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411 Exclusive Interview: Jim Ross on His Friendship With Vince McMahon, His First Meeting With Tony Khan, the AEW Product (Full Transcript)

April 23, 2020 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Jim Ross - Under the Black Hat, 411 Exclusive Interview Image Credit: Simon & Schuster

The one and only Jim Ross recently joined the 411 Wrestling Interviews Podcast to discuss the release of his new book, Under the Black Hat. Jim Ross is currently the Senior Advisor and broadcaster for All Elite Wrestling. He has one of the most storied and esteemed careers in the history of pro wrestling. Here’s what JR had to say on his new book and career when we had the chance to chat:

Jeffrey Harris: This is your second book. The first one was Slobberknocker. How does it feel that people can finally hear these stories straight from you?

Jim Ross: It’s a continuation, Jeffrey, from my first book, the Slobberknocker book you referred to. It just tells the rest of the story. It was important for me to write because I finished writing Slobberknocker with Paul O’Brien not long after my wife Jan was killed right here by my home in March of ’17. So, I just wanted to finish the story and cover chronologically some very timely and important topics in my career that the fans will be familiar with. In other words, we pick up right after [Stone Cold Steve] Austin beats Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania. It takes the story all the way through to when I leave WWE and then move over to AEW. Includes the Attitude Era, XFL, Monday Night Wars, all kinds of things, signing talents, Austin’s last match, my relationship with Vince McMahon, and a lot of things like that that I didn’t cover in the first book simply because I was trying to write chronologically. So, we just finish the story here. And most importantly, I got the chance to honor my late wife, and I wanted to make sure I did that because I wanted to be able to tell her aspect, her part, of my story as well. So, it was a labor of love, and I’m really tickled with — by the way, Amazon has my book, Under the Black Hat. So does Walmart.com, Target.com, and my website, JRsBBQ.com. You can get a personalized autographed copy. And if you live in the lower 48, it’s free shipping. So check that out, JRsBBQ.com. And it’s almost grilling season for a lot of us, so there’s also some good condiments there. So, it was unfinished work. And I wanted to make sure that my wife’s memory was given the hug that it needed.

Jeffrey Harris: When would you say this latest project started to coalesce?

Jim Ross: Well, let’s see. I’d say it started in ’18 … probably around 2018. Slobberknocker came out in October of ’17, I think it was. And then Paul O’Brien and I strategized about telling the rest of the story and getting started in early 2018. So, it was a couple of years in the making. It was a major project because Paul lives in Ireland, and I live here in Oklahoma. You know, we had to create a system where we could communicate regularly, and we did. And we used every form of communication. We used text messaging, we did phone calls by the score, all kinds of thing. So, we really collaborated well. Paul O’Brien knows me probably better than I know me.

Jeffrey Harris: In all your time that you spent in WWE with and around Vince McMahon, was there ever a time when you considered yourself and Vince to be friends, or was there always a separation there as the boss and the man in charge?

Jim Ross: We’re friends now. Why would you think we’re not friends today? Because I’m working for another company?

Jeffrey Harris: I’m just curious. I’m glad to hear that, though. I think that’s good.

Jim Ross: It’s good for our lives. It’s good for our souls. I see this all the time man. And you younger guys got to really tighten it up on this deal. I don’t have any room in my carryon for negatives. I don’t want to answer any questions, “Well, who’s the biggest disappointment you’ve ever had?” “What’s the worst match you ever called?” Why are we so hellbent on talking about the worst and this is bad? I don’t understand. That’s our society right now. It’s horrible. It’s pathetic, and it’s embarrassing. Vince and I are friends today, we were friends 25 years ago. I was with him for over a quarter of a century. You don’t dissolve a friendship simply because you lose the employ of one. I wanted to get back on the air, and the WWE at that time did not have a place for me to get back on the air on a regular basis.

And when you’re on the back nine of life, the other guys don’t think about this, but when you’re on the back nine of life, you don’t want any day to go by that you can’t maximize your minutes. So, Tony Khan comes along. My contract’s expiring. I choose not to renegotiate. I was ready to leave, not angrily. I was just ready to leave and go play somewhere. That’s all. Get back in the game, and Tony Khan gave me that opportunity. This book is not a hatchet job on Vince McMahon. If people are thinking they’re going to read that, they’re gonna be disappointed. It tells reality. It talks about truth. It talks about real situations, and not all of them were not positive. But that’s life man. That’s life. The stuff we’re doing right now with this coronavirus, it’s not positive either by the way. And it’s the most important thing in our lives right now because we all want to live. So anyway, Vince and I, we don’t communicate regularly, but when we do it’s normally by text, but I have great respect for Vince McMahon. And for 25 years, he paid me a lot of money to do my job, and some days are better than others, I’ll just say that. But all it was was a microcosm of life. Some days are simply better than others.

