Pulse Wrestling Exclusive: Harley Race Interview & Book Notes
by David Ditch on November 25, 2008

The former eight-time NWA world heavyweight champion was gracious enough to spend over an hour on the phone answering questions. However, in order to properly set the stage for the interview it’s important that some facts get laid out about the life and times of one of wrestling’s greats.

Section 1- King of the Ring: The Harley Race Story

Prior to the interview, I obtained Harley’s autobiography. I’m going to bring up some things of note, but there is a heck of a lot I’m leaving out, so be sure to check it out. A lot of points are taken into greater detail in the interview.

Early Days

-His real name is Harley Race, and since that’s an interesting moniker he almost always used it in the ring. He was born in rural Missouri.
-In his teens he tried to get training by working at the farm of Stan Zybyzko, but he wasn’t taught as much as he hoped.
-Got his start at carnival shows, either as a planted audience member representing the locals (face) or as the overconfident touring wrestler (heel). It was during this time that he learned how to end a fight with a good headbutt to the nose.
-He gave himself his first tattoos with needles and ink.
-At one point he began studying to become a minister, but decided to stick with wrestling.
-In the early ‘60s he barely survived when his car was in an accident with a tractor-trailer. The accident took the life of his first wife and their unborn child. Harley was pronounced dead on the scene but eventually revived, and it took almost two years to recover. He almost had a leg amputated, but his then-boss Gust Karras wisely stopped the doctors from doing it. Injuries from the accident likely kept Harley from being drafted for Vietnam. Now to put this all in perspective: the time working on a farm, starting his wrestling career and recovering from the accident all took place before he turned 20.
-Harley wrestled in a number of territories in the mid-60s, most notably AWA. During this time he was stabbed twice, shot, suffered a back injury and a broken leg, and got his car torched by angry fans.
-He went to Japan, and after a tour there he was offered a spot booking their US promotion based in LA. However by the time he finished the tour Fred Blassie (who was famous in Japan) had taken the position. Harley bounced back by moving to Texas to learn the business end of things from the Funks.
-Harley was on hand when Mike DiBiase, father of Ted Sr, died in the ring. Harley was unable to revive him with CPR.

NWA Champ & Mr. Saint Louis

-Harley returned to Missouri, buying an ownership stake in the St. Louis territory. He would remain a key figure in wrestling there.
-In 1973 he won the NWA title in a transitional reign that was used to move the belt from Dory Funk Jr to Jack Brisco. Though the reign was brief, the win was enough to boost his standing for years to come and keep him in the hunt for future title reigns. Harley was the last to hold a title belt that had been around for decades.
-He moved on to do booking in Georgia and Florida, while also wrestling regularly across the country and in Japan. In the process he gained a broad fanbase and enough support from the NWA central committee that he won the title in 1977 and held it (with brief interruptions) until 1981. He lost the title to Ric Flair, who held it (despite a couple controversies) until 1983, when Race got it back. Flair’s first run wasn’t seen as a complete success, and a lot of effort was put into the Starrcade 1983 Race vs Flair match to put Flair over big time. That did the trick and Flair held the title (with short interruptions) for the rest of the decade.
-He once slammed Andre the Giant, and even held him up for several seconds. Pictures of this were suppressed (with Harley’s consent) due to Andre’s longstanding “no slams” gimmick.
-Prior to dropping the title at Starrcade ’83, Harley was approached by Vince McMahon. They met at a restaurant. Vince offered him $250,000 to jump ship, but Harley said no. After the meeting was over Vince tried to take Harley down, but Harley fended him off. During this time Vince was trying to expand nationally, and getting the NWA champ would have been huge. A number of territories were struggling, and Harley says the WWF won due to Vince’s aggression and near-retirement regional promoters not being willing to take put their full effort into countering Vince. Harley’s effort to survive in St. Louis included orchestrating his mid-1983 title win, but that wasn’t enough to salvage things.

