WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross on Wrestle Kingdom 11, His One-Man Shows, and How He Wants Donald Trump to Succeed
If you're a longtime fan of professional wrestling, you're probably familiar with Jim Ross. Or, at the very least, his distinctive voice. After all, the renowned play-by-play announcer has called matches for decades now, most notably during a 20-year stint with the WWE.
Ross, 65, has been behind the microphone in the rasslin’ biz since the early '80s, when the Oklahoma native first worked for the old Mid-South Wrestling territory of yore, and has been keeping fans abreast of the in-ring action with folksy and unique mannerisms (including "slobberknocker" and "bah gawd!") ever since.
And he’s seen a lot in his day. Ross, who’s known to countless wrestling fans as “Good Ol’ J.R.,” has called some of the biggest and most memorable matches in the WWE and its former competitor, the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling, over the last 30 years. For instance, he was ringside for the Ric Flair’s historic battles with Ricky Steamboat, Terry Funk, and Sting back in the late ‘80s, as well as big showdowns featuring Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Rock, Triple H, and other legendary WWE Superstars during its fabled “Attitude Era” of the late ‘90s.
Ross also has spent a lot of time working behind the scenes of the wrestling biz, including serving as WWE’s head of talent relations and in other important roles. And while he’s not working for the WWE any longer, having left the company back in 2013, Ross is still doing play-by-play for wrestling television program’s like New Japan Pro Wrestling's annual Wrestle Kingdom event and the newly relaunched World of Sport in the U.K.
Needless to say, the announcer has plenty of stories to tell, and he’s been sharing them on his popular podcast, The Ross Report, and during the one-man spoken word "Ringside with Jim Ross" shows he performs in cities around the world.
On Thursday, January 12, Ross will bring his show to Phoenix for the first time ever when he performs at Stand Up Live. Local wrestling fans will get a chance to hear the esteemed announcer spin many yarns, in addition to getting a chance to ask Ross questions during a extended Q&A session. (A special VIP package featuring a meet-and-greet with Ross is also available.)
We got to hear some of Ross’ stories ourselves when New Times got a chance to speak with Ross by telephone recently in advance of his performance at Stand Up Live. Naturally, there was much discussion about the wrestling biz, as well as his memories of visiting Phoenix in the past and what he thinks of the fact that fellow WWE Hall of Famer Donald Trump soon will be president of the United States.
What's your one-man show in Phoenix going to be like?
I start off the show with some stories. When you've been in the wrestling business for 40 years and you travel the roads with these guys that were perennial sophomores in their mind, a new story happened every day. So there's a lot of stories, and they range from what you would expect [from] sophomoric humor, a lot of it. But I tell some stories and then we get into the Q&A, which I think is the money of the show. It's unique what happens, the dynamic that happens when die-hard or lifelong pro wrestling fans can get into a venue with their peers without fear of being criticized or made fun of – bullied, in other words – by those that are not pro wrestling fans that like to take potshots at those who are. So we have created a safe haven in this environment and it's just hilarious sometimes what comes out of their mouth. It's unique what happens when the die-hard wrestling fans are surrounded by [like-minded] individuals and they've had a few beverages and they get their hands on an open mic. Sometimes calamity and chaos prevail.
Is there any question you won't answer? Or can fans ask anything they want?
I'm not big on censorship. They can ask whatever they choose. If they are nice enough to come see me and buy tickets to my show, I am going to answer any question that they have. Now obviously, you would think that basic human decency would prevail. I'm not going to not have good taste, but by and large, virtually any question that's asked gets an answer. And an honest answer.
You've had a habit of telling like it is and have done so for years, right?
It's a lot easier to tell the truth ... because it's just the truth. At this stage in my life, you know, I just turned 65, and I'm not going to become that crotchety old guy, but sometimes you've got to learn to tell somebody what time it is and not how to make the watch at 65. So I'm probably more outspoken about how I feel about things. I'd like to think, though, in my older years I've become a little wiser on how to present that information. But it's always fun.
Jim Ross backstage prior to one of his performances.
Craig Hunter Ross
Each of your performances are different, correct?
The Q&As are really unique, and wrestling fans of different ages come to my show. I think it's an 18-and-over show, which is fine, because sometimes the language gets a little coarse. The particular demographics of each audience is the source of their questions. In other words, if they grew up in the [Hulk] Hogan era or the Bret Hart era or Stone Cold era or all the way until now, that will influence their questions. So it really covers a lot of ground. We talk wrestling history, philosophy, story lines, some of the intangibles you look for when hiring guys, because I had a lot of luck hiring a lot of really good guys that have gone on to become rich and famous, which I'm very happy for.
