Levin: Happy Birthday To Harley Race

The wrestling legend turned 73 years old this week.

Ask any NWA superstar of the 1970s and early 1980s and they will tell you there may not have been a tougher man in the ring than Harley Race. While there have been many who have come after him—performers who could brawl and wrestle—there are few who could match his in-ring skill, his work on the microphone, and his savvy as a champion.

Race celebrated his 73rd birthday this week. But in his prime, Race was a wrestling hero and icon and few have matched his accomplishments. While he finished his career working for Vince McMahon and WWE, his time in the NWA made him a legend.

During his career as a wrestler, he worked for all of the major wrestling promotions, including the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), the American Wrestling Association (AWA), the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), and World Championship Wrestling (WCW). He held the NWA World Heavyweight Championship eight times, and was the first NWA United States Heavyweight Champion—now known as the WWE United States Championship. Race is one of six men inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, the NWA Hall of Fame, the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, and the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame.

Ric Flair credits Race on many occasions with helping him to become the star he was, and when the two got in the ring, there was magic. Back in the day when arm bars and leg drops meant something, Race could beat anyone in the ring at any given moment.

Race helped to build the NWA territory in Missouri, which had become a mecca for the business, much like Dallas and Florida had become. But once Vince McMahon took over his father’s company and the WWF took off, Race and others knew what was coming. He spoke candidly in a 2015 interview with about why he left the NWA for WWF:

“He (Vince McMahon) was asking me about coming up there, and trying to avoid that part of it. I had been involved in wrestling for a long time and the NWA World Title was what I had my heart and mind set on doing since day one. I wasn’t going to get involved with Vince until I was through with the NWA side. That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s what I did.

“Once Sam Mushnick was out of it (the NWA). He was losing his capabilities to be who he was and do what he was doing. Without him being the head of the NWA, I think everyone knew it wasn’t going to be long before it was over. I started looking for the opportunity to go in with Vince, and when it arrived I took it and ran with it.”

Although he was never a world champion again, Race was still recognized as one of the greatest to step in a wrestling ring with the moniker “The King.” In his eyes, it was one step above being a champion. It was fitting for a man who helped make a niche business into a more accepted part of Americana.

Even today, there are few who have matched Race’s dominance in a tough business. There a those who are bigger and stronger, and those who have held more titles. Few, however, were as tough as Race was throughout his career.

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