Last week, the Masked Man talked to the legendary WWF announcer (and barbecue sauce maven) Jim Ross about his era-spanning career, his favorite matches, and his take on the current WWE product, as he prepares for his upcoming one-man show in New York.
First things first: Congrats on the Sugar Bowl.
That was one of the greatest football experiences of my Sooner life. I went into the game believing that Alabama was still the best college football team in the country. Alabama was 59 minutes and 59 seconds away from playing in the SEC title game again, which they assumed they would win and play for a national championship. So what the hell were we doing down there? We lost to Baylor like the redheaded stepchildren on a Thursday night in Waco and we didn’t even know who our quarterback was going to be. We had all these injuries — it seemed like we had no chance. I’ve seen a lot of great Sooner wins, but this was just an extraordinary performance.
You’re frequently on the sidelines during Oklahoma games. How’d you become such a fixture?
A lot of members of Coach Stoops’s staff were big wrestling fans. Back in ’99, Mike Leach and Mike Stoops would be game planning and they’d take a break for dinner about the time that Monday-night Raw came on. Then we were doing a taping in Oklahoma City and somebody in the WWE called and got us sideline pregame passes, and I went to practice and met the coaches. It became more about our friendship than it did about celebrity. I never really looked at myself as a celebrity. If I am, it’s a very unlikely one.
After that there was a long time when I was working [at WWE headquarters] in Stamford, Connecticut, that I would commute to the OU game every weekend, home or away, flying out of New York on Friday and then going to the game on Saturday, and then on Sunday I would fly to wherever Raw was. They were ridiculous commutes. Let’s say you’re going to play at Iowa State. Well, there’s no nonstops from New York City to Ames. So I would arrive on Friday and the coaches would be wrapping up their meetings and we’d go grab a bite to eat or have a beer or something just to get them out of the hotel. They wanted to hear wrestling stories. I didn’t know at the time, but I was kind of doing a mini version of my one-man show. I was holding court, telling wrestling stories, and doing Q&A. The last thing they wanted to talk about was tomorrow’s game.
Quick story: I kept having these horrific stomachaches. I was raised by an old-school father who would roll over in his grave if he heard I didn’t go to work because of a stomachache. So I just endured. I drank a lot of Mylanta and chewed Tums like they were gold. By the time I went to a gastroenterologist, he said, “You’ve got about 30 days left.” I got 13 inches of my intestine removed and I was in the hospital for seven days. When I got coherent, I turned on my cell phone and listened to my messages, and one of them was from Bob Stoops. It was game day and he was on the sideline in Kansas City. He said, “I looked around and you’re not here. We miss you, and hope you’re getting better.” I thought that was pretty cool. That old cell phone is so antiquated and dilapidated now, and I don’t even know if I have the charger for it, but I never had the heart to throw it away.
You’re famous for calling wrestling matches, but you’ve called football games, too, including a broadcasting stint with the Atlanta Falcons. How is calling football different from calling wrestling?
Not much. Less than the sports elitist would want you to believe. My belief is that if one is a communicator and he enjoys the product and has product knowledge and is motivated to study said product, that the broadcasting part comes easy. I believe I could go broadcast football or basketball or baseball because I’m fans of all those genres. Of course, this is the point where Monsoon would say to me, “Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back.” But actually, I’ve officiated on the field in all those sports. I played as a high schooler, which doesn’t give me any skill set, but it gives me knowledge of the game — a little bit.
With WWE, I would spend so much time studying and pregaming and preparing that it drove a lot of my broadcast partners crazy. But I had to be anal so I could let the flow of the match come to us. I’ve always thought that the wrestlers make the music, and it’s up to the announcers to add the lyrics. It’s the same way if you do a football game. Some football games are so overtalked that I wonder if the producer and the announce team remember they’re on television and not radio.
You could say that about wrestling today, too. Occasionally, you wonder if the announce team remembers they’re watching a match.
Today’s trend in wrestling seems to be more narratives. A lot of the subtle, fine points of the art form, of applying holds and focusing on a body part and why are they doing something and what could this be leading to, are often ignored. But if you have movement on the screen and you’re talking about something else, there’s a disconnect. It’s like it’s third-and-12 and they’re throwing the ball and you’re talking about the second half of the doubleheader — it’s related to the game but it’s not related to the moment. I always wanted to create the ability to suspend the viewers’ disbelief and get lost in the process of what these great athletes are doing. And it’s certainly not a knock on any of the current broadcasters, because this is what they’re obligated to do. They have many more masters to serve than I did. There are so many things that they have to service, whether it be the app, or a movie, or in-show sponsorships, or whatever. The guys are just doing their jobs. But I’ll say this — back when we were getting the highest ratings, the sound of the show was different. And maybe egocentrically, I like that soundtrack better.
