Thursday, April 23, 2015

Take The Damn Money--The Merchandise of Harley Race

When Harley Race spoke, people listened. With a voice and demeanor like his, you didn't have much of a choice. You also knew that you were in for one Hell of a wrestling match. Harley would talk you into an arena and then back it up in the ring. Was he colorful? Not really. He didn't need to be. He made you believe. There was no question about it, Harley was truly destroying his opponent. Yet, many of his fellow all-time wrestling greats list Race as their favorite nemesis. How could that be? Easy. Harley was that good.

By the time that I was getting into wrestling, Harley was in the WWF as "The King." Though this was the beginning of the end of his career, I knew that Harley Race was something special. He may have looked a tad older than the average WWF superstar of the time, but he could take it to Junkyard Dog, Randy Savage, and Hulk Hogan without missing a beat. As Harley himself will tell you, he felt "The King" moniker was a very worthy gimmick for a man as accomplished as himself. I would have to agree. Harley wasn't taking the title at this point, but he would instead be honored for his years of championships and accomplishments all the while taking then-champion Hogan to the limit.

Interestingly enough, many stars who began in the '60s and '70s got their first taste of merchandising after aligning with the WWF, the champion of wrestling marketing. Harley Race, though a top star of that era, was a different story. JBL often states that if you could build a "sports entertainer" from the ground up, you'd have Randy Orton. Change "sports entertainer" to "professional wrestler" and you have Harley Race. It was that look and aura that put Race on countless magazine and program covers of the '70s. A champion regally displaying the World Heavyweight Championship? A bloody grappler in the midst of an hour-long spectacle? A wrestler slamming the unliftable Andre the Giant? Harley Race made all of those magazine covers happen.

Whether it be the famous blue and red robe, the royal purple "King" attire, or simply a championship belt, Race made for a great photo or trading card, as well. Thanks to his WWE Legends deal, he is frequently featured in modern day Topps WWE releases alongside fellow Hall of Famers such as Bruno Sammartino and Bret Hart. Classic cards of him include appearances in the Wrestling All-Stars, 1987 Topps WWF, Wrestling Legends, and the 1995 WCW Main Event series. The latter card features Race in another successful facet of his career, managing. Before injuries sustained in an automobile accident forced him to retire, Race was an effective manager to such stars as Big Van Vader and Lex Luger among others.

Being an all-time great with the ultimate tough guy look, Harley Race had to have some action figures. He was actually included among some of the very first wrestling action figures produced by Popy in Japan in the early 1980's. Race also saw both his '70s NWA look and his 1980's WWF "King" image produced by Jakks for their WWE Classic Superstars line. While these are all great items, one of my personal favorite wrestling figures of all-time is the LJN WWF version of Harley Race. Released in 1987, the figure is undoubtedly "The King," but with a possibly unintentional twist. The figure is clad in a jacket that looks like a perfect mashup of his WWF cape and one of his ring jackets from the '70s/'80s. Whether LJN was going for that image or not is anyone's guess, but the figure is pure Harley Race, regardless.

I first met Mr. Race over a decade ago. Although he's an extremely nice man and one of the most gracious wrestlers as far as accommodating fans, the voice still scares me. Now in his seventh decade, Harley is still one of the toughest men on God's green earth. No one will ever convince me otherwise. In the way that many fans today look at Brock Lesnar as "the real deal," Harley Race has held that position in many minds since his debut so many years ago. 1980 Race vs 2015 there's a dream match of tough men, fighters, and all out beasts. My money is still on "The King!"

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