Back when he was World Wrestling Entertainment's lead play-by-play announcer, Jim Ross didn't mind surprises. As Executive VP of Talent Relations, he already knew who would win the scripted matches, but favored being kept in the dark on details such as whether a wrestler would use a Boston crab or bear hug to injure his opponent's back during the match. A wrestling fan since childhood, Ross was confident his sixth sense would steer him through those moments, and in the process make his calls spontaneous, genuine and true.
Before the start of the King of the Ring pay-per-view broadcast on June 28, 1998, Ross was unaware that The Undertaker would launch Mick Foley off the top of the Hell in a Cell (an enclosed 16-foot tall steel cage covering the ring). He was also unaware that he would deliver his most iconic call, pro wrestling's equivalent to Al Michaels' screaming out, "Do you believe in miracles?" during the 1980 U.S. Hockey team's upset of the Soviet Union, or Russ Hodges' call after the Giants beat the Dodgers in their 1951 playoff, "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"
The match began with Foley, one of wrestling's most unlikely success stories — a chubby Long Island masochist missing half his ear who went from journeyman to main event player — and the 7-foot tall Undertaker (a real-life redheaded Texan named Mark Calaway, but according to the storyline, an undead soul impervious to pain) atop the roof of the Cell pummeling one another with fists and a steel folding chair. Foley soon made his way near the edge, teetering like a wino. From his ringside seat, Ross assumed Foley was simply teasing the unthinkable. Of course, he's not going to come tumbling off the cell, he thought. My God, he can't survive that. But suddenly Foley was in flight, plummeting approximately 22 feet before crashing through the Spanish announcer's table. The crowd gasped. Jim Ross opened his mouth.
"GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY! GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY! THEY'VE KILLED HIM," he howled. Ross then paused as the camera lingered over the carnage. "AS GOD AS MY WITNESS, HE IS BROKEN IN HALF!" With one sound bite, Ross, pro wrestling's Vin Scully, its John Madden in a cowboy hat, turned a spectacle into an event.
"That call itself has become bigger than the business of wrestling. It’s part of popular culture."
"I'll take it over ‘The Giants Win the Pennant,'" says Foley, who suffered a dislocated shoulder, dislocated jaw, bruised kidney and concussion during the match. "Even with the certain stigma surrounding wrestling, that call itself has become bigger than the business of wrestling. It's part of popular culture."
Now it has become an Internet meme as the go-to soundtrack to underscore sports barbarity. Jadeveon Clowney's hit in the 2013 Outback Bowl, LeBron James' dunk on Jason Terry, and DeAndre Jordan's dunk over Brandon Knight have all been immortalized online with Ross' Hell in a Cell call dubbed over the highlights. For Jim Ross, it came easy.
"What you heard was me having a natural reaction. I saw, I felt it, I expressed myself," Ross says today. "I am just now out of the bubble where I can look back at that and say that was a really cool night because, a) Foley wasn't paralyzed, and b) I came up with a sound bite that has stood the test of time."
Jim Ross is out of the bubble because, following his parting with WWE last September, for the first time in about four decades he is no longer in the wrestling industry. With scant interest in retirement, the 62-year-old Ross, with little else on his résumé besides pro wrestling and Oklahoma football (he is a superfan), is transitioning into a new career. "I was very curious like ‘How can I reinvent myself at my age?'" he says ignoring the long odds facing a sexagenarian with partial facial paralysis, the result of three Bell's palsy attacks over the years. "How can I take the fan base that I have — I don't know how big it is — and interact with them in projects that they and I will enjoy?"
His new career path brings Ross to New York City on the last night of February. Dressed in all black — black suit, black dress shirt and his trademark black cowboy hat, and a black-and-white spotted handkerchief that completes the country and western Darth Vader getup — Ross sits in the bar of the Millennium Hotel in Times Square sucking down a pineapple vodka on the rocks. He is unwinding following a long day pushing his latest ventures: his podcast The Ross Report, a column for Fox Sports, and a one-man show: "Ringside: An Evening with Jim Ross," which he's unveiling stateside following a string of dates in the United Kingdom last summer. Ross, known affectionately by wrestling fans as "Good Ol' JR," approaches the show with the same philosophy he had as a commentator: "Feel your audience," he says, "and give them what they want."
