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Harley Race and the Lost Art of the Heel Promo

The best thing Seth Rollins did on Monday night was the one thing he does better than most of the WWE roster – he cut an awesome promo. The former member of the Shield that now wears coat and tie instead of Kevlar walked out onto the ramp, marched down to the ring and continued his solid work on the microphone, as if changing sides of the fence never meant anything at all. With a few short words, Rollins was instantaneously anointed the top heel in the company which has some pretty hard shoes to fill.

For Rollins, the words were more important than the action which preceded them.

The one thing that is lost on many of today’s superstars is the lost art form of talking into a microphone and spewing the venom to fans who will then buy tickets to the arenas to watch the “dance” of good and evil in a squared ring that is surrounded by steel cables. Some (Ric Flair, Roddy Piper, Steve Austin, Randy Savage) have made a career of antagonizing fans, then get into a ring and perform at a high level night in and night out.

But none many have been better than Harley Race.

The seven-time NWA World Champion was one of the meanest, toughest, roughest brawlers the NWA ever saw (he started out in the AWA and finished his career in the WWF as King Harley Race). In a time when wrestling was still about secrecy, holds and counter holds, and a tough rugged style, Race was about as good as it got.

And when it was important to “sell” the business in St. Louis or Texas or Florida or anywhere the NWA Title took him, Race was never short on perfecting his craft with his sentences.

During his career as a wrestler, Race worked for all of the major wrestling promotions, including the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), the American Wrestling Association (AWA), the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), and World Championship Wrestling (WCW). He held the NWA World Heavyweight Championship 8 times, and was the first NWA United States Heavyweight Champion, which is now known as the WWE United States Championship.

Race is one of six men inducted into each of the WWE Hall of Fame, the WCW Hall of Fame, the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame.
I once said there was a difference between Ric Flair and Harley Race – Ric Flair believed what he said and lived the lifestyle always in character. Harley Race Said what he believed and did not give a damn what people thought of how he lived in or outside the wrestling ring.

Race’s brilliance was never as obvious as it was in 1983 when the NWA (Dusty Rhodes and Jim Crockett) produced the first Starrcade event. Rhodes, like Flair, was a large part of Race’s dominance in the late 1970s, early 1980s.

Race, after countless victories over many years over Rhodes and other great wrestlers, lost the title to him in 1981. Rhodes lost the title to up-and-coming star Ric Flair, though Race was able to defeat Flair in St. Louis in 1983 for his seventh reign as champion, breaking the record previously held by Lou Thesz. What followed was one of the classic angles of the 1980s, which led to the first-ever NWA Starrcade event. Determined not to lose the title again, Race offered a $25,000 bounty to anyone who could eliminate Flair from the NWA. Bob Orton, Jr. and Dick Slater attacked Flair, inflicting what appeared to be a career-ending neck injury, and collecting the bounty from Race after Flair announced his retirement.
Flair’s retirement was a ruse, however, and he eventually returned to action, much to Race’s surprise.

NWA officials set up a championship rematch, to be titled “NWA Starrcade: A Flare for the Gold”. The match was to be held in Flair’s backyard, Greensboro, North Carolina, which enraged Race. Race lost the title to Flair in the bloody and memorable Starrcade cage match (with Gene Kiniski as the special referee) in November, 1983. His loss to Flair at Starrcade was largely seen as the torch-passing from Race to Flair.

But, honestly, the verbal assaults by both Race and Flair made wrestling great in that one era and set the tone for wrestling in the 1980s and how fans sensibilities changed. They wanted their heroes (faces and heels) to express themselves verbally as well as physically.

When Rollins took to the microphone with Michael Cole on Monday, I saw that same kind form a younger Race. He was on point, in control and did not back down. He also did not care what the fans or his former ringmates – Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns – thought of him. And if that same character holds true to form in the future, the WWE and wrestling in general has something special. You cannot find that too often these days.

Rollins may not have figured to be the most obvious choice to get over after The Shield, but based on his manner, his words and his actions, he is certainly a throwback to how it had to be done and way it was meant to be done. Channeling a past to create drama in the present makes this a war of words not just emotions and actions.

Follow David on Twitter @davidlevin71

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