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Cucch's Book Review: "King of the Ring: The Harley Race Story."

If you don't read this, you obviously have not had the fear of Harley instilled in you...

In the course of reading all of these wrestling books over the years, most of the biographies and autobiographies have what you could call a unique portion. Almost all of these books, from Mick Foley's first to Ric Flair's; from Martha Hart's book on her late husband to Terry Funk's excellent and criminally underrated bio, they all feature a certain theme: They all have a story that serves as a testimonial to the greatness, toughness, and all around decency of Harley Race. It seems everyone has a story on the former seven time (eight or more in some circles) NWA Heavyweight Champion of the world. They mention the legendary tendon strength Harley possessed. They mention his gruff demeanor. They mention what an all world professional wrestler he was, one who always made his opponent look like a million dollars. They mention his fantastic bumps. They mention his legendary Kansas City barbecues for the "boys." Most of all, though, they share their adoration and fondness of one of the very best competitors to ever grace the squared circle.

I guess we can start with the name. Harley Race. That sounds like a gimmick name tailor made in a wrestling promoter's office, does it not? Greatness sometimes emanates from a great ring name. Hulk Hogan. Steve Austin. Yet, the best wrestling names are generic and in many instances are the names that Mom and Dad gave us. Richard Morgan Fliehr became Ric Flair (as much as he wanted to be Rambling Ricky Rhodes). Richard Blood was handed a great moniker...if he was to wrestle as a heel. Instead, he became a life long babyface and was deemed Ricky as good as his birth name was, he never became a heel, so Steamboat replaced Blood. Harley Race. Chew on that name, HARLEY RACE. Its perfect. Its short, it portrays a biker's toughness, and has a great monosyllabic last name: RACE. Really, when you think about it, it is a perfect wrestling name.

It is Harley Race's birth name, the name Mommy and Daddy gave to him in April of 1943.

Harley does not describe his childhood much. It takes up about three pages of the book. By the age of 15, he was basically running his parents Missouri farm. But it was another endeavor that, as much as his parents disapproved, he had his sites set on. In the late 40's and early 50's, wrestling was a fairly hot commodity in the midwest, and young Harley was enraptured with the mat arts. At a supremely young age, he gained a world of knowledge from a wealth of men who had ruled the sport for a long time. Harley was mentored by the Zbyszko brothers, Stanislaus and Wladek, Gust Karras, and Sonny Myers (who is probably most famous for suing the NWA for monopolistic you can read in Tim Hornbaker's excellent book on the history of the NWA). Harley was one of the last of a soon to be extinct species: an American wrestler who cut his teeth in the Carnival tent. While future stars such as William Regal would endure the punishment the carnies subjected newcomers to in the early 80's in England, by the time Harley was training, he was the last of a breed facing extinction in the 1950's in America: a carny ringer. Harley was a quick study and by the time he was 16, he was a solid 230 pounds of menacing wrestling. Harley was becoming a hooker, in the spirit of Lou Thesz and Strangler Lewis, of Stetcher and Gotch. Harley was embarking on a legendary career that led him to the ends of the earth.

Harley more or less got his first big break as a tag team partner of fellow newcomer, Larry Hennig, in Minnesota, AWA territory, in the late 60's and early 70's. Hennig and Harley had many encounters with The Bruiser, Dick Afflis, and The Crusher, Reggie Lisowski. They did big business, but by the early 70's, Harley was not feeling satisfied by tag team success. He desired singles greatness, and he was soon to embark on one of the best decades a singles wrestler could the NWA.

Harley was an excellent wrestler who dovetailed with most of his opponents in the big promotion of the time, the NWA. Dory Funk was ready to drop the title in 1973, and was set to drop it to young up and comer Jack Brisco. However, the Funk family was a proud family, as were the Brisco's. So (and the book does not describe this...let me state now) Dory Jr. got "injured" on the Funk ranch and refused to drop the title to the young upstart Brisco. That is where Harley came into play. He beat Dory Jr. for the strap in Kansas City in 1973 in what was considered a shocking upset. Harley was pitted to lose the title almost immediately to Brisco...but he was doing good business. So Harley had a two month reign before dropping the title to Jack Brisco. (Consider the two month reign the equivalent to a two minute reign in this day and was not considered a long reign back then). While Brisco would become a legend in his own right (ask Jim Ross...God Bless the man on his retirement day today) Race was bolstered by the fluke title reign. Race won several regional titles in the meantime, and actually defeated Terry Funk, who had unseated Brisco, for the NWA title in 1977. Thus began, for better or worse, a 7 year reign, off and on, for Race with the NWA title.

Race was the epitome of an NWA champion. He traveled from territory to territory defending the crown in broadways night after night. He dropped, and won back, the strap from players like Dusty Rhodes, Giant Baba and a guy by the name of Ric Flair. Race was a transitional champion who was not a transitional champion. The NWA was searching for their next big thing, and eventually found it in Flair, but Race was doing excellent business, even engaging WWF Champions like Billy Graham and Bob Backlund in excellent one hour draws. Race was truly the epitome of an NWA Champion, which was not necessarily recognized during his reign, but later, as fans grew fonder of the man they missed.

