Though not a sport by the truest sense of the word, pro wrestling fans watch their stars age from prime to twilight years and beyond more than any other by comparison.
It’s partly by nature of the industry. While skill is enough elsewhere to catapult a LeBron James or Mike Trout into stardom and endorsements follow, a wrestling champion needs to not only be talented, but marketable enough and respected as well. Hazelwood Central grad Randy Orton and Brock Lesnar are exceptions, not the rule, as the youngest to win the WWE’s most coveted championships at 24 and 25, respectively.
Both were present on the July 22nd edition of WWE’s Monday Night RAW for a “Reunion” episode that saw a who’s who of wrestling greats return. Interestingly, it came on the same day as SEC filings showed the WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, as well as other executives sold roughly $25 million in stock, but that night delivered the show’s best TV ratings of the year as legends of all sorts returned. A pair who are more than just wrestling legends but also pop icons, Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, mostly dominated the end of the proceedings.
Hogan is now almost 13 years removed from his last match -- that would have made him 53 at the time -- and still can get a crowd going, but Flair, 70, looks the part of a guy who recently had a week-long hospital stay in May for what may or may not have been a planned procedure. I was out covering some summer baseball around that time and got hoaxed as some others did by reports that Flair had passed away. Luckily, it wasn’t true, and while it will be a downer when it does happen just as it would’ve been then, anyone who knows anything about Flair (ESPN’s 30 for 30 film on him is highly recommended) knows the “Nature Boy” has lived a full life.
Certain as it looked that Flair might be wrestling’s next icon to pass away, news emerged last Thursday that another great, Missouri-born Harley Race, had died at 76 after a battle with lung cancer.
Few are more synonymous with pro wrestling in Missouri than Race, who was billed out of Kansas City. Born to sharecropper parents near Maryville, after bodyslamming polio as a child, Race was trained to wrestle as a teenager by a pair of Polish-Americans who were former world champions operating a local farm. At 18, he moved to Nashville to pursue the business, but encountered tragedy soon after when a car accident he was involved in killed his pregnant wife. His St. Joseph promoter refused to let doctors amputate his leg, and despite being told that he may never walk again, let alone wrestle, he was back in the ring by 1963.
A decade later, Race evaded his reputation as a territorial star, winning the NWA Heavyweight Title from Dory Funk Jr. on May 24, 1973, at Memorial Hall in Kansas City. He would go on and win it six more times, two shy of Flair’s record, and hold the belt for a combined 1,799 days. In 1978, he became the first to bodyslam Andre The Giant, before Hogan’s notoriously did so at Wrestlemania III in front of over 90,000 fans.
Race wrestled for the WWE (then WWF) in the mid-80s, but his run was staggered when, attempting to hit Hulk Hogan with a diving headbutt ringside, Hogan moved and a metal edge of the table was forced into his abdomen, giving him a hernia that required surgery. Race jumped to competing promotion WCW not long after but his in-ring career ended in 1990 after suffering an injury at a show in St. Joseph, and another car accident in 1995 that prompted hip replacement surgery ended his managerial career in the business, also.
Race’s local legacy didn’t stop there. In 1999, he founded the Harley Race Wrestling Academy, operated out of Troy off U.S. 61, as well as World League Wrestling to promote the academy’s past and present students, with events that have included stops in Springfield.
I recall meeting “Handsome” Harley and got his autograph during a sports card convention at a young enough age that I couldn’t respect what he probably meant to those who had grown up watching him. Not long before, though, I went to my first pro wrestling house show (a non-televised event) at Memorial Hall, the very same place Race had won his first world title, and he accompanied to the ring Flair, who fought Curt Hennig in the main event.
Time is fragile in the world of pro wrestling. I still look occasionally look at a photo of myself in Orlando waiting for autographs from Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero, who sat side-by-side at a table. Like Hennig, both tied prematurely, tragically, and in Benoit’s case, horrifically.
Cancer is no way to go, but Race ended up outliving many, who, like those three, simply died too soon. It’s a shame that some of them couldn’t have been there to fill the ring on that Reunion show several weeks ago. Hopefully more wrestlers like Race who’ve given so many good memories wait a little longer to go to the great squared circle in the sky.
Bryan can be followed on Twitter @BryanEversonMF.