First and foremost, I’d like to offer sincere condolences to the family and loved ones of Harley Race. With his loss, another foundation stone supporting the ‘road’ era of pro wrestling has fallen to the wayside. In this piece, I pay homage to Harley by telling of time spent with him, including sharing the booking office when he held the reins at Championship Wrestling from Florida (CWF). During that time, Harley slept, ate, and lived wrestling; eighteen-hour workdays for weeks on end the norm rather than the exception.
I met Harley under extremely dire circumstances for me. I was a ‘green as grass’ rookie in Albuquerque, New Mexico, waiting for him in the ring after being told to go 45 minutes to a draw with a man I’d never seen before; that man having a rep as one of the ‘baddest of the bad’ in terms of legitimately being tough. On top of that, the length of our match seemed for me like a marathon might seem for a track athlete specifically trained for the 100-yard dash. My nerves were for naught, Harley led me through it so effortlessly and smoothly that the time fell away unnoticed. I felt like a real pro that night.
The next night, after the show in El Paso, Texas, Harley and I were having a beer in a cantina in Juarez, Mexico. Impossible to miss, during our match I had seen a huge circular wound on the back of his left hand that looked like a human bite mark. While seeming healed, it was still livid in color and was going to become an ugly scar. After a few beers, I asked him about it. He told me of being in another bar a few weeks earlier and having a man loudly disparage pro wrestling while slowly working his way down the bar to end up alongside Harley. When the guy turned to face him and opened his mouth, Harley backhanded him in the chops, downing him, stomped him once to finish him, and went back to finish his beer.
That was the ‘bad guy’ Harley I’d heard about, but for me, his scar was a badge of honor for defending our profession.
How many others were legitimate badasses like Harley Race back in the day?
A Facebook friend of mine asked me the question: “Just how many were legitimate badasses as Harley was back in the day?”
Well, Bruiser Brody had the chops but not the driving demand for a positive self-image that Harley had. David Schultz seemed like the real deal, but what follows is the reason Harley was so dangerous. Even if a shooter like Danny Hodge or a hooker like Karl Gotch managed to beat Harley and, believe me, they were going to get hurt in the process, Harley wouldn’t stay beaten. He wasn’t looking for trouble, so anyone who beat him would have been trying to prove something to themselves at Harley’s expense. Anyone foolish enough to do so clearly wasn’t aware that Harley didn’t willingly give out these kinds of IOU’s, but instead collected on them immediately.
Go back and read the part in an earlier post about his hand…..Harley would have made an assaulter pay for his ignorance in such a demonstrable fashion, i.e., a full-body cast, for example, that in future even Godzilla would think twice about messing with him. To truly beat Harley, you had to end him. That’s the ultimate in toughness, only suicidal nut jobs would willingly take on Harley Race in order to fulfill their death wish. As negative as the above might sound in re-accepted societal norms, the wrestling business wasn’t normal and could be lethally dangerous at times. In those type of situations, what better person to have watching your back? I mention Godzilla above, that giant lizard could have the entire city of Tokyo on the run. On a smaller scale, Harley had the same effect.
At a show in Lakeland one Saturday evening, as the finale of the main event, Harley and I had brutalized Dusty Rhodes, leaving him at ring center, bloody and flat on his back. We left the building afterward to discover a dozen male fans inflamed by their rage into a mob. The sensory input from a collective emotional source can be overwhelming–the huge mob trying to murder me in Iraq gave off vibes that had me emotionally levitating–and the anger being shot at us by these dozen men was like a ‘shooting’ heart-punch from Ox Baker to the emotional solar plexus. I stepped out the door with Harley still in the building and felt this blistering blast full-on, but within a step or two, felt it begin to lose force. I was watching these men with wide-eyed alarm and saw their maddened eyes move from me to Harley as he stepped through the exit door behind me. The reaction was astonishing.
Bunched closely together as I came through the door, upon seeing Harley these men moved and put space between themselves and their cohorts, took their furious gaze off of us and started checking out fellow mobsters, I’m convinced, to see if the other men felt the same quite-sudden doubts they were feeling about the risk of taking on Harley Race and the chubby kid with him. Being an Olympic wrestler has no value in these situations i.e., take one assaulter to the ground and leave eleven of them on their feet to play soccer with my head, so they weren’t at all worried about me. Indeed, I might as well have been invisible, every eyeball in sight, including one of mine, was on Harley. From the looks appearing on the faces in front of me, I wanted to check out if, oh say, let’s stick with Godzilla had stuck his giant head through and started to follow Harley out the exit door.