A lot goes into the production of a professional wrestling match. Days, sometimes weeks before an event, the administrative staff, working with creative team, decides which wrestler will win and why. How they win (the finish), is occasionally settled at the eleventh hour. Once the match starts, the wrestlers work hand-in-hand with the announcers to tell a story; the music, the saying goes, is created in the ring while the announcers provide the lyrics, describing the action. Wrestling announcers also put over the talent and sell the event, tasked with creating a moment that allows the viewer at home to disregard the fact that the outcome is predetermined and just enjoy the show. Sitting ringside, the pro wrestling announcer must disappear into the little monitor in front of him, maintain focus and make the world glowing on that tiny screen come to life.
A huge sports fan growing up in Oklahoma, when Ross entered the wrestling industry in the 1970s, he was drawn to the microphone, where be brought something new, a play-by-play, sportscaster's style to the broadcast. At the time, Gordon Solie, a Florida-based announcer best known as a commentator for Georgia Southern Wrestling and Championship Wrestling from Florida, was the industry benchmark. With his inflated vocabulary, lack of hyperbole and silky delivery (he pronounced "suplex," a standard wrestling move, as "su-play"), Solie defied the bombastic stereotype of the profession.
"I was doing Gus Johnson long before there was a Gus Johnson."
When Ross was transitioning from backstage grunt to announcer in the mid-1970s, his boss in Championship Wrestling (later becoming Mid-South Wrestling), "Cowboy" Bill Watts, urged him to study Solie. Ross learned from Solie, but also added his own colloquialisms (a brawl is a "slobberknocker" in JR-speak) and went further and louder when the moment called. "Everything is not the bottom of the ninth home run, but when the moments were there that needed to be sold, I had no issues being the Gus Johnson," Ross says of the excitable Fox Sports announcer of whom he is a fan. "I was doing Gus Johnson long before there was a Gus Johnson."
Jim Ross at his 2005 WWE Hall of Fame induction. (Getty Images)
Far from just a shouter, Ross brought a wealth of knowledge to ringside as well. In the days before the Internet, he created files culled from wrestling magazines and his memory with full biographical and professional data for each wrestler on the card, noting height, weight, hometown, college, titles won — tidbits like whether a wrestler was a three- or four-time Intercontinental Champion were crucial to prove his acumen — and he'd write a two-sentence synopsis for every match to update new viewers on the backstory or feud. Then, on the days of the event, Ross chatted backstage with the wrestlers, prying out more little fun facts from each — such-and-such was a state champion power lifter, this guy was a three-year starter at linebacker in Division II — to parachute into his play-by-play. Today, a squad of writers and research team handle fact-finding legwork.
Ross also understood the psychology of the business. If a heel (a bad guy) was evolving into a babyface, he would carefully heap praise upon the wrestler in advance, allowing him to straddle the gray area between hero and villain, preparing the audience to buy into the transition. He also had the ability to peer inside a wrestler's gimmick, often bestowing nicknames befitting their personality. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, a quick-tempered Texan who'd use his finishing move "The Stone Cold Stunner" — a modified jawbreaker where Austin would grab his opponent's head in a face lock before falling to the canvas with the opponent's jaw on his shoulder without warning — became "The Texas Rattlesnake." The wrestler known as Triple H earned a reputation as a great tactician, every offensive strike precisely targeting an opponent's weakness. Ross dubbed him, "The Cerebral Assassin." It didn't always work — no one calls The Undertaker "Booger Red" anymore, Ross once did — but over time Ross became a master at enhancing character development and storytelling, enabling the audience to invest in characters emotionally. He helped create stars, and stars are the reason professional wrestling has become a billion-dollar business.
"If you didn't have credibility, he could give you more credibility. If you already had the cred, he could enhance it," says Steve Austin. "When he said stuff like, ‘Austin is the toughest son of a bitch I have ever seen,' or ‘Stone Cold, Stone Cold, Stone Cold,' I mean, Jesus Christ, saying my name three times the way he does it is just three gigantic exclamation points that just enhance the legend of what Stone Cold was becoming."
