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MATCH REVIEW: Harley Race vs Terry Funk (07-01-77)


Loss

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In the scorching heat of a Texas July, Harley Race defended the NWA title against the former champ in a true midsummer night's dream.

July 1, 1977
Houston Wrestling
Houston, Texas
NWA World Heavyweight Championship

9.6

In the post-match promo from Terry Funk, his inner prophet showed, just as it would many times in his career. “I want to be known, not remembered,” Funk demanded, arguing the case for making an impression over being preceded by reputation. 

By this time, Funk was a former NWA World Champion, but he’d be damned to hell before he was confined to a mere curriculum vitae of his past accomplishments. This might have been Terry Funk at his most predictive, which was no small feat for a man who sold the Amarillo territory just two years before this because he suspected that cable television would kill territory wrestling. Fans couldn’t have foreseen Funk’s many reinventions to come, be they the “middle-aged and crazy” lunatic, the spaghetti-legged old man synonymous with hardcore wrestling, the journeyman, or even the premiere babyface in All Japan Pro Wrestling. Little did fans know in 1977 that Funk would wrestle an Ed Farhat protege in a barbed wire match two decades later or that he would work the semi-main event of a pay-per-view even ten years after that. Funk was so well-traveled and enduring that in the 1996 Pro Wrestling Illustrated Wrestling Annual, the writers opined that, “If you’re a wrestling fan and haven’t seen Terry Funk live, then you’re not really a wrestling fan.” Here, Funk fancies himself a man who transcends time and place and with the benefit of hindsight, who are we to doubt him?  For all we know, he always accessed a crystal ball in high def through an app on his smartphone.

Unlike the Lou Thesz-controlled era before it and the Ric Flair-dominated era after it, the NWA of the 1970s starred an ensemble cast that, in addition to these two, included Jack Brisco and Terry’s older brother Dory. Call them the original four pillars; it’s a label that even Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, and Akira Taue would find hard to dispute. We have a fair number of matches pitting these four against each other, but this particular matchup -- Harley Race vs Terry Funk -- is deceptively rare. As far as we know, only the final minutes of Race’s Toronto title victory over Funk four months earlier survived. Most other Race-Funk iterations place the two on opposite sides in a tag match or exist only through brief 8mm clips. It’s a conspicuous separation born by the limitations of 1970s footage, but their legacies have intertwined nonetheless. That was just as true when Flair name-dropped world champions in his late 1990s interviews as it was when Highspots marketed a shoot interview of the two drinking beers and reminiscing on old times.

It’s the other pairing -- Dory Funk Jr. vs Jack Brisco -- that is often considered the defining in-ring series of its time. It’s a series that absolutely demonstrates technical mastery, stamina, and fast-paced action at a premium, but there’s a messiness and brutality in this particular matchup that’s often absent in Dory’s stoicism. Funk chopped Race directly in the throat in the first strike of the match while gentlemen’s mat wrestling turned impolite when Funk stepped on Harley’s face during an arm stretch and ground Race’s face with his forearm while applying other holds.

Other than in one of the fight scenes in Road House, I’ve never thought of Terry Funk as a powerhouse, but he’s presented as such on this hot night, both in his repeated press slams and in how he almost successfully powers out of Race’s headscissors by powerlifting him, leaving Race upside down and desperately applying more pressure in the hopes that he could avoid landing on his own head. Despite sporting a stockier frame than 1980s and 1990s-era fans are accustomed to seeing, the portrayal of Funk as a strongman is a master’s class in getting the people to buy what they’re sold. At its best, the match is outright subversive; in addition to Funk’s early role as the aggressor, the babyface Funk dropped the first fall by cleanly submitting to Race’s abdominal stretch. If the finish of the first fall challenged conventional wrestling wisdom, the beginning of the second fall left a footprint on its face when local hero Funk defiantly slapped heel champion before an angry Race retaliated with an offensive flurry, a position usually reserved for overconfident heels. Terry’s selling and audacity only rallies the people in the building more to his side as he wins the second fall with a piledriver, the culmination of a half-hour of build and teases, of selling and persistence.

The match worked as a play in three acts: first, get over the champion as tough; second, get over the challenger as credible; and finally, use any doubt over the outcome to create maximum suspense and drama. In a wrestling industry that lived and died based on the size of the crowd, it was a working style born out of business necessity more than artistic merit. The best way to sell a show was to convince local fans that they couldn’t afford to miss the card. They just might see a title change in their hometown, and infrequent title changes only preserved the value of the title. By the time the false finishes arrived in the third fall, we believed in both the worthy challenger and the mighty champion. We also see a convincing case that history will be made. For Funk, that means finally applying the spinning toehold after multiple attempts. For Race, countering the spinning toehold by punching Funk squarely in the eye until he bleeds from the eyebrow, a tactic just as definitively Harley Race as his own fingerprints, is an attempt to turn this into Just Another Night.

This was perhaps the greatest uncovered gem from the short-lived NWA On Demand subscription service -- one that takes its rightful place in the upper echelon of NWA title defenses, one that gives us a rare look at Race as champion in a long match on American soil, and one that adds yet another layer to the seemingly endless dimensions of Terry Funk the Performer. Time may not stand still, but it also never leaves the Funker in its shadow.

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