in the Ring
World champion wrestler Harley Race
shows a new generation the ropes
by Bob McEowen
world champion pro wrestler Harley Race talks with Matt Murphy, a
wrestler in Race's World League Wrestling and an instructor at the
Harley Race Wrestling Academy in Eldon.
Harley Race steps
carefully toward a pro wrestling ring in a downtown Eldon storefront.
Decades of injuries have taken their toll and he has difficulty standing
upright. Harley rests against the mat and watches expressionlessly as
two wrestlers toss each other around the ring.
The effects of
hip and back surgery seem to disappear, though, as the eight-time world
champion sees something in the ring he doesn't like. Harley, 57, climbs
through the ropes and onto the mat to demonstrate the correct way to take
down an opponent.
The two wrestlers
could not hope for a better teacher.
"I was as good
as there was in my era. That's all you can really ask," says Harley who
came out of retirement to launch the Harley Race Wrestling Academy near
his Lake of the Ozarks home.
With more than
30 years experience under his many championship belts, Harley was for
many fans the definitive pro wrestler. Before there was "The Rock," "Stone
Cold" Steve Austin or "Hulk" Hogan there was Harley Race.
photo from the 1970s shows "Handsome" Harley Race in his
During a career
that spanned from 1959 through 1993 he was known at times as "Handsome"
Harley Race, then "Mad Dog" Harley Race and later simply as "The Champ."
The Missouri native was so respected in pro wrestling that on the occasion
of his seventh world title he was declared a "god" by the Japanese sports
press an honor awarded to a Samurai warrior after seven battle
is content to lord over young wrestlers. Besides running his academy he
heads a regional pro wrestling league World League Wrestling
which puts on matches in small towns throughout Missouri and nearby states.
"It's an honor
wrestling for the greatest wrestler of all time and learning from him,"
says Matt Murphy, who at age 20 left Kahoka and slept in a Wal-Mart parking
lot the night before try outs at Harley's school, then located in Springfield.
Now 22, Murphy not only completed the six-month academy but teaches at
the school and is a headliner at WLW events.
recalls that of his mentor. Harley quit school in the 10th grade, leaving
tiny Quitman, in northwest Missouri, to be a wrestler. He's never done
anything else and his influence shaped generations of wrestlers.
"Most of the
moves you see today are moves that he invented," says James "The Griz"
Grizzle, a former University of Kansas football player and the WLW's champion.
"If he hadn't come up with this stuff you'd never see them leave the ring
or go over the top rope. You name it, he created almost everything."
Fans love these
antics but they're the reason critics look on pro wrestling with suspicion,
if not not outright derision. A pro wrestling match is part athletics
and part theater. Sometimes it's hard to tell which comes first. Still,
the audiences at Harley's matches have a great time.
At a fundraiser
wrestling match in Warsaw fans delight as their favorite wrestler gains
the advantage and scream in protest as the opponent plays dirty behind
the referee's back. It's a night for rooting the good-guy and booing the
female wrestlers, competitors from a Minnesota based wrestling league
tussle during a World League Wrestling match in Warsaw.
"It's really an
exciting performance," says Terry Pike, who attended the WLW match. "It
gets everybody up and it sure beats sitting at home. I don't take it seriously,
"So many people
think these guys are out for each other's blood. I know better. It's entertainment."
Pike is past
president of the Nelson Rolf Memorial Animal Shelter which sponsored the
Warsaw event. Pike says he has no reservations about aligning the shelter
with pro wrestling. "It's
good family entertainment," he says.
"The kids sit
at home and watch cartoons. They've got good guys and bad guys and all
that stuff. This is every bit as good. It's
not like watching WWF," Pike adds, referring to the wrestling matches
that air on television. "They don't get all the raw stuff like they do
Ask Harley about
the World Wrestling Federation and you'll get a reaction as strong as
any expressed during his grudge match days with "Dick the Bruiser." Today
Harley's ire is aimed at the WWF, which has transformed pro wrestling
into a venue for foul language and vulgar behavior.
"I have really
burning objections to that," Harley says. "I don't see where the profanity,
the (near) nudity, the gestures, any of that has anything at all to do
By contrast, WLW
events are a return to wrestling the way it was 30 years ago when Harley
was a headliner.
brings wrestling action to small towns across Missouri. This match
was held at a community center inWarsaw.
"It's a P or PG
rated program," says Murphy. "When they come and watch us they're not
going to see middle fingers sticking up in the air. They're not going
to see women half nude nothing like that."
What you will
see is at least two hours of almost non-stop wrestling. At times it's
obvious the wrestlers are pulling their punches and kicks but the drops
onto the mat and the slamming into the ropes seem real enough.
really believes that what I've done all my life is fake should get into
that squared circle with me for just a little while," Harley says. "Even
with the artificial hip and the pipes up my back I can handle myself."
But even wrestlers
admit what they do is not the all-out war it appears to be. At the Harley
Race Wrestling Academy students pay $3,000 to learn not only how to wrestle
but how to fall, smash into ropes and collide into other wrestlers without
getting hurt or hurting someone else.
it's wrestling and you're trying to defeat the other person you're not
trying to kill them. You're not trying to break any bones," says Grizzle.
"Still, it's a shock on your body. When I started doing it I couldn't
move my neck for two weeks. My back was black and blue from hitting these
So why do they
fans boo a villain in the ring.
"It's hard to
explain to someone who hasn't been in the ring but when you come out and
hear the crowd you get an adrenaline rush," says Murphy. "I don't think
there's any sport, any form of entertainment, any mind-altering substance
that can give you a rush like being in a wrestling match."
Like all of Harley's
wrestlers Murphy dreams of making it to the top of the wrestling world.
But even Harley says it's a long shot.
"They have maybe
a one out of 100 chance of making it to the WWF or WCW. They know this.
It's the first thing I tell them," he says.
"They told me
the same thing in 1959 but I told my mom and dad 'That may be true but
I'm going to make it.'"
For more information
about World League Wrestling or the Harley Race Wrestling Academy call
(573) 392-4100 or visit them on the web at www.harleyrace.com.