Jim Ross, the legendary former WWE play-by-play announcer, is performing a one-man show at the House of Blues in Chicago this Saturday afternoon. Tickets are on-sale here. Last week, I spoke with him for an hour about his show, preparing to announce boxing for Fox Sports 1, his relationship with Vince McMahon, and the best pro wrestling matches he ever called.
Tell me what people can look forward to seeing in your one-man show in Chicago this Saturday. How will it be different than what you offer in your podcasts and blog posts?
What I do on these live shows is basically take the wrestling fans — either today’s fans, or fans that have become disconnected for whatever reason over the years — on my journey. I believe that my journey is one of the more unique careers that anybody’s ever had in the business. I got started in the 70’s when the territories were still viable, and they were a very closed fraternity. It was almost like walking into a speakeasy and asking to join the mafia.
I happened to be at the right place at the right time, in a succession of jobs, where I was involved in seeing the development of how big wrestling could get on cable. The advent of satellite television was factored in, and all of the changes that PPV created, I was there. And then, seeing the erosion of the local territories, and then getting into the corporate world of pro wrestling. I’ve had a unique career that I want to share.
Most of my stories are humorous — if you weren’t there to see them, it’d be hard to believe they’re actually true. I also think there’s some motivation in my show. When you’re a chubby kid with a Southern accent, along the way encountering three attacks of Bell’s Palsy, you’re really not supposed to make it on television. My TV career over the years has far exceeded my expectations, and I think there’s lessons there.
What makes it different than my podcasts or blogs is that I actually get to interact one-on-one with a live human being — not somebody emailing, texting, or tweeting me — and that’s the most enjoyable part of my shows. I’m right back in my element, surrounded by fans, just like I was when I sat ringside on Monday Night Raw for all those years.
The Q&A’s are the personality of these shows, because every audience has a different personality and a different set of questions. Because it’s a paying audience, I feel strongly about not restricting the line of questions. Everything is fair game. By having no rules, per se, every show has the potential to have a unique dynamic. If I don’t know the answer, I don’t BS ‘em. I give them an honest answer — which may be “I don’t know.”
I often get asked, “What were you thinking when you’re sitting ringside when Owen Hart fell to his death?” The questions range from that type of seriousness — someone’s also always curious about the Chris Benoit saga — to ones that are softballs that lead to a humorous story. It’s almost like a variety show.
Chicago’s one of the great pro wrestling cities in the world, and it has been for generations. The Saturday matinee should be great.
You mentioned that you’re going to be announcing boxing this weekend on Fox Sports 1 (note: the fights took place last night). What are you doing to prepare for that assignment, and how does that differ from wrestling?
The event is going to be one that FS1 and Golden Boy are doing for the troops. I’ve done a lot of live TV, but I’ve never done boxing. When the network approached me, I said I’d like to give it a try.
I’m doing the same basic preparation that I was getting ready to do a WWE PPV event, and the same thing that I did when I was preparing for XFL and NFL broadcasts — I’m doing a lot of reading on the fighters, I’m reaching out to people in the boxing world to give me feedback on the fighters, and making use of the huge amount of online information out there. The day before the fight, we’ll have our fighters’ meeting. That gives us the opportunity to sit across from the table from them, and get background information.
My role as the play-by-play guy in boxing is not to document every left jab that’s thrown. My job is going to be to tell a story that you’ll stay interested in why this fight is important, what’s at stake, how they match up, anything that makes them human, their families, and their backgrounds. I’m not going to leave any stone unturned as far as preparation for the fight.
The information I provide needs to be entertaining, provocative, and relatable.
This fight is a one-time deal, but who knows? Maybe it’ll become a new addiction for me.
In addition to boxing, let’s say, hypothetically, it were an option for you and the financial terms were acceptable for you: Do you think you’d want to announce UFC PPVs?
Well, I’m a huge UFC fan, but I’m going to give you a little bit of an evasive answer. I don’t think that’s in the cards, so I don’t really get too emotionally invested in that idea. I think the UFC has a great team in Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan. I don’t see me affecting that. I think it’s a little bit similar to if you asked me if I’d like to be the number 1 NFL announcer at Fox — then I’d be taking Joe Buck’s place.
