize money. Race learned how to get out of hairy situations and how to do so quickly (this would come in handy when Race perfected his heel persona to the point where fans would literally try to kill him).

His training paid off as Race began to master the nuances of professional wrestling. The world was his to take but then out of nowhere, Race nearly lost it all. Like fellow legend Ric Flair, Race’s career was nearly ended early on in his life. Shortly after learning that they were going to have their first child, Race and his wife were involved in a terrible automobile accident. The crash took his wife’s life and nearly cost Race his career. Doctors told Race that he would have to have his leg amputated. However Race’s friend, wrestling promoter Gus Karras had Race sent to a bone specialist where his leg was saved. Race was told that he would be lucky to walk again, let alone wrestle but Race had other plans. After nearly two years of rehabilitation, Harley Race was back in the squared circle.

"How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees? Thou know'st we work by wit, and not by witchcraft; And wit depends on dilatory time."  - Othello (Act II, Scene 3)

Back in the game, Race continued to hone his skills, wrestling in several territories before settling in the American Wrestling Association (AWA) where he formed a lengthy tag team partnership with Larry Hennig. Race and Hennig went on to win the AWA Tag Team Titles several times, feuding with popular stars such as the Crusher, Dick the Bruiser, and Verne Gagne. “Handsome” Harley wrestled in tag team and singles matches and soon attracted the attention of Japanese promoters who invited him to wrestle for them, an honor afforded to few American wrestlers.

During the early 1970’s Race began to focus on winning the top prize in all of wrestling. In addition to honing his skills in the ring, Race continued to expand his knowledge of the sport, becoming a booker and eventually going on to invest some of his money in a promotion known as Heart of America Wrestling. Race’s efforts paid off in 1973 when he was chosen by the NWA Board of Directors as the next NWA World Champion. Although Race was only a transitional champion (the NWA had chosen Jack Brisco to win the belt but champion Dory Funk Jr. refused to drop the title to Brisco so the belt was handed from Funk to Race to Brisco), he had captured the top prize in all of wrestling.

His first title reign was short but it would be followed by seven more reigns as he broke Lou Thesz’ record six NWA World Championships. Race defended the title every night of the week, traveling the globe as he did so. The strain on his family was intense but in King of the Ring, Race talks of the efforts he made to be in his children’s lives as much as possible. When summer vacation rolled around, Race would take his family with him on the road. Although it was difficult, Race tried to play a part in their lives despite his hectic road schedule. On one occasion, he flew 4,000 miles to make sure he saw his son wrestle in the state wrestling finals.

Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;

And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.


    - The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 4 verses 8 and 9

By the time of his final title reign, the world of professional wrestling was changing quickly. Promotions like the NWA and the AWA were now facing competition from an upstart promoter named Vince McMahon Jr. For many years, Vince McMahon Sr. controlled wrestling in the northeastern U.S. just as his competitors in the NWA and AWA controlled their own regions, never straying into anyone else’s territory. However, after purchasing the World Wrestling Federation from his father, Vince Jr. began to aggressively compete with all of his wrestling rivals by booking shows in their territories and buying up their stars. The various promoters who made up the NWA and the AWA tried to band together but mutual distrust kept them from forming an effective partnership and they found themselves being ran out of business one by one.

It was during the start of this heated competition that Jim Crockett Promotions (the strongest promotion in the NWA) ran Starcade its first pay-per-view (although it should be pointed out those fans watched the show on closed circuit television rather than on cable television). McMahon saw this as an opportunity to sandbag one of his biggest competitors. Two days before Starcade, Vince McMahon flew Harley Race in to meet him for dinner and to discuss business. At the time, Race was beginning to grow tired of wrestling. Despite his best efforts, his hectic travel schedule was straining his family. To make matters worse, he was close to losing his $500,000.00 investment in Heart of America Wrestling

Over dinner, McMahon made his offer clear to Race. $250,000 was his if he jumped to the WWF. Race knew what a coup this would be for McMahon if he acquired the services of the NWA World Champion. He also knew that McMahon would need his answer that same night. Despite the financial temptation, Race could not turn his back on the organization that had given him so much nor could he ignore his personal code of honor that demanded that he drop the title to Ric Flair as promised. Race told McMahon no, unaware that by now, McMahon was used to getting what he wanted. After the dinner, an irate McMahon launched himself at Race only to find himself caught in a crossface. Race was ready to snap McMahon’s neck but his wife provided the voice of reason that saved McMahon’s life.

