Learning from Harley Race
By PAUL SLOCA -- Associated Press
A dream fulfilled: Getting slammed at the wrestling academy
ELDON, Mo. -- There is something very pure about being held high above a wrestling ring, waiting for a man called the Sheik to body slam you to the mat.
It's pure anticipation. Pure fear. Pure adrenaline.
Harley Race and wife B.J. at the NWA 50th Anniversary convention. Photo by Greg Oliver, CANOE.
As I hung more than six feet above the mat at the Harley Race Wrestling Academy, a scene from childhood flashed before me: I was 7 years old, sitting in my horsy pajamas on a Saturday morning. Cereal was softening in my bowl of milk, but I didn't care. Pro wrestling was on TV, and I knew that was what I wanted to do when I grew up.
So here I was, 27 years later, stepping weak-kneed into the ring in the presence of a childhood hero -- Handsome Harley Race.
He's one of the legends of professional wrestling, an eight-time world champion once hailed as the King of the Ring. In 1959, at age 15, Race left his home in St. Joseph, Mo., to pursue a wrestling career that eventually took him around the world.
Today, at 56, he's back in Missouri, retired from the ring but cultivating a new crop of would-be wrestlers willing to put their bodies on the line to learn the art of the body slam from The Champ.
As for me, dreams of being a pro wrestler faded long ago, supplanted by a real career in journalism. A recent visit to Race's academy gave me a taste of the road not taken.
Stepping into the ring, I was keenly aware that my best athletic years were behind me. I had a daughter, responsibilities. My bosses had warned me not to get hurt. It occurred to me that I hadn't written out my will.
What was I doing here?
The Sheik, Race's head instructor, loomed before me. Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing in at a well-muscled 240 pounds, the dark-bearded Sheik, known as Derek Stone outside the ring, gave me some tips on how to survive the drubbing he was about to deliver.
"Just relax," he said.
A feeling of calm came over me as he lifted me above his head. Then I hit the mat, hard.
"Not bad," I thought as I staggered to my feet, my back burning ever so slightly. The mat had given just a bit, and there was no permanent damage as far as I could tell.
I wanted more.
Race smiled from the sidelines, well aware of the ring's allure.
After years on the pro circuit -- sometimes as the good guy, sometimes as a boisterous bully whom fans loved to hate -- he retired from wrestling in 1993 but continued as a manager for both the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling organizations.
A car accident ended that involvement in 1995 and left him pining for the world of wrestling.
"I've never done anything else," Race said. "There have been no odd jobs. I have been wrestling from day one."
Last year, Race created World League Wrestling and opened the academy, which doubles as a shrine to his wrestling career. The academy is sandwiched between a computer store and an antique shop in this town of 5,000 near the state capital of Jefferson City. Race lives 12 miles away in a lakefront home with his wife, B.J.
Race walks slowly and rests often, partly because of recent back surgery and partly from years of being battered in the ring. His hands resemble bear paws, and word around the academy is that he can still bend a beer bottle cap between his fingers.
About 20 wrestlers attend his school. Those with some wrestling experience pay $1,000 for six weeks of training. For novices, the training can stretch to six months at a cost of $3,000.
Before they even get in the ring, there is a rigorous one-hour tryout that Race said has left many a would-be wrestler throwing up and walking out the door.
If they stay, it only gets harder.
"This is probably the toughest thing you're ever going to do in your life," Race tells his wrestlers.
One who walked through Race's door a few months ago is Matt "The Missile" Murphy.
He's 21 years old, stands 5-feet-11 and weighs 205 pounds. He knows he's smaller than most of his competitors and is just one of a thousand up-and-comers who think they have what it takes to make wrestling a career.
But Murphy believes he has an advantage.
"I'm being trained by Harley Race," Murphy said. "You can't learn greatness from somebody average."
Race encourages his wrestlers to succeed but doesn't set his own hopes for them too high.
"The odds of any of these kids ever making it to the big time are slim to none," he said.
I was to be no exception, but for the moment I was riding high. Literally. The Sheik had lifted me up off the mat and was about to let gravity return me there.
It hurt more this time, right in my lower back, but I shrugged it off.
I wasn't done. I wanted to experience the "suplex," a move that Race created in 1969 and remains popular in the ring today. It involves having most of your body held erect in the air with your back to the mat while your opponent falls backwards and slams you to the ground.
Down we went.
Much scarier. More painful -- at least for me. (Not a squeak from the Sheik.)
I walked -- OK, wobbled -- away with one thought ringing in my ears: Whatever people think about the cultural merits of professional wrestling, it hurts.
After a few photos for posterity, I thanked the Sheik for his lesson and bid farewell to Harley Race.
The Masked Muckraker -- the name I had picked for my wrestling persona -- was going into early retirement. I'm content with being the Terrible Typist.