ne night in 1996, an 18-year-old kid named Erich Kulas walked into an Extreme Championship Wrestling show in Revere, Massachusetts, hoping to find work for the night. He claimed to be a trained wrestler. He wasn’t. And because one ECW regular couldn’t make the show, Kulas, playing a bus-driver character named Mass Transit, was thrown into a match with a notoriously violent tag team called the Gangstas. New Jack, the wilder half of the Gangstas, proceeded to beat Kulas mercilessly with a litany of weapons — including a cheese grater, a plastic garbage barrel, and a crutch — and then cut his own forehead deeply enough that blood sprayed everywhere. When he saw the blood, Kulas immediately passed out. New Jack continued to pummel the teenager, at one point yelling, “I don’t care if the motherfucker dies!” Nearly three years later, New Jack was tried on two charges of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon in Suffolk County, Massachusetts. He was acquitted by a jury. The Kulas family’s civil suit was subsequently thrown out. New Jack lived another day.
Nineteen years later, New Jack is sitting in a sports bar in Rahway, New Jersey, on a sunny Saturday afternoon. “You need a bib,” he tells me. “Goddamn.”
He says it over and over. I have proved myself incapable of eating jalapeño poppers without getting sauce in my lap. New Jack finds this hilarious. This is a man who has spent decades leaving pools of blood — his own and that of others — in his wake, a 52-year-old man who was surrounded by piles of broken chairs and shattered glass when he wrestled his retirement match just two years ago. But the popper sauce is simply too much to bear. He gestures for the waitress: “Bring him a bib!”
In most cases, I’d be compelled to defend myself. But New Jack is arguably the single most terrifying human being who’s ever made a career out of professional wrestling. From the mid-’90s to the early ’00s, New Jack was a standout in ECW, the upstart promotion that positioned itself as a bloodier, grittier alternative to the WWF1 and WCW. A former bounty hunter, the New Jack of ECW became famous for bringing trash cans full of weapons to the ring, for wearing a staple gun around his neck and then actually using that staple gun on wrestlers’ foreheads, and for leaping off second- and third-floor balconies and onto prone opponents. He’s spent nights in jail for intentionally injuring other wrestlers during matches, sometimes stabbing them over and over. So if he’s going to make fun of my table manners, I’m going to sit here and take it.
hese days, wrestling is dominated by WWE, a company that’s become increasingly family-friendly in recent years. On TV, you’ll almost never see a wrestler bleed or curse or hit someone with a crutch — all things that New Jack made his name doing. Less than 15 years after it shuttered, ECW already feels like it belongs to a long-lost era. And New Jack, who still looks very much the same as he did in ECW — compact and grizzled, with his head always held high — is a living reminder of a wilder time. He is healthy but weathered — hale enough to climb back into the ring at a moment’s notice, but ravaged enough that one can only imagine how many years his career has taken off of his life expectancy. Some of New Jack’s ECW colleagues went on to great success within the confines of WWE, and a few are still active there. But it’s impossible to imagine New Jack in that context.
Seeing him in public is like seeing a tiger strolling down the sidewalk. These days, New Jack, whose real name is Jerome Young, moves with the slow, deliberate stiffness that affects so many veteran wrestlers, but he’s still got the same intense look in his eye. His forehead is an absolute disaster, a gnarled mass of scar tissue resulting from all the times he intentionally cut himself to bleed in the ring. (When people ask about it, he tells them he got into a bad car wreck.) Walking into the sports bar in a heavy black T-shirt and camouflage pants — the same sort of outfit he used to wear to the ring — he’s trailed by a quiet and pleasant middle-aged woman and her frosted-tipped teenage son. She seems to be his girlfriend, but when I ask how they met, he abruptly cuts me off: “That don’t have nothing to do with my wrestling career.”