Jeffrey Harris: I got to go to WrestleMania 17, Austin vs. The Rock, at the Astrodome. Just that moment still sticks in my mind, almost 20 years later. What do you remember about that night, and do you feel like that was the moment, the peak of the Attitude Era, at that time?

Jim Ross: Well, it was a major moment in the Attitude Era. Peak, I don’t know if it was the peak or not, but it could be arguably said. I thought it was a mistake to turn Austin heel, I still do. But nonetheless, that’s what he wanted. We owed it to Steve — as I write in the book, Vince said, “We owe it to Steve to give it a shot.” And we did. But I never thought it was a strategic idea, especially doing it in his home state, in his home market area of Houston at the Astrodome. But I was amazed by the crowd that we drew. I wasn’t surprised, because the product was red-hot then, you know.

The irony of that is that, I remember when we were booking that card, and then you know, I think I mentioned to Vince that, “You know, it’s a hell of a card, but what are we gonna do with Triple H and Undertaker?” Because they weren’t booked. And he said, “Well, we’re gonna book ’em.” So they had a match, and that was the quote-unquote “Get them on the card.” If you wanna look at that logic, that’s a horrible way to put it because they’re two of the very, very best that we had. But they weren’t involved in major stories at that time, for whatever reason. That’s not a good answer either.

But I just thought that the card was loaded. I thought the Dudleys, Edge and Christian and the Hardy Boys made themselves famous and a lot more money by their performance in the TLC match. I thought that Rock and Steve had a hell of a match, no doubt about that. But I just wasn’t prepared for the change in persona of Austin. To me, Austin turning heel was like John Wayne becoming a Nazi. It didn’t fit the script.”

Jeffrey Harris: Looking back, I remember that fans were still hot for the fact that Austin won that night, even though he screwed over The Rock and turned heel. And there are moments in the Austin heel turn that I do fondly look back upon because I remember that feud with Kurt Angle where Angle came into his own and proved he could be a top babyface in that feud.

Jim Ross: There were small victories in that scenario with Steve as the heel. But the fans just did not want to boo him. He could do no wrong in their eyes. He was what they wanted to be: defiant, blue collar, honest and all the things that you kind of want in your heroes. He was still that person. He didn’t start pulling hair, he didn’t start poking eyes. He didn’t do all the heel things. He still was his same self, and I just think they were ready to forgive him at any moment of him aligning with Mr. McMahon. But yeah, there were small wins, no doubt about it. But I just think in the long haul, it didn’t have a lot of validity.

Jeffrey Harris: Do you think the Austin heel turn plays into at all when you look at a John Cena or a Roman Reigns? John Cena, after he became a top main event guy, never turned heel. And same with Roman Reigns in his run at the moment. Do you think it goes back to what happened to the reaction with Austin’s heel turn?

Jim Ross: Unlikely. I think it has all to do with common sense, and you learn from your journey. And when you’ve got a guy that’s selling that much merchandise and selling that many tickets, and sold PPV after PPV become the biggest star in the world, with all these outside ancillary contributions to revenue, why would you want to tinker with that? If you’re a real villain, why would I want to display your shirts? Now today’s society being more defiant and a little bit more, you know, a little edgier, I guess, they don’t have any issues wearing heel shirts which is a good thing for the talents especially. But no, I don’t think it had anything, I just think it’s logical.

John Cena was at one time being considered for a heel turn. I think John was even willing to try it. But the question comes back to, why are we taking a guy that’s selling more merchandise by far, and making more money for the company by far than anybody else on the roster and making him a villain? What logic is that? And I found no logic in that, and it’s all about market research, man. The crowd loved the guy, or he was polarizing, but they gave a damn. So, I just didn’t see the issue of a big change in his persona, because you some people were going to boo him because out of defiance they like to hijack shows and be little wise-asses. And you’ve got some guys that are locker room leaders, and guys that are pulling the wagon. And nobody works harder than John Cena in WWE when I was there. So changing that is for what reason? I mean, are we changing it for change’s sake? Or do we have valid reasons? Have his merch numbers dropped drastically? Is he losing his popularity, is he losing his edge? The answer to all of those questions [is] no, no, no you’re not. So, it’s change for change’s sake. Oftentimes wrestling booking is done with that spirit in mind, and it’s not a healthy way of doing business.

