One of my earliest childhood memories was when I was about 6 years old and my mother allowed me the privilege of staying up late to watch television with her.
It wasn’t just television, but her two late-night interests in those days were roller derby, followed by professional wrestling.
I never did get into roller derby much. But pro wrestling hooked me and reeled me in.
Another privilege I enjoyed was the rare treat of going with my mother to see pro wrestling in person in my hometown in Missouri. After all, in a family of five kids born 5 1/2 years apart, there wasn’t a lot of “fun” money to spare.
We also spared little expense in purchasing 8-by-10 photos of our favorite wrestlers. Names such as Black Angus, The Stomper, Danny Little Bear, Rufus R. Jones and Bulldog Bob Brown became household names.
My mother’s favorite was The Stomper, a Canadian born Archibald “Archie” Goldie, who could be a fan-favorite or a rulebreaker whenever needed.
“Mad Dog” Harley Race was my favorite.
A former tag-team champion with Larry Henning in the American Wrestling Association, based out of Minnesota, Harley returned home, where he held the Central States title in Kansas City and the Missouri State title in St. Louis. Somewhere along the line he transitioned from “Mad Dog” to “Handsome Harley Race.”
Harley Leland Race was born in the tiny northern Missouri town of Quitman and began wrestling as a teenager. Since “Quitman” didn’t exactly roll off of an announcer’s tongue, he was billed from Kansas City, Mo.
Even as a young child I seemed mesmerized by the rulebreakers. Although “Jumping” Jim Brunzell was my childhood idol, as he and tag-team partner Mike George thumped the bad guys, it didn’t take long for me to begin cheering my favorites — regardless of whether they followed, bent or broke the rules.
The wrestling magazines that devoured my allowance every week helped to expand my new hobby, often adorned with bloody photos of guys with names like The Sheik and Abdullah the Butcher.
Harley often made the magazine cover, much to my delight, as the “hometown hero” seemingly made a name for himself. Then in 1973, he had an opportunity afforded to very few in the business.
Dory Funk Jr. had been the NWA World Heavyweight champion for 4 1/2 years and was ready to give up the title and the long road trips and days away from home that came with it. However, the choice for the next champion, as deemed by the National Wrestling Alliance, was a young Oklahoman named Jack Brisco. There was only one problem — the Funk family and the Brisco family didn’t get along, as one might expect whenever Texans and Oklahomans clash. Dory, his brother Terry and father, Dory Sr., collectively refused to lose the title to Brisco.
The NWA’s solution was to have a “transitional champion,” a guy who could take the belt off of Dory and hold it for a few weeks before losing it to Jack. Because he was considered one of the toughest men in the business and could handle himself if anyone tried to get cute in a “shoot” (as opposed to a “work”) and try to steal the title for real, Harley Race was given that opportunity.
Very few mat men get to hold the prestigious NWA World title, considered for many years the premier belt in the business long before Vince McMahon had visions of taking the genre national. Thus, Race was thrilled to have his name in the record books — however briefly — even if wins and losses were scripted.
The thing nobody expected was that Race flourished in his short time as champ. He had no problem traveling the world, was an exceptional worker and a fantastic talker on the mic. The fans loved him — or loved to hate him — and in a business where any publicity was good publicity, Harley Race became, in his own words, “the greatest wrestler on God’s green earth.”
Oh, and he held that NWA World title six more times officially (seven, technically).
I not only saw a wrestler who was from my home in Missouri, but I saw a rare grappler from the Central States territory vault to the top of the business. And boy, do I love underdogs.
I later learned that Harley overcame polio as a young child. And one could fill a book with road stories of Harley’s daring drives and affinity for drinking and guns. In fact, someone did: “King of the Ring — the Harley Race story,” by Harley and Gerry Tritz came out in 2004. It’s a small book, in my opinion. With Harley’s history in and out of the ring, he could have filled several more volumes.
I once had a dream of writing a second Harley Race book. After all, his adopted hometown of Eldon, Mo., wasn’t far from my birth town of Sedalia. Problem was, I’ve been in Kansas for 18 years, and never had an opportunity to sit down with my favorite pro wrestler of all time.
Harley Race died Thursday after a long battle with lung cancer.
I have an autographed picture of Harley on my office wall at home. Though I’ll never have the opportunity to meet one of my most favorite athletes in the world, that picture will have to suffice.
Sports editor Joey Sprinkle can be reached at email@example.com.