New Jack is in Rahway to work for Pro Wrestling Syndicate, a thriving regional promotion that regularly attracts a couple of thousand fans to the town’s rec center. Before the night’s show, he will join a host of veteran wrestlers seated at folding tables around the gym, signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans willing to pay for the privilege. The cast of characters in attendance is both impressive and deeply strange. All-time great Bret Hart sits next to ECW daredevil Sabu, while old-timey heel Baron von Raschke is seated beside recent-vintage WWE diva Kelly Kelly.
When he arrives at the venue, New Jack is in a corner with a crew of fellow ECW veterans. He doesn’t look especially happy to be there. While huge numbers of fans line up to meet bigger names like Hart and Mick Foley, only an intrepid few approach New Jack. Maybe it’s because he’s not one of the more famous wrestlers here. Or maybe people are just scared of him. One fan shows off the steel chair he brought, hoping to get every ECW wrestler to sign it. “I’m not sure about New Jack, though,” he tells his friends. “He might break off a piece and stab me with it.”
always saw New Jack’s performances as a mid-1990s urban version of the American Dream Dusty Rhodes,” says Paul Heyman, the self-styled promoter and manager who ran ECW. “He’s a bad man, placed in a bad situation, under bad circumstances, and he’s going to now show the bad guys how to be truly bad.”
Heyman installed New Jack and helped burnish his myth. Twenty years later, his name still resonates with wrestling insiders.
“He is out to hurt people,” says Bill Apter, the veteran wrestling journalist who ran magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated for years and who now writes for 1Wrestling.com. “That was his M.O. I know a lot of guys who, when they found out they were wrestling him that night, would say, ‘Oh, New Jack. Damn. He’s going to kill me.'”
Jerome Young, who was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, came late to wrestling. He doesn’t like to talk about it, but those who know him well indicate he had a difficult upbringing. “I would suggest that Jerome Young has spent his life rebelling against the injustices that permeated his existence throughout his childhood,” says Heyman. “He witnessed oppression and prejudice and was subjected to these ills of society, to where his rebellion against these characters and these social circumstances got played out with this militant, angry, violent victimizer known as New Jack.”
By the time he started training, he was in his late twenties and already making a living as a bounty hunter in Georgia, and he liked the job well enough. (He continued the work for a few years even after his wrestling career took hold.) In the 1999 wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat, New Jack talks a bit about his time in that world: “Four justifiable homicides. I wasn’t proud of it, but it happened. It was either me or them.” These days, he downplays the violence of that time in his life. “It was time consuming. I was on the phone, doing my legwork … I worked on my own time. I had my own schedule.”
New Jack claims he was never a wrestling fan before he broke into the business. Tommy Dreamer, who became New Jack’s colleague in ECW, remembers things differently: “We had discussed New Jack watching Dusty Rhodes when he was in Georgia,” Dreamer says. “And we had talked about wrestling. It may not have been his love or his passion, but he was obviously a fan. I know he’s said that it was either wrestling or jail at times, but I do know he watched it because he’s told me about it. And we both were pretty much marking out when we met Dusty.”
New Jack got his big break working for Jim Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling promotion. Cornette made New Jack the leader of the Gangstas, a cartoonishly black-militant heel team often pitted against veteran Southern babyface tag team the Rock ’n’ Roll Express in a long feud. Working with the Express, he learned the fundamentals of wrestling, a skill he’d largely abandon when he became famous for bashing people with weapons.
The New Jack of Smoky Mountain also learned that he had the outsize personality necessary for wrestling. “He was an amazing talker,” Dreamer says. “He could talk people into hating him, and he could talk them into loving him.” As a character designed to get under the skin of the largely working-class Southern audience, he was fervent, dedicated, and wild-eyed in interviews, prepared to stomp all over the white establishment.
After running roughshod over Smoky Mountain for a few years, New Jack and his partner Mustafa Saed jumped to the anarchic Philadelphia-based ECW in 1995, making an immediate impact by jumping and bloodying fan-favorite tag team the Public Enemy after a match. Heyman tells the story of the Gangstas’ first night in ECW, wrestling the Public Enemy at Philadelphia’s ECW Arena. Back then, the company had a security guard — a 6-foot-8, 400-pound black man who was affectionately known as Big MF. Nobody had ever bothered this behemoth until New Jack noticed him.
