Last Thursday the wrestling world lost “the greatest wrestler to ever walk God’s green earth”, as the legendary Harley Race passed away at the age of 76.
If you followed wrestling prior to the 1980s, you are probably quite familiar with Race’s body of work. His eight runs with the NWA World Heavyweight Championship made his name synonymous with what was recognized at the time as the premier World title among all wrestling organizations. By the mid 80’s and as his in-ring career began to wind down, Race moved on to the World Wrestling Federation, adding the moniker “Handsome” to his name and becoming the second ever King of the Ring. After his retirement from active competition in 1990, Race added the role of manager to his lengthy resume, representing notable names such as Lex Luger and Big Van Vader in World Championship Wrestling.
For me, the best way to pay my respects to a wrestling legend after their passing is to go back and enjoy some of their best matches and highlights. Admittedly I am in no way an expert on the career of Harley Race, and my very brief summary above doesn’t come anywhere close to doing justice to this man’s contributions to the wrestling industry. I am, however, a big fan of his work from the early 1980s, specifically, his steel cage match with Ric Flair at the first-ever Starrcade in November of 1983. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you take a moment to watch this match, which is considered Harley’s official passing of the torch to the “Nature Boy”.
As the storyline goes, months before their classic confrontation, Race placed a $25,000.00 bounty on the head of Ric Flair who was next in line for a shot at Race’s NWA Heavyweight title. In August of ’83, Dick Slater and Bob Orton Jr. collected the bounty after attacking Flair, which included a spike piledriver, severely injuring Flair’s neck and resulting in the “Nature Boy’s” retirement. Flair’s retirement was short-lived of course (as almost all wrestling retirements are) as he made a surprise return some three weeks later, coming out of the crowd with a baseball bat to exact revenge on Slater and Orton. With Race’s henchmen now out of the way, the stage was now set. It would be Ric Flair and Harley Race inside of the confines of a steel cage for the Heavyweight title, at what is now considered the precursor to Wrestlemania, the inaugural Starrcade.
If there was ever a time for the term “big fight feel”, this was it. The incomparable Gordon Solie’s commentary along with the choice of former NWA World Champion (and Edmonton’s own, I might add) Gene Kiniski as special referee, only added to the incredible atmosphere. This is an absolute classic tale of good versus evil, with Flair overcoming the odds against the man who tried to end his career. The match itself is as old school as it gets, with a slow and methodical, yet brutal style which eventually left both participants bleeding all over the mat. And while this may have been Flair’s night, none of it would have been possible without Race’s performance – not only in this match but throughout the entire feud.
It’s often said that the championship shouldn’t make the wrestler, but the wrestler should make the championship. If not for Harley Race’s legitimacy and believability as champion, it could be argued that Ric Flair’s win at Starrcade would not have been as significant. Instead, that night in Greensboro catapulted Flair’s career and the rest, as they say, is history.
Harley Race is widely recognized as one of, if not THE toughest man to ever step foot inside of a ring, and his impact on the wrestling industry as a whole is immeasurable. In addition to Starrcade ’83, please do yourself a favor and take the time to appreciate as many matches of his as you can, especially from his days in the National Wrestling Alliance.
A true legend in every sense of the word.