It seems that WWE is borrowing all these MMA moves, but as MMA’s commentary is getting more and more technical, WWE is going in the opposite direction.
I think the front office thinks the fans already know, and the irony is that the younger fans [WWE] is trying to attract still need education. It’s like a kid watching a football game with his dad. His dad’s gotta explain what a forward pass is, what a read-option is. UFC has done a good job because they started this brand-new sport and sort of trademarked a lot of their terms. Take a kimura — well, a kimura’s a double wrist lock, and a double wrist lock has been used in wrestling for years. I think UFC’s been on a major educational swing, and the diehards all know what these holds are, but they’re still adding so many new viewers that it’s still imperative to do some explanation. Joe Rogan does an amazing job of that. I learn something every time I listen to him.
Back in your early days you worked for Bill Watts’s Mid-South promotion, first as a referee and then as an announcer. What were some of your most memorable matches?
I think the first NWA title match that I was involved in was that thing that we did with Bill Watts, Ric Flair, Dick Murdoch, and Ted DiBiase.1 It seems like that angle has withstood the test of time. I was in New Orleans recently and a lot of the folks that I met there remembered how hot that angle was.
The Freebirds blinding the Junkyard Dog was a great one. It was so real in the sense that Dog, his wife was pregnant with their first child, and the story line goes the Freebirds blinded him and he had never seen his first child because of the dastardly acts of the Freebirds. People could relate to missing out as a parent; they could relate to the heartache. We just told a story — that Dog was sitting on his rocking chair, rocking his child that he couldn’t see. It was like a country song.
One of the angles that’s kind of off the radar from that era was Dick Murdoch and Killer Karl Kox, because Murdoch could be as good, if not better, than anybody in the business. He was under strong consideration several times to be the NWA champion. But he’d hit for the golden sombrero occasionally. He just horsed around — he was fun-loving and kind of a rebel. When he worked with Kox, they both were former Marines. Kox was another legitimately tough, tough dude. I remember refereeing a match they had — I think we were in Baton Rouge. So Murdoch was in one of his Three Stooges moods and Kox backed him into a corner and I was on Kox’s left side — anytime you’re refereeing guys that are right-handed, you always break on the left side so you don’t inadvertently get an elbow stuck in your face when they’re rearing to punch somebody — and he knocked the holy hell out of Murdoch. Dicky’s knees wobbled and Karl held him up because he didn’t want him to go down. Murdoch covered his mouth and says, “What the hell was that for?” And Kox said, “For clowning around.” And Murdoch got serious and they had one of the best matches that I ever remember seeing.
Ross called a notorious match in which Flair was visiting Mid-South and young baddie DiBiase was granted a title shot. Old-timer Murdoch was displeased, and attacked Ted, functionally effecting a rare double-turn, making Murdoch a villain and DiBiase a fan favorite. Despite the “arterial damage” (in Ross’s parlance) that DiBiase suffered, he limped back out for the match and put up a valiant fight before losing via count-out and setting up a huge feud with “Dirty” Dick. I’ve only done it about 5 percent justice here, and totally left out the parts with Butch Reed and Dick Slater.
After Watts and NWA, you moved to the Crockett territory, which became WCW. Was it a smooth transition?
As an announcer, it was great. When I went from Watts to Crockett, some of the guys there knew my work. I could give them a different presentation than they were getting at that time. I wouldn’t say it was better, but it was different. I had previously called a whole litany of matches involving Flair, the Rock ’n’ Roll Express, [and] the Midnight Express, who had passed through Mid-South but were in Crockett by then. Some of those Rock ’n’ Roll–Midnight matches back in Mid-South were clinics. They proved that tag-team wrestling works, and that you don’t have to be a giant if you’re good at your trade. If you’re positioned correctly and you can get the job done bell-to-bell, if you have a magnificent talker like Jim Cornette, and the booker pulls the trigger and gets you minutes in the game, it will work. If people go on YouTube or the WWE Network when it comes and look at some of those Rock ’n’ Roll–Midnight matches, they’ll see what those wrestlers were doing then holds up today.
What were some of the most memorable matches you called when you worked there?
