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Rural Missouri Magazine

Still in the Ring
World champion wrestler Harley Race
shows a new generation the ropes

by Bob McEowen

Eight-time 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.

A publicity photo from the 1970s shows "Handsome" Harley Race in his prime.

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 victories.

Today, Harley 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.

Murphy's start 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 villian.

Two 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, though.

"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 on TV."

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 with wrestling."

By contrast, WLW events are a return to wrestling the way it was 30 years ago when Harley was a headliner.

Harley Race 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.

"Anyone that 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.

"Even though 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 ropes."

So why do they do it?

Young 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.

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