Harley Race, a professional wrestler who overcame serious injuries from a car accident to become a mainstay of the wrestling circuit, winning numerous individual and tag-team titles in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, died on Thursday. He was 76.
The cause was lung cancer, the wrestling organization WWE said on its website. It did not say where he died.
Race was pitted in high-profile matches again Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan and other marquee names. In his heyday he was such a name himself, personifying toughness but serving as a transitional figure who helped bring the sport from an era of brawn to one of character-driven performance.
“Before Race, sweaty grapplers played to a relatively small, but loyal and dedicated, group of fans,” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote in 2001. “After Race, wrestling is a megabillion-dollar industry with huge television contracts, pay-per-view spectacles and a sleazy soap-opera sensibility.”
As Flair, one of professional wrestling’s best-known and most flamboyant figures, put it on Twitter, “Without Harley Race, there was no Ric Flair.”
Harley Leland Race was born on April 11, 1943, in Maryville, Missouri.
“It’s not a stage name, as many people still believe,” he said in his autobiography, “King of the Ring: The Harley Race Story” (2004), written with Gerry Tritz. His parents, Mary and George Allen Race, were sharecroppers, he wrote, and his father also drove a bus.
At 15, he said, he was tossed out of high school after slugging the school principal, who was trying to break up a good-natured fight between him and an equally rough-and-tumble friend.
“I was barred from school property until I apologized to the shaken but unhurt principal,” he wrote. “I’m not the apologetic type of guy, so it would become a lifetime suspension.”
That suited him fine, because he already knew that he wanted to be a professional wrestler, having heard promotional spots on the radio and seen a few matches on a black-and-white television. He moved further toward that goal when he got a job working on the Missouri farm of the Zbyszkos, a family that included two brothers, Stanislaus and Wladek, who had been professional wrestlers and taught him some moves.
“Mostly what they taught me were submission holds,” he wrote. “They’d put me in one and say, ‘Try to get out.’ The more I tried, the more I wore myself out or hurt myself.”
Race began wrestling professionally in 1960, working in small arenas across the United States. A car accident in 1961 killed his wife, Vivian, whom he had married only a month earlier, and left him seriously injured. In his autobiography, he said that a doctor told him he was unlikely to walk again.
“‘I’ll send you ringside tickets to my first match,’ I told him,” Race wrote.
Beginning in 1965 he and Larry Hennig won a series of tag team titles, and individual accolades would soon follow. In 1973 he beat Dory Funk to win his first National Wrestling Alliance championship, a belt he would win seven more times.
He accumulated assorted nicknames over the years: “Handsome,” “Mad Dog,” “King of the Ring,” “Greatest Wrestler on God’s Green Earth.” He would often play the bad guy in the ring, inviting the scorn of the crowd.
“He was a good athlete, good looking, the whole package,” Hennig told the Des Moines Register in 2005. “Some rednecks don’t like that. They don’t like to see you talking and mouthing off. But he could back it up.”
Among his claims to fame was being the first man to body slam Andre the Giant, in 1978, when Andre was said to have weighed more than 500 pounds.
Race joined the WWE in 1986. His last serious matches were in the early 1990s. After that he worked as a wrestling promoter and manager for a time, then he started a sort of minor-league wrestling circuit, World League Wrestling, and training school, the Harley Race Wrestling Academy in Eldon, Missouri.
Race was married four times, most recently to Beverly Ann Race, who died in 2009. Information on his survivors was not immediately available.
At his academy, Race taught the basics of wrestling.
“The longer your body is on the mat, the longer you are in the business,” he explained to the Register. “When you’re in the air, you gotta land somewhere. If you got the background in basic mat wrestling, you can wrestle anybody.”
But he also taught the showmanship aspect, beginning with the advice that a good match starts with the wrestler’s mindset.
“You go in the ring and you’re the band director,” he said. “You’re not part of the audience or part of the band. What you create in your mind is what makes people get behind you or go against you.”