In 1986, many wrestling fans were surprised to see the eight time NWA world heavyweight champion Harley Race jump ship to the World Wrestling Federation. After all, Race was a staple of the National Wrestling Alliance for several years. To see him go to a promotion widely known for its more cartoonish take on professional wrestling seemed out of place. The fact was, Race was nearing the end of his active wrestling career. He saw the WWF as a good pay day with a lot less emphasis on a stiff working style.
When Harley joined the WWF, he was given Bobby Heenan as his manager. Since the WWF had zero interest in recognizing him as a former eight time world champion….Vince McMahon booked Race to win the King of the Ring tournament and become ‘The King of Wrestling.’ It was also a shot at Jerry Lawler down in the Memphis territory who actually sued the WWF over use of the gimmick.
After winning the King of the Ring tournament, there was an official coronation that took place in Poughkeepsie, New York in August of 1986. The ‘King’ Harley Race gimmick was born. He came to the ring complete with a robe and a crown and after winning matches, forced his opponents to bow and kneel to him.
Harley Race had the king gimmick for the better part of two years. It all ended after Race challenged Hulk Hogan for the WWF title. Race suffered a hernia injury in that match and required surgery and significant time off. In the weeks that followed, Bobby Heenan announced that a new king would be crowned. After weeks of speculation, Haku was selected to become the new king.
It was odd to many fans that Haku was seemingly randomly chosen. He wasn’t a big star in the WWF and many thought that a bigger name would be selected. In reality, it wasn’t Bobby Heenan’s decision, nor was it Vince McMahon’s choice…but that of Harley Race himself. With Race sidelined for weeks, McMahon had approached Harley about giving the gimmick to someone else. Race’s first and only choice was Haku.
The question was why select him over say a Rick Rude or somebody else of that caliber in the company? At the time, Haku had some moderate success in tag team wrestling for the WWF, but not much else. The fact was….Harley and Haku had a long history together. It all began in Japan in 1978, where Harley Race usually toured with All Japan Pro Wrestling representing the NWA. All Japan’s founder Shohei Baba assigned a ‘young boy’ or protege to assist Race while staying in Japan. That person was none other than Tonga Fifita aka Haku.
Haku would carry Race’s bags, fetch him food and drinks and basically make sure Race was comfortable while staying overseas. A strong relationship formed between the veteran and the young apprentice. The two became friends and Baba asked Harley to teach Tonga Fifita as much English as possible. According to Haku… ‘All Harley did was smoke and give one word answers to my questions.’ Despite the failed English lessons, Harley loved Haku and remembered their friendship in Japan when both were employed by the WWF.
When Harley was healthy enough to return to action, Harley knew his days in the ring were coming to an end. A match was booked for the Royal Rumble in 1989, which would see Race and Haku battle for the crown. Race was more than happy to put over Haku and make him look strong in their match. After King Haku defeated Race to solidify himself as the true King of Wrestling…Harley gracefully bowed out and left the company.