Jeffrey Harris: Now, when I watch AEW, I feel energized. I feel refreshed. So, was there ever a moment when you started your dealings with AEW where you felt, “I think this group might have something here?”

Jim Ross: First time I met Tony Khan and we got to talking. That was the weekend that AXS TV was doing the Long Beach New Japan Weekend, Saturday and Sunday shows. Tony was there as a fan, and I was introduced to him by our mutual friend Alex Marvez, the esteemed NFL writer and broadcaster on Sirius XM. And so we hung out that weekend. I knew then that I’d met a very special person as far as the history of wrestling, the respect for wrestling, and he loved pro wrestling. He didn’t say he was a big fan, he didn’t say yay or nay, but I took — he was not a major fan of scripted promos-type thing or too much entertainment, not enough steak, too much sizzle. But little did I know that his goal was to create his own company.

So nonetheless, when he reached out to my agent Barry Bloom in, I guess it was probably the early part of 2019 — yeah, that’s when we started — I was excited about rejoining him. I was excited about connecting with Tony. And then I met with him, and we talked about what he wanted, and what his visions were and they matched mine. He wanted a sports-oriented presentation of believable pro wrestling. Not sports entertainment — believable, athletically-based pro wrestling. And so then he worked out a deal very quickly with my agent, and all of a sudden, I’m on the team. Never regret[ted it]. I knew it was a new adventure for me, and I needed to get working. I needed to be active. Not because I needed the payday to go to the grocery store; because I was going crazy sitting at home in an empty house as an empty nester and with a lot more energy and I perceived, a lot more fuel in my tank. So Tony Khan came along at the exact right time in my life.

I didn’t leave WWE with any animosity, I didn’t leave there mad. That’s so childish. I’s Mickey Mouse, rinky-dink, bullshit. That was not going to be me. So my book is very honest, my book is very, very pointed as far as what I’m talking about. But I can’t go on there and say, “Well, Vince McMahon was the worst person I ever worked with.’ That’d be so stupid, because he wasn’t. People misunderstand Mr. McMahon and Vince McMahon. It’s a lot easier to bitch at somebody and knock them as Mr. McMahon than understand the human being that is Vince McMahon. Does he have faults? Hell yes. And so do you, and so do I, and so does the next guy you’re going to talk to. But that’s just the way we’re built. So I still have a great respect for Vince, I texted him my congratulations on the success of WrestleMania, because I thought it was, by in large, an artistic miracle that they were able to do what they did in the environment that they were operating in.

So, it was a great run, but Tony Khan wanted me to get back in the game, and I didn’t have a spot in that regard. Vince, I guess, believed that it was time for a change. It was time to get younger. It was time to get not so southern. I don’t need a chubby announcer that has Bells Palsy and can’t smile. That may be it. Hell, I don’t know. All I know is that he made the call, and out of respect for him, I didn’t question why he made the call. I just adjusted my life to move on. Really, really simple. Don’t overthink it.

Jeffrey Harris: We’re in a very difficult time right now with the coronavirus. It’s happening all over the world. Everything is shut down, and somehow AEW and WWE have managed to endure through this and continue to put on shows. Is this that old saying in wrestling of turning chicken **** into chicken salad?

Jim Ross: I think it’s a matter of fulfilling your commitments. They [both WWE and AEW] have a commitment to their various broadcast partners that they’re gonna provide programming, first-run programming, and that’s something we’re both doing. I look at it as they’re honoring their commitments and keeping their hand of the bargain up. They’re having to do it in a very unique way, but as long as they can find sound studios or somewhere that it’s legal to do a controlled taping, I perceive that both of them are gonna continue to do exactly what they’re doing until this thing has been eradicated or at least relieved to some degree.

So I think it’s just a matter of keeping the commitment. Fans need entertainment. I need it. I found myself watching new shows. I’m binge watching things I normally wouldn’t binge watch. And I know that next week, I’m gonna have the opportunity to call the Jon Moxley-Jake Hager No Holds Barred Empty Arena match by myself that will air on TNT next Wednesday night at 8/7 Central. So I’m jacked about that. That’s a big deal for me. And so I get out of the house, and I get to do a little voiceover, and it’s gonna be great. So I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve got high hopes.

Jeffrey Harris: I actually thought the way AEW dealt with the situation was actually ingenious. They set the hard cam up in front of the entrance, and without any fans in the crowd, they put the wrestlers around the ring and had them react and enjoy the product. I thought it was brilliant, but what did you think?

