Harley Race might be the toughest son of a bitch to ever put on wrestling trunks. He'd drink a case of beer and smoke a pack of Marlboro Reds then get up the next day and slam his body around the mat for 60 minutes against guys like Ric Flair and Terry Funk, selling their moves so furiously that he helped turn them into stars. And he'd do it night after night, 350 or so days a year, shuttling around the world in stuffy vans and cramped flights, for three decades, from the Kennedy administration to the first George Bush.
So these days he limps when he walks, says he's toned down the drinking and sticks to light cigarettes. His transition into post-wrestling life has been marred by lawsuits, financial troubles and the suffocating withdrawal that comes when the roar of the crowd fades into memory. He's 68 years old, with a trunk as thick as a rhino's and a head full of short brown curls. And he isn't done turning wrestlers into stars.
His Harley Race Wrestling Academy, pocketed in the corner of the small central Missouri town of Eldon, has been training new generations of grapplers since 1999. And it's here, off a winding road in a metal warehouse that houses his school, where you can find Race on most evenings.
On a rainy and gusty one in mid-December, Race leans forward in a chair in his makeshift office just a few feet from the wrestling canvas. In one hand he holds a smoldering cigarette. In his other hand, a pen that he uses to scribble notes onto a desk calendar.
"Wrestling is around, should be around, and as long as I have anything to do with it, is gonna be around," he says, his voice gravelly and plodding just like in all those classic prematch promos. "It's been the only thing I've ever done."
Framed photos of scowling hulks in tights drape the plywood walls of his office. High over his shoulder, encased in glass, hangs the scuffed and bulky National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship belt that Race first won in 1973. In front of the desk calendar a black nameplate reads: "8 Time Champ: Harley Race."
Just past dusk the half-dozen pupils currently enrolled in the academy begin to filter in for practice. They've come to this isolated backwater from all across America — Charlotte to San Francisco — to train under the legendary Harley Race, the godfather of an old-school style of wrestling that emphasizes grappling talent over microphone skills.
"Shut Up and Wrestle" is the official motto at Race's academy. It's a theme noticeably absent from the current formula over at Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), where out-of-the-ring histrionics drive story lines as much as the battles inside the turnbuckles.
"The easy way out is to let the guys talk about the bullshit without being able to do the bullshit," Race says. "You can't talk for sixty minutes."
Soon Race's current crop of students is in the wrestling ring sharpening their craft.
During the past twelve years, Race has graduated a handful of wrestlers onto the major leagues of the sport — the WWE. Most of those students hailed from wrestling's royalty. Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat sent his son to Race's academy. So did the "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase and "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig. Those pupils all made it to the next level. A few others — CM Punk and Trevor Murdoch — made it to the big time despite the one-in-a-thousand odds. Some of those alums may even appear at the Scottrade Center later this month when the WWE brings its Royal Rumble to St. Louis.
"My dad said I was going nowhere else but Harley," says Ted DiBiase Jr., who trained at the academy for a year before signing with the WWE in 2008. "He said, 'If you're gonna learn to do this, you're gonna learn from one of the best.'"
But the twentysomethings grinding it out in Race's ring on this December night? Chances are they'll never see the bright lights of the WWE. It's not that they're no good. It's just that wrestling has changed dramatically since Race first stepped into the square circle.
Harley Race was a thirteen-year-old farm boy growing up in the northwest Missouri town of Quitman when he saw his first wrestling match on TV. Two years later his high school expelled him for punching his principal after the administrator tried to break up a fight. Race could have returned if he had apologized to the principal. Instead, he began working a few odd jobs that would soon lead him to wrestling.
The great Polish wrestlers Stanislaus and Wladek Zbyszko gave Race his first pointers. The brothers, who made names for themselves in the 1910s and '20s as two of the greatest matmen in the world, owned a nearby farm. In exchange for bailing hay and doing other farm chores, the brothers taught Race wrestling moves.
By the age of sixteen Race had joined the carnival wrestling circuit of promoter Gus Karras. It was a good show: Race would stand in the middle of a ring under a tent and taunt the locals in attendance, mocking them for how weak they all looked or how sorry their town was. Then he'd offer a cash prize to any man who could beat him in a fight. Another wrestler on the circuit, posing as one of the townspeople, would accept the challenge, and the two would duke it out.
