Harley Race - widely regarded as one of the finest professional wrestlers of all time - has died at the age of 76.
After a battle with lung cancer, Race's passing was confirmed by his official Twitter account saying, "Today at 12:50, we lost the man that fought up until the very last of his existence. More information will be released soon, but just know that he loved pro-wrestling and the fans that loved him. Harley Race, we love you."
Race was an 8-time NWA World Heavyweight champion, first winning the title from Dory Funk Jr. in Kansas City in May of 1973. In accumulating his eight world titles, he competed alongside such greats as Terry Funk, Dusty Rhodes, Giant Baba and Tommy Rich.
But it was his matches with "Nature Boy" Ric Flair that helped elevate the professional wrestling business beyond being a web of small territories.
Yes, we know professional wrestling is pre-determined, but Race was entrusted with the NWA heavyweight title at a period in the business when it was the ultimate endorsement. The NWA world champion of that era would travel from territory to territory, over thousands of miles a month, battling the stars of each locality.
Race was based between his native Missouri and Kansas in what would be known as the Central States territory. However, he was chosen along with Mid-Atlantic mainstay Ric Flair to headline the inaugural Starrcade show.
Sixteen months before the first Wrestlemania, Starrcade was the NWA's attempt at a supershow that would be accessible via closed-circuit TV - a forerunner to pay-per-view. It drew a gate of $500,000 at the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina and an estimated 30,000 closed-circuit buys.
His epic cage-match with Flair was seen as an effective passing of the torch to a new territorial champion who would travel the country defending the belt.
Race was regarded as one of the toughest individuals to ever set foot in a wrestling ring. His in-ring demeanour was matched by the gruff delivery of his television promos. He invested the viewing audience in what they were watching, and convinced them through his words and delivery that the contest he was putting on in their town was worth coming to see. He never had a bodybuilder's physique, but he looked like he could legitimately hurt anyone set before him. He resembled that older guy on your road from whom you'd dread having to retrieve your football. Race was tough.
Despite being the antithesis of what a WWF(E) wrestler was in 1986, Race finally entered the cartoonish world of Vince McMahon. Originally reprising his "Handsome" Harley Race persona, Race was soon repackaged as "King" Harley Race.
He would come to the ring complete with crown, robe and scepter. He would be granted a feud with then-champion Hulk Hogan, but wasn't viewed as a legitimate top star in the company on Hogan, Piper or Andre the Giant level.
His in-ring work began to slow down during his tenure with the WWF and he left following a wonderfully stiff bout with Haku at the 1989 Royal Rumble.
Race would occasionally pop up in WCW (WWF/E's main competitor) around 1990, but the spark was gone.
He was re-introduced as a manager, a role he fulfilled brilliantly with the monster heel Vader during his WCW World title feuds of the early-90's.
A number of car accidents around 1995 forced Race to end his full-time involvement in the wrestling business. He would make occasional appearances in various promotions, and was a well-loved figure on the wrestling convention circuit.
A popular personality among his fellow professional wrestlers, he was exceptionally well-regarded within the business. Wrestlers of many generations would be invited to famous barbeques at his home. He would impart his knowledge, and sometimes train younger prospects.
News of his illness became public in early 2019 when Ric Flair announced Race he was suffering from lung cancer. Public appearances became rarer throughout 2019, and news of his passing was met with a flood of tributes from the wrestling world.
Harley Race, one of the greatest Professional Wrestling legends of all time, passed away today. For years Harley was the standard bearer for all of Wrestling. He was revered and respected by all and feared nothing. I am thankful for all of his advice. Condolences to his family.
— Steve Austin (@steveaustinBSR) August 1, 2019
Today We Lost Not Only A Great Personal Friend, But In My Estimation The One And Only REAL World Champion. Without Harley Race, There Was No Ric Flair. I Tried My Hardest Every Day To Live Up To His Standard In The Ring. pic.twitter.com/vUnQFuM0CT
— Ric Flair® (@RicFlairNatrBoy) August 1, 2019
Harley Race was literally the King of his profession for 25 years. Long live the King. pic.twitter.com/nY3V5hyp3N
— Vince McMahon (@VinceMcMahon) August 1, 2019
Thank you Harley. So many legends in the industry will tell you he was the toughest to ever do it. He never stopped giving. I remember when he managed Vader in wcw, he would still try and scare me backstage. Ten pounds of gold never looked better on anybody. https://t.co/Q1qq4qEeGT
— Cody (@CodyRhodes) August 1, 2019
— Dustin Rhodes (@dustinrhodes) August 1, 2019
Everything about Harley Race commanded RESPECT...
Today our world mourns with all the RESPECT you deserve...
One of my favorite people in the business and in life.
See you down the road, my friend.#LegendsNeverDie#ThenNowForever https://t.co/l1q2eD7XAl
— Triple H (@TripleH) August 1, 2019
The Hart family loves you forever King Harley Race. Grateful I got to tell you what you meant to my grandfather Stu Hart, who adored you. My thoughts and prayers to Harley’s family today🙏 pic.twitter.com/t5PqOJW0Lx
— Natalie K. Neidhart (@NatbyNature) August 1, 2019