Harley Race passed away on August 1st, 2019 at the ripe age of 76. While he is one of the most revered and respected legends in the history of the business, not much is known about his run with WWE. Harley Race wasn’t just an ordinary great wrestler – he had a presence about him inside and outside the ring that truly set him apart.
When he arrived at WWF in 1986, it was during a very interesting period of time. Hulk Hogan was on the ascent and Professional Wrestling itself was entering a major boom while WWF was in its Golden Era. It seemed like the perfect time for him to join as he had already won eight World Championships, but Vince McMahon wouldn’t allow the company to acknowledge his incredible accomplishments.
Speaking to IYH Wrestling on YouTube, Race said:
We needed something that addressed who I was, and of course, Vince [McMahon] was not going to acknowledge my eight-time thing. He also would have a tournament to be king. I won the tournament. I wrestled six times that night.
Race had made his name as a very rough-around-the-edges type of character. While he didn’t have the most charisma, he had an incredible physical presence about him. However, that wouldn’t be enough for McMahon and he realized that Race needed a new character altogether now that he was in the big time. Race first called himself “Handsome” Harley Race and it would be this King of The Ring tournament that would go on to define his very short 3-year stint with WWE.
While he wasn’t the first King of the Ring winner (that honor belonged to Don Muraco in 1985), he certainly was treated like the very first one. Muraco’s win was sadly not televised nor acknowledged all that much. You might be surprised to learn that Harley Race was actually the first person to introduce the “King” and “Royalty” gimmick in WWE – before Jerry Lawler did in the 90s on commentary.
Race’s KOTR win was no easy feat, however. As read above, he had to wrestle a whopping six times in one night, first defeating George “The Animal” Steele and ending the night by facing the legendary former WWF World Heavyweight Champion Pedro Morales in the finals. It cemented him as the King of the Ring and it was here that the “King” Handsome Harley Race gimmick had begun.
It was something that they tried their hand in and it worked out quite well. With Bobby “The Brain” Heenan by his side, he would defeat many top opponents and afterward, make them kneel and bow to The King. Race’s influence even in that short time simply can’t be denied. It’s a shame that he never reached the heights that he could have, but it must be noted that by this time, he was already in his mid-40s and was well into his career.
Perhaps had he come a few years earlier, Race would become a much bigger deal than he did in WWF. At the same time, it’s a good thing that he was creating his legacy elsewhere against the very best names. Either way, one can only imagine what could have been had Harley Race been around in the early WrestleMania days. It’s very likely that he would have been an opponent towards Hulk Hogan – someone he did feud with during his run with the company.
Unfortunately, his WWF career would come to an unfortunate end with a hernia. He did return after surgery but it was very brief. The “King” moniker that he held was still a very influential part of WWF TV at the time. While there were multiple other KOTR winners after 1986, Race would even portray the robe and crown as though it were a championship and Jim Duggan had beat him to become “The King” before Randy Savage defeated Duggan to kickstart his incredible “Macho King” run.
That run in itself was a pivotal one in WWE at that point and none of it would have happened without Harley Race and his KOTR win. It may be overlooked now, but to compete six times in one night and portray the persona the way he did set a tone of arrogant “royalty” characters in WWE. He was always known as an influential wrestler in history and even his brief run with WWF has a lot to take away from it.
As Bobby Heenan would shout on July 14th, 1986: “Long Live The King!”