‘A Mark’s Eye View‘ is a weekly look at some of the things that made me a huge fan of professional wrestling.
The wrestling world lost a legend on August 1, 2019. Harley Race won numerous championships and was an eight time NWA World Heavyweight Champion, the first NWA United States Champion, and held the AWA World Tag Titles three times. He is also one of the sport’s true tough guys. Though he was at the tail end of his career when I started watching wrestling, Race is very prominent in my memories of the sport.
When I began watching wrestling, the sport was dominated with names that still mean something today: Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, and Dusty Rhodes were the wrestlers everyone knew and the faces that were on every magazine cover. When you talked to hardcore fans, you would hear names like Ted DiBiase and Bruiser Brody. I would hear Race’s name seemingly everywhere. The NWA constantly talked about his record seven title reigns. (It would be many years later until the eighth title reign was recognized.) World Class would show his battles from the early 1980s against the Von Erichs. The Apter magazines would always reference him. The only place that didn’t mention him was the WWF, but that would change spectacularly soon enough.
I heard Race’s name so much I had to look up his matches. Obviously, I got his Starrcade ’83 match against Flair first chance I could. When I first saw it, I was shocked. Flair was already my favorite wrestler, but how would he do against a legend from another era? I had already watched a best of Bruno Sammartino collection and was incredibly disappointed. The supposed best WWF Champion ever was absolutely horrible. Punch, punch, kick, punch, kick, blood, stomp, punch, kick, bearhug is a blow by blow account of all of his matches. I was equally unimpressed by other greats of yesteryear. (Wrestling fans’ tastes are more generational than fans of other sports. Fun game: show a modern wrestling fan the Ricky Steamboat/Randy Savage WrestleMania III classic and time how quickly it is before they bring up some random TakeOver match.)
The Starrcade ’83 match soared past my expectations. Aside from a botch from special referee Gene Kiniski (another name from an earlier era who did not live up to the hype), the bout was fantastic. Years later, I would come to see it as a true passing of the torch moment. However, on my first viewing, it was a great match that made me want to see more of Race.
Not only was Race one of the rare wrestlers from a bygone age I could enjoy, I sometimes wondered if he was the greatest wrestler of all time. His matches against Rhodes were even better than the miracles Flair would managed to get out of Big Dust. His wars with Terry Funk rivaled anything Funk would do later in his career. He managed to make “Howdy Doody” Bob Backlund exciting and wrestled the limited “Superstar” Billy Graham to a bloody one hour draw in a unification match between the NWA and WWF Champions. I had seen none of Race’s current work and he was one of my favorites.
This changed in 1986. I had not been watching wrestling that long but I still had an idea of how the WWF operated. Basically, they were the only wrestling promotion in the world and no one else was ever mentioned. However, I did expect Vince McMahon to talk about Race’s past accolades when he debuted in the WWF. Every other promotion seemed to. I was somewhat surprised when they never did. It was not until I was older that I realized the King gimmick was a way to acknowledge his past (while also trying to embarrass him).
I was incredibly excited to see Race in the WWF. I was looking forward to great matches against Steamboat. I could not wait to see more down-to-Earth yet still strong promos. Best of all, I was going to see how a great former NWA Champion fared against the mighty Hulk Hogan. A part of me even believed Race may win the belt.
I was young and naive. An argument can be made (not by me) that Race’s matches for the WWF title were the best of Hogan’s first reign. The Race in the WWF was older, less mobile, and much slower. He was not a credible threat and even seemed out of his league at times. Race’s WWF run was only memorable for a table spot leading to surgery and him dancing to the ring with Akeem in Rome. This was not the Race I enjoyed watching.
The WWF run was when I learned that Race was the bridge for me between what wrestling was and what it had become. Race represented a different type of wrestler. He was a tough, no-nonsense wrestler who could hold his own against a wide range of wrestlers. Whether it was Flair or Andre the Giant (who he bodyslammed long before Hogan), you could count on Harley Race having a great match. He was unafraid to use high risk moves and even had a bit of flash to his gear.
By the time the mid-’80s had come around, it was clear Race’s time had passed. He was the older guy who was still trying to pass as relevant. A gimmick just did not suit “Handsome” Harley. His promos with him wearing a cape and crown are probably the worst of his career (racist ones excluded). His moveset which had been derided as too flashy by old-timers of the ’70s seemed archaic in 1987. It was almost Greek in its tragedy.
Watching Harley Race in the 1980s are some of my strongest memories. It gave me a chance to look back at a time I had not had a chance to watch. Race gave me the only point of comparison I had to wrestling’s earlier days. He was an outlier — no one was as good as he was – but that was exactly what I needed. Race allowed me to see how wrestling had evolved over recent decades. He bridged the gap between eras like no one has been able to do since. He is one of the most important wrestlers of all time and will be missed.
Next week: They held the title for how long?