By the time 1983 rolled around, Race had a portion of ownership in the Missouri territory, Heartland of America. He had been in the front office of territories since the late sixties, when the elder Dory Funk gave him a booking position. Harley was always one who enjoyed the physical aspects of the game, but embraced the mental as well. So by the time 1983 hit, and Vince McMahon Junior was starting to go national, Harley was growing tired of it all. He was 40 years old, and trying to fight for the NWA as much as he could against an unstoppable force, and he knew it. Harley fought like an old bastard against McMahon's national expansion, feeling himself as the ambassador of the NWA and the territories. And why not? Who, at his age, had dealt with the wrestling landscape quite like Handsome Harley by 1983? He lost his final NWA Championship in an outstanding cage match at the initial Starrcade to Flair (a match I dare say holds up quite well even in this generation of chairshots and instant gratification...if you will) and from there positioned himself as the main antagonist to Vincent Kennedy McMahon's national expansion. But Harley grew tired of this stance, especially after losing the strap for the last time to the rapidly rising Nature Boy. Harley took some time off, dug his heels in, antagonized  a certain man named HOGAN at a WWF show in KC, then decided to sell his worthless NWA shares and join the competition.

Now, here is where I differ in opinion with Harley. He mentions his WWF period as wine and roses. I saw it as, more or less, humiliation. He was given the moniker of King Harley Race...but for the most part was subjected to endless comedy matches with coked out of his fucking mind Junkyard Dog. See WrestleMania 3. Harley did a decent stint with WWF that basically introduced the world to a first...and it was significant come the 1990's: in a match with Hogan, Harley flip, flopped and flew through a ringside table. Initially, he felt some pain but dismissed it. Unfortunately for tough old Harley, it proved to be the end of his in ring career, more or less.

Harley endured some painful surgeries for the next few years, as he had done some serious damage to his stomach and intestines, to the point where he had to have several inches of said intestines removed from his gut. He embarked on a very successful managerial career, managing Vader and Lex Luger, most notably, before retiring from the sport he so loved and so contributed to.

Sadly, Harley Race was present at the May 23, 1999 WWF show at the Kemper Arena in his home town of Kansas City. He engaged a tepid Owen Hart in a conversation a couple of hours before the man who was considered the salt of the earth of wrestlers plunged to his death. Harley was at the hospital when Owen was declared dead, and that chapter alone makes his book worth the read. Harley also was the announcer for the Owen tribute match between brother Bret and some guy named Benoit. The less said there the better, but it should be mentioned that Bret Hart wrote the foreword to this book. And it is excellent.

All said, Harley Race's book does not even crack 200 pages. It is something of a cocktease to read it. Harley is someone who has seen more wrestling history than someone like Foley, Bret, or Flair. Yet his book is filled with an undeniable charm that cannot be jobbed to a guy like, say, Barry Horowitz. For as short, as brief, as Harley's book is, it still remains a must read for anyone who is a fan. Is is a Magna Carta, is is Anna Karenina, is it Moby Dick, the end all be all of wrestling books that a man like Harley is surely capable of? No. Is it required reading as a wrestling fan? You bet your ass.


  1. The shortness of this book is the reason I never picked up. I hate books that are not detailed. Maybe I was spoiled by the Gary Hart or the JJ Dillion books. It does seem like something I should read just to say I gave it a chance.

  2. Look at that picture on the book cover, that looks like a man you don't want to get into a bar fight with.

  3. You make a fine point. The book is very short, not even 200 pages. But it is HARLEY FUCKING RACE. The man commands respect.

  4. It is well worth the read. I am going to be going dark, or sort of dark, in a few days as I start a new job. I am going to be missing Raw each Monday among other shitty things. But money is money, and I hope people will still read my reviews here.

  5. Billy Graham in a one hour match? Uhhhh....

  6. Charismatic e-Negro Jef VinsonSeptember 12, 2013 at 6:45 AM

    It was actually a good read, IMO.

  7. Good luck in the new job!

  8. If Harley Race hasn't shoot killed a man I'll eat at Arby's.

  9. Re: Harley's WWF stint. My guess is Harley made more money than he had before, got more exposure, and was secure enough that he was able to shrug off any perceived embarrassment.

  10. YankeesHoganTripleHFanSeptember 12, 2013 at 7:11 AM

    Did Harley ever catch Owen with that stun gun? That was an awful thing to do to a man's chili

  11. So Harley says he liked being in the WWF, but fuck what he feels, we should go by how you think he should feel?

  12. King of the Hour-Long Draw and Hour-Long Read.

  13. Based on the BoDs comments when you were taking votes on this or DX, I expected a raunchy book of debaucherous stories. Did you just omit these parts or they werent in the book?


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