Ross' passion came from a genuine place. "I got motivated as a fan," Ross says. "The fan in me appreciated what they were doing. It wasn't like I was just doing my job. The fan in me really thought it was cool that I had this headset on and this great seat at ringside to watch these guys do their thing and I had the opportunity to describe it. It was big to me, and I wanted to give those guys the respect that they deserved."
As an only child living on a 160-acre farm in Westville, a small town of about 900 in far eastern Oklahoma a mile or so from the Arkansas border, Ross had a lot of time to use his imagination. Books and his transistor radio were his best friends, and at night he'd fall asleep to Jack Buck and Harry Caray calling Cardinals games on KMOX. Lying in bed with his eyes closed, Ross pictured the vividness of the uniforms and the flags blowing gently to the northeast and Stan Musial crouching in his weird corkscrew stance. When he finally succumbed to the sleep, he dreamed of one day becoming a play-by-play announcer.
Ross was a latchkey kid before the term was popularized. Working for the Oklahoma State Highway Department, Ross' father earned about $100 a week before his promotion to county superintendent. His mother, who got pregnant with Ross in high school, was a sales clerk. Discipline and responsibility were taught in the home. To watch the pro wrestling he so loved, Ross had to mow the lawn by 4 p.m. Saturday. Ross's father, a country guy firm with common sense, taught him the basic tenets of manhood: be honest, do your work, live up to your obligations. But at times his methods were cruel.
"Whether it was acceptable teaching tactics in today's world is obviously arguable. I'm sure Oprah could get a great show out of it."
Each year, the family bred their prized bird dog, Lady, selling each puppy for $25, a nice haul considering his father's salary. But one year Lady escaped from the Ross' yard and became impregnated by a male pup of hers from a couple of years earlier. The result was a litter of eight inbred puppies. Ross' father blamed his son, and made him euthanize the animals. He was 12 years old. "It was a unique way of growing up, but my dad was adamant that he wanted me prepared for adulthood and that being an adult was not easy," Ross says. "Whether it was acceptable teaching tactics in today's world is obviously arguable. I'm sure Oprah could get a great show out of it."
An All-District offensive lineman in high school, yet not exactly Division I material, Ross enrolled in Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., majoring in journalism and physical education. His big break in the pro wrestling industry came while working on a fraternity fundraiser. Back in the early-1970s, regional wrestling promotions would occasionally perform benefit events for nonprofits, and promoter "Cowboy" Bill Watts brought his outfit to Tahlequah. Ross was put in charge of marketing the event at his school, and he went all out pushing the show on local radio and printing fliers with big photos. "He was extremely bright, willing to work, was a tremendous student and had a business spirit," Watts remembers. "All of that impressed me."
(Courtesy of Jim Ross)
After college, Ross went to work for Watts and his partner Leroy McGuirk, a blind former wrestler with an appetite for whiskey and polyester. Ross started at the bottom, working on the ring crew and in the office while also serving as McGuirk's gofer, buying his daily supply of booze and cigars and chauffeuring McGuirk around in his Cadillac. As a result he also sat in on booking meetings and learned the how-to's of the business: how to create storylines, how to massage egos, how to market the product. Soon, Ross was also handling play-by-play duties on the promotion's weekly television shows. When Watts bought out McGuirk in 1979, Ross became his boss' right-hand man in Mid-South Wrestling.
The promotion chugged along through the 1980s, the dying days of what is often referred to as professional wrestling's territory era. In the time before the monolith that is now WWE, wrestling promotions were mostly regional outfits: WWE (then called the World Wrestling Federation) dominated the Northeast, Jim Crockett Promotions handled traditional ACC and SEC country, the Southeast, Fritz Von Erich's World Class Championship Wrestling was a Texas institution, Verne Gagne's American Wrestling Association was based in Minneapolis, the Continental Wrestling Association operated out of Tennessee, and Mid-South Wrestling dominated Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Every promoter dreamed of eventually expanding and going national, and in 1986, Watts repackaged Mid-South as the Universal Wrestling Federation. Despite earning a reputation for realistic storytelling, a physical in-ring style and authentic presentation, the UWF couldn't compete with Jim Crockett Promotions, which had recently gobbled up other territories governed by the National Wrestling Alliance, and was the legitimate number two to the Vince McMahon-owned WWE. And so, in April 1987, Watts sold the UWF to Crockett.