A year later Karras gave Race a shot wrestling on his Midwest circuit based out of St. Joseph. By the time he was eighteen, Race was earning a living as a professional wrestler and working his way up the ranks. He'd also married a girl named Vivian from his hometown. The two were expecting a child when they got into a car to visit Race's parents on Christmas night 1961.
Seventeen inches of snow fell that day. Their car collided with a tractor trailer along the highway. Vivian died instantly.
Race's doctor said he would never wrestle again. The accident shattered one of his forearms and damaged his right leg so badly that doctors contemplated amputation.
Nearly two years after the accident, he returned to the ring.
"The wrestling helped me cope with it," Race says of the tragedy. "That's one of the amazing things about being out in front of live audiences. They give you a reason for wanting to go on, for wanting to succeed. Had I not been able to go back to what I was doing, God only knows what would have happened."
Soon after his recovery, Race joined the American Wrestling Association, Verne Gagne's renowned Minnesota circuit, and in 1965 he won the AWA World Tag Team Championship. It was his first belt. He was 22.
Race won the National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship for the first time in 1973, by defeating Dory Funk Jr. with a ring-rattling suplex. As champion, Race traveled across the country to defend his crown against the top names of dozens of wrestling circuits, wowing packed crowds with his innovative moves — such as his hanging vertical suplex or his flying headbutt from the top turnbuckle. He was a 6-foot-1-inch, 245-pound slab of equal parts muscle and flab who knew how to work a crowd into a frenzy with his barroom-badass ring demeanor.
"He read the crowd well," says Larry Matysik, a long-time wrestling play-by-play announcer and author of three wrestling books. "He understood the audience. He understood what he did and how it related to the crowd. Harley Race was not afraid of real heat."
Race became the highest-paid wrestler of his day, earning $350,000 a year through the late '70s and early '80s. He'd fight six or seven times most weeks, in six or seven different cities, sometimes twice in a single day. He was a main-event draw with a tenacious work ethic. If you wrestled Harley Race, Ric Flair once said, you wrestled him for an hour.
"I was as good or better than anyone that ever stepped in there," says Race with a satisfied grin.
His archive of celebrated matches would fill a car trunk with VHS tapes. There were the highly anticipated title showdowns against Bob Backlund and Dusty Rhodes. There was the time Race was annihilating Jack Brisco for most of a match, before Brisco suddenly kneed Race in the chest as he flew off the top rope, then slammed him to the mat for the pin. And there were the 30 or so times Race and Terry Funk beat each other with chains and leather straps.
"What really made him a great wrestler was that Harley Race never considered himself anything other than the very, very, very best," says Funk, who has wrestled Race more times than he can remember. "And it wasn't just wrestling. He considered himself the world's greatest card player, the world's greatest driver, the world's greatest drinker, the world's greatest shooter, whatever. And the world's greatest wrestler. And I'll be damned if he wasn't all of those things."
One of Race's most memorable matches was his bloody battle with Ric Flair in a steel cage in 1983 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Race was the venerable champion, and Flair a rising star. In a television promo a few weeks before the bout, Race put out a hit on Flair: "Flair, you have pushed me as far you're going to push!" said Race, standing next to a silver briefcase brimming with cash. "Right here is $25,000. And it goes to any human being that can eliminate Ric Flair from wrestling!"
That night in Greensboro, when Race walked past the curtain, onto the ramp leading to the cage, there was no entrance music, no pyrotechnics, only an unremitting outbreak of boos. Cloaked in a red-and-white polyester robe with "Race" stitched in sequin cursive on the back, he stood at the top of the ramp flanked by policemen and breathed in the swelling jeers. He puffed out his chest, put his hands on his hips then defiantly turned his head left and right to scan the sold-out arena, holding the pose for half a minute before leisurely sauntering to the ring.
"I always enjoyed being able to make that crowd do what I wanted them to do," he says. "And you can do that a hell of a lot easier by making them dislike you than by making them like you."
That night was the beginning of the end for both Race's career and the NWA. Soon Vince McMahon would buy out most of the major circuits, including the one Race owned in Kansas City, called Heart of America Wrestling, and turn his World Wrestling Federation (later changed to World Wrestling Entertainment) into a national brand.
In 1986, with the world he knew changing all around him, Race joined the WWF. He was a star, to be sure, but never again as bright as he was on that night in North Carolina. Now guys like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Flair, whose career took off after beating Race in the cage, were the headliners of the business.
