Mark Madden: Throwback wrestler Harley Race’s death both sad, symbolic
Hulk Hogan’s real name is Terry Bollea. Steve Austin is Steve Williams. Richard Fliehr stylized his name to Ric Flair.
But Harley Race was born to be a wrestler. Harley Race was his real name.
Harley, like the motorcycle. Race, as in “who’s fastest?”
It’s a dangerous, exciting name. You can smell the gasoline burning.
Harley Race died Thursday at the age of 76.
Wrestling has always been staged. Outcomes are predetermined. Wrestling becomes a little less real every day.
But Race was a throwback to the era of tough guy as champ. As National Wrestling Alliance world heavyweight champion eight times from 1973-84, Race traveled from promotion to promotion and had to be wary of foes and promoters who might try to steal the title from him via legit wrestling, a fast count or other chicanery.
With Race, that wasn’t an option. No one broke script, because Race might break you.
Race made manhandling Andre the Giant look convincing, body-slamming the French behemoth several times years before Hogan “made history” by doing so at WrestleMania III at the Pontiac, Mich., Silverdome in 1984.
The respect factor kept everybody in line, too. Race was recognized as the best by his peers. (That’s likely why Andre allowed Race to body-slam him, and sold more for Race than just about anyone.)
Race was called “the greatest wrestler on God’s green earth.” For a time, he really was. Race had everything: Peerless in-ring skills, a very serious (almost menacing) gift of gab, durability and credibility at a time when it mattered.
If you only saw Race during his WWE run from 1986-89, you didn’t see him at his peak (though he was still very good). Race was at the top of his game during his NWA world championship days. Nobody wore the 10 pounds of gold better. The cage match where Race passed the title and torch to Flair at the first Starrcade at Greensboro, N.C., in 1983 is still remembered as a classic.
I began working for WCW in 1993. The early part of my tenure overlapped with Race serving as manager for the late Big Van Vader.
Race wouldn’t have remembered me. I didn’t say much around him. I listened. How could you not? I always called him Mr. Race and kept any remarks brief.
I did the same when Nick Bockwinkel worked for WCW, and when Lou Thesz was present to be inducted into the promotion’s hall of fame. Mr. Bockwinkel. Mr. Thesz.
I was 33. But I had such a little kid-style reverence for those guys, and still do.
Bockwinkel once said, “Young man, you can call me Nick.”
I replied, “No, I can’t, Mr. Bockwinkel.”
I’ve been lucky to know some of wrestling’s legends during my time in and around the business, and have rarely been disappointed. I’m close friends with Flair to this day. Though we’ve not spoken much recently, I’ve had a good relationship with Terry Funk. (To me, they’re just Ric and Terry. Alcohol breaks down convention.) Dusty Rhodes. Roddy Piper. Tully Blanchard. Arn Anderson. Barry Windham. All the guys I loved watching on TBS at 6:05 Saturday night.
On occasion, that little kid-style reverence returns. I worked the Starrcast fan-fest at Las Vegas the week before Memorial Day and had a chance to meet Kenta Kobashi, one of the greatest Japanese performers. Kobashi speaks little English — well, at least not to some nobody like me. But I went up, shook his hand, told him my name and said, “Kobashi. Respect.”
Kobashi smiled broadly. That, he understood. More than anything, that’s what the profession is about: Respect. It can be taken to childish levels sometimes, but it’s the fuel that drives wrestling.
Race got as much respect as anybody who has ever wrestled. He loved wrestling and lived wrestling. He trained wrestlers after retiring. Race left a footprint that will survive even after he’s been gone for many years.
Despite a torrent of media camouflage (mainstream and social), wrestling has never been less popular in America. WWE TV ratings are sub-par. All Elite Wrestling, supported by a big bankroll, debuts on TNT in October.
But wrestling’s big problem is that everybody has peeked behind the curtain. It was never real, but we can’t forget it’s fake. Suspension of disbelief used to be the key ingredient. That’s gone. The only fans left are internet insiders who know too much to enjoy it like they should.
Nobody can make us believe wrestling is legit anymore, not even for a second.
Race made you believe. His death is sad, and symbolic.