Harley Race liked to refer to himself as “the greatest wrestler on God’s green Earth” And as a 70’s and 80’s fan, when he walked down the aisle you believed just that. These are my live Harley Race memories.
The first time I saw Harley Race live was at Madison Square Garden on April 30, 1979, when he defeated “Rookie of the Year” Steve Travis in a mere 5:14. Although not a particularly memorable match, it was quite the big deal that the NWA belt was being defended on a WWWF card and treated as a major event. Race had previously done the same at MSG vs. perennial WWWF tag team champ Tony Garea but I had not been in attendance for that show.
On December 17, 1979, Race returned to MSG to defend his hallowed belt vs. Dusty Rhodes. To say the building was electric would be an understatement. Dusty was totally “over” in the area and the building literally shook, although the ref stopping the belt due to blood in 13:18 was not the result the rabid fans were hoping for.
And then the “big one.” On September 22, 1980, it was the historic NWA vs. WWWF title bout with Race vs. Backlund putting on a 35:14 clinic. Race ultimately was DQ’d against Backlund which felt anti-climatic and surprisingly no rematch was set. Interestingly enough, the WWWF was then part of the NWA and Race’s belt was listed as the “world” title and Backlund in his own home was considered- at least in the program- as the lesser of the two titles.
My Live Harley Race Memories
By far the best Harley Race match I saw in person was the combined JCP/AWA Pro Wrestling USA Star Wars show in East Rutherford, NJ at the Meadowlands on February 24, 1985, as then NWA champion Ric Flair took on former champ Harley Race. Going about 15 minutes on a loaded show, Harley went to the top rope to leap on Ric for the pin, but the wily champ reversed it, pinning Harley. It was a memorable match.
Not long after Harley came into the WWF as “The King,” headling arenas vs. Hogan and main-eventing Madison Square Garden and all around the vast circuit time and time again. It was a very successful run for him, although I honestly enjoyed the old school NWA version better than the gimmicky “King.” Regardless, I saw him on the legendary “Old Timers Battle Royale” card in East Rutherford, NJ – Meadowlands on November 16, 1987, which surprisingly drew under 5,000. On one of the best matches on the show, Randy Savage pinned Harley in a battle of all-time greats.
On each and every occasion you saw this master of the ring live you realized he was not only one of the legit toughest men on the planet but that he could tie an opponent in knots with his immense wrestling skills. Harley was arguably top 10 or at bare minimum 20 of all time. It was my honor and privilege to see him live many times with these being the most memorable. Rest in peace, Champ, and thank you for the memories forever and always.