“He stood on his tippy toes and got right in Big MF’s face,” Heyman remembers. “He started screaming at him about how Big MF now worked for the white man and how he has sold out himself, his family, and his people. And what I loved about it the most is that the fire and the ferociousness of his passion was so genuine that, to this day, I can’t tell you if he was performing.”
New Jack was swinging billy clubs and steel chairs on his first night in the company, and it soon became his specialty. “We had to do a weapons match one night, and it went over so well that we decided to do it every night,” New Jack remembers. “That’s how it started. It was different — and I enjoyed it.”
ew Jack’s weapons matches weren’t like other people’s weapons matches, even in ECW. The Gangstas’ entrance music, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre’s “Natural Born Killaz,” wouldn’t play just while they were walking to the ring. Instead, it would blare on a loop throughout the matches, lending a frantic and hallucinatory air to the bloodletting. “We always compared it to a fight scene in a movie,” says New Jack.
And then there were the balcony dives. During a certain point in many of his matches, New Jack would fight his opponent out into the crowd. Sometimes, half the match would be out there — the two wrestlers not surrounded by security, the way they are at WWE shows, but actually tumbling over chairs as audience members scrambled to get out of the way. Finally, New Jack would lay his opponent out on a table. Then he’d climb to the balcony, 20 feet above his opponent, and launch himself off, crashing through the other wrestler and the table. He did this all the time — sometimes even during non-televised house shows — and it became an essential part of his persona.
New Jack is matter-of-fact about his first balcony dive, during a Gangstas match against the Dudley Boyz: “I almost missed. It was embarrassing. I put him on the table, and I put him back too far. So when I went to jump, I realized that I was going to fall short. And I hit him, but I didn’t hit him like I wanted to. But it went over.”
“It went over” is an understatement. People freaked out about the balcony dives. In the Chicago suburbs, a teenage Colt Cabana saw one and immediately decided that New Jack was his favorite wrestler: “That’s what I thought made a good wrestler! Diving off of balconies! I couldn’t wait to be a guy that dove off balconies. My friends and I would dive off our roofs, just to do it, and that was all influenced by New Jack.”
And even New Jack’s ECW colleagues would watch those balcony dives and shake their heads. “Jack’s not a light man,” says Dreamer. “I’ve seen him, a couple of times, overshoot it and basically go to the floor. We all saw that fall from the scaffolding on the pay-per-view. I literally thought he was dead. I was probably the first person on the scene, and he was hurting.”
The fall in question took place in 2000, when New Jack wrestled Vic Grimes in a scaffold match at ECW’s Living Dangerously pay-per-view in Danbury, Connecticut. Both wrestlers were teetering on top of a huge scaffold, and both were supposed to fall, but Grimes told New Jack that he couldn’t do it. So New Jack grabbed Grimes and forced his opponent to fall with him. It didn’t go well. They missed the tables that had been set up, falling straight down to the concrete floor. Grimes, a huge man, landed on New Jack’s head. New Jack has said that he remembers seeing brain fluid leaking out of his nose after the fall, and that he’s been blind in one eye ever since. Watching footage of the fall, it’s amazing that he survived at all.
All those things — the ferocious interviews, the fever-pitch music, the weapons, the balcony dives — served to make New Jack a cult sensation in ECW. He was never a main-event star in the promotion, and he never wore its World Heavyweight Championship belt. Even though he could, he never did much proper wrestling; his lane was weapons and blood. And that made him a hugely important part of the show, a dangerous wild card. “When I was a kid, I’d be at the ECW Arena,” remembers the veteran independent wrestler Craig Steele. “You’d hear the music hit, and the place would go insane. Nobody’s sitting down. Nobody’s worried about getting hit with shit. The balcony dives weren’t what made him him. It was the aura and the essence.”
