Known for his exuberant, passionate commentary, professional wrestling icon Jim Ross is one of the most colorful characters in the sports world. He worked for the World Wrestling Federation/Entertainment for roughly 20 years, and in that time, helped launch the industry to superstardom, not only delivering some of the most spine-tingling calls (“Good god almighty, good god almighty, that killed him! As god is my witness, he is broken in half!” – Undertaker vs. Mankind, 1998), but has been responsible for bringing in the finest talent as well.
In 2013, at a symposium for the WWE 2K14 videogame, Ross was in charge of handling a panel of wrestlers who were there to discuss the game. Unfortunately, one of the panelists—the enthusiastic Ric Flair—was intoxicated and soon became belligerent, which disrupted the event. Ross took the fall for Flair’s antics and his contract with the WWE was not renewed. Later that year, the Hall Of Famer announced his retirement.
This week, however, Ross begins the “second phase” of his career, as he’ll perform in North America for the first time as part of his spoken-word tour. I caught up with “Good Ol’ J.R.” earlier this month to discuss his departure from the WWE, mixed martial arts, his two shows on March 1 at the Gramercy Theatre and more.
There have been many different stories regarding the end of your WWE broadcasting days. Can you clear things up a bit and talk about what really happened?
Well, I think at the end of the day it’s pretty simple: I was in charge of being the captain of the panel and there were instances well documented of the panel getting somewhat out of control—at least the perception of it being out of control—and I think that at the end of the day, I was the responsible party of a very eclectic panel, and it was then decided that I should be held accountable, which I agreed with.
So it was a mutual decision to part ways with the company. Some people say I was fired, some people say I retired. I was ready to move on. I hadn’t really thought about it; I never really worked up the courage to say, “Hey, I want to leave the WWE,” because it was like a 20-plus-year home to me, but I had been thinking about going out on my own and working on some projects for a long time. I just didn’t have the courage to do it.
So I think that this unfortunate incident that occurred at SummerSlam kind of moved me in the direction of where I would have the courage and the conviction to embark on other avenues, if you know what I’m saying. So I don’t know how different I could put it for you.
The situation, you know, one of our panelists obviously had too much to drink and it really took us off-script, and I always accepted responsibility for my actions. I needed to bring it back to point and I was basically unable to do that. The WWE was not pleased with the panel even though the 2K14 videogame people were ecstatic because it created more traffic than they had ever dreamed, including blowing up the servers. So it was a major success in that regard but I think that some at WWE misread the situation to some degree, but whether they did or they did not, at the end of the day, I was the moderator of a runaway train and I was the engineer, and I didn’t do a very good job of keeping it on the tracks. So I have no problem as a man saying, “Yeah, I take responsibility.”
So that’s how I look at it and it’s healthier for me to look at it that way than to say, “Hey, I got screwed,” or “What happened?” or, “This is all a misunderstanding” and all that. It just is what it is. The die has been cast, it’s over, and I have no issue taking responsibility and positively moving forward.
Are you still deeply invested in the sport?
Well, I’m still a fan. Started out as a fan, I’m still a fan. I enjoy watching all the product that I can because it’s in my DNA. I’ve had a 40-year career in the pro wrestling/sports entertainment business, so I don’t know that I’ll ever not be a fan of the genre. And because I’ve worked with so many different areas within the structure of a company, a lot of things interest me regarding the business, so I’m still a fan.
And I’m not angry at the business. I’m not angry at anybody. I’m still a fan as I was 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, or when I was 10. So I’m still all-in.
Are you looking forward to April’s big Wrestlemania XXX event?
Yeah, I think it’s going to be great. You know, [WWE Chairman/CEO] Vince McMahon has this thing about—he has a lot of interesting little quirks—but he has this thing about round numbers, and it’s a no-marketing, no-promoters thing, you know? It’s like the fifth anniversary, the 20th Wrestlemania, the 30th Wrestlemania. I know he’s got an affinity for those round numbers, which tells me that he’s going to do all he can to make sure that they have the most grandiose event that they can possibly produce.
CM Punk, one of the WWE’s main attractions, recently left the organization and is thinking about pursuing a career in mixed martial arts. We’ve seen the emergence of MMA and some fighters, like Brock Lesnar, make that crossover. Do you think more athletes will start to go this route instead of professional wrestling?
No, I don’t. I do not. I think Brock Lesnar is a freak of nature. The thing that people forget is that Brock Lesnar was an NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion at the University of Minnesota. He had the ideal background that MMA promoters salivate over: Big, charismatic, and actually knew what he was doing, and was the best in the country at what he did in college at the highest level.
He came to WWE and learned a lot of the showmanship and the personality aspects of being an entertainer, and then he combined all those skills—the realism, the athleticism and the entertainment ability—to become a huge star in the UFC. So Lesnar was an aberration.
I think CM Punk is a great MMA fan, but for him to fight and start learning the skills to get on that level, at the age of 35, seems a little far-fetched to me. I can see him being an outstanding MMA color analyst on television. I could see him being a tremendous broadcaster in that genre. But I do not see him being a professional MMA fighter.
What direction do you think the WWE is heading in?
