When Harley Race died on Thursday, it struck a resounding chord with me. Granted, Race retired from the ring in 1990, he managed to cast a rather lengthy shadow over the sport. For the younger fans, he was the man before Ric Flair. In fact, if not for Harley Race, Ric Flair, Triple H, and many stars would not possess the same grasp and reach. Harley Race transcended eras and built a foundation for modern wrestling. Additionally, he provided the blueprint for the modern champion. Yet, few, if any titleholder carries the belt with the same distinction, and that remains a shame.
Eight times, Harley Race held the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Ric Flair and John Can sport over thirty combined reigns. Names like Bockwinkel, Hart, and Hogan all boast multiple titles. Yet, the one thing they share is being the face of a company, the undisputed draw, and name at the top. Once upon a time, the world title meant so much more. The gravity of wearing the belt meant everything. Now, organizations seem to hotshot the belt, regardless of heat or crowd reaction. In all honesty, Brock Lesnar wearing the Universal title actually works. Fans will tune in to see him eventually lose, but not before a decent story build. If you look at moments where this theory dissipated, check below.
Race, through various brawls and dealings with promoters, established himself as a legit tough guy. Back then, fans and bookers would attempt to manhandle wrestlers. Race, through a left hand that would drop a grizzly bear, navigated waters with ease. Fast forward, does Seth Rollins possess that same credibility? No. Cena lifts, Lesnar possesses an MMA background, and Jericho trained in the Hart Dungeon. Whether a heel or face, there is a finite limit to the suspension of disbelief and an embracing of fear. Kevin Nash towered over opponents and looked the part. Similarly, Daniel Bryan’s grappling background presented the same fear. One could drop you with a single punch, while the other would stretch you into a pretzel. Crossfit Rollins could not bust a grape in a fruitfight.
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When Harley Race examined the wrestling landscape, he passed the torch to Ric Flair for good. After trading the title back and forth, Race selected Flair as his heir. In wrestling history, only Andre the Giant putting Hogan over was a bigger watershed moment. By selecting Flair to lead the NWA, Race cemented his legacy. In the era of creative control and politics, how many superstars actually relish putting over opponents? John Cena spent a year or two, jobbing to the roster. Daniel Bryan made Kofi Kingston look like a million bucks. Race believed in the time-honored tradition of bumping and properly selling while eating a pin.
In no other period in wrestling history will you find more skilled athletes. Granted, not to sound too Cornette, some of the flippy mess can be much. Yet, in proper context, this generation of talent surpasses any other. If you want to see a combination of in-ring ability mixed with the championship aura, a few names zip to mind.
As mentioned in another piece, Page should be the eventual face of AEW. However, during his match at All Out, he may need to take the loss versus Chris Jericho. Yet, a defeat here will not curtail his rise. At age 27, Page represents the immediate future of the business.
Despite his dudebro affect, Riddle combines flawless ring work with a promo that catches attention. When he receives the call-up, the WWE should ease him into contention. With his ability to connect to younger fans, Riddle could serve as the next generation cash cow.
In wrestling, no other heel currently cuts a better promo than MJF. Using ascerbic wit that drips of righteous indignation, MJF demolishes opponents before the bell starts. Unlike the above entioned two, he features an obnoxious heel that fans will pay money to see a face batter them. MJF oozes the smarminess to eventually lead a brand.
If the WWE books him properly, Dream can enjoy a lengthy run as the one. Program placement must be precise. This is where Vince McMahon, Bruce Prichard and the rest actually let Paul Heyman work his magic.
With the passing of Harley Race, the wrestling community lost an icon. Through one-hour matches that spanned the world, the industry improved under his stewardship. Yet, looking forward, the business presents an opportunity for someone to pick up the torch and inspire a different collection of fans. In wrestling, careers end, but lights like Harley Race never dim.