This weekend, millions of people around the world will gather around their TVs to watch World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Summer Thrill Ride” known as “Summerslam.”
With its viewers spanning generations, it’s likely that most won’t realize when Becky Lynch or Roman Reigns hit their trademark moves how much inspiration Missouri native Harley Race had on them.
A wrestling veteran whose talents extended to multiple federations, including the previously-titled WWF, WCW, NWA and AWA, Race was a pioneer whose legacy began in St. Joseph.
With the announcement of Race’s passing on Aug. 1, tributes from some of wrestling’s biggest legends immediately followed. Ric Flair called him “The One and Only REAL World Champion.” Paul “Triple H” Levesque stated “Harley changed the business in his generation, combining that technical expertise with a brawling, tougher-than-nails style ... There are still moves you see today that Harley brought to the table that really took the business in a different direction. In his prime, he changed the direction of an entire industry.”
Clearly he left his mark, and all of that started in the 1960s in St. Joseph at the old City Auditorium, as long-time local wrestling promoter Gust Karras booked the Quitman, Missouri,-born wrestler to brawl at his local shows. Karras was known to have an eye for talent and ability to bring big names to the area, booking Andre The Giant and Jesse “The Body” Ventura. He also brought acts like the Harlem Globetrotters to town, a tradition that still continues today.
Race began as a valet, and as Karras saw his wrestling style and personality evolve, he took notice of his ability to combine in-ring skills with a larger-than-life character whose nicknames ranged from “King of The Ring,” “Handsome” and “Mad Dog.” This marriage of body slams and brawny posturing would transform wrestling from two brawlers fighting for a belt to two characters caught up in a soap-opera drama, with storylines and factions coming into play.
As his life continued, Race faced monumental opponents like Hulk Hogan and Dusty Rhodes. In real life, he faced challenges like losing his first wife, Vivian Jones, in a car accident and almost having his leg amputated.
Despite his gregarious persona, Race didn’t let his fame go to his head. He ran his own wrestling promotion, World League Wrestling, and its camp in Eldon, Missouri. In 2006, he returned to his old stomping grounds in St. Joseph to pay tribute to Karras. Proceeds from that event went to the Noyes Home for Children.
“I just wanted to be able to put something back in the communities that supported my whole career,” he told the St. Joseph News-Press.
Race’s legacy is a part of St. Joseph’s history. For decades, wrestling promotions like the WWE/WWF, TNA and the defunct NWL would come to town because of the area’s storied past with the sport that Karras and Race promoted.
When the WWE last came to the Civic Arena in 2012, the then-WWE champion C.M. Punk directly attributed the visit and his career to the late Missouri icon.
“To get a call to come work for him was amazing. He taught me a lot, and he still does. That’s why I like coming to Missouri because Harley comes around to some of the shows and I get to catch up with him a little bit. To me, he’s a national treasure,” Punk told St. Joe Live.
— Andrew Gaug | St. Joe Live