Heyman speaks of that New Jack character in mythic terms. “New Jack, to me, is the closest real-life persona to match Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast,” he says. “Jerome Young inhabits the persona of New Jack as a mechanism to stand up to anything that he feels, rightfully or wrongly, is an intentional disrespect to him as a human being. He is, admittedly, hypersensitive to what he would feel to be someone trying to strip him of his dignity.”
Part of the appeal was that you could never tell how much of New Jack’s act was really an act. “The Gangstas, I was scared of them,” Bill Apter says. “ECW had a lot of that scary energy. He and his tag-team partner were the scariest. When I was growing up, people were afraid of the bad guys. Today, with the bad guys, people laugh at them.”
Heyman remembers New Jack as a withdrawn, guarded presence backstage. “There were a lot of walls he was putting up to protect himself from the pain that he’d suffered,” he says. “You’re only going to get within 10 steps of Jerome Young’s soul. There are walls that are just never coming down, not even for himself.”
Even among other wrestlers, New Jack was an alarming presence, though his old ECW comrades tend to say nice things about him today.
“He’s always been a true professional with me,” says Brian Heffron, a.k.a. the Blue Meanie, another wrestler who faced New Jack in ECW. “He’s been a great guy. And he’s one of the best talkers ever in the wrestling business. I’m not even saying that just because he’s standing 20 feet away from me with a knife. I’m just kidding.”
His violent streak could always turn dangerous — Erich Kulas learned that first-hand. If anything like that had happened today, it’s hard to imagine that New Jack would’ve ever worked in wrestling again. “It was hard to imagine in 1996,” Heyman says with a laugh. But New Jack stayed on with ECW, thanks to Heyman’s conviction that ECW should showcase performers willing to do things that the audience couldn’t see anywhere else, even if those performers were “a handful.” Ultimately, New Jack faced few consequences for his match with Kulas.
“I didn’t get fired,” he says, “but they took me off the pay-per-view. I couldn’t go back to Boston for a couple of years. That was basically it.”
What was going through his mind during the match?
“I was high. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter to me,” he says. “The fucking fans loved it. I thought it was great.”
New Jack regularly wrestled while high. He’d snort coke before matches, or even during them, keeping a baggie in his pocket while he climbed up to the rafters for his balcony dives. Was he always high during matches?
“No. But a lot of times I was.”
I ask him if he could’ve done stunts like those balcony dives if he were sober: “I probably could’ve. Did I want to? No.”
New Jack claims that his coke habit was never a problem, though other wrestlers would sometimes complain about it. “A lot of people were high,” he says. “They wouldn’t admit it. But I was always like, ‘It is what it is.’ I did it. They was like, ‘New Jack high again! New Jack on drugs again!’ Fuckin’ right I was!”
New Jack says Heyman never stopped him from wrestling while under the influence. “He encouraged it,” says New Jack. “He knew I was doing it.”
Heyman says, “That’s a vague statement, and I couldn’t respond to that.” (New Jack says he quit cocaine on his own in 1999 and that he never had to go through a program to do it.)
After ECW ended, New Jack says that he had a few conversations with WWE, but they never amounted to anything: “I didn’t want to go [to WWE]. Anywhere but there. Because I knew they couldn’t handle me. They knew they couldn’t handle me … We talked, but we couldn’t agree on stuff. The main thing was that they wanted to own my name, my character. And I wasn’t going to give that up.”
Instead, New Jack went on to work for a number of independent promotions, many of which were attempting to re-create the wild atmosphere of ECW. In a match for the biggest of those companies, the L.A.-based Xtreme Pro Wrestling, New Jack once again faced Vic Grimes, the wrestler who’d landed on his head and blinded him in one eye, in another scaffold match. This time, New Jack threw Grimes from the scaffold and forced him to miss the tables that had been set up in the ring. Grimes landed hard on the ring ropes and injured himself. “That was payback,” says New Jack. “Was it his fault that I got hurt? Yeah. [In the original scaffold match,] he didn’t want to go with me when I said go. So I thought this is get-back.”
