"Seven-Time World Champion"
Few have a longer and more storied career than Harley Race, whose list of accomplishments is so long it is best you look them up. In brief he was a 5 time AWA Tag Team Champion, United States Heavyweight Champion, Georgia Heavyweight Champion and, most notably, an 8 times NWA World Heavyweight Champion. He was also inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004, not to mention the various other HOFs he is part of. Currently he runs the Harley Race Wrestling Academy in Troy, Mo (info here) that has produced wrestlers such as Ted Dibiase Jr., Joe Hennig and Trevor Murdoch. Additionally, he operates his own promotion World League Wrestling (WLW). He beat Dory Funk in 1973 to win his first NWA Championship and beat some of the very best wrestlers in the world along the route to his 7 other championship victories. Our interview occurred well before Jim Hellwig’s untimely passing.
As the interview began Race shared with me that business with WLW was tough as his wife BJ had passed. She was an instrumental part of the operation and I could feel the hurt in his voice to know his best friend was gone. Nevertheless he was gracious enough to not only speak with me, but do something I have yet to encounter in any other interview or research: give me a fresh perspective on Jim Hellwig.
My question was about his first impressions of Jim Hellwig, and his response was humorous to me as I realized someone with Race’s history, who was a long term vet of the industry by the time Hellwig came to WWE did not interact with Jim the way others did. “Well, first off I need for you to remind me who Jim was. The name sounds real familiar but it just doesn’t jump out and grab me.” In all of the interviews and emails I have exchanged with people in the industry, Harley is the only one who did not immediately know the name Jim Hellwig. I told him Jim portrayed the Ultimate Warrior and he proceeded to give me some of the most unique insight on Jim Hellwig I have ever come across.
“Oh the Warrior!” Harley responded. Initially he struggled to find the right words, “He was a guy that had he been able to, you know, start at a little younger…” then he changed the direction of how he wanted to contextualize Hellwig. “I mean, his year hadn’t quite got here yet. If he was around right now he would really stand out and grab people”. I needed a moment to think about that statement, so I shifted the conversation and asked when they first met. Harley could not remember an exact date but believed it was during the time he was travelling with NWA championship. In looking back at the history of the NWA title, this seems unlikely as Race last held the belt in 1984 while Hellwig was still bodybuilding. However, the likeliest scenario is that Race met Hellwig during his time in WCCW as the Dingo Warrior between 1986 and 1987.
When I asked Harley his impressions of Hellwig as a person and a wrestler he responded, “As a person he was a very nice guy, as a wrestler I would say during that era he was just so-so.” Then he added, “He’d be great now”. At this point I came back to Race’s initial comments to ask what he meant. Harley told me something that I have never personally had another inside source tell me: Jim Hellwig was ahead of his time. In the era Hellwig emerged in he suffered from the fact that it was at the apex of when technical wrestling thrived in the industry. I asked if he felt the technical aspects suffered today and he responded, “The technical aspects of wrestling went out the door probably 10 or 12 years ago.” Harley believes Hellwig would be even bigger today than he had been in the late 80s and early 90s and that he was genuinely ahead of his time. I tried to put perspective on that and I could not wrap my mind around the possibility of the Ultimate Warrior being even bigger than his already legendary status. It leads me to wonder if Warrior was in fact the innovator of this new era of wrestling that is less focused on technical work and more focused on theatricality.
I asked Harley if Hellwig improved as a wrestler through the years. He told me that just about everyone improves with time and experience, but specifically with Jim he stated that “He captured his character well”. This may have been a veiled critique, but it struck me as being complimentary of Hellwig knowing what to do with his character. King Harley Race and the Ultimate Warrior had a string of matches early in Warrior’s WWE career, so I asked Harley about the in-ring experience. He said they got along well and additionally, “I called 90% of everything we did and that’s just the way it was.” Harley then added that he did that with everyone he wrestled.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Race’s take on Hellwig and the majority of sources is the perception of what people thought of him. When I asked if Hellwig got along with people outside the ring he said that he could not see anyone disliking him. While a number of Hellwig’s contemporaries have said the opposite, Race’s memories are also coming from very early in Hellwig’s first run in WWE, so at that time it is likely the animosity had not developed as it would later. Harley qualified his comments by noting that everyone had people they liked and they did not like. I asked if there was any negative reaction to the news that Hellwig would take the title from Hogan, and he said there was always positive and negative reaction to someone new getting a title. The negative reaction was typically a result of jealousy but Harley never thought twice about the move to make the Ultimate Warrior champion.
The last thing we discussed was Hellwig’s lawsuit against Titan to obtain the rights to the Ultimate Warrior. Harley believed that the lawsuit could have been precedent setting for a lot of wrestlers to follow the example, but said, “My personal belief is that if you sign with someone and you decide to go with whatever they’ve got there for you to go with you should go with it.” Further, he added that he came up with the idea for the “King Harley Race” gimmick, but said, “The king doesn’t mean a damn thing if he (Vince McMahon) doesn’t put you on the air and run with it”. Harley added that to this day he still makes money on Harley Race merchandise because he says he moved forward with WWE instead of trying to go back into history, “I’ve always had a pretty smooth relationship with Vince”.