Most of the talent, Ross included, landed with Crockett, which licensed the NWA name, and gained further exposure from a plum Saturday evening timeslot on TBS. Like the UWF, the NWA's product was more steak than sizzle, lending itself to Ross' announcing style. "It was a seamless transition," Ross says. Crockett's ambitious spending spree, however, nearly bankrupted the promotion and in late-1988 he sold out to Ted Turner, who renamed the circuit World Championship Wrestling.
WCW bet big, promoting shows across the country, expanding programming on TBS and the number of pay-per-view events, but most Turner executives, a mass of utilitarian blue suits, had nothing but contempt for professional wrestling. "Ironically, Ted himself loved [wrestling]," says Ross. "I'd describe the upper management of WCW as dysfunctional and that may be too kind. Lots of personal agendas at play and not enough people putting the company first. Every day felt like one was boarding a runaway train heading to a cliff."
Then, in early-1993, Eric Bischoff, an announcer within the company, became Executive Producer of WCW making him Ross' new boss. To overtake Vince McMahon and WWE, Bischoff thought WCW should appeal to a more national audience. Though Bischoff couldn't move TBS from Atlanta, he believed he could find a lead announcer who didn't sound so dad gum Southern, and that would accomplish the same goal. Ross was tossed out of the ring, but he would not be unemployed for long. Within a few weeks, he was in Caesars Palace wearing a toga and calling WrestleMania IX for WWE.
Before they were announcers
Some of the most beloved pro wrestling commentators of all time (as well as some of the most hated) had long careers before their voices became well-known to fans and television audiences. Here's a look back at four of the most notable figures and their lives before the announce table.
by Bill Hanstock
The late, great Gorilla Monsoon, beloved to an entire generation of wrestling fans for liberal use of the word "literally" and for introducing them to the term "intestinal fortitude" had a lengthy career as a wrestler before turning to announcing. Most fans know that the term "gorilla position" -- where a wrestler waits in the wings before making their entrance -- is named after Monsoon, who spent so much time there in his wrestling days. But few contemporary fans have seen much of Monsoon in action. He was a 400-pounder who wrestled all over the world from 1959 to 1980, when wrestling looked very different than it does today.
Monsoon even tussled with Muhammad Ali in 1976:
Bobby "The Brain" Heenan
Among the most popular announcers of all time, Heenan entertained WWF and WCW audiences for years by playing the part currently played by Jerry "The King" Lawler: the wisecracking jerk who tends to give the heel's side of the story. Except rather than giggling and leering, Heenan opted for the snide and passive-aggressive approach. His jokes landed with punch and he was great at what he did ... probably because he spent the bulk of his career as a manager, doing the talking for brutes who couldn't speak as well for themselves.
Many fans know Heenan affectionately as "The Weasel," which began as a derogatory nickname that babyface wrestlers -- usually wronged by Heenan in some way -- would bestow on him during feuds. In pretty much every promotion Heenan worked, he would enter into a match where if he lost, he would have to wear a "weasel suit." Here's one such match -- the last of his career -- against the Ultimate Warrior:
Jesse "The Body" Ventura
Before he was a conspiracy theorist, before he was the Governor of Minnesota, before he didn't have time to bleed, before he was an announcer ... he was a flamboyant (and flamboyantly despised) heel, draped in feather boas and feathered earrings. Indeed, as much beef as he and Hulk Hogan may not have actually had with one another, the Hulkster owes Jesse "The Body" as much debt for his Hollywood Hogan persona as he owes Superstar Billy Graham for his "Hulk Rules" persona.
Ahead of his time, without peer as a heel commentator and with an instantly-recognizable voice that is beyond compare, Jesse Ventura ultimately made far more fans behind an announcer's desk (and in films like Predator and The Running Man) than he ever did in the ring. In honor of his wrestling career, here he is teaming with Randy "Macho Man" Savage:
To millions of wrestling fans, it was a bit of a surprise learning, at the time of the "Montreal Screwjob," that the unassuming and goofy, cleft-chinned announcer was actually the owner of the entire World Wrestling Federation. Before that revelation, prop figurehead "presidents" like Jack Tunney and, yes, Gorilla Monsoon were the only people who appeared on television to represent the WWF. Vince McMahon, to the wrestling world at large, was merely the impeccably-coiffed and broad-shouldered commentator best known for hollering "WHATAMANEUVER" and "ONE, TWO, HE GOT HIM no he didn't."