It’s hard to pick one magical match that stands head and shoulders above all the rest. In about ’89, not too long after I got to WCW, we brought in [Ricky] Steamboat and he had a tremendous run with Flair. Every one of those matches was unique and compelling.
And I loved the Terry Funk feud with Flair. Terry was such an amazing talent on the mic — and you gotta remember that this was all extemporaneous speaking. This was a guy creating a promo on live TV, or live-to-tape TV, doing extemporaneous stand-up for two or three minutes. It’s entertaining as hell. And then you have Flair, who was also one of the better promo guys in the business, especially at that time. You had all this great verbal jousting, and then when they got in the ring, I’ll tell you what, those guys were so good. You know, a lot of the young guys these days think that they have to sit together and talk about their matches ad nauseam. It’s almost embarrassing to the trade for them to have to work out every time that they inhale and exhale in a wrestling match. I don’t recall ever seeing Flair and Funk have a strategy session. You have to listen to the audience and be prepared to call an audible.
And the Horsemen, obviously. I always thought that the best version of the Horsemen was Flair, Arn, Tully, and Barry Windham. No knock on Ole, but when you saw Ole on TV he was generally playing himself and he was playing a villain. It’s what we call a natural casting. But with Flair, Arn, Tully, and Barry, even a drunk booker would be challenged to come up with a match that those four guys couldn’t make good.
It’s probably fair to say there’s one WWF match in particular that you’re best remembered for now.
Back in June 1998 when Undertaker threw Mick [Foley] off the Hell in the Cell. I don’t know that that was the best match I ever called, but I will say it’s the most memorable match, because I don’t know if a day goes by that somebody doesn’t bring it up.
Have you seen the YouTube videos where people dub your voice from that match over dunks and tackles and other highlights? I feel like it’s what the Internet was invented for.
The first one I remember getting tweeted to me a lot was the Jadeveon Clowney hit a year ago in the bowl game. Little did I know that it wasn’t going to end, because now I’ve been on dunks, on UFC fights, on baseball brawls, all kinds of stuff. Now whenever there’s a big play, somebody says “Has this been J.R.’d yet?” You can’t help but laugh about it. It’s kind of cool that people remember something you said 15 years ago.
Some might say it’s crazy that such a legendary announcer isn’t calling the WWE’s flagship show today. Why do you think you’re not still doing it?
When we were doing Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey told me that Hollywood and entertainment in general puts a bigger emphasis on youth and look than they do experience and talent. So I think the key thing is that I’m 62 years old, I’ve had facial paralysis from three bouts of Bell’s palsy, and it was time, in their view, to make a change. The neurologists will tell you that Bell’s palsy doesn’t have a definitive cause, and it doesn’t have a cure, but most of them think the reason for getting it has to do with stress. I think all the years with all the responsibilities, all the other things that I was doing in addition to being on air, that could’ve had a contributing factor to my illness. I do think partly that WWE just didn’t want to put me back into a situation where that could happen again.
Of course, when Lawler had his heart attack, I filled in for him while he was gone, and I made a few cameos here and there, but I don’t know that it was ever a political thing. At some point, you gotta change. Networks do it all the time. I think they wanted to change the philosophy of how the matches were called a little bit. My skill set fit the old version.
There’s a perception that you’ve been jerked around by WWE over the years. You were fired and rehired several times.
The first time that I got future endeavored, as we say, was a few weeks after my first Bell’s palsy attack. I think I still had a few months left on my contract, which they honored. Then I think it was ’94 when Vince got indicted and had all the federal government issues, and they brought me back on a short-term contract to fill in for him on Raw, but when Vince got exonerated, I didn’t have a role, because I was there to fill in for him. I think people misunderstand that second one as “Oh, he got nailed again.” Everything in that contract was honored. The third time, Vince wanted me to come back as a producer and to work with J.J. Dillon in talent relations. But sure enough somebody asked, “You think you could help us do some voice-overs for international syndicated shows?” I told them to go to Vince, because I wasn’t brought back to announce, but Vince agreed and then I started getting more assignments. I got on Raw and there were a lot of incarnations of that team, but they finally settled in with Jerry and me. We just clicked. It was kind of Madden-Summerall-ish. I give Jerry the credit for that, because he was a great antagonist and I was the straight man. I was George Burns and he was Gracie Allen.
How did you start working with talent in the front office?
It was during that third stint. I was in South Africa doing a show, Vince was back at home base because that weekend his son Shane was getting married, and J.J. Dillon, who was vice-president of talent relations, abruptly quit. Bruce Prichard got that job for a few months, but Vince wanted me involved, so he made a new title called vice-president of wrestling administration, and that was me. But the job wasn’t a good fit for Bruce, because he was more of a creative type. So I assumed the job.
