HARLEY RACE VS. JACK BRISCO: THE NIGHT BRISCO BECAME NWA WORLD CHAMPION

20. July, 2012

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I don’t remember exactly when I started marking important dates down on my calendar, but I know there are things if I don’t write down I will surely forget.  Birthdays, anniversaries, things like that.  When I was wrestling, of course I put the town and pertinent information along with it.

July 20 is a special date for three reasons to me.  I watched the first lunar landing in 1969 from our small apartment in Houston.  I thought walking on the moon was just something we did.  It wasn’t until later that I understood the importance and meaning behind man traveling through space and actually walking on a different planet.

July 20, 1973 Bruce Lee died.  I was taking karate at the time and everybody knew Bruce Lee if not from the martial arts world, from The Green Hornet TV show where he played Kato.  It baffles me that to this day that Bruce Lee is still one of the most famous martial artists in the world.

But on July 20, 1973 something much more important than anything else on that day up to then, happened.  I witnessed history, and almost 40 years later a symbol of that history is still being used to represent a once strong and dominant organization.

On that fateful night of July 20, 1973 in the Sam Houston Coliseum, Jack Brisco defeated Harley Race for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.  And I was right there to witness the changing of the guard and a new championship belt presented to Harley during a pre-match in ring ceremony by then NWA president Sam Muchnick, only to leave dejected and empty handed at the end of the night.

There were reporters and photographers from all the magazines, newspapers and I don’t know where!I’d been trying to find a way in the business by taking pictures and writing stories for Japanese magazines through my friend Koichi Yoshizawa and I wrote some articles for Jim Melby and Norm Kietzer with Wrestling News, but I wasn’t about to even ask if I could be at ringside for this match!  There were at least 8-10 photographers around ringside that night! More than I’d ever seen for a match in Houston!  So I took my 12th  row seat and watched the action with anticipation for the main event.

The match between Jack Brisco and Harley Race for the world title was originally supposed to be Jack Brisco VS. Dory Funk Jr. for the world title on March 2.  On February 28, Dory was involved in an accident on his father’s Flying Mare ranch and suffered a separated shoulder, leaving him hospitalized and unable to wrestle Jack that Friday.

Much has been made of what happened with Dory’s accident almost 40 years ago.  I had the opportunity to ask Dory as well as Harley’s side of the story. Dory said he rolled his truck into a ditch on the ranch and separated his shoulder.  Harley said he wasn’t there but he didn’t care because he was going to take advantage of the situation regardless.

Jack Brisco had other thoughts.  Jack and Dory had a chemistry in the ring that was magic.  For that time and era they were the best, credible, on top of their game performers in the business.  They traveled around the country to almost every NWA territory and had one hour time limit draws in major cities in front of capacity crowds.  You can talk about how big the crowds are today, but I will attest to the fact that professional wrestling was doing healthy business in the 1970’s in Houston and various parts of the country.  And Brisco VS. Funk was a guaranteed money drawing match.

They never had the same match twice.  Whether they liked each other or not, there was no denying they respected each other and were professional enough to leave everything they had in the ring.  But controversy seems to find its’ way into such high profile matches and egos.  I can only imagine the political landscape and having to maneuver in that jungle as the NWA champion in those days.

Dory was one of the longest reigning champions in NWA history.  Four years straight is a long time to defend the title sometime seven days a week, making your own travel arrangements, new town, new opponent, every town beginning to look just like the last one, going on last and having to follow god knows what every night  and working with god knows who on most occasions!  Sounded like a great gig to me!


Of course nothing lasts forever and Jack Brisco seemed like the obvious man next in line to be NWA champ. Jack would go from territory to territory to set up matches with their top guy.  Maybe Jack would lose or be involved in some kind of controversy with the idea he would return to face his opposition as the new world champion.  Students of the game who want to learn about the business would do themselves a huge favor by reading Jack Brisco, Harley Race and Terry Funk’s book.  All talk about the accident on the ranch, what was involved with defending the NWA championship and give an overall view and education on how professional wrestling was handled back in the day.  The more things change….

But I digress.

The March 2 match between Jack Brisco VS. Dory Funk Jr. turned into a Jack Brisco VS. Fritz Von Erich match in Houston.  Jack won the match but was anything but happy. He knew there was little if anything he could do except bide his time.  Jack would come back to Houston and wrestle the top guys from Wahoo McDaniel, Johnny Valentine and others but he couldn’t help but think Dory was avoiding him.