In 1988 Hogan slammed Race through a table, and the steel band wrapped around the edge of the tabletop snapped and stabbed his abdomen. A week later, while at home in Kansas City, he felt a sharp pain in his stomach and then passed out. When he woke up in the hospital, he noticed the colostomy bag beside him. His intestine had inflamed and ruptured. After that, state athletic commissions wouldn't license him to wrestle. So Race took his act overseas to Europe and Japan.
Also in the late 1980s, Race divorced his third wife, with whom he had raised two children. The split was a "drawn-out process that seemed like an eternity," he says. His drinking habits turned more reckless than usual. On June 9, 1990, Race took his ski boat out on the Lake of the Ozarks, as he did on many days. This day he was drunk.
Race plowed the vessel into another boat, injuring several of the boaters onboard the other craft. The wrestler settled out of court with most of the victims for an undisclosed sum of money. One of them pushed forward to trial, and a jury awarded her $250,000 in compensatory damages. Race filed for bankruptcy shortly after.
His body breaking down, he retired from wrestling in 1991. Without the rigors of the job to neutralize his alcohol consumption, Race ballooned to more than 300 pounds.
"You start realizing the fact that you are not out there in front of those people performing," says Race. "And you're not doing the thing you've done all your life."
Race remained in the business for a few years as a manager, promoting World Championship Wrestling stars such as Lex Luger, Steve Austin and Vader. Then, after a night of drinking in January 1995, he crashed his car into a concrete barrier in Kansas City. The impact fractured his forearm and crushed his hip. Race hasn't set foot in a big-league wrestling ring since.
That red-and-white polyester robe from the Flair match now dangles high on the wall of his academy's main room. The ring takes up most of the space, flexing out a couple of feet from the banners and photos that pepper the walls and lockers in the back.
This facility is supposed to be a temporary one. It is much smaller than the last place, which fit two rings. That facility's landlord kicked the academy out after the building housing his janitorial supply company burned down and he needed a new space. So now when the wrestlers train, they must talk over a lumberyard's chain saws buzzing through the woods on the other side of the walls.
Jack Gamble, an acrobatic 22-year-old with short brown hair and a lean build, says he was drawn to wrestling because it makes him feel "larger than life."
Ryan Drago, a tall 29-year-old submission artist, says he knew he wanted to be a wrestler the first time he attended a live show a decade ago. Drago watched in awe as the high-flying Rob Van Dam, folded steel chair in his hand, soared off the top rope, clear across the ring to the opposite turnbuckle, and drop-kicked the chair into his opponent's face.
"The entire building blew up," Drago says. "Just everyone went crazy. And I stopped dead, and I thought, 'I wanna make people feel this way.'"
When Race's students get into the ring and divide up for a fifteen minute tag-team match, they grapple and grunt and groan as if surrounded by a building full of people waiting to blow up.
Inside the academy's ring Stacey O'Brien, a chipper 24-year-old and one of two females enrolled in the school, grabs Brian Breaker's arm and twists it around. Breaker, a 26-year-old with shoulder-length black hair and a linebacker's physique, grimaces. O'Brien pulls Breaker's hand toward her face and exaggeratedly chomps down on his middle finger.
"Aaaaarrrghhh!" he yells, as he snatches his arm away and jumps up and down, nurturing the finger. Then he straightens up, extends the digit so that he's now flipping off O'Brien's tag-team partner, Jack Gamble. He follows that up by socking O'Brien in the head and dragging her by the hair toward the corner, where his partner Ryan Drago looks on from behind the ropes. Drago swings his leg over the top turnbuckle, and Breaker slams O'Brien's face into his partner's boot.
"Oh, come on!" shouts Gamble, shooting a glare at Lucy Mendez, a slender 29-year-old with long brown hair who is serving as referee for the match. "Come on, ref! They can't do that."
Mendez shrugs then wags a finger at Breaker.
"Hey! Hey! Hey!" she exclaims.
None of this has been choreographed. The grapplers flow in and out of moves, constructing a convincing narrative on the spot. They tell a story through body language, facial expressions and fighting styles.
