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MOUNT ROYAL… By definition, to be a wrestler, amateur or “professional”, you must be physically and mentally tough. To work in the business for over fifty years you must be beyond tough. “Handsome” Harley Race was that and then some. Race passed away earlier in the month at the age of 76 due to a battle with lung cancer. Based upon previous medical situations due to auto accidents, illnesses, and the just plain old physical degradation from being in the business for so long, many fans that had lost track of him over the years were surprised to hear that he was still around and had made it to the age he did. I wasn’t one of those who lost sight of him in his later years but count me as one who was smiling at the thought of him making it into his seventies. Some people are just born with that “tough” gene that almost makes them immortal and Race would certainly qualify.
Early on one promoter had him wrestling as “The Great Mortimer”. He wasn’t getting over. His father told him to never wrestle under another name again, ever. And when he eventually added the “Handsome” part to his ring persona, going true “bad guy” all the way, there was no looking back. I mean, has there ever been a wrestler’s name that rolls off one’s tongue better than “Handsome Harley Race”? He easily had one of the top ten wrestling names of all time. In perfect true to form wrestling fashion Race began his wrestling journey as a carnival wrestler. He was one of those guys that would take on all comers, and the challenger had a specific time limit to best him or would be declared the loser. Since there are many ways to tie an opponent up and run the clock, in a majority of matches Race could always outlast some big local guy who thought he had the goods to beat him. At the age of 16 Race was already 6’1” and 225lbs, and that’s how old he was when he hit the carnival circuit.
Around 1960 Race got into the business in his native Missouri as a runner for a local promoter and eventually became an in-ring performer. He would end up working in Texas and in 1964 would cross paths with a fellow wrestler that would change his career forever. That wrestler was also an up and comer by the name of Larry Hennig. The two would become close friends and tag team partners, and the newly minted team of “Handsome Harley Race” and “Pretty Boy Larry Hennig” would soon head north to Minneapolis and were about to set the wrestling world en fuego.
The American Wrestling Association was already awash in popularity but as in all enterprises new “products” are always welcome. And if they incite the ire of the wrestling fan of the day, and put ticket sales over the top, as did Race and Hennig, well, that’s nothing but positive. The more unpopular those two became, the more popular the show and the promotion became. It was win-win for all involved.
At this point I was still a young chap with a growing interest in this phenom of wrestling. By the time Race and Hennig hit the AWA my brother Paul and I were regular viewers of the weekly Saturday evening show broadcast live at that time from the old Calhoun Beach Manor. Our weekly dosage took place in front of a small black and white TV and we loved every second of it. Race and Hennig immediately started winning matches and employed a dirty style to accomplish that. In fact, they were “roughing up” quite a few teams along the way and it was at that point that the AWA brain trust decided that they must be stopped somehow. Enter the duo of “The Crusher” and “The Bruiser”. They were the reigning World Tag Team Champs at that point and were kind of half-way between being bad guys or good guys. Putting them up against Race and Hennig would immediately change that. They became good guys for the duration of their careers Race and Hennig were so despised.
In late January of 1965 they would meet at the old Minneapolis Auditorium for the AWA belts. The show was sold out and a few thousand fans were turned away. This Main Event didn’t last 15 minutes and the majority of it was conducted outside of the ring. The heel duo would cheat their way to a win and became the new Champions that night. This match created such a buzz around the Twin Cities that WCCO TV ran a 30-45 second clip of it on their sports coverage. Of course, the fans were fairly upset with the outcome and the young duo had to be escorted back to the locker room by a substantial phalanx of Minneapolis’ finest. Two weeks later Race was stabbed after coming to the aid of a woman being roughed up by a man in a Minneapolis tavern. Race knocked out the perpetrator but was stabbed from behind by the man’s friend. This threw the new Champs title defending into disarray, but Race would return not long after the incident.
Over the months following that the titles would change hands back and forth a few times until both Race and Henning filtered out of the territory. They could draw some heat though and that’s what put posteriors in seats. I would get to see them a few times but wouldn’t see Race in another live match until 1986 when he worked a big AWA show at the MetroDome. Probably his biggest days would come from his work in the NWA where he would become the Heavyweight World Champion 8 times, earning him the moniker of “The Greatest Wrestler on God’s Green Earth”.
He just may have been too. He was a great performer and could give a good match with just about anybody. He was well liked in the business and never had a bad word for anyone. He gave the ultimate praise to AWA jobber (guys who always lost) Kenny Jay once when he said “Jay is the best overall talent in wrestling. He was what we called a jobber, but he could work with any human being and get a good match out of them. He would go in the ring with a big name who couldn’t do much and make him look good, and he could get in the ring with a Danny Hodge or Verne Gagne and make them look even better than they were. He was an incredibly talented guy”.
Actually Harley, that was you. Whether you were wrestling, doing interviews, managing, training new talent, promoting, showing them the “ropes” and so on, you were wrestling personified. Compared to what you brought, the business as it sits today is clueless. You were all that to the 100th power. Thanks for all the entertainment over the years, R.I.P. forever… PEACE