The King

-By 1986, Race had lost half a million dollars trying to keep St. Louis afloat. He finally gave up and joined WWF. He was given the “King” gimmick as a way of alluding to his past success without directly mentioning the NWA title. Harley says that he was asked to act prissy as part of the gimmick, but he refused. Shortly into his run he started to use steroids, but the bulk it added hurt his back too much and he stopped using them.
-During a match with Hogan he was slammed through a table. A metal band in the table came loose and snapped his pelvic bone, causing internal inflammation and an intestinal rupture. He didn’t realize the severity at first, and in a few weeks a severe infection developed that forced hospitalization. Antibiotics are the only thing that saved his life. His digestive tract wasn’t fully healed by the time he returned to the ring, and he dropped to under 200 pounds. This was aggravated by his use of the diving headbutt, which causes a lot of impact to the chest. In part due to his worsened condition he was asked to drop the crown, and after rejecting Honky Tonk Man and Brutus Beefcake he agreed to lose to Haku. He wound up needing seven surgeries to repair the internal damage.
-After losing to Haku he stopped wrestling full time and was offered a position as a road agent. Harley turned it down, knowing that he would butt heads with Vince too often.

Retiring from the ring & WLW

-Harley went to WCW and was made a mentor for Lex Luger, helping call spots from ringside and give tips while on the road. He praised Luger’s willingness to listen. When Luger left Harley was shifted to Vader, who was more stubborn about things like working stiff. Harley says he was given the task because nobody else could control (or stand) Vader.
-Harley’s last match was a 30 minute draw against Flair, and it only happened because Vader couldn’t get to the show.
-A bad car wreck in 1995 led to yet more surgeries and complications. The fact that the man isn’t in a wheelchair or 6 feet under is frankly incredible, and on several occasions in the book he has to stop and remind the reader that people shouldn’t take the risks he did (ie. driving fast, getting into fights). The 1995 accident finally ended his career on the road.
-He got married to his current wife BJ, worked part-time and took care of the household while she worked at a bank. Over the years their house became a regular stop for touring WWE and WCW wrestlers, with the Races throwing huge barbecue feasts.
-Harley was there when Owen Hart died in St. Louis, and he broke the news to Stu and Helen. Harley said he agrees with Vince’s decision to continue the show after the accident.
-After BJ retired from the bank they quickly became bored. Harley wanted to get back into wrestling, so he bought into local promotionWLW. BJ was brought in to handle the books, and between WLW and Harley’s training school they’re still keeping busy.

Harley’s career in Japan

-He was first invited in 1967 on a recommendation from The Crusher. He went there with Dick Murdoch among others. His immediate impression of Japans were of the shortness and politeness of the people, along with the heavy and positive media coverage.
-Despite working heel he didn’t get booed, and certainly wasn’t assaulted (which happened many times in the US).
-He and Giant Baba quickly became friends, even going out in public together. Such a thing wasn’t encouraged in Japan, but since their in-ring rivalry was more athletic than bloodfeud it was tolerated.
-Baba would take Harley, Hansen and Destroyer out golfing, with Baba paying. When Harley decided to pay for a change he was stunned by the $1600 greens fee. Golf in Japan is especially expensive due to land scarcity.
-Haku/Meng was assigned to him in the early ‘70s as an assistant. Harley was supposed to help him learn English, but Harley admits he wasn’t much help. Their friendship is the reason why Harley wanted to drop the ‘King’ title to Haku.
-Once on a flight to Japan he sat next to Boy George, and they got along despite a confrontation between Harley and George’s bodyguard. The mind boggles.
-During a match with Abdullah the Butcher, the two of them wound up brawling out of the arena. The government came down on them very hard and said if it happened again they would be banned from the country. Of the hearing Harley writes, “It was the only time I’ve ever seen Baba bow to anyone in my life”.
-He offered Baba a title win on 9/4/80, which the NWA hadn’t sanctioned, but with the knowledge that he could get the title back the next weekend in their scheduled rematch. Harley told the NWA that he got legit KOed by Baba’s clothesline. At the next NWA meeting Antonio Inoki showed up with a tape of Baba’s win, in the hopes of getting the NWA to switch from All Japan to New Japan. But enough time had passed that the NWA was willing to forgive the switch, and Harley did a good enough job selling the clothesline as to provide plausible deniability.
-Upon winning the NWA title for the 7th time he was declared “god of wrestling”, after a Samurai tradition.
-In 2001, NOAH asked him to be their agent for US wrestlers. Harley sent both WLW wrestlers and former WWE/WCW wrestlers over the years. NOAH has in turn sent wrestlers to Harley to train and help Harley’s school.
-Trevor Murdoch knocked out a NOAH wrestler during one of his tours in Japan, and the wrestler yelled at him- in English- in front of everyone in the locker room. He wasn’t invited back, but Harley was able to get him into NOAH’s dojo, where he improved and regained NOAH’s respect. Murdoch got a dark match and while there caught Chris Benoit’s eye, leading to him getting signed by WWE.