"The biggest thing in our business that I learned from Harley is the psychology," reflects current WWE star Ted DiBiase Jr. "It's telling a story in the ring. It's good versus evil, and you gotta paint that picture. It's the way you sell things. The way you bring people into what you're doing and let them get lost in it. During your match you just want them to be right there with you, either cheering you on or hating your guts. If you just learn a bunch of moves, you can go just about anywhere to do that. But to do it the right way, and be good at what we do, it's about psychology. And that's what Harley was great at."
In the tag-team match under way at Race's academy on this December evening, Breaker plays the bad-guy role, "the heel." He struts arrogantly around the ring after slamming Gamble to the ground and holds O'Brien's arms behind her back so his tag-team partner can sneak in shots when the ref isn't looking. Gamble plays the good-guy role, the "baby face." He resiliently rises to his feet, determination etched on his brow, and punches Breaker in the gut. He shouts encouragement to O'Brien as she is trapped in a hammer lock, struggling to reach her partner's outstretched arm.
It is an underappreciated art form, a brutal-looking freestyle composition, part theater, part improv comedy, part mixed martial arts, part interpretive dance. While some wrestlers prefer to outline a match beforehand, Race's philosophy stresses extemporaneous thinking.
"Anyone who was ever in the ring with me did it right there," he says. "There was no rehearsal of anything."
Most of the students reside at a nearby apartment complex, where Race knows the owner and can get his pupils a discounted rate. Between training sessions and wrestling cards, they hold down jobs. Breaker waits tables at a Chili's. Gamble works graveyard shifts at a factory, making car seats. O'Brien tends bar 30 miles away in Jefferson City.
Tuition to the academy is $3,000 per six-month session, plus another $50 to try out for the school. But for an up-and-comer longing to get to the big leagues, Race's academy fosters a dream.
"Is it worth spending the $50,000 to go to Cornell?" says Greg Oliver, founder of SLAM!, a wrestling magazine. "Where else are you gonna get that name on your résumé? All these indie guys need the work, and that's the thing Harley can provide. And there's nobody else out there doing it. That's the only way you're gonna get better, and it's totally gone from this business."
In addition to the academy, Race also operates a wrestling circuit called World League Wrestling that he uses to showcase his best grapplers. The WLW puts on about twenty shows a year, traveling the heartland from southern Minnesota to northern Arkansas. The events are streamed online and occasionally broadcast on public-access television stations. Usually the wrestlers perform in high school gyms or community centers, drawing a few dozen spirited fans. They earn $25 to $50 a match. It's a brutish existence, requiring equal doses of skill and serendipity.
"To make that next step, there is a huge element of luck," says Matysik. "You gotta be in the right spot at the right time with the right look with the right politics with the right personalities. And that's tough."
In the early 2000s WWE recruiters discovered Trevor Murdoch, who would become one of Race's most celebrated alums, while scouting a prospect he was wrestling against. The recruiters had been looking for someone to play a hillbilly character, and Murdoch, with his thick red sideburns and pale and lumpy physique, had been using that exact gimmick. Race never really used a gimmick; he fought under his birth name, employing only the moniker "Handsome" Harley Race and later "King" Harley Race when he entered the WWF.
Of the academy's current crop, Breaker is the closest to making it to the next level, which is signing a contract with the WWE's developmental circuit, Florida Championship Wrestling. The league holds about 80 wrestlers, and when one of them gets bumped to the majors, a spot opens up. Breaker, who's been wrestling for four-and-a-half years, is near the top of the list to fill the next slot.
"He knows that to be able to make it he's gotta be able to work in the ring and have a match with anybody," says Race, underscoring a wrestler's ability to dictate the script of a bout. "A lot of guys lack the ability to go in the ring and call what's happening."
McMahon's takeover of the business, while escalating salaries for the superstars at the top, had a stifling effect on the majority of young wrestlers. As the many circuits disappeared, so did all of those roster spots. In the 1970s, 600 guys could make a living wrestling. Now that number is fewer than 200.
That math isn't lost on any of the wrestlers at Race's academy, including Jason Jones, a chiseled 29-year-old veteran who's been training in Eldon since 2008 and now serves as lead instructor at the academy. Race's endorsement gives Jones and other students more credibility and exposure than wrestlers at most other small independent promotional companies. And Race's ties to the industry ensure that his students are first in line for wrestling opportunities on untelevised "dark matches" before WWE events,or for bouts with Pro Wrestling NOAH, one of Japan's top leagues. Yet Jones realizes that he'll only "make it" when — and if — the WWE takes notice.
