One of two things happens when champions lose their titles. Some receive an immediate rematch or series of rematches upon getting knocked off their perch, while others slide down the card and have to work their way back into title contention.
Unfortunately for “Handsome” Harley Race, it was the latter after he lost his first NWA World Championship to Jack Brisco in the summer of 1973. The loss came just two months after Race ended Dory Funk Jr.’s four-year campaign as the NWA’s kingpin. That Race’s title reign was so short by comparison was shocking. Even more surprising was the unusual opponent Race had to go through to get back to the title.
Fifty years ago today, Race was scheduled for a match against a competitor unlike any he would ever face as a champion and perhaps the most dangerous adversary of his career. Race’s opponent was a ferocious giant and super-heavyweight who couldn’t be trusted to stay true to wrestling’s script because Race’s foe wasn’t a wrestler; it was a bear.
Not a bear of a man or a brute as nasty as a grizzly, but an actual brown bear, ironically named Gentleman Ben, a 750-pound wrestling bear who had been an attraction in the genre since the 1960s. In fact, bear wrestling, which began in the 1800s, was a popular draw. As a safety precaution, bears were declawed and muzzled before matches with their human opposition.
Dutch Mantell, who wrestled a bear several times in his career, talked about the experience in 2022 on his podcast, “Story Time with Dutch Mantell.” He confirmed that the bear he wrestled, Ginger, was declawed and had no teeth. But he also talked about how she was treated during their one-week run together.
Mantell said that before their match, other wrestlers would poke at her with sticks to get her angry for the exhibition. Also, Ginger’s handler would violently pull on her leash during their matches. Mantell said he ordered them to stop, which Ginger seemed to realize. After feeding her soda and candy, the bear seemed to pick up his scent. Mantell said that recognition and his kindness led to a friendly bond, which made the matches safer to work.
Regarding those meetings, Mantell said he spent most of his time running from Ginger, which was enough to delight the crowd. He admits to putting his fingers in her mouth, but when she bit down with her gums, Mantell said she almost broke his finger.
Ultimately, the gimmick of wrestling with bears had all but vanished by the 1980s. But the practice of using bears as grappling partners surged when a video surfaced of retired MMA fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov engaging in bear wrestling as part of his training routine as a nine-year-old child.
As for Race, there is no record of the outcome of his grizzly encounter. But based on how his career played out, he came out unscathed and would go on to defeat Dory Funk Jr. three nights later in Kansas City, KS. In 1977, Race recaptured the NWA World title, defeating Dory’s brother, Terry Funk, in Toronto. Race retired as a wrestler in the 1990s with a total of eight NWA World titles to his resume.
Suffice it to say, no matter what happens to champions like Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, or MJF, their road back to the top, if and when they fall, thankfully won’t include a match against one of the animal kingdom’s most dangerous species.