I was booking live events, I was doing the payroll, I was creating and managing the developmental areas, I was overseeing recruiting, I was on the executive committee. If I wasn’t Vince’s right hand, I was his left hand. He always said that talent and television ran the company, and I ran talent, Kevin Dunn ran TV — so one of the two of us were the right hand, the other was the left.
Sounds like a big job.
That’s just the grunt work. It’s akin to being the GM of an NFL franchise. I thought it was imperative that we change the culture of that locker room. It had probably been ingrained in me from Bill Watts, who was my first major boss, who was a jock at heart, who played football and wrestled at OU and played in the AFL. The performers would rather be treated as athletes than entertainers. So I decided that our locker room had to be a bastion for athletes, and for guys that wanted to be the top guy, where we had healthy competition for the best roles. So I think we did create that team atmosphere.
We also had to be more aggressive in recruiting and training. They didn’t even have anywhere to train anybody. We were just getting someone else’s hand-me-downs. We’re taking leftovers. So we started those developmental areas, started recruiting talent.
When the Monday-Night Wars came along, I think that our team was in place, and that team mentality was already in place. I think that really helped us endure the Monday-Night Wars, because we had a bunch of guys that knew what it was like to come from behind and win games you weren’t supposed to win.
During those days you had a few famous turns as part of the story lines — turning heel and bringing in fake Diesel and fake Razor Ramon, joining Vince’s Kiss My Ass Club, feuding with Michael Cole … the list goes on. How did you feel about being “onscreen”?
Me in a wrestling ring is like a cow on ice. It’s not a pretty sight. I always felt I didn’t belong in the ring for the simple reason that I wasn’t very good at it. I thought that others would be better served to get that TV time. None of those moments ever resulted in me going on the road to sell a ticket. They were just done for television ratings.
The Cole angle was funny. WWE thought I could probably tell the story from either a protagonist or an antagonist point of view, so I played heel. But for whatever reason, the fans just didn’t want to accept me as a villain. And no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t work. Poor Michael Cole, I kick him in the balls on TV and it’s supposed to be me being a bully, and people cheered. He’ll tell you, he didn’t live that down for 10 years. That one moment defined him to the fans. And it was unfair, but that was how it was. The creative in that deal backfired. Then the WWE said, they love J.R. for whatever reason — we don’t get it — but they embraced it and decided to use me to get heels over.
I saw a clip the other day of the Kiss My Ass Club, which was done — of course — in Oklahoma City, in front of my family. Which is great booking, because you get the greatest reaction in your home area where one of their own is getting humiliated. But on that day, there was Mr. McMahon in the ring, heel Undertaker, and heel Kurt Angle. They used the J.R. character to help get heat on those three men by humiliating me, burying my face in McMahon’s buttocks.
And then the most infamous one was after WrestleMania 17 when Austin joined McMahon. On Tuesday, Smackdown was taped in Oklahoma City, so of course J.R. is going to interview his old friend Stone Cold to find out what the hell is going on. So in Oklahoma City, Austin beats the shit out of me and I get bloody. It was a traumatic experience. Steve’s hands were like getting hit by anvils. I thought he must have been pissed off about a payoff we gave him somewhere along the way because he was really laying them in. I had knuckle knots all over my head. Then he did the surgery on that blood, and the people were just aghast.
So, I’ve done all those in-ring things. I think sometimes the writers know that Vince enjoys silliness or sophomoric humor. And I just didn’t ever turn anything down. I’ve been a team guy since high school. I played three or four positions in football and never said, “I don’t want to play defensive end, I don’t want to be a guard,” or whatever. My old man used to say, “If you take the guy’s money and you cash the check, then you do what he needs you to do.” I always had that philosophy. So beat me up, bloody me up, beat the shit out of me, let’s get it over with.
What’s your current status with WWE? Do you have a Legends contract or are you totally done with them?
I have a Legends agreement. If you put a gun to my head, I honestly couldn’t tell you how much longer it’s in effect. If they need somebody to go in for a DVD or video-game work, things like that, I can help out as a freelancer.
You were last seen as a WWE employee at SummerSlam, hosting a rather controversial panel discussion for WWE 2K14, where Ric Flair seemed to be, shall we say, overly animated. The rumors are that gig got you fired.
I don’t think you have to be a Mensa member to figure out that it had an influence on decisions that were made. I was working with the developmental kids [in NXT] and enjoying that, and got called in for that job.