Of course, Vince was the third-generation promoter who took over the New York-centric WWF from his father, Vince Sr. He then set his sights on national expansion, taking over other territories. Fans in the South were shocked when they turned on USWA wrestling one day to find Vince gloating and wearing the company's championship belt. Shades of his "Mr. McMahon" character half a decade before it became one:
Now a billionaire, a man widely hailed as a genius, the creator of WrestleMania, the last man standing in the wrestling federation wars of the 1980s and 1990s, recognized by both wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans the world over, perhaps no announcer has lived more lives than Vincent Kennedy McMahon.
As if he didn't realize it immediately, sitting ringside in his toga at a Las Vegas casino and all, Jim Ross soon understood that WWE was a much slicker, flamboyant presentation than what he was used to. The in-ring product was different too, with a little more sizzle, but Ross adjusted, changing his lyrics to fit the music.
Eventually paired with the Memphis wrestling legend Jerry "The King" Lawler, who became widely known after wrestling the late comedian Andy Kaufman, Ross found his perfect broadcasting partner, the color commentator he'd grow old with. Ross liked the fact that Lawler worked as a "wise-ass heel," not a "mean-spirited heel" and appreciated his instincts and timing. The two Southern boys also clicked away from the announcer's table, bonding over classic rock, sports and barbecue.
For over a decade, Ross was the voice of WWE calling every indelible moment that wrestling fans still recall today, from Foley's fall to Austin scuffling with Mike Tyson prior to WrestleMania XIV ("Tyson and Austin! Tyson and Austin! All hell has broken loose!") to the high-flying youngster Jeff Hardy's near upset of The Undertaker ("Climb that ladder, kid. Make yourself famous.") to Austin aligning with his longtime rival the evil Mr. McMahon, who in addition to owning the company was an on-camera heavy ("Stone Cold is shaking hands with Satan himself!"). Through his ability to connect with fans, Ross became a beloved mainstay — the quickest way for a heel to draw boos from the crowd was to rundown JR — and in 2007 Ross was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Pundits dubbed him the greatest announcer in wrestling history — even greater than Gordon Solie.
"There have been a lot of good announcers," says Ric Flair. "But there have been two guys in the history of our business that'll never be duplicated and one is Gordon Solie and the other is Jim."
"JR just brought an emotion and a respect and a credibility to the matches that no one else ever had or ever will."
"JR will say that Gordon Solie was the best and everyone else is playing for second place," Mick Foley says. "I respect his opinion, but like almost everyone else, I will respectfully disagree. JR just brought an emotion and a respect and a credibility to the matches that no one else ever had or ever will in quite the same way again."
Jim Ross with Mick Foley in 2012. (Getty Images)
"He's the best of all time," says Steve Austin. "Gordon Solie was the Dean of Pro Wrestling, and Bob Caudle was great and Lance Russell (two other notable announcers, Caudle with the NWA and Russell based in Memphis), all in their own right, but when you talk about the best of the best, just his unbridled enthusiasm calling what he saw in the ring, nobody could touch him."
Ross finds it uncomfortable and humbling when he's called the greatest, since he learned so much from Solie. The two men first met at a lunch in Tampa when Ross began working for the NWA; Solie, who had three or four martinis for his meal, was being phased off of television. "He wasn't treated very respectfully and was being ushered out," Ross says. "I didn't think that was appropriate so I had the opportunity and position [at the company] to bring him back to do a few projects." Once a week Solie flew from Tampa to Atlanta for studio work. Occasionally he'd even call an event though by this point he could no longer handle play-by-play duties and moved over to color.
