Ruthless promoters will do anything to destroy a rival. Whether it’s tearing down show posters on indies or registering complaints with state athletic commissions, or infamous instances such as AWA promotor Verne Gagne offering The Iron Sheik $10,000 to break Hulk Hogan’s leg, promoters will sink to any depth to get their competition shut down. One attempted act of wrestling vandalism by Vince McMahon, in particular, put the first major wrestling pay-per-view Starrcade ’83 in significant jeopardy.
Starrcade ’83: Background
By November 1983, Harley Race was into his seventh NWA World Heavyweight title reign, having been a stalwart of the title scene since first winning it a decade earlier. He was arguably the face of the organization.
Before Starrcade ’83, a storyline had seen Race place a $25,000 bounty on opponent Ric Flair‘s head, with collectors “Cowboy” Bob Orton and “Dirty” Dick Slater set to break Ric’s neck to place him into retirement.
Harley was entering his 40s in a vastly-changing industry.
Set to take place on Thanksgiving, November 24th, Starrcade ’83 seemed the perfect opportunity for Race to officially pass the torch to his successor.
Did you know?: Hulk Hogan was initially scheduled for the first Starrcade event. He was supposed to team with Wahoo McDaniel against “Cowboy” Bob Orton and “Dirty” Dick Slater but was busy working in Japan, with some believing he was already WWF-bound.
An Offer From Vince McMahon
A few days before Starrcade ’83, Vince McMahon invited the NWA World Champ to New York for dinner. It did not take long for McMahon to cut to the chase.
He wanted Harley Race to skip Starrcade and bring the NWA belt with him to the WWF.
If he did this, Harley would be paid handsomely, with Vince offering $250,000 (an amount close to $750,000 today).
Having recently taken over from his father, Vince was infamous for his ferocious business style. He had raided various NWA territories and was moving to new outside markets as part of the WWF’s national expansion.
Would the offer tempt Race?
The champ was thoroughly exhausted by the NWA schedule and was on the brink of losing a $500,000 investment in Heart of American Wrestling. He was also reluctant to put over Flair at the time.
The Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Dave Meltzer has theorized the plan would have been for Race to lose the belt to new top star Hulk Hogan in a title unification match with the WWF World Heavyweight Championship.
McMahon wanted an immediate answer. Race expressed it through a unique medium: a bathroom mirror.
While conversing, according to Race’s recommended autobiography, King of the Ring: The Harley Race Story, Race motioned to the mirror before remarking: “I’ve got to look at that person when I wake up tomorrow.”
Vince understood, with Harley implying he would be ashamed and regretful if he took Vince up on it.
Jim Ross later explained, “[Harley had] given his word on that deal [to put over Flair]. He’d invested all these years and miles and hospital stays, stitches, blood, guts, and all that stuff for years in NWA. He wasn’t gonna [sic.] do anything to slice it apart.”
At an NWA Legends Fanfest Convention held in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2009, Race claimed, “I had too much respect for myself, not only Ric and the wrestling business, but me personally, to pull that.”
An Unexpected Reaction
A bizarre addition to the story is the reaction of Vince McMahon at the time.
In his book, King Of The Ring, Harley Race wrote, “Vince never raised his voice, but I could tell he wasn’t happy with my answer. He wasn’t accustomed to being turned down.”
Race continued, “As we walked out of the restaurant, the cordial nature of our meeting took a turn for the worse. It’s hard to imagine a dinner meeting turning violent. But this is, after all, the wrestling business.”
Vince is said to have attempted to have wrestled Harley Race to the floor, lurching at his legs for a takedown.
Race added, “I acted instinctively by cross-facing Vince with my left arm, getting his head in a position where breaking his neck would be easy.”
The situation was diffused with the intervention of Harley’s wife.
In a story from the same timeframe, in early 1984, Vince McMahon wanted to bring in sports journalist Howard Cosell.
When Cosell quickly rejected the offer, Vince screamed down the phone, “Well, f*** you, Howard! Wrestling’s going to be the biggest sport in this country, and I don’t need you anyway!”
These are just examples of Vince’s ruthless business mentality. He was prone to blow a gasket when he didn’t get what he wanted.
Back For Starrcade ’83
Harley Race had to make it from New York and back to Greensboro, North Carolina, in time for Starrcade ’83.
Ric Flair’s autobiography To Be The Man recounts, “The day of Starrcade, we had a major snowstorm throughout the Southeast, from Savannah up to Charlotte.”
Race’s journey across the 500-plus miles was treacherous.
Although nobody knew of the secret Vince McMahon meeting, there was tension across the locker room.
In a later shoot interview, Flair revealed that Race did not arrive until perhaps as late as 9 o’clock in the evening, whilst he claimed it was around 5 o’clock in his book.
The match with Flair went ahead as planned, called entirely in the ring. Although revered as one of the most iconic and significant matches in NWA history, it was tarnished somewhat for Race by guest referee Gene Kiniski. Race had previous heat with Kiniski and chewed him out after the match, calling him a “clumsy son of a bitch" for his poor officiating. [Starrcade ’83: The show that almost wasn’t | Slam Wrestling]
For doing the honors, Race was allegedly paid an extra $25,000.
Harley Race later became a close friend of Ric Flair’s, with Race calling Flair “the greatest wrestler who’s ever walked,” a statement that prompted “The Nature Boy” into tears.
Ric has also gone on to say, “Without Harley Race, there was no Ric Flair. I tried my hardest every day to live up to his standard in the ring.”
The two reunited at Ric Flair’s retirement ceremony in 2008, where Harley was seen whispering, “I’m really, truly proud,” or words to that effect. This can be viewed on the RAW broadcast from April 7th, 2008, at around the 1:40:00 mark.
Despite the scuffle, Vince McMahon respected Harley’s loyalty, with Race picked up by the WWF in 1986 and receiving a healthy run, including a King Of The Ring win and Bobby Heenan’s managership.
Race has claimed, “It gave him a lot more respect for me as a person. [Vince] knew he could trust me.”
In 2019, it was announced that Harley Race was terminally ill with cancer. On social media, close friend Trevor Murdoch revealed that Race needed a transfer via Med flight, although Medicare did not help.
A call was put into WWE, and within 10 minutes, the price had been paid in full.
This act of kindness from Vince McMahon allowed Harley to see his loved ones for two more days before ultimately succumbing to cancer.
Vince McMahon would later tweet, “Harley Race was literally the King of his profession for 25 years. Long live the King.”
It took a rocky road for a smooth one to be built between Vince McMahon and Harley Race, with Race earning Vince’s respect, trust, and friendship by displaying his loyalty to his beloved NWA.
Race’s ethical decision changed the path of wrestling history forever.
These stories may also interest you:
- Harley Race: 10 Tales on His Tenacity and Strength
- Vince McMahon: 3 Times He Intimidated Wrestlers in WWE
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