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Harley Race's Night-School Pro Wrestling Classes

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Eight-time National Wrestling Alliance champion Harley Race runs a professional wrestling school in Missouri. He holds his classes on this unique form of brutal ballet in the evening, because all his students have day jobs. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

If you want to be the best in your field, you have to learn from the masters. Well, if you're an aspiring professional wrestler, head for the small town of Eldon, Missouri. That's where wrestling legend Handsome Harley Race lives and works, and people come from as far away as Europe to receive his wisdom. Frank Morris of member station KCUR in Kansas City has this report.

FRANK MORRIS reporting:

Cars and people are pretty sparse on South Maple, the main street in Eldon's quiet little business district. It seems an unlikely spot for a Mecca of ritualized violence, but after work each night, muscular men gather at a storefront under a huge sign that reads `World League Wrestling: The Harley Race Wrestling Academy.' Two hefty rural guys taunt each other and grapple in a 50-year-old ring set up in the middle of this old, unair-conditioned brick building.

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible), where are you at?

MORRIS: Above them, a big glass case holds a purple crown, a leopard fur-trimmed robe and huge trophies. The walls are lined with pictures, newspaper stories and title belts, all memorabilia from the long career of Handsome Harley Race.

Mr. HARLEY RACE (Wrestling Legend): You know, I used to say I'm the greatest wrestler on the face of God's green Earth, and for a number of years, they may not have liked it, but the couldn't disagree with it.

MORRIS: Race won the Processional Wrestling World Championship eight times in the mid-'70s and '80s. A bold, legendarily tough, brutal combatant, Race was cast in this melodramatic world as a bad guy, a villain. For nearly 40 years, he battled the likes of Crusher Lisowski, Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. Ten years ago, a serious car wreck ended his career. Now at 62, he's scarred, stooped and hobbled, a fatherly man who chain-smokes Marlboros and teaches his students to hurt their opponents carefully.

Mr. RACE: You're the other guy's caretaker. You can make it look as good as you can possibly make it look, but you're trying not to hurt somebody, you know, physically maim them. That's why I'm such a stippler on cardio.

Back up, back up, jumping jacks. Come on. Come on, Anthony.

ANTHONY: Oh, God.

MORRIS: As Race dabs sweat from his broad tattooed forearms, two wanna-be wrestlers go through the cardio portion of a tryout. One of them nearly throws up in the process.

Unidentified Man: I'm just dizzy. I just--my legs are woozy. I don't think I'm going to be able to hop up and down like that.

MORRIS: Race says the vigorous workouts and bruising repetitive drills give his students substance that flashier modern wrestlers sometimes lack.

Mr. RACE: And it goes right back to the basics. Shut up and wrestle.

MORRIS: This advice may go against the grain, but one of Race's graduates has just ascended to professional wrestling's highest level. Trevor Rhodes recently signed a three-year contract with World Wrestling Entertainment, performing as Trevor Murdock. The windfall allows him to drive a new SUV and to rent a ranch-style house in Eldon.

(Soundbite of door closing)

Mr. TREVOR RHODES (Professional Wrestler): It's got cabinets where our last house didn't have a lot of cabinets. Still a lot nicer house, three bedrooms.

MORRIS: At 6'4", 250 pounds, Rhodes describes himself as a bulky, old-school wrestler, unlike the chiseled bodybuilder types who dominate the business these days. He says his advantage is solid training and a well-honed talent for controlling a crowd, especially at crucial turning points like when the bad guy in a match delivers just one too many merciless, cheap shots to the good guy's body.

Mr. RHODES: And then that good guy, he's just had enough, he's had a gutful, you know, and he's fighting back. And those people are just--and they're just coming with you. You know what I'm saying? They're almost like pick me up, putting their hands on your back and they're pushing you up when you hear them. And it's not just one; there's 10, there's 20, there's 30, now there's 500 people going, `Come on, Trevor, come on, get up! Get up!' And what do you do? When you start to fight back, the place goes nuts.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

MORRIS: Rhodes spent eight years wrestling in small-town venues like that one. Now that he's made the big time, he says he's more determined than ever.

Mr. RHODES: I'm here. I'm going to kick the door down, I'm going to make me some money, and I'm going to have these people know that I was trained by Harley Race.

MORRIS: Race likes to say that the odds of one of his students matching his success in conquering pro wrestling in this glitzy modern era are slim and none, and slim just left town. Still, this patron of the sport is happy to give his disciples a solid foundation in the tough, gritty business of old-school wrestling. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

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