"There were a lot of places to go in Harley's era," he says. "Every week there were shows. Three, four times a week. You'd be lucky if you'd have a day off. Unfortunately there's only one place a guy like me or anyone else here can go, and that's the WWE."
It's addictive owning an arena full of fans, driving their emotions with the drop of an elbow or the turn of a phrase.
"We love it so much," says Terry Funk, Race's legendary ring rival. "The really great ones, they wouldn't be great if it wasn't our fix, our shot in the arm. It's our narcotic, just to go out there. Do we miss it? Yeah. Absolutely."
It's no surprise, then, that even today you can turn on the TV and see Hulk Hogan at 58, or Ric Flair at 62, throwing their wrinkled frames around the mat.
Funk, 67 years old, continues to wrestle on the independent circuit every few months. Harley Race, by comparison, does nothing more strenuous than an afternoon of boating or a round of golf. Still, the taste lingers.
"Until the day I die, I'll miss that nightly hour in the spotlight," he says.
The 1995 car wreck that forced Race to leave wrestling warranted fourteen screws and two metal plates in one hip. Soon after recovering from the injury, Race married a banking executive named B.J. They settled down in a modest condo on the Lake of the Ozarks, about ten miles south of Eldon. For a couple years, Race moonlighted as a process server, but it didn't satisfy him the way his old job did. Wrestling, he says, is all he has ever known. And the one thing he could still offer the sport, he figured, was his knowledge.
"It's about the only thing left to do to keep myself involved in wrestling at a high level," he says of his decision to open the wrestling academy. "When I finally knew for sure that I wasn't going to go any further in wrestling, the next thing was to build a new Harley Race to keep the image alive."
Now Race and his wrestlers have become one of Eldon's main attractions, filling the community center or the high school gym when the WLW holds an in-town event.
Race partners with local institutions, such as the fire department and little league program, having them sell concessions at his wrestling matches for a share of the profits. Many residents also mark their calendars for Race's annual wrestling camp in October, when big names such as Ricky Steamboat or CM Punk come to town.
"Harley really has been a benefit to the Eldon community," says Tom Collins, sports editor at the Eldon Advertiser. "Whether or not you like wrestling, the things that Harley has done for the community of Eldon, you can't really not like that. There's a lot [that] some of the civic organizations couldn't have been able to do if it wasn't for Harley."
In the fall of 2009 B.J. died unexpectedly, following a bout with pneumonia. Ever since, Race hasn't been spending as much time at the academy. Nor does he spend much time socializing around town anymore. Long gone are the screaming crowds to numb the pain.
"He seems like he's slowed down quite a bit," confirms Eldon's fire chief Randy Vernon, who's known Race since the academy's early days. "We really thought a lot of B.J. And she really helped him out, kept him in line."
On the last night of training before the Christmas break, Race hobbles over to the stretching table and gingerly leans against the padding. He observes his wrestlers grappling on the canvas and barks out pointers with a slight smirk on his face. After about twenty minutes, he raises his hand, smiles and tells the wrestlers, "Good night, everybody." "Good night, boss," they all respond, pausing for a moment as Race shuffles out the door.
But the old wrestler remains an inspiration to new generations.
On a recent day, two wide-eyed boys visit the academy. They walk over to the ring, surrounded by wrestling memorabilia spanning the past five decades.
Jones introduces himself. The boys, brothers Kenny and Jeff Peterson, say they've come all the way from Marshville, to sign up for the Harley Race Wrestling Academy.
"OK, why do you want to do this?" asks Jones, arms crossed, leaning back on his heels.
"Just everything about it," says Jeff, a round twenty-year-old with a budding mullet. "It's all we know how to do. "All the other kids wanna grow up to be quarterbacks and astronauts. We wanted to grow up to be professional wrestlers. We've been suplexing each other in the back yard and stuff."
"Since we were old enough to walk, we were drop kicking each other," chimes in Kenny, a skinny nineteen-year-old wearing a red flannel shirt, camouflage cargo pants and black boots.
"Our school's rough," says Jones. He doesn't tell them that 75 percent of wannabe wrestlers who try out never come back. "It's definitely not a cakewalk. We don't make you a superstar overnight."
The brothers nod.
"It's crazy," Jeff remarks. "We're in the same building as Harley Race right now."