It was a very unique night, to say the least. Ric was coming off maybe the most traumatic time of his life. [Flair’s son had recently died of a drug overdose.] In hindsight, it might not have been the most timely booking, to get him in that environment. And then you can look at the other side and say maybe it’s a good thing to get him out around friends. As it worked out, you’d probably lean more to the former than the latter. But here’s the deal: I was conductor of a runaway train. I was supposed to keep it on the tracks and that didn’t happen. So I don’t have any issues taking responsibility. Did I envision that it would help facilitate my exit? No. But I could see the thinking behind it.
But honestly, people might not believe this, and I don’t want to give one of those eye-rollers, but it really came at a good time. My health is good, I just celebrated my 62nd birthday, I got a lot of projects going. I’m going to start a podcast soon with the same company that does Austin and Jericho. I’m excited about that. I got Live Nation working with me on one-man shows and, of course, we start out the way we want to start out, in New York City, Saturday, March 1, at the Gramercy Theater.
How are the shows going so far? You did some in Europe, right?
It’s nice to have people pay to hear you tell your stories. Especially because me — I’m not supposed to be in the wrestling business. I didn’t know anybody, I wasn’t anybody’s relative, I wasn’t a big tough guy, I wasn’t a great athlete. It was completely accidental, and little did I think I’d have a 40-year run. Hell, it was my first job out of college.
With the career you’ve had, you probably get a lot of bizarre questions.
I tell the people before we do the Q&As that there is no question off-limits, but it’s not a “blast anybody” fest. Somebody’ll ask, “How did you feel when Owen Hart died?” Well, you know, I don’t want to embarrass the questioner, but how in the hell do you think I felt? Is there anything but shock and dismay and heartbreak that I would feel when somebody dies? Same thing I felt when Brian Pillman was found dead in a hotel room. He was one of my boys. I brought him to WCW from Calgary. He was one of those football players that was an overachiever, that wanted to be no. 1. He was a locker-room crazy man, but, boy, bell to bell, he gave you everything he had every night, sometimes to his own detriment.
So put on your talent-evaluator hat for a second. What do you think of the current generation of superstars, like Cena, Orton, Punk, and Bryan?
Daniel Bryan I used to watch before they hired him, and he has it. He’s connected to the audience in an organic way, and it’s fascinating. I recruited and signed Cena and Orton. Cena has pulled the wagon for WWE for a decade, and that ain’t easy. CM Punk is another original character. Largely, he’s himself, and all the great personalities that I’ve ever come in contact with, were essentially embellished natural extensions of their real personality.
How do you think they’re doing developing new stars?
It’s imperative to get new faces in that upper echelon. There’s no timeline for that. You can’t say, “Oh, we’ll get this done in six months or a year.” You have to constantly be finding out who has ring presence, who can produce bell to bell, who can deliver a believable promo, who stays out of trouble, who stays healthy, who isn’t a headcase away from the arena, those types of things. There’s so many unknown elements that you can’t control.
I see that the WWE is trying very diligently to get the Shield headed in the right direction. All three of those guys are probably going to be big stars. Reigns seems to be the guy that’s leading the charge there, but I think the mistake people would make is that he’s going to be the only star out of the Shield. I think Bray Wyatt has the it factor. He’s got that 300-pound body that’s got a second gear. He’s got that great, almost Jake the Snake–like delivery. I know that they have high hopes for him. There’s a lot of really good young prospects down in Orlando, and the future is bright.
What’s the hardest thing for guys to learn when they get the call up?
You always hear when a great five-star recruit signs with a university that their biggest challenge is getting used to the speed of the game? Or when a guy goes from college to the NFL? It’s the same in wrestling. The guys that become stars are the ones that can adapt to the speed of the game — also the ones best prepared for fame and stardom and pressure, the metaphorical speed of the game.
The guys at the top of the food chain right now are solid, but they need new dancing partners. They need new teammates. And they’ll tell you that. But you just can’t wave a magic wand and make that happen. I think 2014 will be a year where some guys are going to step up to the next level.
I mean, these guys have the chance to live in a nice house and make good money, and if you’re smart, if you invest right and don’t buy too much bling, in a 10-year run, you’re done. There’s no reason not to be able to live comfortably after 10-15 years with the money these fellas are making now. But that comes back to mentoring. You can’t spend more than you make, and I can tell you about a lot of guys that have always spent more than they make. And at the end of the day, that’s not good math.