Solie's last great moment in wrestling was in November 1989 alongside Ross at the Clash of the Champions IX in Troy, N. Y., as the two men called the classic "I Quit" match between Ric Flair and Terry Funk (the only way for the match to end was for one to say "I Quit"). Before the event, Ross told Solie not to worry about keeping up, just jump in at any time. About nine minutes into the match, right after Flair refused to say "I quit," and with Funk positioning Flair for a piledriver, Solie, calm as always within the chaos, delivered this understated beauty: "Five letters, two words, I quit."
"It was a great bucket list memory for me," Ross says. "He still had it at times, but his health was deteriorating. He had issues with the alcohol but he still had the mind, was a great wordsmith, had great psychology and sounded like nobody else. He was still Gordon Solie and that was good enough for me." Solie died of cancer in July 2000.
When Jim Ross travelled to Connecticut for a meeting with WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon on Sept. 11, 2013, he understood that it was time to go and that his contract would not be renewed. Ross' job status was addressed within the first 10 minutes. From there, the two old colleagues focused on their shared past and divergent future.
"The meeting went splendidly," Ross says, a few months after his release, now sitting in the bar with a second pineapple vodka and occasionally glancing at the Knicks game on the television. "It was not combative. It was not negative. It was nothing but two guys who'd gone through an awful lot together personally and professionally, two guys who had worked together to make sure the company didn't go bankrupt in the mid-90s, two guys working hand-in-hand in signing a talent roster that may never be duplicated, changing the entire culture and mindset of the locker room. Vince and I had some amazingly positive times together."
It got off to a rocky start between them. Although Ross handled the transition calling WWE matches, he didn't fit into the company's corporate culture. He was abrasive in meetings with poor presentation skills, his argumentative demeanor forged through years of working with difficult men, and in February 1994, after less than a year on the job, McMahon fired Ross. "I thought I knew more than just about anyone else — that was my own arrogance," Ross says. "If I were Vince and had a guy like me, I probably would have gotten rid of me, too."
The dismissal came at a tumultuous time: A few days earlier Ross had his first attack of Bell's palsy, a form of facial paralysis with no specific cause. Lawyers urged Ross to file a wrongful termination lawsuit. Ross hates lawyers. Instead, he gazed inward, vowing not to let Bell's palsy define him or use it as an excuse for why he didn't make it. While umpiring college baseball part-time in the 1970s and 1980s, he had met far too many pitching coaches who swore they would have made The Show if they just hadn't blown out their elbow. He didn't want to be one of those guys. Like a stroke victim, he methodically taught himself how to slow down, how to enunciate, and when McMahon went on leave that summer to face trial on charges of distributing steroids, Ross was back on WWE television. He was let go after McMahon's acquittal, but returned in early 1995, this time as a member of the creative team. WWE needed him.
At the time, WWE and WCW were in an arms race. Drawn to Turner's deep pockets, established WWE stars migrated south and by the summer of 1996, WCW had overtaken WWE in the ratings. McMahon was desperate to hold onto his empire and Ross became part of that strategy. In the fall, Ross, who was now back as lead announcer, was promoted to Executive Vice President of Talent Relations, in charge of hiring, firing, recruiting wrestling talent —he looked for athletes with big personalities — negotiating contracts, developing talent and handling their massive egos. "What made him good at talent relations was he knew who pulled the cards," says Ric Flair. "You had to apply different psychology to everybody, but he knew who the guys were that were delivering the mail and Jim went out of his way to make sure [those] guys were treated that way."
"I really suspended my personal life and family time because I was WWE 24/7 where I felt guilt to ask for a vacation."
Ross flourished in the role. Under McMahon's eye, he took risks on young wrestlers, helped construct edgy storylines and by 1998 WWE was back on top, this time for good. With his wife Jan, a former flight attendant, sympathetic to long hours and travel, Ross became immersed in his work, requesting only one vacation during his 20 years in WWE. "I really suspended my personal life and family time because I was WWE 24/7 where I felt guilt to ask for a vacation," he says. "I worked six, seven days a week on a regular basis." Already diagnosed with sleep apnea, Ross's health began to fail.
Plagued by stomachaches for most of 2005, Ross went to the doctor at the behest of his friend, former Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer. "I just knew he needed to go," Switzer remembers. "I said ‘Get your butt to the doctor. Be smart, don't be a dumbass. Smart players win for you. Dumbass players lose. Do you want to win or lose?'" A colonoscopy revealed Ross was seriously ill. Life-saving emergency surgery repaired a perforated intestine and approximately 13 inches of the organ were removed.