Nope, no huge lizard. It was just Harley standing there like a worst nightmare on steroids. He had his head cocked as in an earlier pic, moving his menacing gaze from one mob member to the next, what they saw returning them to individuals now mentally measuring the pleasure of a beer or two after the matches against a six-month hospital stay very likely spent in traction. At that moment, given the life or death choice of taking on Harley or the twelve guys, I was most definitely attacking the assembled antagonists, buoyed, of course, by knowing that one step closer by Harley would convert them into movie extras doing the only take they would in near or distant future be available to do of the Godzilla leveling Tokyo scene.
The mob chose beer, we left the premises in relative safety, and all was well. For any of you thinking what Harley did was an act, think again. He was a great guy, fun to be around, a great talent, loyal colleague and friend. Even so, something from his past and I never learned what, had made him at an early age mature and wise to the most negative ways of the world, and he carried that knowledge with him always. It was as if he didn’t care about getting even badly hurt, he wasn’t going to be personally disrespected whatever the cost.
I think people with malice and mayhem on their mind recognized that same mindset in Harley and avoided him like they would a king cobra with rabies. He could be outgoing, kind, and wryly amusing once he felt comfortable in a situation, but he carried within him, as constant as that tattoo on his arm, a sense of menace that made him unlike any other person I have ever met (outside of Raiford Prison, another story). I didn’t need to fear him, we respected and liked one another, but if there was ever a walking embodiment of a real man facing the bumps, bruises, heartaches, and stress of the world he lived in, that man was Harley Race.
“And I’m the Shooter?”
I think it fitting that not only fans of Harley Race but even those who didn’t know him should be given a chance to honor and note the passing of this unique man. Harley was a pro wrestler, but what the wrestling profession may or may not have been was of no consequence to him. For him, it was means for a man with limited but very specific skills to make a living and life far beyond his wildest childhood dreams and fantasies. Anything, and I mean anything, that got in the way of that was going to become the focus of those special skills–menace and mayhem–I mention above. If that anything was a person, that individual would be better off having Charles Manson and his cult crazies after them than have Harley on their case.
Disrespecting Harley Race was deadly dangerous behavior, not at all the case with many in our profession. We might respond, even with violence, to certain sorts of insult; Harley took that reaction to an entirely new level; I saw his very presence motivate big mouth bully boys in their own neighborhood taverns to shut their yaps and head for the hills. He was very reassuring to have at my side in dire straits, they became much less dire for us and ominously more so for the potential threat. ‘Handsome’ Harley Race is what he chose, “Hard Case’ Harley Race is what he was.
His true menace made him ultra-convincing in the ring and as serious as the proverbial heart attack I might have suffered from even thinking about fighting him for real. Given a choice of him OR Andre The Giant, I’d fight Andre…I might have been able to outrun him. I might also have been able to outrun Harley, but knew a day would come when I’d walk around a corner and there would be Harley, baseball bat in hand and maiming on his mind. He WAS the very best and most loyal man to have as a friend, the absolute worst to have as an enemy with revenge for a slight on his mind!
While in Iraq and alone in the most dangerous dead-end of my career, with an enraged Iraqi mob working hard to get their hands on me to tear to shreds, Harley would be my choice to have been there with me. Not Andre or any of the shooters or submission wrestlers, they would all have been scared witless like I was. Harley would have set his menacing mind onto calculating how to best apply his murderous skills to get us both out of there alive. He likely would have made it look like just another day at the office. Harley Race was one of a kind, kept company only as champion emeritus of a vanishing breed. HE WILL BE MISSED.
The other side of Harley Race
I have honored Harley Race by writing of his personal toughness, menacing potential for violence and fearless attitude. These are all admirable attributes in a profession demanding grit and determination but show only one side of the man. Quiet and somewhat aloof in the dressing room, Harley wore a serious face and attitude most of the time. Even so, reflection tells me he presented that persona because he wanted to be taken seriously and command respect in his work environment. In private, the hard case skipped town and he became a fun guy. While working together in the office we shared, he was relaxed, friendly, and showed a wry sense of humor. He didn’t laugh much but was more of a chuckle or subdued “heh heh heh” type when amused. I was therefore surprised to learn his reaction to humor could register uproarious glee, and for a short while unhappily so when that awareness arrived at my expense.