Jim Ross: I liked it. I thought it was a cool idea. It had a little ambience, it added a little bit of a feel as best they could to add to the product. I think that the talents that are ringside could do a little bit better in selecting their wardrobe. You know, it looks like they’re just hanging out at night. At least be wearing some AEW merchandise or their own merchandise to some degree. It’s a smart idea, though. It’s a smart idea. Now, from what I understand, the Moxley-Hager match has nobody there. Nobody. No ring announcer. It’s got a cameraman, a couple of those I think, and the two talents. That’s it. You don’t see anybody else. So, I’m looking forward to that presentation because I know those guys will be wrestling around concrete, steel, inanimate objects, are gonna be taking bumps on things that aren’t meant to be taking bumps on, and I know both of them are aggressive, physical guys. So, this could be one of the more aggressive, really a legit slobberknocker, Wednesday night on TNT. I’m looking forward to calling it.

Jeffrey Harris: You mentioned earlier that WWE pulled off a miracle with WrestleMania. Do you think there’s something to be said with the approach WWE took with the AJ Styles vs. Undertaker Boneyard match and also John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt in the Firefly FunHouse and trying something different in a controlled environment, where you can’t have an audience?

Jim Ross: Well, I think based on the hand that we’re dealt, you can’t have fans. You can’t go to arenas, you can’t travel your show. So how do you create — continue to create a first-run, fresh product? Well, you pre-tape it, and you pre-produce it. And you add all the neat little whistles and bells that you can do with a good production team. And there’s no doubt that not only do we have a good production team — it’s smaller, it’s tight knit. We’ve got some great talented guys. But they [WWE} have got an expansive production team with a lot of bodies, a lot of creativity.

So I think that inevitably, to get fresh content and some significant developments like a Boneyard Match, for example. Which I thought was phenomenal, no pun intended for AJ who was amazing in that match. And one of my all-time favorites, the Clint Eastwood of WWE, good old Undertaker, Mark Calloway, who I love. I can’t see as if — why wouldn’t it be a sign of the times based on the hand that we’re dealt? I can’t see both companies shying away from pre-produced elements that would be first-run that nobody has seen.

And in our state or situation, we don’t have any writers. We don’t have any producers. We have coaches, and we have talents that are motivated to create their own content. Just like Chris Jericho did when he did the drone thing from his hot tub a few weeks ago from his backyard. That was Chris’ idea, Chris shot it. Maybe had a family member shoot it, hell I don’t know. And it may have been shot on an iPhone, I don’t know that either. Wouldn’t doubt it. But our talents are being encouraged to create their own content and send it in. And if it’s good and it fits the storyline, et cetera, et cetera then they’re gonna air it. So I think that’s a great development for us, and I can’t see it stopping as long as we’re in this empty arena environment.

Jeffrey Harris: I’ve never believed for a wrestling show that having a good in-ring product with good storylines and good promos were ideas that were mutually exclusive, but what do you think?

Jim Ross: Well, it’s a combined effort. As far as the steak, that’s the bell-to-bell. It starts for me. And then you put the accompaniments — the entree is the wrestling, the physicality, the storytelling in the ring, bell-to-bell. And the desserts and the appetizers and all the things around that entree is the sizzle. And that’s the entertainment facet of it. So — but I’m a big believer in that the priority is going to be the in-ring product because I think that’s basically what people primarily tune in to see is physicality and athleticism. But you gotta have, you gotta have some sizzle. You gotta have some entertainment. I would rather have though the talent create their sizzle because they got to execute it. None of them are trained actors to my knowledge with a long resume of hits. They’re wrestlers. They’re athletes. They’re fans, just like you and me, which consequently, they should be able to speak in their own voice. They shouldn’t be forced to memorize a promo as if they’re a trained actor. That’s illogical, and it takes all the individuality away from a talent. And talents seek the individuality and the ability to create their own storylines and add to. And I think that’s what we have in our company is all these guys have agendas. Now that they’re in a free-thinking environment, they’re able to create on their own. And some of them are gonna have great and ideas and will be successful. Some of them are gonna have ideas that didn’t quite make it. But the great thing about it is that they’re trying to accomplish that. And I love that. So, that means the fans are gonna get organic, real material and not something that’s out of somebody else’s mind that’s been transferred into the wrestler, and they got to memorize these lines. To me, that’s the sizzle that’s built for failure.

Jeffrey Harris: As a former head of talent relations for WWE, how do you view the talents using social media? Is it a volatile tool? Recently, wrestlers have used social media when talents have publicly requested their releases from WWE, so how do you view that?

