After Mick Foley’s first book, Have A Nice Day, surprisingly reached number one on The New York Times bestseller list in 1999, the pro-wrestling memoir became a genre all its own—some arguably better than others. One eagerly awaited autobiography is from Jim Ross, the longtime play-by-play wrestling announcer who, for this generation, is the best and best-known storyteller in the industry.
Coinciding with this week’s release of Slobberknocker: My Life In Wrestling, Ross spoke with The A.V. Club from his home in Oklahoma.
The A.V. Club: Your new book is unsparing in its details. You discuss your acrimonious relationship with your father, your addiction to prescription pills, among other details. Besides having a recorded history of your life, did you have a goal in writing a book that’s so revealing?
Jim Ross: I really wanted the book to be honest. I’ve read too many books from my peers that weren’t totally honest. The historical data had been compromised. I tried to avoid that. I think we have a historically accurate book. I also want to fully reveal where I was in my life, and to share these issues that I had, which unfortunately is very prevalent in our society. So that’s the negative aspect. The positive aspect is that if you roll your sleeves up and stand, you can eventually separate from those issues and never go back. And that’s where I’ve been. Maybe help somebody. But it’s not a drug rehabilitation book. There’s a love story in this book with my wife.
AVC: Your wife was killed in a vehicle accident in March, and your composure these last seven months has been astounding and inspiring to behold. You could’ve easily disappeared for the rest of the year and no one would’ve faulted you. How have you been able to maintain such grace and a sense of humor at such a horrible time in your life?
JR: I think part of my upbringing lends to that. When you grow up on a farm, you grow up fast. I share a story in my book about an unfortunate situation I created, a massive heartbreaking lesson from my dad involving his dog.
I don’t know composure. I’m not always composed. I guess my defense mechanism was to stay busy and have this book to finish. Re-signing with WWE for limited dates, do New Japan stuff on AXS TV—I just immersed myself with my work, as a crutch, as a shield to mask my heartbreak. You can’t go to Amazon and order a book on how you handle grief. There’s books on it, sure. But there’s no tried and true manual. You just have to live that out. There’s no formula to heal. If one thing I can tell you about heartbreak, you just gotta be willing to invest the time to get better.
AVC: Are you healing?
JR: I think so. I had a rough time couple times a day, doing all these interviews, because some of the stories are repetitive and you keep remembering those same memories. But I’m healing. I have to realize that it actually happened, that she’s gone, and it’s surreal more often than not. What she’d want, what my family wants, is to move on and go forward. That’s what I’m trying to do.
AVC: Can we talk about some happier moments? 2017 has been among the busiest years for you professionally. What’s been the highlight to date?
JR: Oh my goodness, there’s a lot of them. Nothing supplants the feeling of talent—and I use that term loosely on myself—but when you have the opportunity to be introduced and go ringside and work. I would say coming back [for WrestleMania], I signed my contract 48 hours prior to that entrance. It was only a week after Jan got killed. So there were a lot of raw emotions, but nothing was as impactful as that [entrance]. And that was me running from one gig to the next, trying to not break down. And I eventually did when I got home from Orlando. You get adulation in a stadium full of people, and they’re hugging you figuratively, and some literally. And then you get home, you roll your bags in, say, “Honey, I’m home!” and there’s nobody there. That was challenging. But I’m getting a little wind here, little wind there, and this book has been a godsend.
AVC: Your work has found an interesting audience these last few years. The internet likes to take your announcing and sub it in for other major moments. There’s the one when John McCain cast the deciding “no” vote in the healthcare bill. You’ve become your own genre of memes. Do you have a favorite?
JR: I don’t think I have a favorite. That a call of mine was memorable enough for somebody to use it on something current, I’m flattered that somebody has time in their life to do things like that. Some of us are a bit busy. I can’t tell you how many times people have repurposed my call of Mick Foley being tossed off the Hell In The Cell in 1998. Next year it’ll be 20 years. Man, I’m just thinking it’s been a really fun run in my journey. And being the last of the old territory of wrestling announcers. There’s not plenty of us left.
AVC: Speaking of old territory announcers, Lance Russell just died. A lot of younger fans probably don’t know who he was or what he meant for professional wrestling. Could you explain why he was important?
JR: Oh my god. I can try. First of all, make no mistake: He was really important to the success of that entire territory. Jerry Lawler said to me many times that without Lance Russell, there’d be no Jerry Lawler. Lance was challenged with being the host of a no-net, live studio wrestling show every Saturday morning in Memphis. It was wild, wooly, crazy, edgy, and unpredictable, and Lance was the guy who kept the rudder in the water every single week. The ratings that they got for that show were frightening. He was so good at enhancing talent, and he did this for decades and decades. He was just a wonderful and honest guy, and he came across that way on television. He was so believable, so when he thought he feared for Jerry Lawler’s life, you really believe that’s how he felt. He could express angst, fear, trepidation, and the jeopardy on the heroes really well.
AVC: Would it be fair to say that your announcing work in 2017 has a few less exclamation points than it did in 1997?
JR: Yeah, probably. It’s like every creative process that I’ve been associated with. It is a work in progress. One of my biggest fears, in both my personal and business life, is residing too long in my comfort zone. The comfort zone is [where] one-time enterprising, productive people go to die. Not being willing to try new things is not very smart. Here’s how I look at that job: Those in the ring are making music through their wrestling. The announcers are adding their lyrics, their voices to that music. The announcers have got to give the right tone, a sense of urgency, dramatic pauses. Then you got something good.
AVC: How have you improved as an announcer these last few years?
JR: Maybe my patience. I’m not working like I’m getting paid by the word. Maybe better idea of the layout. I’ve realized that sometimes you get talent over more in what you don’t say than what you do say. There are certain things you never stop doing: You never stop trying to get the talent over. You never stop trying to explain strategies on display via holds and maneuvers. Those are always in place no matter the music, pyro, or presentation. For me, it’s just continue trying to improve.
AVC: One question you get asked a lot is what has been your favorite match to call. We can narrow it down: What’s been your favorite match to call in the last few years?
JR: There’s so many things that go into matches that make me like them. Obviously, calling Undertaker and Roman Reigns on a grand stage like WrestleMania—there’s nothing even close to that. But I’ve also called three of the [Kazuchika] Okada-[Kenny] Omega matches. I called Omega in Long Beach when he won the U.S. title for New Japan. The live stuff will always trump going into a studio to do voice-overs.
AVC: Many people thought the Omega-Okada 60-minute draw in Osaka was the greatest wrestling match they’ve ever seen. What do you think?
JR: I thoroughly enjoyed it. Excellent. Was it the best I ever saw? I have a hard time thinking somebody would actually want to argue the Okada-Omega matches were better than [Ric] Flair-[Ricky] Steamboat from 1989. I think both of those trilogies were phenomenal. And there’s nothing to complain about them, much less say one was better than the other. It depends on your taste, if you’re a big fan or a casual fan.
I’ve been real lucky to call some great ones. Foley-Undertaker Hell In The Cell is the most memorable. It wasn’t the best match, but it gets talked about more. Those three Flair-Steamboat matches are hard to beat. The three Austin-Rock matches at WrestleManias were pretty incredible as well. I’ve just been so blessed in my journey. Fat kid from Oklahoma, buddy— Southern accent and Bell’s palsy, becoming a broadcaster and hanging around a fickle business for 40 years. You wonder how in the hell that happened. It was somebody’s plan.