Race was considered by many to be one of the legitimately toughest men to ever grace the squared circle. When it came to our attention that Harley wasn’t in the best of health, we began compiling stories together to honor his strength and tenacity. This is a man who beat polio as a child, survived cancer, plus a near-fatal car crash. As Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan once said, “The only two men in the world that Andre the Giant feared were Meng and Harley Race.” He packed a hard punch and even his voice was enough to make the hardest of men tremble in fear. Not only was he tough, but he also had a heart of gold and looked out for his own. They don’t make them like him these days. These stories show why!
“I started in this business when I was 15 years old. I was one of the most fortunate people on Earth to do exactly what I loved to do all my life. My whole thing, in all the years I wrestled, was to entertain the people who had paid to see it. As much as my mind and body would allow me to do, to be as good as I could be at doing that. That’s what I tried to do my whole career.” – Harley Race
Bret Hart’s ex-wife Julie on the strength of Harley Race
“Nobody likes to shake Harley’s hand because he’s got the strongest tendons ever known to anyone.
He could break your hand with just his handshake. Everyone always shook his hand really gently and not the whole hand…
We had a dinner party when the WWE were in town a few years ago and Harley came for dinner. We ran out of ice and Harley drove my sister Michelle and I to the store and it was winter and Michelle had a bronco and it was really icy.
Harley just slapped into 4-wheel drive and he was like, ‘I’m going to show you how to drive…’
Oh my God, what a ride…it was the scariest 5 minutes of my life.
We get back in the house the ice seemed like one big block. I swear to god, Harley goes, ‘Give me that sweetheart…’
He grabs the bag and he punches it and it shatters. Harley just smashed the whole bag of ice with this one little punch…”
Harley Race on Slamming Andre the Giant Before Hogan
“I had him fully above my head – Hogan got him about chest high. Hogan claimed to get hurt after performing the famous slam – I didn’t. I got him in the position and brought his head full through all in the same motion. It’s when those pauses come in and that weight is allowed to come straight on you, that you get hurt.”
Bob Backlund on Learning from Harley
“Harley Race was one of the best performers in the business and I respected him a lot and he was a great mentor for me, I learned a lot from him.
Before I actually came to the WWF I beat Harley Race for the NWA Missouri Heavyweight Championship and that was a catalyst for me as far as getting ahead in the business.
When I then won the WWWF Championship Harley Race was the NWA champion at the same time and we a 60-minute title v title match which ended in a draw, but that was a great match.”
Harley Race pulls a gun on Hulk Hogan
“In the mid-’80s, McMahon’s WWF went national, threatening the status quo of the wrestling world. Until then, numerous promotions were set up across the country, operating independently under the banner of the NWA.
So, when McMahon started airing national WWF shows and touring his troupe into the cities normally controlled by these territorial groups, the old guard was none too happy. It wasn’t till they toured into the longtime NWA stronghold of Kansas City, though, that the enmity reached a boiling point.
Supposedly, Hulk Hogan was in the dressing room when a local wrestler named Harley Race stormed in. Race walked up to a seated Hogan and punched him, knocking him to the floor. When Hogan sheepishly said that he was surprised Harley wasn’t carrying a gun, Race reached into this jacket and pulled out a .38 Special. Nobody got shot, but Race had made his point. Hogan later claimed that Race actually tried to burn down the WWF ring, though Race denies it. Like most other regional promoters, Race lost a lot of money when the WWF took over, and to make back the money he lost, he ended up going to work for McMahon just a couple of years after the gun incident.”
Bret Hart on the Harley Race / Hulk Hogan encounter:
“The rumor had gone round that Harley Race was threatening to show up with a shotgun when the WWF came to town, because the Missouri territory was his, and everyone, especially Hogan, was anxious about it. Harley simply walked into the dressing room and held his finger up to his lips, signaling everyone to be quiet as he snuck up behind Hogan and then slapped him as hard as he could on the short ribs. Hogan turned around wincing, and seeing Harley, he turned white as a ghost. Hogan had to be thinking, Oh my God, now what the heck do I do? Then Harley smirked, extending his hand in friendship, and Hogan seemed more than a little relieved.”
