411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2010: Jim Ross
Everyone starts from somewhere. And long before he was going down in history as one of the very best men at the booth in the history of professional wrestling, Jim Ross was involved in sports. The Oklahoma native was born on January 3, 1952 in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He grew up in the humble town of Westville, where he was first baseman, a four-year letterman in basketball and a two-time all conference football player for the Westville High Yellowjackets. His maternal grandparents owned a general store; his paternal grandfather owned a beer store and was a carpenter. Little did his family and classmates know—or indeed, even the young man himself— that James William Ross would go on to become one of the greatest, most well-known and respected commentators in the history of sports entertainment.
Jim Ross’s career path was always sports-related and it wasn’t long before he would start down the path of an announcer. Following his successful run in sports at Westville High where he was also student body president and (fittingly) State Speech champion for the Future Farmers of America, Ross went onto college where he began dabbling in commentating on college radio. After that he began work as a referee for the Oklahoma Intercollegiate Football Conference. During this time, his experience in college radio gave him a shot as a sideline announcer when one of the announcers failed to show up one night. That experience eventually brought him into the world of professional wrestling, of which he was always a fan. Oklahoma at the time was largely a junior heavyweight territory, and Ross grew up as a fan of Danny Hodge and Angelo Savoldi, not to mention Grizzly Smith, Luke Brown, Joe Hamilton Tom Renesto and an Oklahoma hero in Jack Brisco. With professional wrestling “in his blood,” as Ross would say, he caught the eye of Bill Watts, who along with LeRoy McGuirk ran the Tri-State territory that would later become Mid-South Wrestling.
Ross began his career as many people started their career in professional wrestling—at the bottom. He began to work for $125 a week on the ring crew and playing gofer for McGuirk and Watts. In that position Ross wore many hats, much like he would do throughout his career. He did promotion, refereeing, ring announcing, and yes even play-by-play and color commentary. His commentating partner was McGuirk, who was blind which forced Ross to learn the ins and outs of play-by-play. In an effort to hone his skills, he studied tapes given to him by Watts of Gordon Solie. Ross has always called Solie a huge influence on his career, and in the early days he was the man who provided Ross with inspiration and the announcing mindset to apply to his own talents in the broadcast booth. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Ross and Solie are typically mentioned in the same breath when talking about the greatest announcers of all-time, but one also cannot deny that Ross set his own style and developed it into something special.
Eventually, Watts decided to try and take Mid-South Wrestling national once again, and it was rebranded the Universal Wrestling Federation. Ross continued to work on the increasingly syndicated shows and became their lead play-by-play man. His first World Title match that he called featured Ric Flair defending the NWA World Heavyweight Title against Ted DiBiase. Ross was taking further steps behind the scenes as well, building his business acumen. When Jim Crockett bought the UWF and brought it under the Jim Crockett Promotions banner, Ross joined the new company. He worked alongside David Crockett and Tony Schiavone as the National Wrestling Alliance’s play-by-play man. When JCP became World Championship Wrestling in 1991, Ross became an announcer on their second show alongside Bob Caudle and then worked his way into announcing on WTBS Saturday Night, his first real national television exposure. At the same time he also worked for a season as a commentator on radio broadcasts for the Atlanta Falcons, which further built his skills while backstage with WCW Ross became the Vice-President of Broadcasting.
Along the way, Ross developed a very touchy relationship with a man who would prove to be the catalyst in a major change to Ross’s career. Eric Bischoff was reporting to Ross as one of the newer commentators for WCW, although that relationship would change soon after Bill Watts left the company. Bischoff found himself promoted to executive producer in 1993 and his professional tension with Ross hit a head and he removed Ross from the programming, claiming that his southern drawl and look was something that would not play well as WCW fought to expand into a national entity. Ross saw the writing on the wall and realized that it was time for a change, so he demanded a release from his three-year contract. Instead of sitting back and getting paid for the next three years, he took an immediate buy-out to avoid losing his luster with too long spent off television. That decision would bring Ross to the next chapter of his career.
On April 4, 1993 Jim Ross made his first on-screen appearance for the WWE at the ill-fated WrestleMania IX in Las Vegas, Nevada. For a man who was accused of not being photogenic enough by Eric Bischoff, making his first appearance for the biggest wrestling company in the world dressed in a toga was an odd choice, but one that was made by the WWF nonetheless and in his first moment on-screen Ross showed a trait that would distinguish him throughout his entire career—being a company man. Jim Ross had zero problems doing everything the WWF asked of him and the weekend after WrestleMania IX he took over for Gorilla Monsoon on WWF Wrestling Challenge. Ross was the voice of that program along with Bobby “The Brain” Heenan until Heenan left the WWF in December 1993. Ross was originally the main voice of the WWF’s pay-per-view events, calling not only WrestleMania IX but King of the as well. That changed when Vince McMahon decided to take his place. Ross was made host of the WWF Radio program for a year, calling the Survivor Series and the Royal Rumble over the airwaves alongside Monsoon.
At the end of January 1994, Jim Ross suffered his first attack of Bell’s Palsy, a cranial nerve dysfunction that results in an inability to control facial muscles. Ross’s ability to speak was hindered and with his primary use for the company at a temporary end, he was let go by the WWF on February 11th. Ross was unhindered though and decided not to let his condition determine the fate of his career. He went to Smokey Mountain Wrestling and began announcing there, as well as taking a new stint with the Atlanta Falcons. This would only be for a few months though, as in April 1994 Vince McMahon was indicted on charges of distributing steroids to his talent. McMahon was taken off commentating for the duration of the trial and Ross was brought back on board. This looked to possibly be a second chance for his WWF career, but it ended abruptly when McMahon was acquitted and Ross was released.