Harley Race’s honor was intact and he went on to drop the NWA title to Ric Flair at the first Starcade. Afterwards, he took a much needed vacation before returning to wrestling. However as time passed, he saw the NWA promoters unable to cooperate in fighting McMahon and eventually, Race came to work for the WWF on his own terms, winding down his career as “The King” Harley Race (As was the practice for the WWF, there was no acknowledgement of Race’s eight NWA title reigns. Instead, Race was promoted as “The King” Harley Race after winning a King of the Ring tournament). Race enjoyed his last few years of active competition in the WWF before injuries forced him to retire.

Reading King of the Ring, it’s very clear that Harley Race is a man of strong conviction. Race has always fought for what he believes in and gone the extra mile to help a friend or a stranger in need. When his friend Giant Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling faced increasingly stiff competition from rival New Japan Pro Wrestling, Race dropped the NWA Championship to Baba in an unauthorized title switch (Race risked his career by losing the belt to Baba without the approval of the NWA’s board of directors). When Race saw a man slapping a woman in a bar, he took matters into his own hands and wound up fighting off three pimps. Whether it was saying no to a double cross by Vince McMahon two days before the NWA’s inaugural Starcade, or confronting Hulk Hogan with a gun when the WWF invaded his territory, Race has done what he felt was right and accepted the consequences.

It’s also clear that Harley Race was a real hell-raiser. While Race states that he was never one to look for trouble, it’s hard to come away from this book without picturing Race as someone who enjoys a good scrap. Whether it’s Race punching out his high school principal, fighting in the ring against shooters, shooting his way through a street gang, fighting his way back to the dressing room through knife or gun-wielding fans, pulling a gun on Yukon Eric in the dressing room, fighting off three pimps at a restaurant, threatening an underhanded coach at his son’s wrestling match, or roughing up Boy George’s bodyguard aboard an airplane, every chapter seems to have at least one story about Race getting into a fight. No wonder the guy was sent to Japan with Ric Flair to stop any double crosses! To coin an old wrestling phrase, the guy was double tough!.

There are some great stories in the book- Race’s experiences in Japan, the road to his first world championship, road stories like how he broke in a young Ric Flair and the stories you might expect from a man with such a rich and storied career. Unfortunately there’s not as many as you’d think. The problem with King of the Ring isn’t that it’s a poorly researched book (it’s nice to read a wrestling biography where the author backs up the comments he makes rather than leaving you to wonder if he’s talking out of his ass). It’s not that Race is an old-timer who’s afraid to break kayfabe (Race doesn’t hold anything back when it comes to the inner workings of the business whether it’s from a wrestler’s viewpoint or a booker’s). It’s not that Race is afraid to withhold personal information (although he glosses over the details of some messy divorces, he is up front about the many details of his personal life such as the hardships his family experienced with him being away from home and his long, painful recovery from an auto accident). The problem is that the book is simply too short. Imagine yourself sitting down to interview Ric Flair about his glorious career and he limits you to three questions. King of the Ring is a mere 178 pages. The book is less an autobiography of Harley Race than it is a Cliff Notes version of his life.

There’s really no excuse for such a short book, especially given the hardcover’s price tag of $24.95. There are so many stories that could have been told. Race has wrestled hundreds if not thousands of wrestlers and yet there’s scant mention of his opinions of them. As an eight time NWA champion, he wrestled some of the true legends in his sport including Terry Funk, Dory Funk, Jack Brisco, Giant Baba, and Ric Flair but there’s hardly any mention of them. Race details his family’s trip to Disney but nowhere does he describe how he went from nearly snapping Vince McMahon’s neck in a parking lot to going to work for the man. It’s just a shame that Race doesn’t spend more time discussing what obviously had to be a fascinating life.

King of the Ring is an interesting book but with all of the wrestling books to choose from, it’s hard for me to put this at the top of the must-have list given its brevity. While the book is light on content, it’s not light on your wallet. This is one book that you’re better off waiting until it’s available in paperback. A good read but not a good value.



Copyright © 2005 Derek Burgan. All rights reserved.