Harley Race, an eight-time National Wrestling Alliance world heavyweight champion, died Thursday following health complications. He was 76.
Race was surrounded by his partner, Rose, family and friends at the hospital in St. Charles, Missouri, when he passed away, his son Jason, told CNN.
“He kept fighting till the end,” Jason said. “He is the most genuine human being I know. I don’t even think he knew the impact he has had on others.”
The news of his death was posted by Jason on the wrestler’s verified Twitter account.
“Today at 12:50, we lost the man that fought up until the very last of his existence. More information will be released soon, but just know that he loved pro-wrestling and the fans that loved him. Harley Race, we love you.”
Race, who referred to himself as “the greatest wrestler on God’s green earth,” was known as one of the toughest grapplers in the ring. He worked for several major wrestling companies over his career including the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and the NWA and performed against other legends including Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes and the Funk Brothers, Dory Jr. and Terry.
“Today We Lost Not Only A Great Personal Friend, But In My Estimation The One And Only REAL World Champion. Without Harley Race, There Was No Ric Flair. I Tried My Hardest Every Day To Live Up To His Standard In The Ring,” Flair tweeted.
Race traveled the world to perform and excelled in single’s matches as well as the tag team division. He was dubbed “Handsome” Harley Race with his tag team partner, “Pretty Boy” Larry Hennig. Together they amassed three tag team championships.
Race was born on April 11, 1943, in Quitman, Missouri, according to his autobiography, “King of the Ring: The Harley Race Story.” By 15, he was chasing his dreams in the world of professional wrestling.
In 1961, his sports entertainment career came to a halt when he was in an auto accident with his wife, Vivian Jones. Race shattered his legs and was told he’d never walk again. His wife, who he married a month before, died.
“To this day, the accident and my rehabilitation are parts of my life that are painful to think about,” he said in his book. “I just know I tried to concentrate on my rehabilitation so I wouldn’t dwell on the loss of my wife.”
Race would defeat all odds and made his way back into the ring. By 1973, he won his first NWA world heavyweight champion when he defeated Dory Funk Jr.
“To this day, only a handful of men can claim to have won more World Heavyweight Championships than Harley Race and none would dare claim they are tougher,” said WWE in a statement.
In 1986, he won the “King of the Ring” tournament and claimed the moniker “The King,” that he carried until his death. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, NWA Hall of Fame and Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.
After retiring from the ring, he taught young wrestlers at his own wrestling school, Harley Race’s Wrestling Academy, in Troy, Missouri.
He also frequented the convention circuit, signing autographs and taking pictures with fans.
In June he was pictured with WWE Hall of famer Bret Hart.
Memorial services for Race will be announced in the coming days, his son said.