Honky Tonk Man gets it after disrespecting legendary tough guy, Harley Race
“Harley Race ended up in emergency surgery having a foot and a half of his intestine removed. And then he got served with divorce papers. Honky made a big mistake when he joked in the dressing room that Harley didn’t have any guts anymore. Honky was one of those wrestlers who never had an ounce of real hardness in him. When one of the least tough disrespected a legendary tough guy like Harley, several of us took exception, and Dynamite got up and backhanded Honky right off his chair. Honky wept like a baby after that, pleading for forgiveness.” – Bret Hart
Gary Michael Cappetta on Harley Race, a man of hospitality
“Kansas City was always a great place to visit thanks to the hospitality of former NWA World Champion, Harley Race and his wife, BJ. Their place was a home away from home for barbecues and games of pool.”
Harley Race gets Revenge on Owen Hart
“Owen initially pranked Race by replacing a bottle of BBQ sauce with a bottle of the hottest of hot sauces at one of Harley’s infamous barbecues.
In reprisal, King Harley probably went a step too far when he tasered Hart backstage at a subsequent Raw.
It was obviously meant to be the classic handshake prank where the prankster has a buzzer concealed in his palm to give his victim a small shock, but instead of a buzzer Race had a taser of sorts.
Owen dropped to the floor and was knocked unconscious.”
Bret Hart on how Harley Race took him under his wing
“When Harley Race came to Atlanta to defend the NWA World Heavyweight title, he took me under his wing, insisting I ride with him. He always bought me a few beers for the drive, and he never let me pay for meals. Buzz couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw me riding with the World Champion, and after that, I was treated well by everyone.”
Dr. Tom Prichard on Harley Race and Screw Jobs well before Montreal
“Harley Race was a tough guy. No doubt about that in my eyes. I thought all wrestlers had to be tough just to deal with the lifestyle.
I had the pleasure of spending a few days at Harley’s house outside of Eldon, Mo during a camp with Les Thatcher years ago. Harley and wife BJ along with Les and his wife Alice and I went out on the lake and had a great time. We were telling stories and I got to ask Harley about many legendary stories and folklore throughout the years.
One story I wanted to ask about was the time the Lawman Don Slatton tried to steal the world championship in Abilene. Slatton was the promoter as well as a legend in west Texas. He booked a Russian Chain Match as the main event for the World Heavyweight championship between himself and the champion, Harley Race.
In the days before WWE being the dominant organization, the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) boasted of having the longest lineage to the real world championship. Anyone who held the title during that time would travel from territory to territory defending the belt. Prior to the match against Slatton, Harley got a call from then-president Bob Giegel telling him to watch his back because the Lawman was looking to steal the title.
Harley assured Giegel that no such thing would ever take place, much less attempted.
Both men were to be chained together at the wrist by a 10-foot chain. The only way to win is to drag your opponent around the ring and touch all four corners in succession. This was the Lawman’s specialty match and had never lost one! No problem. They would do something where the champ squeezed by. But it was the wild, wild west in those days and sure enough, Don Slatton tried to pull a fast one by saying he simply ‘forgot’ what was supposed to happen.
When the time came for the finish to take place Slatton ‘slipped’ and it looked as though he touched all four corners, therefore winning the match and the world title. Harley wasn’t that stupid and even though Slatton had immediately taken the chain off his wrist and gone back to the dressing room, Harley went through the crowd, kicked in the door and drug Don Slatton through the people and threw him back in the ring. He then proceeded to wrap the chain around him and touched all four corners so there was no doubt in anyone’s mind who was the world champion.
Harley Race is one of many professional wrestlers I admired through the years. He convinced me and many others that he was one of the “toughest men on God’s green earth!” Screw jobs were around long before Montreal. Even in this day and age you never know what’s going to happen. Everybody thinks they’re smart and knows what’s happening.”
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss Bob Roop’s tribute to his friend, Harley:
SOURCE: slam, WGD Weekly, YouTube, kayfabekickout, R.A.W. Radio SIRIUS 158, wrestling101, nypost.com, ‘Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling’ by Bret Hart, Bodyslams: Memoirs of a Wrestling Pitchman by Gary Michael Cappetta, drtomprichard.com
Some quotes used in this article compiled by Matt Pender and shared here with thanks to our friends over at ‘Wrestling’s Glory Days’ Facebook page
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