The stories you'll tell will be different from the ones we've heard on your podcast, I assume.
Oh, absolutely. I kind of give the highlights of the week on my podcast and then I have a guest as a rule that I shoot the breeze with for conversation. But, yeah, my stories will be entirely different. It's a different format, different audience. As Vince McMahon told me many times, "J.R., you've got to know your audience." So I'd like to think I know my audience now, and the shows are a little different.
I'm not a stand-up guy; if someone ever promoted me as a budding stand-up comedian and former wrestling personality Jim Ross, well that would be wrong. First of all, I'm not a former wrestling person, I still do wrestling, and secondly, I'm not a stand-up. I'd like to think, without breaking my arm patting myself on the back, I am trying to be a humorist, and it's always a work in progress. But we've had really great success with these shows and I've never [performed] in Phoenix or in Arizona. I've been there many times but have never brought this show there before. So I'm hoping that we'll get the word out and people will give us a try.
You've visited Phoenix many times with both WWE and WCW. Any memories of being here?
Oh, gosh. Phoenix was a city I want to say is where we had the press conference where we announced Lawrence Taylor wrestling at WrestleMania XI. Because I believe that the NFL meetings or something like that were being held in Phoenix simultaneously. So knowing that the sometimes-arrogant NFL media would not give those rasslers the time of day, unless it was to cover another tragedy.
And I was with Vince on that trip and we had the NFL writers there and those that were open-minded had a blast and some of them couldn't believe that Lawrence Taylor was going to lower himself to get into a wrestling match. They didn't want to discuss the fact he was going to make a million dollars plus from the deal and really needed the money and nobody on their side was coming to give him any work. So that was a big moment.
One of my most disappointing moments in my career happened in Phoenix because I thought that after my third bout of Bell's Palsy that I was going to be brought to Phoenix to call the Undertaker-Shawn Michaels match [at WrestleMania 26]. The powers that be felt that I was not well enough. I think, basically meaning, your face is too distorted, disfigured, I say with some degree of sarcasm, to be on television. So it kind of pissed me off and motivated me to want to heal a little faster.
Why were you disappointed?
I called [WrestleMania 25] in Houston, including the Shawn Michaels-Undertaker match. I had my health issues again and I thought I was well enough that my audio would be fine and maybe my face was HD friendly but the decision was made that I wasn't well enough to do it. And it was very disappointing because I had a lot of emotional investment to both those guys and on a personal level and not just a professional, which were long relationships with both professionally. But they had grown to become legitimate friends, of which you have few in the pro wrestling business, and that's not a bitter old guy talking, that's just the reality of it.
They were two guys that I worked with, that I had a great deal of respect for and I knew they probably would never have this match again and I got to call it last year and I was very disappointed I didn't get to call it [again], selfishly. Everything I've said can be very easily [interpreted] depending on someone's point of view, whether JR's being selfish, I was, exactly. Selfishly, I wanted to call that match. But it didn't happen, and, you know, the sun rose the next day and here we are talking.
And that's part of the journey. And that's what we talk about at my shows, things just like this: the journey of how a regular guy who was a wrestling fan, not unlike the people sitting in my audience, found his way into this spiky business as a summertime job as a soon-to-be-graduating-college-senior and never went back to school and stayed in it for 40 years. It's a crazy story that probably could never happen again.
Do you think Phoenix is a great wrestling town? We may not have the legacy of say, Houston, Chicago, or Philly, but we've got a passionate fan base and have had several pay-per-view events here.
My experiences in Phoenix, as far as the fans' perspective, have always been outstanding. The bad rep that Phoenix gets is that even though there was territory wrestling in Arizona once upon a time and the fact it was successful, it's so far removed from today's audience or maybe even the generation before them that
Arizona doesn't the reputation that it's a longtime, big-time pro wrestling state. That's the perception. But if you look back at more recent years in more modern times, we've had great success as a wrestling business in Phoenix. Fans have been outstanding, the WrestleMania there was really fun.
