A small crowd has formed outside the entrance of the Harley Race Wrestling Arena, a squat warehouse on the outskirts of Troy, Missouri. When Harley’s 32-year-old son Leland Race unlocks the door at 3 p.m., about four dozen people, almost all men between ages 25 and 50 in ballcaps and T-shirts, shuffle through a hallway and past the ticket window, where each of them happily hands Leland $30 in cash on the way to the arena floor. There, at a long table in front of a wrestling ring that flirts with the low steel rafters, sit two World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Famers.
Tonight’s event is billed as “The Night of the Dragon,” and at 63, guest of honor Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat still has biceps that stretch the threads of his black T-shirt; his face is smooth and youthful beneath a shock of silver hair. Steamboat welcomes the fanboys with the exuberant “How are you today?” expected from a longtime “baby-face”—pro-wrestling parlance for “good guy.” He answers questions and reminisces about matches past as he signs original-packaged action figures, magazines, replica championship belts, and even a pair of folding metal chairs, and smiles wide for smartphone snapshots.
Beside Steamboat, 73-year-old “King” Harley Race slumps in a wheelchair, the result of a 30-year career spent as a heel, or bad guy, being tossed and body-slammed onto concrete floors and long folding tables like the one upon which his steel-reinforced forearm now rests. From head to toe, his body contains at least as much metal as does the golden National Wrestling Alliance Heavyweight Championship belt he held eight times in the 1970s and 1980s, now propped up like a nameplate on the tablecloth in front of him. His strawberry-blond curls have thinned; the peacock tattoos on his once-massive arms are wrinkled, blurred, and faded to blue.
“The King” Harley Race oversees promotions and the academy from his office.
And yet his hard gaze and grimace are somehow every bit as intimidating in person as they were on TV during his prime as a tough-as-a-turnbuckle antihero. He barely speaks beyond a gruff “You’re welcome”—that is, until his Sharpie begins to run out of ink.
“Jason!” he bellows in a gravelly tone that echoes around the arena.
At this moment, it seems, the only motion in the building is Leland, instantly answering his father’s summons with two new markers in hand. Jason Leland Race bears little resemblance to his father. Bald and wide-eyed, bearded, with a slight overbite, he’s smaller in stature—a lean-but-athletic 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds—than the barrel-chested 250-pound patriarch looking on from the faded fight bills on the wall. Leland does share his father’s middle name, his passion for wrestling, and his marrow-deep conviction that Harley Race was and is the greatest there ever was or will be—at everything. The son leans over his dad’s shoulder, scribbles out a few lines to ensure that the new pens work, and then slips into the background as the autograph line chugs along and the nostalgia machine keeps churning.
Leland runs to the office to oversee ticket and merchandise sales, then off to the bathroom to stock up on toilet paper and soap. One moment, he’s back in the locker room seeing that the wrestlers, his students at Harley Race Wrestling Academy, have everything they need; the next, he’s using a plastic funnel to fill ketchup bottles at the concession stand. All the while, Leland is trying to focus on his own match, tonight’s main event, against the villainous “Superstar Steve” Fender. With the legendary Steamboat guest-refereeing and his father looking on, tonight is another chance for Leland to shine. Winning the bout is important for his storyline, sure—it will set Leland up for a shot at regaining the World League Wrestling heavyweight title that he lost six months ago. But more crucial is winning the crowd—projecting his baby-face persona, Leland “The Legacy” Race, not just through words and the famous moniker but also by putting on a show. By executing the flips, dropkicks, arm bars, and body slams with the technical proficiency that old-school fans associate with the surname and a bone-rattling impact that will make even the most hardcore aficionados wonder for a moment whether it’s not real. To show that 14 years of paying dues in these cramped small-town sheds and gymnasiums and tents has made him ready for the top rope, the WWE and the worldwide stage The King conquered and has long since abdicated. To prove that he’s worthy of the name Race. That he’s not just…
The autograph line is spent, the arena now empty but for a skeleton crew setting up rows of metal banquet chairs. Leland grips the handles on the back of his father’s wheelchair and rolls him toward the front office. The son pops open a can of Diet Coke and sets it beside the butt-filled ashtray on Harley’s desk. Here, The King will eat a loose-meat sandwich, smoke Marlboro Lights, and wait while Leland prepares for what they hope will be a sellout crowd.
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