Well, they’re still trying to, I think, sometimes grasp their arms around the PG television generation rating. What is PG? What isn’t? And it’s really a subjective thing, quite frankly. But I think that they’re still going through some growing pains creatively with PG product, and I also think that they’re going through a transitional period where they have earmarked their performance center, in terms of young talents, that they believe can be stars, and so now they’re going through the transitional period to see if those people that they believe to be potential stars can elevate their game and actually arrive there.
Transitional is a good word, but I do think that they have an outstanding group of young talent. The good news is they have a great group. They have a lot of people down in the farm system that have excellent potential. The bad news for impatient wrestling fans is that they’re not going to become stars overnight. It is a process that doesn’t have a firm timeline.
You will be performing at the Gramercy Theatre on March 1. What can fans expect to learn or take in from the spoken-word show?
Well, you know, I think it’s gonna be a show that if you’re a former wrestling fan, a current wrestling fan, a casual wrestling fan or a hardcore wrestling fan, you’re gonna love it, because we’re talking about really a lot of stories. I started in the territory days of ’74 as a 22-year-old ring crew guy; referee; my boss [Leroy McGuirk] was a blind man so I was his driver, his valet; I was a stenographer, so to speak—I got to sit in at all the high-level meetings at the age of 22 because my boss was blind and I took his notes; the sex, drugs and rock and roll craziness of the ’70s—the wrestling business wasn’t exempt from them.
I don’t think anybody has ever gotten into the business as I did as a college kid who paid his fraternity-promoted pro wrestling as a fundraiser, and then I got hired from those successes. I don’t think anybody in the history of the business has ever had my journey. Most guys are wrestlers or one-dimensional, and I have been a ring crew guy, a referee, I have been a driver, I have been a valet, I have been a ring announcer, a play-by-play man, a vice president, senior VP and EVP of talent at WWE…
So I’ve gone from the most basic entry-level job making $25 a night to being the executive vice president of a publicly traded company recognized as the biggest and best in the world at what they do. And that journey is unmatched by anybody as far as my roles. No one paralleled my roles of different things that I’ve done. I’ve had facial paralysis, Bell’s palsy that almost took me out of business. I think it’s a story of resilience and passion for people, their job…
It’s an interesting story. It’s going to be funny, it’s going to be poignant, it’s going to be inspirational. The Q&As are absolute gold because the fans can ask any question they want, no-holds-barred. Ask any question you choose. So the audience for this show makes it very interactive, which I love. And spontaneous. And unpredictable.
So I’m very, very excited to play in New York, and it’s a big deal to me as an Oklahoma guy. You know, the first Oklahoman that made it big in New York was Mickey Mantle, who was my boyhood hero, and I don’t want to make it sound like I’m writing a country song, but it’s really cool that another Oklahoman gets to come back and contribute to a small chunk of the Big Apple. I’m excited about it, I really, truly am.
I think fans are going to get a lot out of it. They’re going to laugh, they’re going to cry, they’re gonna hear stories they’ve never heard, they’re gonna be able to ask questions that they’ve always wanted to ask someone from “the inside.”
I do the meet and greets too. There’s a VIP ticket that gets you a meet and greet, which is always fun, meeting the fans one-on-one. So I’m looking forward to it. It’s really the launch of my second phase of my career, so it’s big for me.
I believe you’ve toured the UK before, but will the Gramercy Theatre show be your first in the U.S.?
Yeah, the Gramercy Theatre is the first Evening With Jim Ross show in North America. I did a handful of dates last summer in the UK, and we were very lucky. It was an amazing success that included three out of four sellouts, and the other one that didn’t sell out actually had more people in attendance. So it’s something I’m really excited about as far as being able to produce and create and interact. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
I’m concerned that after it’s over, people are going to say, “Well, I didn’t know you were in town,” and that’s always the fear that a performer has. You know, we used to have it in wrestling. We fly in to an airport and they’d say, “Are you guys in town tonight?” “Uhh, yup.” And that doesn’t give you—as my favorite band the Eagles would say—a peaceful easy feeling.
You recently began writing columns for Fox Sports. Is this going to be a frequent thing?
I am a featured columnist for foxsports.com, and as I understand that, they’re going to use me on a “regular basis.” I don’t know, as I sit here, what a “regular basis” means, but I would say that I’m going to be writing regularly. It makes no sense, I don’t know what “regular” is. I don’t know if it’s once a week, once every other week. I’m guessing, at this time, I’ll write a couple pieces a month, maybe more. I don’t know that it’ll be once a week yet, and I don’t know that I want it to be once a week to be honest with you, but I think it’ll be a two-plus time a month piece of business.
You’re also working on a podcast, right?
Yup. My podcast starts on PodcastOne. It will drop on Wednesdays, and we’re hoping to take the next week or 10 days… I think it’s going to be the third Wednesday of the month that it will drop. My first guest is going to be Steve Austin, and it’s going to be a great time.
I’m going to be one of the few podcasters that takes a lot of phone calls for the fans, and I’ll probably work it through Twitter because I’m very active on Twitter @JRsBBQ, so I’ll be working it on social media, but I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. To me, it’s a one-hour radio show that doesn’t have a censor, and I can talk about what I want. I’m my own producer and I can invite the guests on I want to talk to. I can talk to fans. I think it’s going to be a cool deal.
An Evening With Jim Ross takes place at the Gramercy Theatre in NYC on March 1, with shows at 4 and 8 p.m. For more information, go to jrsbarbq.com and thegramercytheatre.com.