Section 2- Notes from a shoot interview

Via. Brandon Truitt of TheSmartMarks

-He upset some American wrestlers with how much he bumped and sold in Japan.
-There wasn’t a big style difference between the US and Japan during Harley’s heyday.
-He thinks Stan Hansen’s style worked in Japan, but kept him from bigger success in the US.
-Harley once tagged with Nick Bockwinkle in Japan against Hansen and Brody. The wildmen were both uncooperative, forcing Harley to put them in their place a bit.
-He helped train Jumbo Tsuruta with the Funks.
-His decision to go on the NBC “Wrestling’s Greatest Secrets” show was due to how exposed kayfabe was by 1999.
-He once did an angle with Rocky Johnson and Jackie Gleason, where Jackie shook Rocky’s hand but punched Harley. The punch wasn’t pulled, something Jackie would later attest to, but Harley wasn’t fazed by it.

Section 3- My interview with Harley

A month ago I contacted BJ Race about an interview, and she was gracious enough to give me WLW’s office number. The first round of questions were interrupted by a phone call from Ted DiBiase, who was inviting Harley to a triple wedding of all of Ted’s sons. A few weeks later I was able to wrap things up with a marathon session. I gathered questions from a number of sources beforehand, and he answered pretty much everything. The final portion of the interview took place on November 10th.

Japan

On Morishima: Harley says that Morishima is scheduled to have more dark matches in WWE. I asked Harley about reports coming out after Morishima’s first matches, hinting that the potential for a deal was dead. He says that isn’t the case.

On Giant Baba: Baba could do more than enough to have a good match, and used his size effectively to overcome his physical limitations. Harley compared him to Andre in that respect.

On Jumbo Tsuruta: Jumbo was very nice, very talented, and knew most of the basics from the start so he only had to polish things in training. Harley thinks that his June 11th 1977 NWA title defense against Jumbo was “flawless”.

On the JWA years: Harley’s first tour was 6 weeks long. They initially wanted 3 months, but he couldn’t make that big a commitment. He mentioned that Japanese companies book Americans 3 to 6 months in advance, and often a year at a time. A wrestlers that stands out from this time (besides Baba) is Michaki Yoshimura, who there’s little footage of since he didn’t wrestle in New Japan or All Japan

On Inoki: Harley wrestled Antonio Inoki in the JWA and in the US, and thought he was as good a wrestler as anyone. He only holds Inoki’s out-of-the-ring activities against him.

On style changes: The style didn’t change much from ‘60s JWA to ‘70s All Japan. Today he thinks Japanese are too focused on what he calls “popcorn” wrestling, where wrestlers try to get big pops in rapid succession.

On his using the headlock: I asked if he used the headlock a lot because of language and familiarity issues. Harley said that there was never a problem communicating with Japanese opponents. He favors focusing on the head and arm because of all the things that can be done from it compared to working on other body parts.

On wrestling Americans in Japan: It was about the same as wrestling them in the US, although Hansen would be stubborn because he wanted to look better in Japan.

On business: Harley believes that Japan in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s was run better than any other territory in the world due to their tour structure and tournaments.