Jim Ross: If they’re using it positively, if they’re using it with good intentions, they’re expressing their legitimate opinion or concerns or feelings, I got no problem with it. If it’s a personal agenda about poor me, I’m not getting a push, I’m getting overlooked, negative, negative, negative, I don’t even read those. If I see that’s where they are, I move on, but if your honest and objective and using some sensibilities, I don’t have any issue with it. Here’s the other thing about that. The genie’s out of the bottle, man. Nobody’s going to go back to, “Oh, we don’t do that anymore.” We live in a society of defiance. I said that before. I believe it. And people are gonna express themselves because there can be a lot of brave bastards behind their keyboard saying whatever they want. I’ve got it myself many, many times. “Old JR’s lost it.” “JR can’t do his job anymore.” How do I know, other than someone giving an opinion, are they qualified to give that opinion? Based on what are you saying I can’t do my job type deal? Not very many do that, but it’s just a matter — some people just feel that’s their outlet, their avenue, to get attention and to be recognized. I just think it’s the wrong method of being recognized. You can do it in a more up-sale, high-road way and still get your message across without coming off like a crybaby and everything somebody else’s fault but not the guy I see in a mirror.

Jeffrey Harris: As Conrad Thompson would say, “according to rumor and innuendo,” a team called The Revival have been released by WWE and they’re free agents now. What do you think of The Revival? Do you think they’re good wrestlers and good talents?

Jim Ross: I don’t know they’re free agents. I know they’re getting released from their contract, but until they’re 90-day clause or whatever it may be, if they have that, and maybe WWE has relaxed that for these two men, I don’t know. Not my hill to die on. Am I a fan of Revival’s work? Hell yeah. Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be? They’re a great throwback to great teams like Arn [Anderson] and Tully [Blanchard], The Midnight Express. You know, they’re so many great teams, and tag team wrestling has become somewhat of an afterthought in some companies. It isn’t in AEW because we’ve got [Kenny] Omega and [Adam] Hangman Page as our champions. We’ve got The Young Bucks, who may be the best tag team in the world. The Lucha Bros., Santana & Ortiz, Best Friends, The Dark Order, and with Brodie Lee there, The Dark Order is a different entity, which I’m glad to say.

So, we would be foolish, we being AEW, I’m not in that loop, but if Tony Khan called me and said, “Hey, JR. What do you think of The Revival?” I would say, “If you can cut a deal that’s a win-win, hire them.” But I don’t know what The Revival’s plans are, when they’ll be available, but are they a great team? Hell yeah, they’re a great team. Would they fit into AEW like a hand-in-glove? Without a doubt. Time will tell.

Thank you to Jim Ross for taking the time to speak with us. You can check out more of Jim Ross and hi merchandise, beef jerky, and condiments on his official website, JRsBBQ.com. Fans can also get personalized autographed copies of his book from the website along with custom bookmarks. His new book is available on Amazon.com, Target.com, and Walmart.com.

And if you’re enjoying all of our recent interviews with names like Chris Jericho, Gail Kim, Dark Side of the Ring producer Evan Husney, Alexander Hammerstone, Richard Holliday, and Lance Archer and want to support us getting more interviews with big names in wrestling, please leave us a 5 star review on Apple Podcasts, it only takes a few seconds to do and really helps us out!

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0:00: Introduction
0:41: On writing his new memoir Under the Black Hat: My Life in the WWE and Beyond and what the book covers
3:06: On when the process of writing the book began
4:06: On his relationship with Vince McMahon, staying friends even with his going to AEW and why he left WWE
6:35: On his memories of WrestleMania X-Seven, Steve Austin turning heel and how Undertaker vs. Triple H was booked
8:53: On if Austin’s heel turn falling short influenced WWE to keep John Cena & Roman Reigns as babyfaces, why Cena stayed babyface
12:46: On when he first met with Tony Khan, why he came joined AEW, misconceptions of why he left WWE and people confusing Vince McMahon with Mr. McMahon
16:59: On AEW and WWE continuing to hold shows amid COVID-19 pandemic, both companies having broadcast commitments, looking forward to calling Jon Moxley vs. Jake Hager
18:56: On AEW changing their setup to deal with the empty arenas, what to expect from the Moxley vs. Hager match
20:34: On what he thought of WrestleMania’s Boneyard Match and adding preproduced elements to matches in the current situation, how AEW is handling it
22:55: On finding the right balance between in-ring product and entertainment content, talent needing to create their own content
25:16: On the positives and negatives of talent using social media, why people should avoid going negative
27:18: On The Revival’s WWE release, being a fan of them and how they would fit into AEW
30:04: On where to find him online, where to get Under the Black Hat
31:59: On his advice for people during the pandemic

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