One of my most remarkable memories of Phoenix, we did Monday Night Raw there, packed it, had a great house, it was really good. Having Raw there, we put it on a little earlier because of the time difference, so Charles Barkley came to our show, sat at ringside and after the show was over he took Jerry Lawler and his then-fiancee and soon-to-be wife Stacy Carter and my wife and I to dinner. And during the course of dinner, Charles found out that Lawler and Stacy were engaged and were getting ready to set a date for their wedding. And Charles volunteered to let them get married at a casino in Las Vegas that he had a relationship with and he'd take care of their wedding. The true story of it is is that Charles Barkley paid for the wedding of Jerry Lawler and Stacy Carter in Las Vegas that my wife and I attended, by the way. So, little known fun fact and it all started over dinner in Phoenix with Chuck.
You're one of the biggest football fans around. Do you think either the Arizona Cardinals or Sun Devils will ever have what it takes to win the Super Bowl or national championship, respectively?
Well, I don't know what the fan base's perception of [Arizona Cardinals] head coach Bruce Arians, but the perception outside of Arizona is that he's a very desirable coaching person. He's perceived as a star coach. I think he's a great personality there. Here's the deal, and it's really simple as far as Arizona's concerned: I like what Arians does, which might take me out of the conversation for some people. I believe he's a winner, I believe that they can win there, it's a great place to live, it should be attractive to free agents.
There's no reason why they can't play in that free agent market some, but the key thing is that they got to find a long-term, underscore, answer at quarterback. And as competent as Carson Palmer is, in football terms, he's old. So I think we can all agree that Carson Palmer has had more seasons behind him then he has in front of him. So when you get into that situation, you've got to [start] thinking to the future, especially with the most important position on the team. So finding a quarterback [is] a long-term solution, and making sure that their coaching situation there is stabilized so you don't start over every few years with the scouting, philosophy, and the game plan, and the players are already on the roster and getting paid. Every time you make a change like that it sets you back a little bit, but I do like their chances.
And if you can't recruit great players in significant numbers at Arizona State University, then I only ask why. What's the reason you can't sell your program with the reputation, the opportunities, and the weather, and – for some heterosexual young males – a plethora of young ladies. I don't understand what's the hang-up. I don't know what the academic requirements are, if they're different for athletics or not, but what's the downside? So I believe, to answer your question, there's no reason Arizona State can't be back as a national contender or return to some prominence in that regard, but it's all going to depend on recruiting. And it's not one class, it's like five. So that's the deal. If the coaching staff can get those kids signed on the dotted line and have a banner recruiting year and then two or three more in a row, now you're talking business.
How mind-blowing or bizarre is it that a WWE Hall of Famer and WrestleMania headliner, a.k.a. Donald Trump, will be president a few weeks from now?
I wouldn't say it's mind-blowing, because I've been around the block and I've seen some mind-blowing things. To me, this is just part of our crazy world we live in. And things that happen now wouldn't even have been thought of when I was a young man, and I don't feel like I'm that old. Nonetheless, it's unique. Donald really was observant, when I was around him, he was always really observant, he asks very good questions, he kind of wanted to be one of the boys as far as hanging out and talking.
So my interactions with Donald Trump were very positive, but we weren't talking politics, we were talking sports or the town we were in or what he was doing that night or what I was going to say during his bit in the ring, things like that. So I had no issues with him at all. So I think it's kind of neat that a fellow WWE Hall of Famer is going to be President of the United States. And here's the deal, I don't [think] you'd probably be offended by me saying he's an egotistical workaholic.
So guys like that don't like to finish second. Their egos are not wired to be less than great. I'm thinking he's going to do everything under his power to retain great people around him that can make him look good over a four-year period. He was very bright, very observant. He was wearing these thousands upon thousand-dollar custom-made suits and he, in essence, put a baseball cap on during the whole of the campaign that had his slogan on it, a la Stone Cold Steve Austin, who related the baseball cap to the common man, the blue-collar guy.
There were few ways that Donald Trump could levitate down to the common guy with his background. And he used a prop and some pro wrestling psychology that worked, because all it was was playing with basic human emotion. So he was the non-politician, who was wearing a cap and wants to make America great. Who doesn't agree with that? And he's the guy who was against the establishment, wants to clear the swamp or drain the swamp or something. So, anyhow, it was unique.
I'm not going to be shocked if he turns out to be a better president than people will perceive and I hope that even if you're a naysayer of his presidency that we as Americans will be smart enough to shoot ourselves in the foot by just being against every single thing he comes up with and not allowing anything to be put into play to see if it might work. I don't know if he gets all those opportunities, but if that does happen then we're hurting ourselves and pulling against the tide, so to speak.
So do you think he learned a thing or two from Vince McMahon or performing with the WWE?