On Abdullah the Butcher: “Abby was Abby”.

On The Destroyer: Dick Beyer had talent, knew his limits, and was a perfect fit for Japan. Harley’s first run in the AWA in the ‘60s ended when Beyer encouraged him to come to LA. When that happened, Beyer (as Doctor X) took Harley’s spot in AWA. Harley says this was the “best thing that could have happened”, because it forced him to move on with his career.

On language: In Harley’s experience, most Japanese wrestlers could read English but not speak it, since they were exposed to the written word far more often than they’d have the ability to have conversations.

On NOAH’s young stars: Harley sees WWE as having an influence on Japan, with their faster-paced shows forcing young wrestlers to work a faster pace in the ring.

On the business decline: Harley sees the struggles of Japanese promotions as being primarily caused by the economic struggles. Pricey tickets for wrestling shows are an expendable luxury in hard times.

Various points

On Vince McMahon: Harley isn’t entirely sure why Vince attacked him in the restaurant. He thinks that a few drinks coupled with Harley’s reputation for toughness were enough when coupled with Vince being “fairly ballsy”. No harm was done, and Harley now is more bemused by it than anything. By the time Harley went to the WWF it was water under the bridge. Harley went on to say that Vince was always honest in their dealings.

On being “King”: Harley was the one who first suggested it, since he and Vince were discussing the right kayfabe way to bring Harley in.

On the diving headbutt: The first time he did it was an accident. Harley went up top only to have his opponent roll away. Harley corrected himself a bit but still fell, and wound up doing the headbutt. The crowd’s reaction caused him to add it to his repertoire. His use of it over the years hurt his back, but he never injured an opponent with his. Harley was the first to do the kneedrop, and another “accident” led him to do the first vertical suplex.

On title belts: Harley managed to keep an original NWA title, the Central States title, and the AWA tag titles he held with Larry Hennig.

On today’s best wrestlers: Harley sees HHH as the best wrestler today, and someone who would have done well in the territory days. He also mentioned Shawn Michaels and Randy Orton, along with Murdoch. Those four are also the wrestlers Harley would most liked to have been able to wrestle in his prime.

On his 1990 appearances in AWA and Puerto Rico: They were short-term deals that he’s happy with. He’s known Carlos Colon for a long time, which is why he went there.

On father/son combinations: He was able to work with two generations of the Funks, Von Erichs, DiBiases, Hennigs, and with Peter Miavia and Rocky Johnson. Harley had praise for all of them, aside from noting the Von Erichs dysfunction in the book. With the Hennigs, Harley tagged with Larry, wrestled Curt, and trained Curt’s son Joe and daughter Amy.

On being part of the Owen Hart tribute: He knew the Harts since the ‘70s and Owen’s childhood, and was simply a logical pick to take part in St. Louis.

On Old-School wrestlers: The only one Harley regrets not getting a chance to wrestle was Antonio Rocca; Harley wrestled pretty much everyone else. I asked him who was the toughest, and he said pretty much everyone was able to handle themselves.

On his arm tattoos: They’re two peacocks and an eagle, all of which were done to cover up tattoos he did himself.

On Ric Flair: Reid will be coming to train with Harley in a few weeks, something that has since become public. I asked if it would be taped for the Flair reality show, and Harley said he hadn’t heard anything along those lines. BJ Race pointed to the website, which notes that Ricky Steamboat Jr is training with Harley and will go to NOAH’s dojo next year.

On his current trainees: He’s very excited about Amy Hennig (Curt’s daughter) and Go Shiozaki.

On staying in touch: He speaks regularly with the Funks, Briscos and Verne Gagne. He also works a lot with the Cauliflower Alley club.

On Trevor Murdoch: Trevor is currently wrestling in WLW, and has bookings set for Japan, Europe and Puerto Rico.

On his time in the business: He feels blessed to have been a part of wrestling from the age of 15 to 65.

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Once again, my deepest thanks to Harley for his time and honesty, and to BJ for her help. They have a great attitude towards life and the wrestling business. Buy the book!



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