Saturday, January 03, 2009

Harley Race: Masochistic Fantasy and Pro Wrestling

At 65, retired professional wrestler Harley Race (6’ 3, 240 pounds) still looks like grandfather-kick ass. His face resembles a plate of steak and eggs with a side of uncooked pork sausage. In his glory years in the 1970s and early 80s, Race wore his mutton chops connected to his moustache, the “commodore” look. Combined with his kinky, widow-peaked hair line, Race just about managed to stand our among the blond muscle men and pretty boys of the era. Race is not pretty. Even when he was “Handsome” Harley Race in the mid-sixties with a shorn kisser and bad bleach job, he still appeared much as he does today – a slightly craggy, slightly blank, slightly gormless bricklayer,

His body has been a remarkably consistent vehicle for him since his debut nearly half-a-century ago. The torso is long, thick, and shaped as though extruded from a large, municipal water pipe. He is not fat, but there is very little in the way of definition. His arms and legs are cardboard tubes tapering into stubs of ham. Harley Race is built for pro-wrestling as though it were a “real” competitive sport. Meaning, if he were to take on real or “shoot” matches, he could stand up to 60 minutes of being beaten about and probably win. (He is a talented “hooker,” although never an amateur athlete.). As it stands, Race’s body is, in some ways, overqualified. Hitting Race with a fist to his midsection must be like punching a water bed filled with sand.

Watching archive matches of his best days, the more intense episodes involve his face getting significantly bloodied. The odd thing, it didn’t seem an unnatural “look” for him. The blood added definition, like a coat of lacquer. His movements, too, suggest a something other than a human being going through the motions of exercise. He was clumpy but also lithe. When he used his big knee on the head of an opponent the feat was performed as if by hydraulics and pulleys; a snap of the tendon against ligament, driven by coiled hunks of farm muscle. The motions were cruel the way threshing machines can be cruel, which is to say that the malice was in the interpretation of the act rather than the intention.

Often Race would be brought forward to fight a man on the other side of the flamboyance scale, often a blond like Ric Flair or Dusty Rhodes. The contrast could not have been more stark. Race’s lack of apparent charisma, when placed alongside the candied radiance of the sons of Gorgeous George (even if Dusty seemed to have a body constructed from white trash bags filled with whipped cream), seemed to transform into something else. An aura of raw, joyless earnestness acted as an inner beacon to call attention to his presence. The average slob might be hard-pressed not to root for Race on some level. He would break the pretty face or tear the gold away from the underserved. A mean, cheating braggart though he may be, Race was that house-cleaning, hell-fire reformation preacher who would make you feel remorse for your sins, in this case, the sin of pride, the sin of glamour represented by the elegantly robed Flair.

Race is that part of American culture that, while admitting to large portion of the arrogance of manifest destiny, abhors anything that smacks of effeminate leisure. Watch a Race promo from the 1980s. The gargling, exasperate Race searches, struggles for, and usually fails to find the correct words. Why? He is not a man of words. Words themselves are products of the same leisure culture that created the hated Flair. In this regard, Race was unusual among the various world champions in the 80s. Consider Flair, Hogan, Bockwinkle, or the painfully uncharismatic champions like Backlund and Gagne, each had a clear, pathos-driven rhetoric which could get at the heart of his character Flair was the classic braggadocio; Hogan, a circus muscle man with some adolescent concept of “cool”; Bockwinkle was the man above it all, the businessman grappler. But Race couldn’t sell those angles. Clearly uncomfortable with a mic in front of him, Race would chew on words, twist and writhe trying to get the sentences to happen. In an industry where the promotional interview is as important as the ring work, Race seemed to have no recourse but to slightly hyper-ventilate or to repeat previous utterances.

A common theme in a Race promo is money. Often his complaints revolved around money being extracted from him, either by the promotion or a wrestler in particular. One particularly amusing promo has Race standing before a suitcase filled with money and his championship belt. He announces that he will give $25,000 to anyone who could end the career of rival Ric Flair. At one point he goes so far as to beg “Would someone take the damn money!” The money aspect may have been a genuine concern. As wrestling was a regional affair prior to the 1990s, Race would have had to spend 200-plus days on the road every year to earn anything resembling the income he (and other champions) bragged about. These were the days before nation-wide exposure and big endorsement contracts provided the professional wrestler with something resembling wealth. Indeed, the working class demographic of the professional wrestling fan is a well known talking point among pop culture analysts. Race’s appeal over the years has to do with the fact that he represents a non-fantasy; a big, strong, hunk muscle, of no discernable shape or form and allied with bad intentions, aimed at the very fantasies represented by the “pretty-boys” and egoists who make up the rosters of most pro wrestling organizations.

Who roots for Harley Race, then? Perhaps no one. He is the perennial heal, but not the kind that fans like. He’s not Roddy Piper or George Steel – essentially assholes and animals. He is a different sort of heel, a guy who would probably prefer to wrestle without so many fans around. It’s not that he has contempt for them (as the conventional heel does) and he isn’t necessarily malicious. Race simply doesn’t seem to play the game this way. And fans both resent and admire this trait. They want to see him beat, but paradoxically, they also like to see him beat others. Why? The dark side of the mirror for any wrestling fan will display that part of the ego which holds himself in contempt; the side that knows they are indulging in an extended fantasy of competition; the side that realizes that the inherent misogyny, racism, homophobia and class exploitation which feeds his fantasies are manufactured by a few businessmen with an eye towards appealing to the lowest common denominator. Harley Race exposed that aspect of their personality and exorcised it nightly in the ring, not for love of the sport, but for want of a kind of Puritan justice. against perceived “soft living” or libertinism. Likewise, his destruction in the ring allowed for the possibility of unrestrained freedom and provided a hedge against inflexible behavior. In short, Race represented a creative space wherein the id and super-ego of the wrestling fan could be negotiated.

Since his hey-day in the 1970s and 80s, Race’s reputation has diminished after a laughable but seemingly necessary period in the WWE (ne: WWF). Race had wrestled a handful of matches for the promotion in the past – notably, a “unification” bout with WWF champion Bob Backlund – but had never fully committed to the ambitious company. Nearing the end of the in-ring career, Race must have considered the WWE the last unconquered territory of his seemingly ubiquitous career . However, the Race story line for the WWE ignored the man’s history and instead fashioned a ludicrous fiction about Race being the “King” of wrestling. Aside from the lack of pedigree (hasn’t Jerry Lawler had claim to the title for thirty years?) the angle simply did not fit Race. Better that he be referred to as “Hellfire” Harley so that he might shame and castigate the new generation of pretty boys and egoists.

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