Ross' schedule and on-air time slowed and, following a third Bell's palsy attack in late-2009, he only made sporadic appearances on air, usually to advance a storyline. His last pay-per-view match was The Undertaker vs. Triple H Hell in a Cell match at WrestleMania XXVIII in April 2012.
After Ross' contract wasn't renewed last September, rumors spun that his performance a month earlier at the WWE 2K14 symposium factored into his dismissal. As the head of a panel discussion promoting a WWE video game, Ross appeared tired, somewhat slurred his words and rambled, losing control of the narrative. Ross maintains he wasn't inebriated at the event. "That just wasn't the case, wasn't true at all, and [people who said he was drunk] were basing it on how I was sounding. I was very tired, very fatigued," he says. "I was somewhat tired and unprepared and I didn't do a very good job in steering the train and it got derailed. I really want to make it clear. I don't blame anyone for that situation other than the man I see in the mirror."
Jim Ross with Ric Flair in 2009. (Getty Images)
"He certainly didn't do anything wrong," says Ric Flair, who broke down at the event after mentioning his late son.
Ross doesn't miss calling Raw every Monday and he certainly doesn't miss the travel. He misses the relationships, his friendships with the technicians, the camera operators and the crew, not just those in the locker room. Besides, he says, the game has changed. Being an announcer now means also plugging the WWE Network, the WWE App, what is trending on Twitter, what is coming up after Raw, a litany of responsibilities during bell-to-bell time that doesn't leave much room for the play-by-play.
He still watches Raw, yet somehow didn't notice a dig at him on the March 3 show when JBL, the heel color commentator (former WWE Champion John Bradshaw Layfield), made fun of Ross' speech and compared him to horse manure. "I didn't hear it. I'm not nonplussed by it. Going by what you said, it didn't sound too funny or creative, but that doesn't surprise me. It's irrelevant," he says, his voice growing agitated. "Thomas, that's just trying to stir up shit. If there are any issues, no one has called me and addressed it man-to-man." Ritual humiliation is sometimes part of the gig at WWE, through the years Ross has bared the brunt of much of it — most MSNBC viewers have seen the clip of McMahon's wife, perennial Republican political candidate Linda McMahon, kicking him in the balls. The rumored motive for the March 3 jab is a story Ross told on the Opie & Anthony radio show about Vince McMahon accidentally defecating in his pants.
Interviews with Jim Ross tend to run long. On the first stop of his press run this morning, he was scheduled for 20 minutes on Opie & Anthony but wound up doing an hour. It's easy for his interlocutors to tumble into a rabbit hole of wrestling minutiae, and at the bar in the Millennium Hotel I fell for the trap, asking Ross whether CM Punk will be back in WWE for WrestleMania XXX on April 6 (probably not), how WrestleMania XXX should end (Daniel Bryan winning the title), his booking plans for WrestleMania XXXI (Roman Reigns winning the title), what current WWE wrestlers would make good announcers (Alex Riley and Christian), and his thoughts on Darren Young announcing he was gay. ("It was a bigger deal in Americana than it was in WWE. WWE is a very diverse company.").
Later on during the interview, as we talked about old school NWA, I told Jim Ross the story of how I first became familiar with his work. It was December 1988, I was 9 years old, my family had just gotten cable and I was watching both members of the Road Warriors, muscular post-apocalyptic brutes with painted faces, beat down the flabby yet charismatic "American Dream," Dusty Rhodes on TBS. Just when it appeared hopeless for Big Dust, his tag-team partner Sting — a bleach-blond emerging star also into face paint — saved him from the two-on-one attack.
"Here comes the Stinger," Ross shouted on the television. "The Stinger is cooking. They don't want to wait till Starrcade on Dec. 26."
Starrcade, what's Starrcade? I thought.
"Starrcade, what a happening that will be. Can they control their emotion?" Ross continued, hyping the pay-per-view event. "Baby, if you don't think it's not going to be hot at the Norfolk Scope Arena the day after Christmas, you're sadly mistaken."
