Harley is the king of the ring
By BRET HART -- For SLAM! Wrestling
The first time I met Harley Race was back in '72 when he came up to work the big Stampede week supercard for my dad.
I was 15 and Harley was NWA World Heavyweight Champion.
He called himself "the best wrestler on God's green Earth" and I couldn't see any reason to disagree.
Harley Race and wife B.J. at the NWA 50th Anniversary convention. Photo by Greg Oliver, CANOE.
He could work with anybody, putting on great main event matches at the Stampede year after year, defending his title against the likes of Andre the Giant and Archie the Stomper Gouldie. Harley fell in love with Calgary and the Hart family. That went both ways.
You may recall a wrestler who went by the name of Klondike Bill
. Bill had this idea for a strong man gimmick where his head was supposed to be as hard as a rock. He came up with the idea that if he placed a heavy rock on top of his head and positioned it just right, someone could smash the rock with a sledge hammer, leaving him unaffected and with the illusion that he had a head harder than stone. At his insistence, he wanted to try it out during intermission.
When Harley was handed the sledge hammer, he voiced his reluctance at having any part in the hair-brained scheme but Bill was quite stubborn.
Being the consummate showman that Harley is, while Klondike was holding the big heavy rock Harley had to warm up a bit before swinging the sledge hammer.
He rubbed his hands together, spit in his palms and even took a few practise swings without striking to perfect his aim. What with holding the rock over his head, Klondike couldn't see what was going on and eventually, growing weary, he turned his head to the side to see what Harley was up to.
Just at that precise moment, Harley hammered the rock and -- SWONK! -- it smashed Klondike right in the head. Like in a cartoon, yet completely real, Klondike staggered all over the ring. You could almost see the animated stars swirling around him! It's to Klondike's credit that he climbed into the ring for the main event and it is to Harley's credit that he was able to carry Klondike, who was seeing four Harleys the whole time.
Needless to say, it was both the first -- and last -- time that Klondike Bill's strongman gimmick was ever attempted -- at least, I would hope so.
A lot of you came to know Harley best when the WWF stuck a crown on his head and dubbed him 'The King'. The thing is, Harley really is one of the true kings of wrestling and I'd go so far as to say he's without a doubt deserving of being called one of the true legends of our sport.
Harley is a legit tough guy, having double tendon strength in his hands. He could snap a pair of pliers without even thinking about it. One night, all the wrestlers were hanging out in a bar and John Matuzak from the Oakland Raiders was razzing Harley about how wrestlers weren't tough. In a test of strength, they locked hands and Harley brought him down to his knees and pulled him up and down for a half hour -- while Harley sat drinking his beer.
But Harley wasn't a bully. In fact, when I was a green rookie working outside my dad's territory and found myself regarded as low man in the pecking order, Harley let me ride with him. That may not sound like a big deal but believe me, when a world champion, especially one as highly regarded by the boys as Harley, treats you with respect, so does everyone who formerly didn't.
In fact, Harley always took young wrestlers aside to offer advice and it's to be applauded that he still teaches wrestling -- the way that wrestling should be -- at his school, the World League Wrestling Academy in Missouri.
I'm amused by their slogan, which seems to sum up the work ethic that Harley has exemplified for his whole career, "Just shut up and wrestle!"
So when I returned to Kansas City still reeling from my brother Owen's tragic death there, to work with Chris Benoit in a tribute match dedicated to Owen, I was greatly honoured when a retired Harley walked out at the Kemper Arena to introduce such a special match. More importantly, I'm sure Owen would have been deeply flattered.
Owen and Harley had -- shall we say -- an electrifying friendship. You see, whenever the whole band of wrestlers would pull into Kansas City for a show, everybody would descend on Harley's house for a big barbecue. We're talking some serious food to feed some mighty big boys so Harley's generosity was noteworthy. He especially took pride in his chili, which came to have a reputation all it's own -- especially if you ate it too close to match time.
Well, Owen's ribs were as well known as Harley's chili -- the prank kind of ribs, I mean. So, one time Owen decided to dump a whole lot of hot sauce into Harley's chili "Are you crazy?" I laughed, wide-eyed, "That's his pride and joy!" Well, ole' Harley showed up in the dressing room with a cattle prod! Everyone laughed so hard watching Harley chase Owen all over the place. Harley ended up zapping Owen right in the butt -- and Owen jumped up in the air like in a Three Stooges show!
The last time I saw Harley Race was in Calgary, a few days ago. He flew up to keep my father company during the dark days after my mom passed on.
I left them, two old warriors who travelled the same roads, sitting in the kitchen of the Hart house with familiar smiles on their faces, sipping tea, telling tales of younger days.
A timeless tag team.