The impeccable research of George Schire, the author and historian of the AWA’s glory days, uncovered a match for Harley Race as far back as 1958. That would have made him 14 or 15, since Race’s birthdate was April 11, 1943.
“Harley was one of the last stars from his generation to have gotten his start wrestling in carnivals,’’ Schire said. “He was 13 or 14 and taking on all-comers.’’
He also was a bit young to enter the chauffeuring business, signing on as a driver for Happy Humphrey, a wrestler alleged to have weighed 800 pounds. Happy retired in 1962, and by then, Race had gone to work wrestling for Gust Karras, a promoter in Missouri.
Race was teamed with veteran Johnny Long, and was advertised as his kid brother, Jack Long. That went on for a while until Harley received career advice from his father.
“Harley’s dad said, ‘Jack Long?’ ’’ Schire said. “You were born with a great wrestling name: Harley Race. Use it.’’
Which he did.
We remember him in these parts as Handsome Harley Race, a tag-team partner to Pretty Boy Larry Hennig. Race had a couple of solo appearances in the Twin Cities and then was a 21-year-old when teamed with Hennig for the first time in the fall of 1964.
Race died Thursday at 76 in St. Charles, Mo. after a long battle with lung cancer. His partner Hennig died this past December at 82.
Irene Hennig, Larry's wife for 60 years, said her husband and Harley remained close friends for life. Larry also insisted that they never had a significant dispute during their years as partners.
“Larry was looking for a partner and saw Harley as a talented young wrestler who would be a good match for him,'' Schire said. "There weren’t many tag teams here that would top the five-year run for Hennig and Harley.’’
Hennig and Race were immediately villains, although there was a crisis early in their partnership when Harley had a narrow escape with being branded a good guy.
The Chestnut Tree bar and restaurant in downtown Minneapolis was a hangout for wrestlers after cards. On a night in January 1965, Race, Hennig, Rene Goulet and Eddie Sharkey were in there on such a night.
“The story goes that they saw three guys roughing up a woman and Harley jumped into it,’’ Schire said. “He took care of a couple of the guys, but then the third one pulled a knife and stabbed him in the side.
“They took him to the hospital with the knife in him and removed it there.’’
The altercation was publicized in the Twin Cities newspapers, with Race assigned the hero’s role.
“I was at his next match, and when Harley was introduced, the crowd gave him a big cheer,’’ Schire said. “So, when he first gets in the ring for the tag team, he rushes across the ring, hammers his opponent to the mat and then starts stomping on his head. Three minutes after the cheers, the crowd is back to booing the Hades out of him.’’
Schire asked Race about this a few years later and Harley said: “I had to get my heat back,’’ as in the heat required to be an arena-filling heel.
The Handsome Harley and Pretty Boy Larry combination came to an end in 1969, with Harley heading off to the NWA to become a superstar as a solo act and a seven-time world champion (in the eyes of that organization).
Before then, Race and Hennig had used the combination of over-the-top, rough-house tactics and vanity in TV interviews to stir the passions of Minnesota’s wrestling fans. Everyone hated them, other than a damsel in distress on late night in a saloon.
Larry would be sure to mention this in interviews with Marty O’Neill: “We have the bodies of Hercules, the minds of Einstein and the faces of the Goddess of Love.’’
And then Harley would add: “We have the bodies that men fear and women crave.’’
The part of being feared by men was not all salesmanship from Race. “He was one of the toughest guys in wrestling,’’ Schire said. “The legend is that Andre the Giant only feared two wrestlers: Haku and Harley.
“Haku was here for a short while as the Tonga Kid, but Andre faced him later in the WWF. And Harley was only 250, 260, but he was so strong that Andre had to work too hard to move him.
“Remember Wrestlemania III, where the big story was that Hulk Hogan became the first opponent to body slam Andre the Giant? Great angle, but it wasn’t true. Harley had body slammed Andre a few years earlier. I’ve seen a tape of that match.’’