Calling himself “the greatest wrestler on god’s green earth,” the 6-foot-1, 245-pound Mr. Race was a ring stalwart — and frequent champion — for decades until a 1995 car accident ended his career. He was sometimes overshadowed by bigger names and more charismatic personalities with bulkier muscles, but his experience and toughness brought him respect among colleagues.
Leon “Big Van Vader” White, who was Mr. Race’s tag-team partner for a time, told YouTube wrestling channel the Hannibal TV in 2017 that Mr. Race mastered “the ability to tell a story with your body physically.”
A ring veteran who wrestled under nicknames such as “Handsome” Harley Race and “Mad Dog,” Mr. Race joined what then was the World Wrestling Federation in 1986 — it later became WWE — as the company was soaring in popularity. He was in his mid-40s at the time, and he needed a new gimmick.
“When I went to the WWE, I had been world champion eight different times,” Mr. Race told IYH Wrestling on YouTube in 2011. “We needed something that addressed who I was, and of course [owner] Vince [McMahon] was not going to acknowledge my eight-time thing. He also would have a tournament to be king. I won the tournament. I wrestled six times that night.”
After his 1986 “King of the Ring” victory in Boston, Mr. Race was crowned by longtime friend and manager Bobby “the Brain” Heenan, who led chants of “Long live the King!” To add to the royal spectacle, Mr. Race’s theme music was Mussorgsky’s majestic fanfare “The Great Gate of Kiev.”
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He was one of only six wrestlers to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of four companies, including WWE in 2004, the National Wrestling Alliance, the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame.
The son of sharecroppers, Harley Leland Race was born in Maryville, Mo., on April 11, 1943, and grew up in nearby Quitman. He was reportedly expelled from high school after slapping his principal.
A carnival wrestler in his teens, he became a driver for wrestler Happy Humphrey, an 800-pound grappler, who taught him the ropes.
In 1960, Mr. Race’s pregnant wife, Vivian Jones, died in a car accident that also nearly cost Mr. Race a leg. He said doctors didn’t believe he would walk again, let alone wrestle, but the injury derailed his career for only 18 months.
He was married at least four times and had several children, but a complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
After retiring from the ring, Mr. Race started the Troy, Mo.-based World League Wrestling in 1999 and opened a facility to train young wrestlers.
Reflecting on a lifetime of near constant travel and pushing his body to extreme limits, Mr. Race said he had no regrets.
“You stepped into a nightmare,” he told BostonWrestling.com in 2015, “but it’s a nightmare that you created, you wanted to be in, and I’ve always said this: If I wanted to take that step backwards, I wouldn’t take it. I done what I love to do my whole life. I’ve had no other job.”
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