"Whatever it was in your memory bank or your emotions, we got through. I think that's what we're finding out on this tour."
To no avail, I begged my father to order Starrcade '88. It's been over 25 years since then. I've forgotten names, faces, friends, I don't remember birthdays, I couldn't tell you how to solve a trigonometry problem, but I still recall "The Stinger is cooking." Ross laughs initially, and then turns earnest. "If you can remember something I did or the tone or the mood I was able to convey to you as a 9-year-old and now you're a grown man then I was lucky that I reached you," he says. "Whatever it was in your memory bank or your emotions, we got through. I think that's what we're finding out on this tour."
The Gramercy Theatre is a little more than half full the next afternoon for "Ringside: An Evening with Jim Ross." It's diverse for a wrestling crowd, with the requisite overweight men in sweatpants (the "It's-Still-Real-To-Me-Dammit" types) joined by young professionals in expensive denim, guys some might call hipsters, but in reality your everyday, big city bourgeoisie. Not counting the bartenders, there aren't many women in the building.
Ross structured the show in two parts: The first is a chronological monologue detailing his journey from his days growing up in Oklahoma to breaking into the business to becoming a WWE Hall of Famer. Then he opens the floor for a no-holds barred Q&A. Wearing a slight variation of his uniform — black suit, white shirt this time, and black cowboy hat — Ross held center stage working his way through the years reminiscing about the time Dick Murdoch was fooled by a transvestite at a bar, repeating the Vince McMahon "sharting" episode (one critique of the show: there are far too many anecdotes involving farting, shitting and sharting), and a doozy of a Ric Flair story involving two women and a limousine.
Ross is happy with his performance, but pledges changes for his two shows in the House of Blues at New Orleans during WrestleMania weekend; he'll likely get to the Q&A section quicker. Tours in Australia and a trip to Toronto are also on the agenda.
Jim Ross on the sidelines at an Oklahoma game. (Courtesy of Jim Ross)
He felt invigorated, he says, following his departure from WWE and his renewed creativity seeps into his Fox Sports columns and The Ross Report, already one of the top sports podcasts in the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada and Australia — basically the English speaking world. "That might open up other opportunities — Perhaps even broadcasting," he says. Though the podcast is not limited to pro wrestling, Ross enjoys taking deep dives into the fans of the sport with guests like Showtime boxing analyst Mauro Ranallo, Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks and ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons.
Another benefit from his dismissal from WWE is that Ross has moved to Norman, Okla., closer to his beloved Oklahoma Sooners football team; he once commuted there every weekend in the fall from Connecticut. A longtime friend of head coach Bob Stoops, Ross still works his schedule around OU football games and is a fixture on the sidelines.
"Everyone wonders if he's an ex-player, but I say ‘Nah, he's a guy with about a million followers on Twitter,'" says Switzer. "I used to have a guy on my sidelines all the time who was my hunting and fishing coach. Not many guys have hunting and fishing coaches but I did. When I coached, I had rookie players come around and go ‘Coach, who's that guy? What does he coach? We only see him on gameday.' I'm sure Coach Stoops gets that with JR standing on the sidelines all the time. ‘What does he coach? We never see him until gameday.' He's a gameday coach, OK? Just call him the gameday coach in the black hat."
Earlier this year, Ross turned 62 and since both his parents died at 64, it got him thinking. His father died the night the Road Warriors returned to WWE; his mom died in 1998 the night before a UK-only pay-per-view. "It's funny how we relate personal life to the business," he said onstage at the Gramercy Theatre. He thinks about his story at times. The story of a round-faced chubby guy with a marked Southern accent who's had three Bell's palsy attacks and now has partial facial paralysis. The case could be made that the guy shouldn't have been successful on television.
He knows it all could have ended years and years ago. It could've all been over if Barry Switzer didn't tell him to visit the doctor. Undetected, the sleep apnea could have gotten him as well. He now wears a full facial mask to sleep. It's upstairs in his room now. It runs on distilled water, and so after he finishes his drink, Ross walks across the street to a drug store to buy water before he goes to bed.
He might not call another match, but he'll sleep another night. Then, Good God Almighty, he'll wake up again tomorrow morning, the gameday coach in the black hat.