The newspapers covered wrestling so much more than they do today especially if the promoter was established in the community and bought ads on a regular basis which was exactly what Houston promoter Paul Boesch did.  One day there was an article with the headline “Race is wrestling’s new NWA champ.”  On May 24 in Kansas City, Harley Race was granted a world title match against Dory Funk Jr. and won.  The move he beat him with?  A suplex.  Yes, a suplex. And the place went nuts.  Partly because it was in Harley’s neck of the woods, but also because everyone just witnessed a world title change.  That didn’t happen on a regular basis back then!  Harley Race had ended the four year streak of Dory Funk Jr.

But what about Brisco?  Why wasn’t he the first to get the title shot when Dory came back?  Speculation abounds and I’m sure everyone involved had their reasons.  But the landscape had now changed.  Houston was promised a world title match and Paul Boesch was going to make sure he got it.


Paul brought Harley in for a couple title defenses but it was all geared to having a match with Brisco.  Finally the deal was done.  July 20, 1973 Harley Race was set to defend the NWA world championship against number one contender, Jack Brisco.

I think everyone in the coliseum felt the buzz that night.  There were no TV cameras present so if you wanted to see this match you had to attend the show!  There was a special commemorative 8×10 “autographed” picture of Jack and Harley. I cut out and saved all the newspaper clippings leading up to the match.  The old NWA championship belt was going to be retired and president Sam Muchnick was making a special appearance to present the champion with a brand new $10,000 ten pounds of gold NWA championship belt.

There was no entrance music, pyro or special lighting.  Before the main event, ring announcer Boyd Pierce introduced NWA president Sam Muchnick who came to the ring carrying a large case that obviously contained the new belt.  From there the challenger Brisco walked from the dressing room door to a chorus of cheers and made his way to the ring.

A few moments passed and then from the darkness, the champion Harley Race briskly walked to the ring wearing the classic NWA belt about to be traded in for a newer model. Boyd handed the microphone to Mr. Muchnick who then made the proclamation that this new championship belt will usher in a new era no matter who walks out of the ring with it tonight.  The sea of photographers captured the moment for posterity.

The fans and wrestlers wanted to see what the new design looked like and when the presentation took place prior to the match, Sam explained the history of the belt he was about to retire and take possesion of and mentioned some of the great champions of the past that wore it. Everyone watching knew history was being made. 

Main events were 2-out-of-3 falls back then and Harley won the first fall with the same move he used to beat Dory; a suplex.  The second fall saw Brisco use the figure four leg lock to even things up.  (When was the last time anybody actually gave up or won using the figure four or delivering a suplex?)  The entire building was shaking during the third fall as the crowd was with every near fall.  Finally it was Brisco catching Race with another simple, but effective move; the Thesz press!

The crowd erupted and the photographers flooded the ring.  Harley got up, went over and shook Jack’s hand and then left the ring so Jack Brisco could soak up his moment. 

A world title change back then was a big thing.  I saved my ticket stub, program, clippings, commemorative 8×10, a special ’16 page Official Commemorative Edition of Crowning of a Champion” and put it away.  I witnessed a hell of a match by two of the greatest in any era.  I wanted to be just like them.  I never made it to that level but years later, I wrestled in the same ring, same building and dressed in the same dressing room where the world championship changed hands.  You can get jaded over the years but I can honestly say I still have reverence and respect for Harley Race, Jack Brisco and all the guys from that time and era that trail blazed the way for guys like me and countless others who love this business and wanted nothing more than to be just a small piece of it.

I’ve met the people I idolized as a kid.  Even today, when I see Harley I get a lump in my throat and go back to being 13.  He’s a legend among legends and a mans man.  No pretenses. He went on to be champion seven more times when the NWA meant something.  He made everyone he worked with look like a champion.

I only met and talked with Jack a handful of times.  I know his brother Gerry better.  I wouldn’t want to fight either of them (Harley included).  The night Jack won the title was special because it was so uncommon and unique to “switch the title” back then.  Controversy has been around this business forever. Somehow everything finds a way to work it out. 

I know people were skeptical when Harley first got the title but he convinced everyone that he was the right guy more times than not.  Jack might have had to wait a couple months for his shot but he got it.  He went all over the world and cemented his legacy in this business.I consider myself fortunate to have been able to see history made when Jack Brisco became world champion July 20, 1973.

I’m sure a lot of other stuff happened that day.  But to me, that takes a back seat.  Today, almost 40 years later the belt that was first handed to Harley Race before the match and ended up with Jack Brisco at the end is still be used as a template.  I don’t know if that’s good, bad or indifferent.  I do know that the NWA isn’t what it once was, but nothing is. 

I’ve added some pictures and clippings from Jack VS. Harley in honor of this special day.  Enjoy.

Thanks for reading.

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