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Harley Race (1943-2019)

Image from WhatCulture
Whenever Ric Flair cuts his signature promos—usually those that invoke the illustrious history of professional wrestling—a name always pops up, and it almost always gets a pop. As synonymous as it is with Ric Flair’s long and storied career, that name defines an entire chapter of professional wrestling itself. It is a chapter that defined wrestling as “professional:” one that took the spectacle from barns and circuses and into the territorial and global spotlights. He might as well have spoken of royalty as he said that name: with reverence, with power, with conviction.

A great part of that chapter was written by arguably the one true King of the Ring: Harley Leland Race.

Harley Race’s long and legendary career began in 1960, the Southern territories in Nashville. He wrestled under the name “Jack Long.” After a near career-ending accident (one that led him close to being amputated), Race resumed his career three years later. Stories have it that the former Jack Long heeded his father’s advice not to make anyone else’s name famous, and started wrestling under his real name by the time he hit the Texas territories. The rest—nine world championships and inductions to every notable Hall of Fame for professional wrestling—is history.

Billed at 6’1” and 253 pounds, Harley Race was by no means the biggest competitor in the wrestling ring. However, his in-ring savvy and proficiency—not to mention his antics and personality—made him reign over the territories in three decades of active competition. Add to this his legendary toughness (Bobby “The Brain” Heenan once said that next to Meng, Harley Race was the only other person Andre the Giant ever feared), and Race created a wrestling reputation that asserted his dominance over all others in the many rosters he was in. Few—very few—can dethrone Harley Race as the king of all professional wrestling. His bouts with Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Giant Baba, Terry Funk, David Von Erich, and Dick Murdoch were among the best matches of the era.


After decades in the territories—and as wrestling became more mainstream—the (then) WWF had to figure out a way to not only introduce Race to a broader audience, but also to acknowledge the legend that he forged in the past. It was then that the character of “King” Harley Race was born: winning the King of the Ring tournament in 1986. While comparatively short, the wrestling mainstream was introduced to the man who made wrestling what it was: the skill, the cunning, the innate toughness that many of us take for granted today.

In many ways, Race was approaching his wrestling career’s twilight at this point: while still a tough force in the ring, wrestling fans were far from seeing Race in his prime.

Toward this twilight, Race was also an active promoter and manager, starting World League Wrestling in 1999. Prior to this, he was also a successful manager in WCW (managing the likes of Lex Luger toward the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, and more famously, Big Van Vader). Like many legends, Race had sporadic appearances in the mainstream, following his long-deserved induction to the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004.

Image from Pro Wrestling Sheet
Harley Race stands as the very definition of the transformation of professional wrestling: someone who took the business to new heights. He was someone who helped spark the immense transformation that moved professional wrestling from its roots in the territories to the national and global stage. He was a strong, credible, and competitive champion who passed on his legacy to so many who have watched him compete: both in his prime, toward his twilight years, and in the wake of his passing.

Harley Leland Race passed away on August 1, 2019, at the age of 76, In his passing, he left behind one of the most memorable careers that every young and aspiring wrestler should consider studying and emulating: as a memory of a wrestling generation gone by, and an inspiration of a wrestling future that awaits all of us. Perhaps that’s why Ric Flair almost always mentions Harley Race in a promo of wrestling history: because there was simply no one better.

There was and is but one true King.

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