Harley Race, Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee and 8-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion, died of lung cancer on Thursday at the age of 76, according to WWE and a statement from his Twitter page.
“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,” read a statement from Race’s reps.
Born in Missouri in 1943, Race overcame polio as a child and began training as a wrestler under the tutelage of famed champion brothers Stanislaus and Wladek Zbysko. His early career was filled with many obstacles, including his expulsion from the Zbyskos’ school after a fight with a student and a car accident that nearly led to his leg being amputated and required months of physical therapy to recover.
In spite of this, Race overcame the odds and got his big break with the American Wrestling Association in 1965, becoming the promotion’s tag team champion with Larry Hennig, father of future WWE wrestler Curt Hennig. Five years later, he jumped to the National Wrestling Alliance, making a name for himself in the territorial system before stunning fans nationwide by upsetting the popular Dory Funk, Jr. to win the NWA World Heavyweight Championship for the first time in 1973.
Through the rest of the 70s, Race would gain a reputation as a pugnacious street fighter, feuding with fellow territorial legends such as Terry Funk and Dusty Rhodes. Then, in the 1980s, Race helped launch the career of another all-time great: Ric Flair. From 1981-84, Race and Flair fought over the NWA title, with Race playing a desperate, aging champion willing to do anything to hold on to his spot as the top star.
In arguably his most famous speech, Race furiously put out a hit on Flair, promising $25,000 to anyone who could get rid of Flair for good. Fellow Flair rivals Bob Orton and Dick Slater took the offer and seemingly inflicted a career-ending injury on the “Nature Boy,” only for Flair to reveal that he had faked the severity of their attack. A few months later, Ric Flair defeated Harley Race at the NWA’s marquee event, Starrcade, in a passing-the-torch moment that cemented Flair as a leading star in wrestling.
Race would spend the next decade in WWF and WCW, winning the WWF’s King of the Ring tournament and competing at Wrestlemania while feuding with another star of the ’80s, Hulk Hogan. In WCW, he became the manager for heavyweight champion Lex Luger and courted controversy when he used racist insults at rising black wrestler Ron Simmons in order to get the fans on Simmons’ side. In 1995, Race’s in-ring career came to an end after he was caught in a second car accident that required hip replacement surgery.
In 2004, Harley Race became one of only six men to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, the NWA Hall of Fame, the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame. This past March, Ric Flair announced on social media that Race had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He is survived by his son, Justin, and five grandchildren.