Absolutely. That's what I'm saying. McMahon played a character and Donald was his nemesis. Donald was the good guy and he came in and we had a Monday Night Raw with free tickets [thanks to Trump]. He had another Raw that he was running that had no commercials. So he put himself as a friend of the fan.
When you have a TV show and you buy all the commercial time and a commercial-free broadcast, that's fan-friendly. Stone Cold Steve Austin's whole mantra was the common guy, the anti-hero, the anti-establishment guy against the establishment. And that's exactly the premise that Trump ran on, the amateur politician versus the professional politicians. And I think Vince has been very instrumental in sharing his feelings and his instincts of human nature and the human element and decision-making and character development and performing to some degree with Donald.
I can promise you this, I hope we don't see a presidential election like we just had again because it got too personal and just became silly and embarrassing. I travel the world with these shows and it's always good comedy to talk American politics abroad, because they think it's funnier than hell. And sometimes we're laughing at the wrong things.
Do you think The Rock will ever run for president? He's talked about it and anything seems possible now.
Well, I say this with total seriousness, I don't discount him doing anything that he may really want to do. And at some point in his life, he's probably going to look around and say, "I need another major challenge," and what would be more significant than being president of the United States? So we've seen that a TV personality can get elected president of the United States, and The Rock has infinitely more appeal, I think we can somewhat agree on, than Donald Trump or about anyone else you could name. So I would never say never with The Rock. I signed him [to the WWE], I was very lucky, he's made me look good since the day I got his name on his first contract. Anybody thinks that he's just BSing or it's a publicity stunt or he's trying to get clicks or something, think again.
You're doing the play-by-play for Wrestle Kingdom 11, which starts airing this weekend on AXS TV but took place earlier this month. Do you avoid spoilers until you sit down to call it?
I don't avoid spoilers because I have to prepare for it, so I need to know as much as I can, but I don't memorize the matches. I generally don't watch the matches [beforehand]. I have not accessed any video as we speak of Wrestle Kingdom, so I don't have any plans to watch the matches, but I do have plans to do plenty of show prep and a lot of one-liner work.
But avoiding who wins and who loses to me doesn't affect my work, because the story of getting to the 1-2-3 is where the money is. Getting the viewer to the finish is where the money is and I won't know what that's like [beforehand] because I'm not going to cheat and peek at that deal. So I'm looking forward to that as a matter of fact. I'm going to voice those over for two days in L.A. before I come to Phoenix and the first Wrestle Kingdom show will air on AXS TV on Friday, January 13.
What do you think about New Japan Pro Wrestling branching out and doing a G1 Climax event in L.A. this summer or more live events in America, period?
Smart. I think it's smart. They've got the relationship with Ring of Honor, who has a pretty good television coverage for that question. And certainly the one that gets very little [respect], it's almost the Rodney Dangerfield of the genre. AXS TV doesn't get the credit they deserve for making these New Japan guys bigger stars. To have that product in prime time every Friday night on AXS TV, you can't take the coverage for granted.
So I think there's a fan base here that will, if they're approached strategically, if the events are marketed properly, you would think that the fact that those events are in the United States, that AXS TV would have a huge part in helping make them successful. Hope that happens. I don't know if it will or won't. I'm not in that loop. If I were New Japan and Ring of Honor and to AXS TV and say, "Hey pardner, what can we do to make this thing happen? How can you help me sell tickets?" Because if I were New Japan, I would consider letting AXS TV televise those events, and if we're going to do that, why don't we just do it live. Why not?
But to your original question, the answer is yes, I'm glad they're exploring their opportunities. They need to strategically market these shows. They need to monetize their presence while they're here beyond selling tickets. And a live event on AXS TV would be attractive to television viewers and I think wrestling fans would flock to it and that's just great for brand-building and promoting their product. And the more of that you do, then the more trips you're able to make profitably and the more live events you're able to run. It's a process, but if it's strategically done, then they're on the right trail.
Do you think that New Japan could become a bigger competitor in to the WWE in the U.S.?
Well, I don't think so. You know, I don't see that. I don't think anybody's going to become a big competitor to WWE anywhere in the world. And I think we should really stop thinking about it. Not to discount your question, because I learned in my late stage in life that I don't worry about a lot of things I can't have any influence on. If I can't solve your problem, I'm not going to delve into it for a long time. It's like Jimmy Johnson said one time, "If I can't solve your problem, I'll eliminate it." So, heck, I don't know.