Killer Karl Krupp and I took on Rocky Johnson and Cyclone Negro at Tampa in July of 1975. In spite of the best efforts by everyone but him, the only thing Karl Krupp killed was the match by screwing up the finish so badly we could salvage nothing from the wreckage. There were four or five moves in a sequence meant to distract the referee and place audience anger on us as the heels rather than on the ref as a crooked or incompetent official. Krupp was in exactly the wrong place for every move, that place being the opposite side of the ring from where he was supposed to be. It was a legendary cluster-cluck, by comparison making a Keystone Kops farce seem like the Bolshoi Ballet performing Swan Lake, a match far worse than anything I’d ever seen or even heard of. Cyclone was an experienced and flexible veteran and Rocky also very capable of smoothly changing direction in response to this type of bone-headed buffoonery, but as assistant booker to Harley, I felt the lion’s share of blame at not being able to save the match.
As I stepped through the door leading back into the dressing room, I was not even thinking of Krupp but planning on apologizing to Harley when I heard the match killer a few feet behind me say, “Good match, eh?” By the time I realized he was serious, I was entering the large room where most of the boys changed out, turned to look at Krupp and bumped up against one of those elementary-school wooden desk-chairs, all of one piece that students slide into from the left side. Frustrated as I had never been before and rarely since, I snatched the chair by its armrest desk part, flung and smashed it against the concrete wall. As I swung the chair, I saw Harley, still fifteen feet away but apparently on his way toward us, cover and turn his face away from me, spin on his heel and head back into the corner he came out of.
Pieces of chair wreckage flew to all sides, I didn’t care, looked at Krupp and saw him gazing back at me as if I’d lost my mind. I never even considered doing anything to him, it would have damaged or crippled my career, saw Harley move past me biting his lip while grabbing Krupp by the arm and dragging him out of the room via the same doorway we’d just stepped through. My services were no longer needed, I showered, changed, and watched the last match, then drove to the Tuesday night joint the boys patronized to have a few beers. I was sitting at the end of the bar in semi-darkness and with a wall at my back when Harley came through the door. He walked up to me, cocked his head and squinted at me for a few seconds, took in the pissed-off, embarrassed, and doleful look on my face …and lost it, laughing from full-throat to belly in a way I’d never seen from him before or ever did after. It took a while for him to wind down, he had tears in his eyes, hands on his knees, and was blowing hard when he did. By that time, I had realized he wasn’t laughing at me, but at us, and was laughing along with him.
We had a few beers and forgot the business for an hour or two. The next day he told me that he had been on his way over to chew the Killer a new one when I redecorated the wall, had lost it and, with it, the proper demeanor to chew Karl anything. He’d had to return to the corner and collect himself before settling Herr Krupp’s sauerkraut. He also told me the chair I broke cost only ten bucks to replace, as compared to the $600 it cost him to reattach the bathroom sink he’d torn from the wall in the same sort of situation when he was young and green at booking. Indeed, as a rite of passage toward becoming a booker, my ceremony had been easy on the wallet. Just having him laugh as a colleague knowing exactly how and what I was feeling at chair-crunching time erased my angst about the match and is so much more meaningful to me now. That I gave a decent man very good to me even a brief but rare moment of gleeful release eases a small pang of the immense sorrow I feel that he’s gone. RIP, dear Harley.
Watch: Harley Race vs Bob Roop, June 11th, 1974 at Fort Homer Hesterly Armory
Bob Roop Project – “The CWF Years” Facebook Page
I’ll be writing weekly stories taken from my time wrestling for–and against–Championship Wrestling from Florida (CWF) on my Facebook page, “Bob Roop Project – The CWF Years“. You’ll read about the truly great amateur/pro wrestlers like the Brisco brothers, the cult-like craziness created by Dusty Rhodes, how CWF promoter Eddie Graham went from National wrestling Alliance (NWA) kingpin deciding for a decade which wrestler would wear the NWA Championship belt, to a shattered man tragically taking his own life. Those are huge stories in themselves, there are many smaller tales needed to flesh them out.
In doing so, I will be taking you with me on the road, into the locker room and wrestling ring and, via a tour spread over fifteen years, into the most fascinating, illuminating, sometimes sickening but always mind-blowing place I spent learning the vicious and insidious tactics needed to become a successful pro wrestler. I’m going to take you into the inner sanctum–aka snake-pit–of the CWF wrestling office with me.
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