If the door was open, and situations changed: Would I jump at the opportunity to give it a shot? Of course, but I don’t look at it as a viable option. I could see several other types of options that might become available in UFC, potentially.
As I wrote a couple weeks ago, in Part 1 of your podcast with Shawn Michaels you addressed the criticism that you receive from your Twitter followers about today’s WWE announcers, and you said that it’s unfair to take it out on them as individuals because they’re adhering to strict guidelines. You specifically talked about ‘yelling’ and said that they’re told not to yell ‘at’ their audience. Is that something Vince McMahon ever said to you, and do you think the stylistic differences in how you and he prefer the broadcast should be done is the biggest reason why you’re not currently a WWE announcer?
He’s told me many times not to yell at the audience. My interpretation of yelling: I got excited, I was emotionally invested in the fans, and my style was that of an old school sportscaster. If the moment merited raising one’s voice or tone or inflection, I did that organically and naturally. It just happened. Sometimes, Vince didn’t share my timing, obviously, so he would tell me not to yell at the audience.
He may have been right on some of those occasions, and I think that sometimes I was right. That was my style. That was how I worked. I presented the product with a little bit of gusto, and a little bit more fuel in my tank.
I don’t know how to answer your question. I don’t think that my yelling was the reason, per se — I was there 20 years. I had done everything from broadcasting to administration to becoming an executive vice president. I had a lot of health issues that had to be addressed, or I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now. It was time that I needed to get away from the weekly grind of travel, and the pressure with my job description, and I was not the type of guy who was going to take myself out of the game.
That wasn’t me, and the longer I kept trying to maintain that schedule, the tougher it was gonna be. Gosh, I had a perforated intestine, and I was 30 days away from passing, and I had perpetual stomach aches 24/7. I didn’t realize that my intestines were perforated and I was poisoning myself. I didn’t take time to go to the doctor to get it checked out — I just knew something was wrong — and we just agreed for me to go back to Oklahoma and get it checked out. I was still traveling, doing SmackDown at the time, I believe, and I had acute sleep apnea that had, as of then, gone undiagnosed.
If I had kept going, there was going to be one of those headlines that said ‘Good Ol’ JR Died in His Sleep’.
There were health issues, and a lot of other things that were going on in that deal — it’s not as glamorous as saying there was a huge split. Vince and I had never agreed 100% on philosophy, but I’d bet you money that there are a lot of assistant coaches in various sports that don’t 100% agree with the philosophy of the head guy. It’s just being human.
I don’t want to say that my yelling was the reason — there were a lot of factors at play. Coming back to Oklahoma, focusing and learning about my health, and recovering was a lot more important than being on Monday Night Raw.
Now that I’ve had my intestines removed and re-attached, am getting treated for sleep apnea, quit smoking, and am going to the gym 4-5 times per week, I’m going to live longer. That’s a helluva lot more important than some juicy story about Vince and me not getting along. I still communicate with Vince, he still communicates with me. We have great respect for each other. We share a lot of the same values regarding the product, and we disagree on some.
I think it’s pretty damn cool that at 62, I’m healthy enough and motivated enough to reinvent myself and try new things. It’d be easy to retire and play golf and go fishing, but I can’t turn that motor off. I like staying busy, and I really like being involved in new entities. I don’t need the money. I really have fun doing everything that I’m doing right now.
WWE’s social media prowess is pretty impressive, and they do a great job of integrating responsive Internet reaction with their television product. What wrestling stories from your tenure would have had the most seismic reactions in today’s social media climate?
Unfortunately what travels fastest on social media — and all media, really — is bad news. So whatever the bad news was — whether it was someone’s death, or some other tragedy — that’s what would’ve blown up social media back in the day. Using the tragedy of Owen Hart, there’d be some newscasts in some markets that wouldn’t have even covered that story because it was about a pro wrestler and they had a bias against the business.
But if people were following WWE’s Twitter account, for example, that would’ve been a major, major story. Then, after the establishment saw how big a story it was within the conversation of fans, they’d then jump onboard and carry the news.
