A metal utility building is far away in many ways from Madison Square Garden, and there are few moves you can make from a motorized chair.
But after more than 55 years of belts, bruises, wins, pins and falls, “Handsome” Harley Race is still in the wrestling game.
“I’ve wrestled on every continent but Antarctica and in every country in the world except for China and the USSR,” said Race, 72, as he sat behind the desk of World League Wrestling in Troy, Mo.
Conspicuously, Race now sits in a cushioned, motorized chair and readily admits that getting around is no longer his strong suit — thanks to having had hips and knees replaced, five vertebrae fused together, multiple abdominal surgeries and a metal rod for a forearm.
“You do what I did to my body, for as long as I did, and it’s bound to take its toll,” said Race, with not a hint of regret in his gravelly voice.
Even from this modest space, where he also operates a wrestling academy, the photos on the wall behind Race’s desk document a simple fact:
For at least one full decade, Race was the absolute biggest draw in professional wrestling, an eight-time world champion of the National Wrestling Alliance between 1973 and 1983.
He bragged, strutted and bruised his way to the top, making millions by being the object of hatred and the target of verbal abuse.
But that expansive presence changed the face of pro wrestling.
Before Race came along, wrestling played to a relatively small, loyal and dedicated fan base. After Race, wrestling had exploded into a megabillion-dollar industry with huge television contracts, pay-per-view spectacles and a sleazy soap-opera sensibility.
Race began his pro wrestling career in 1961, by wrestling six and seven nights a week while driving several hundred thousand miles a year.
After 10 years of paying dues, Race beat Dory Funk Jr. in 1973 to take the title for the first time. In 1983, he lost it for the last time to “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.
Locally, he was the top draw at Kiel Auditorium matches and on “Wrestling at the Chase” on KPLR (Channel 11)
Race now lives at the Delmar Gardens West retirement home, but still makes weekly trips into the wrestling complex, whose day-to-day operations are managed by his son, Leland Race.
In fact, the league hosts a live show once a month, and the next one is this Saturday.
“You remember Ted DiBiase?” Race said, referring to (of course) Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase. “Well, he’s going to be at the show.”
The academy has 20 wrestlers actively participating in matches, and then 10 men and two women training to be professional wrestlers, Leland Race said.
Race said while no one will mistake his events for the big-money events he dominated back in his heyday, he believes no-nonsense (or at least, less-nonsense) grappling still appeals to an audience.
“I know that the talking sells the match, but now there’s very little actual wrestling at all,” Harley Race said with a hint of disgust.
As to his continued involvement in wrestling, Race merely shrugged and said, “This is what I do for a living.”