Once again, New Jack faced few consequences for Grimes’s injury. “He wouldn’t get in the ring with me again. I tried to kill his ass, so I guess he wouldn’t.”
“If I’d wanted to kill him,” he says, pondering what he was trying to do that night. “I could’ve.”
“I don’t regret shit that I did. Everything I did in the ring, I did it, and I can’t take it back.”
fter all this, you might think New Jack would be banned from wrestling. You’d be wrong. If a New Jack match brought a certain level of danger, it also brought a deep appeal — a nostalgia for the gorier days, and also the assurance that you would see something like you’ve never seen before.
In 2013, New Jack wrestled his retirement match in the main event of a Pro Wrestling Syndicate show in New Jersey. He took on the Necro Butcher, the deranged hardcore wrestler who memorably smashed Mickey Rourke through a pane of glass in The Wrestler. During the match, New Jack stabbed Necro Butcher’s forehead repeatedly with a fork. Necro Butcher pressed a staple gun on New Jack’s forehead. New Jack put a garbage-can lid on Necro Butcher’s genitalia and then slammed the lid with a steel chair. At the end of the match, New Jack climbed to the top rope and someone handed him a chair with a pile of fluorescent light tubes duct-taped to it. He jumped off, mashing the tubes onto Necro Butcher’s face. After the match ended, New Jack and Necro Butcher — both drenched in blood — stood and faced each other. New Jack looked Necro in the eye and said, “I have never in my fucking life hurt this goddamn bad after a fucking match. I got two fucking things to say to your fucking ass: thank you.”
They shook hands, and New Jack’s wrestling career ended. He was 50 years old.
In the sports bar, I ask New Jack what he’s been doing since retirement. He laughs, and blurts, “Nothing!”
Pro wrestling is a profession with a notoriously high mortality rate, and the unexpected deaths of Dusty Rhodes and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper are only the most recent in a seemingly endless litany of wrestlers who have died too soon. But New Jack says that he didn’t retire because he was afraid of the toll his work was taking on his body. He just wanted to get out while he was still good at it.
He says the adjustment to retirement hasn’t been hard. “It’s a different life now,” he says. “I’m just dealing with it … I’m going to a pain-management doctor. It’s working. He gives me pain pills.”2
These days, New Jack says that he doesn’t miss wrestling. He doesn’t have a favorite match or a favorite moment from his career. He doesn’t stay in contact with any of the people he wrestled. If people want to call him a legend or a menace, that’s on them. He doesn’t care.
“Dude, it was just a job,” he says. “It was a job to me. I don’t have a moment where I can say, ‘This is my best match,’ or, ‘This is what I did and I wanted to do.’ I don’t have that. I was a part of something that paid my bills, and I was cool with it. That was it.”
When I tell Paul Heyman that New Jack doesn’t care, Heyman doesn’t believe him. “I believe that he believes what he said to you,” says Heyman. “I think Jerome Young misses the affirmation and adulation that was thrust upon New Jack. And it’s painful to him not to be in that heat of the situation anymore. So his way of dealing with it is to dismiss it and not think about it because if he would think about it, it would hurt him. He will protect himself at all costs, as a measure of self-preservation, by refusing to think about it. Because he doesn’t think about it, he doesn’t miss it.”
Later that night at the PWS show, New Jack will walk out to the ring, but he won’t step through the ropes. His old ECW colleague Sabu is wrestling Bonesaw, a younger PWS wrestler. It’s a lumberjack match, and New Jack is one of the lumberjacks. He’s joined by fellow ECW veterans Balls Mahoney and Justin Credible. During the match, New Jack will get into a quick brawl with another lumberjack, a gigantic, monstrously evil clown. Then he’ll disappear into the dressing room, get back into his car, and drive to the next appearance. It’s just a job.
Tom Breihan (@tombreihan) is the senior editor of Stereogum.
Illustrated gifs by Kurt McRobert.
An earlier version of the piece misidentified the beginnings of New Jack’s wrestling career. He had wrestled in Georgia and the United States Wrestling Association before moving on to Smoky Mountain Wrestling.