WWE is just such a massive footprint and an amazing organization that they could not be hot during a particular [time period] and still be profitable. They could not be water-cooler fodder and still be making a whole lot of money. So I think that everybody else should just focus on what they do and how to build their brand. I just laid out an idea about how New Japan can build their brand here.
You talk about AXS TV, why isn't AXS TV working with Ring of Honor? We have their guys on the New Japan show, we always [co-promote] Ring of Honor, we're a good partner in that regard in the world of wrestling, but why isn't Ring of Honor doing some things on AXS TV? Why wouldn't a Ring of Honor show, instead of going to pay-per-view, go to live on AXS TV some Friday night? Build your brand, attract more eyeballs, expose what you do and get people talking about you and what they saw for free on AXS TV. Things like that, guys have got to worry about doing their brand, but catching up to WWE is a race that the other wrestling companies will never win. End of story.
Another wrestling promotion you're involved in is World of Sport in the UK, which aired its pilot episode on New Year's Eve. Do you think it will be picked up for a full series?
I haven't seen the show and I haven't seen what the ratings were. I know it aired on New Year's Eve from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. [in the UK]. I would not consider that to be a prime-time airing. In my world, on New Year's Eve I probably wouldn't be sitting in front of my television, or if I was, I wouldn't be paying much attention. But nonetheless, I was told the feedback on social media and from the media in general was fabulous. And I head the audience was well over a million.
I don't get into all of that, but nonetheless, I hope that they... It's real simple for me. If the series gets green-lit, it gives me [the chance] to sit back and put the headset on and do what I love to do: record live-to-tape these shows that would air on the [ITV network in the UK]. But there's a lot of things that got to happen. There's got to be a green light, and there's got to be a positive negotiations between us and them. So, selfishly, I'd love for it to be picked up so it makes it an easier trip to the grocery store, shall we say.
The second thing is that it would provide a lot of work for the deserving and talented British wrestlers. And thirdly, it puts [World of Sport] on the map. I'm not sure what WWE Raw delivers audience-wise [in the UK], I've heard it's in the low six figures, I don't know. You'll have to check on that. But, the point is, one would have to assume that if this show came back in a one-hour format every Saturday afternoon in a locked-in time slot, it's going to be a helluva lot better than New Year's Eve. That's going to bring a lot of eyeballs, that's going to make a lot of [wrestlers] well-known to their consumer base and they'll become bigger stars. When you're on free TV on over-the-air terrestrial television on a locked-in time slot every Saturday afternoon, how do your regulars not become more well-known and more valuable. It just makes sense.
Do you think the WWE created its upcoming UK championship tournament in response to World of Sport? Or was it to expand their global empire?
They've been talking about that for a long time, doing more things in that part of the world because their audience is very strong and very loyal. And so I'd like to not believe that it had anything to do with it. But I don't see one hurting the other, quite frankly. And if ITV can develop stars through World of Sport, we all know the ultimate goal for any young wrestling star is to earn a contract with WWE and subsequently be a star at WrestleMania. That's the answer. So if you come to work on ITV's show, you increase your chances of building your legacy, your reputation, your star power, your marketability on ITV, which only sets the table better for a WWE run, whenever you're contractually available to do so. Everybody's going to win in this thing if it goes down. It's a good thing and I think WWE is positioning itself to have a little bit more presence there. It's very strategic, very, very timely, and very smart.
Now that he's no longer on the air for the WWE, do you think you'll get a chance to call an event with your longtime broadcasting partner, Jerry "The King" Lawler again?
Oh, you never know. I would be certainly [game] for that opportunity. I think Jerry would, too, if something comes along. Somebody e-mailed me, as a matter of fact, about the possibility of us doing something together in England in 2017 on one of those [Internet pay-per-views]. I don't know where we are on that discussion, but there's always going to be some opportunities for us in that regard. It's one of those deals, without using that old obligatory wrestling parlance of "never say never," but there's nothing in the works right now but if something came along that both of us thought was the right think to do, then absolutely. It'd be a blast. It'd be like riding a bike. It'd be good, I think, from, "Hello everybody and welcome" until we said goodnight. It feels that comfortable. So we'll see. That's going to be up to some enterprising promoter or TV producer to come up with the right package.
Ringside with Jim Ross will take place at 8 p.m. on Thursday, January 12, at Stand Up Live. Admission is $25. A special VIP package is also available for $75 and includes reserved seating and a pre-show meet and greet.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.