We saw an example of what you’re talking about with the Ultimate Warrior. When he died, that was one of our site’s most trafficked posts of the year so far. Seeing various metrics of the immense interest in the story probably drove more mainstream outlets to cover it.
Absolutely, and unfortunately that’s society. I’m not lamenting society, but it just seems like people are more interested in bad news than good news. At least it seems that way, more often than not. Your Ultimate Warrior example is perfect — it’s not going to spread like wildfire that Wrestler X and his wife just had their third child. In all due respect to Wrestler X and Mrs. Wrestler X, who cares?
People do care about a wrestler being diagnosed with a serious ailment. As sick as it sounds, that would play more than the good news. I think that social media back in the day would probably have a field day with bad news, as they do now — there are tons of professionals making huge livings off being the bearer of bad news.
Switching gears, let’s say you had to design an ideal wrestler from scratch. For both a face and a heel, he would have the mic skills of ________, the physique of ________, and the ring skills of _________.
For the face, I’d do Austin on the mic, body of Ricky Steamboat — you want someone that’s big enough to be believable, but small enough to be vulnerable — and the ring skills of Shawn Michaels.
For the heel, I’d do the Rock on the mic, body of Triple H, and the ring talent of Ric Flair.
I think on mic, I might’ve cheated and said Paul Heyman, even though he’s obviously not a wrestler. He’s just been a maestro recently…
I was focused on wrestlers. If you had asked what manager you’d pick, I’d have a difficult time picking. I love Paul Heyman, and I was there for his first gig on national television. But for those who don’t remember, the greatest all-around skilled manager in history is Bobby Heenan. It’s not even close. Bobby Heenan was a good bump-taker, and in today’s world, would be considered an excellent in-ring worker as a wrestler.
One thing that you want your manager to be able to do is to take a good ass-whooping. To take bumps. You work to that. You work to the fact that you want a manager to finally get his comeuppance. Bobby Heenan’s ability to bounce around the ring at the hands of a sworn hero is not equaled. If you look at his work as a wrestler, manager, and broadcaster, there are very few guys can even compare with him in those three skill-sets. Heenan’s advantage over Heyman would come in the physicality.
Heyman, in my opinion, is the better broadcaster of the two. As a talker, it’s very subjective. Today, Heyman is so far ahead of everybody else that people perceive that there’s never been anybody like him. There are so few great talkers in the business today that those who are stand out more vividly.
How do you feel about Stephanie and Triple H as prospective leaders when the baton eventually — and who knows when that will be — gets passed?
I think they’re going to be great leaders because they have an inherent love and understanding of the genre. I don’t think anyone can lead WWE without understanding the two key components of talent and television. This is a different field than being the president of the New England Patriots, for example. Bob Kraft is smart enough to leave the football operations to Bill Belichick and company, and he’s also smart enough as a businessman to hire really good people to manage the other aspects of the business.
I think that Triple H and Stephanie will have good instincts on which people to surround themselves with. More importantly, I think they’ll have thorough understanding of the core business as far as to assemble a team of wrestlers, prepare them, manage them, and produce compelling television.
This is not like a job for them — it’s not like going to a headhunter and hiring an executive. This is their life, and I’ll take my chances any day with somebody who has that kind of passion in managing a company.
What are the greatest matches you’ve ever called?
I took a personal interest in every big match. With my relationship with the talent, and largely my role as the head of talent relations, I was like the coach. All those guys, I recruited and I signed. I had a special relationship with all of them. So when they got to be in that position of being in the main event of a high-level match, it had extra-special motivation for me. It’s very, very challenging to pick. It’s like if you have eight kids: Which one do you like the best?
I think you can pick out a Flair-Steamboat match, anyone you wanted in 1989. Either the New Orleans two-out-of-three fall match, the Nashville PPV match, or the one in Chicago. The Chicago one might be the most timely because I’m going to be there Saturday. Steamboat beat Flair for the NWA title at the UIC Pavillion. I get a tremendous amount of feedback from that match. It was like watching Don Larson’s perfect game.
I think the first Rock-Austin WrestleMania match was very, very significant.
And I think that Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker at WrestleMania XXV would be about as good as I ever saw.
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