Ross returned to Smokey Mountain Wrestling, where he was calling matches alongside his old broadcast partner Bob Caudle from the NWA. His WWF career wasn’t over yet though, as he was rehired in early 1995 and came back at WrestleMania XI. After WrestleMania, Ross worked on the WWF’s syndicated shows, building himself back up until finally he rejoined the big leagues during the summer of 1996. It is a position he would remain in, but for medical and storyline reasons, for the next thirteen years.
While Ross’s announcing remained stellar from that moment on, the storylines he was involved in didn’t always work—though never due to his fault. Twice during the late 1990’s, the WWF tried to turn Ross heel, with disastrous results both times. The first was in September on 1996 when he began proclaiming that he had made contact with Diesel and Razor Ramon, and that they would be coming back to the WWF. Ross’s reason for turning heel was that the WWF had mistreated him in the past and so, as punishment he had orchestrated the departure of several big names in the company to “another organization.” The reason for Ross’s heel turn was sound and JR performed it fine, but when it came time to reveal Diesel and Razor it was Glen Jacobs and Rick Bognar, and the fans immediately rejected the bait and switch. His second attempt to turn heel was following his second Bell’s Palsy attack and his time off to recuperate. Ross came back claiming that the WWF wanted to fire him again and even kicked his replacement Michael Cole in the groin. The problem here came that wrestling fans loved Ross by this point and already hated Cole, and so JR was cheered rather than booed. It would be the last time Jim Ross tried to play a bad guy—the WWF had learned their lesson.
Ross as the primary voice of the WWF (and then WWE) for years, and during that time called almost every Pay-Per-View that the company aired. Alongside Jerry “The King” Lawler, Ross provided play-by-play for every memorable moment of the Attitude Era and beyond into the post-Monday Night War era. He also branched out further into the company and in 1999 he became the Executive Vice President of Talent Relations. In this capacity Ross was responsible for bringing in some of the top names who would go on to headline for the WWE today. He stayed out of most storylines, with the exception of occasional assaults on the part of heels. Ironically, Ross was so popular at this point that heel talent could often get enormously over just by putting the hurt on the announcer, and Triple H was one of those names during the rise of the McMahon-Helmsley Era; Mankind and Kane both also benefitted from kayfabe assaults on Ross at some point during their tenure with the company.
In 2005 Ross stepped down from the Talent Relations position. While it resulted in a loss for the company, Ross benefitted thanks to the decreased workload so that he could focus on his own endeavors. One of those was his line of barbecue sauces and beef products, which was spun into J.R.’s Family Bar-B-Q in Norman Oklahoma until May of 2010. The step down also allowed him to focus on his health, which became a necessity when he had to undergo a colonoscopy in October of 2005. During this time the WWE again subjected his character to an embarrassing storyline, but Ross had no problem with it and when he returned in 2006 in time for Saturday Night’s Main Event and WrestleMania 22, the fans were glad to see him back. A year later he was bestowed with the ultimate honor in the WWE as he was inducted into the Hall of Fame at WrestleMania 23 by his long-time friend “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
A new era of Ross’s career began on June 23, 2008 when he was drafted to SmackDown and Michael Cole was sent to Raw. Ross originally was displeased about it, but settled in alongside Tazz quite well and just like that, the announcing quality had gone through the roof on Friday Nights. Ross once again proved that his primary motive was helping the WWE succeed as he did his job to the best of his considerable abilities even if he wasn’t particularly enamored of moving off live television. In April of 2009 Ross made the final move of his announcing career, shifting from play-by-play to color commentary with the departure of Tazz. During this time he was paired up with Todd Grisham and he taught Grisham quite a bit during their time together.
Jim Ross’s last broadcast as a WWE announcer was October 6, 2009. The next week he missed the SmackDown tapings due to an anniversary—the only time in the history of his WWE career he had asked for a day off. Seven days later he suffered his third Bell’s Palsy stroke. He has recovered since but has not returned to the announce booth, instead renewing his contract with the WWE and staying behind the scenes working on bringing in new talent.
Why he was selected…
When people are asked who the all-time greatest announcers in the history of professional wrestling are, there are two names that invariably come to mind. The first is Gordon Solie, and the second is Jim Ross. Throughout the entirety of the 411 Era Jim Ross has been the voice of the biggest wrestling company in the world, and he has been responsible for making some of the greatest matches in wrestling history even better. Who can remember Mick Foley and the Undertaker at Hell at a Cell without remembering “With God as my witness, he’s broken in half!” Ross’s vernacular has become common parlance for professional wrestling. Words like “slobberknocker,” “beating him like government mule,” “stomping a mud hole and walking it dry” and more are common phrases that Ross got over with the wrestling world, and they are just a few. The interviews Ross has done and the matches he has called have been instrumental in getting some of the biggest names in the business over. In addition, his work behind the scenes brought in some of the best talent to grace our televisions today, and the future is just a little bit brighter now that he is back in that capacity. So the question here was never whether Jim Ross would be selected for the 411 Hall of Fame. The question was when, and that answer is today. He has certainly earned it.