BY MIKE MOONEYHAM
Jim Ross had serious thoughts of slowing down when he was unceremoniously released by WWE two and a half years ago.
During a 45-minute drive from WWE headquarters in Stamford, Conn., to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, Ross even briefly considered retirement after being fired by WWE owner Vince McMahon.
Those closest to the legendary broadcaster, however, knew chances of that happening were slim and none.
Halfway to the airport, says Ross, the realization hit him like a bucket of cold water.
“What are you saying? What are you doing? You’re not retiring. You’re not happy,” he thought.
Ross, now 64 and a 40-year veteran of the wrestling business, hasn’t regretted that decision for a second.
As Ross himself might say in his unmistakable Southern twang, he’s been busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.
Just last month Ross signed on to be a boxing announcer for CBS Sports. His debut will be March 12, the first of eight scheduled monthly events at the Downtown Las Vegas Event Center called ‘’Knockout Night at the D.’’
Ross also is serving as celebrity spokesman, executive adviser and investor for FITE TV, an app that allows fans to watch pro wrestling, MMA, boxing and other combat sports that will include both free and pay-per-view events.
Beyond the squared circle, Ross tours with his one-man show called Ringside with Jim Ross, contributes articles weekly to FOX Sports, hosts a weekly podcast, and has a line of signature barbecue sauces and seasonings. He has more than 1.4 million followers on Twitter, and his Ross Report podcast averages more than 750,000 weekly listeners. He’s also writing a book when time permits.
And if that wasn’t enough, the popular Oklahoman is doing voice-overs for Mark Cuban’s New Japan Pro Wrestling show on AXS TV where he serves as play-by-play commentator alongside former UFC heavyweight champion and NJPW veteran Josh Barnett.
To say the least, business has definitely picked up for “Good Ol’ J.R.’’ The more the merrier, says Ross, who doesn’t view any of these projects as work.
“They’re all fun things to do. You’re never too old to hunt ... as long as your mind and your heart are in the right spot. I enjoy working. But I don’t really consider it work.”
The New Japan gig is a project Ross is particularly fond of.
“The people that I’m working with and the people that I’m working for are very professional. Several of them grew up listening to my work, which can make lunches quite entertaining. Everybody’s got a story or an impersonation. I’ve found that to be refreshing as heck. They love my work and they’ve listened to it for a long time.”
Negotiations for Ross to do the show began last November. By January a deal had been struck. Six shows are already in the can, and a total of 48 are planned. “New Japan Pro Wrestling,” which premiered its second season on Jan. 15, airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET.
Travel won’t be an issue, says Ross, who will fly to Los Angeles eight to 10 times a year to do voice-over work.
“I like the product. I like the exclusive features that it presents as a television vehicle. I like the fact that we get to go to LA and I take my wife with me to do the voice-overs out there.”
Los Angeles may prove to be a home away from home for Ross.
“The fight app that I’m involved with is in California. The podcast people are in LA. The Fox Sports people that I write for are in LA. There are a lot of reasons to go to LA. The trips are manageable. Eight to 10 times a year is a whole heck of a lot different than going 51 weeks a year on the road.”
Ross is no stranger to the New Japan product. He did play-by-play for the 2015 Wrestle Kingdom 9 pay-per-view in Tokyo. When Mauro Ranallo, the previous lead announcer for NJPW on AXS TV, joined WWE as the lead announcer for Smackdown, there was little doubt as to who would get the call.
“When Mauro decided to do to WWE, I was the first person that AXS called,” says Ross. “They made sure that they hired me. I really appreciate their diligence in that. They acquiesced to everything that we asked for. It was a perfect storm for me.”
Ross says he couldn’t have asked for a better job than doing what he loves most — and that’s calling wrestling.
“I’ll voice-over as much as they want because I don’t look at it as work. It’s a fun project. It’s watching wrestling and calling it. That’s pretty good stuff,” says Ross, who as the longtime voice of WWE has made some of the most memorable calls in wrestling history.
Ross, who had not been a regular on a wrestling program for nearly three years, is already back in the groove.
“Gosh, I’m calling wrestling matches again. How hard is that? I really don’t call that work. I’m also going to be doing boxing. Broadcasting a live sporting event is kind of what I was put here to do.”
Ross also has developed a smooth rapport with Barnett and says there’s no one better suited to call the action with him for New Japan Pro Wrestling.
“He’s very intelligent and well prepared. He understands the Japanese culture better than I ever could. He’s wrestled there, he’s had fights there, he stayed there for extended lengths of time. He’s done the product since it went on AXS. And he’s great at helping me navigate my way through the enunciations of all these Japanese athletes.”
Like all of his announcing jobs, Ross isn’t going to rest on his considerable laurels and simply phone it in. He takes meticulous notes and is determined to make Barnett and himself “the best broadcast team of the genre.”
“I don’t know if I could have found anybody that’s better than Josh for this product,” says Ross. “He’s got great hold recognition. We’re both of the mind set that we’re going to try to make this as mainstream sports presentation as we can and not insult the audience while we’re doing that. A lot of that has to do with explaining holds, why they work, strategies, counters, escapes. He’s really brilliant at that. I have the perfect partner for this product.”
“It’s a dream to be able to sit next to the legendary Jim Ross and call the incredible wrestling action of New Japan Pro Wrestling,” says Barnett. “I’ve listened to his commentary throughout the years and I’m glad to have someone as distinguished as him to work with in the booth.”
Ross, considered one of the best at understanding the psychology of the business, gives props to the New Japan booking philosophy and the physical style that is more sport than entertainment.
“There’s a reason for every match. No match is just thrown together and booked coldly. A lot of these guys are rivals and adversaries. They’re not necessarily heels and babyfaces, but they’re rivals.”
Ross likens the competition to that of a high-stakes college football game.
“I look at it as an athletic event. It’s like Clemson playing Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. There’s something at stake there — the opportunity to go play for the national championship. There may not be a natural, organic, regional rivalry with the two teams, but there’s something at stake. And there’s always something at stake if a match is booked correctly. And that is what I found in all those matches. There was a reason for them. They’re not really cold matches, but they don’t have the over-the-top, eyebrow-raising storylines that sometimes we see in North America.”
The WWE Hall of Famer says the booking harkens back to the heyday of Mid-Atlantic wrestling several decades ago.
“I like their booking. Their booking reminds me of George Scott-booked Mid-Atlantic territory back in the day. The matches have plausibility. I like the fact that their in-ring technique is very physical.
“If you grew up on territory wrestling, it’s not anything new. We saw that all the time in a previous generation. Everybody thinks that Ric Flair has the greatest chop of all time. Well there’s this guy named Wahoo McDaniel who was pretty good at it too. And there’s a guy named Blackjack Mulligan that wasn’t bad at it either.”
Last Friday night’s show, which was taped in May 2015, was an hour of hard-hitting action that featured such international stars as AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura (both since signed by WWE), Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi. This season features episodes highlighting matches from the 2015 New Japan Cup, Invasion Attack, HINOKUNI, Best of the Super Juniors 22, Dominion 7.5, G1 Climax 25 and more throughout the year.
Ross says viewers will have the chance to witness some of the most intense and technical matches found anywhere.
“The physicality and the mano y mano feel of this product really transcends today and takes me back to a previous generation when I perceived that the average wrestlers were more fundamentally sound then than they are now, and that quite frankly a lot of them in the previous generations were a little bit more physical than some of the guys that we see compete today.”
The longtime voice of WWE also is excited about other projects, including FITE and boxing.
“Getting involved with FITE is an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. It is the future of televised fighting sports,” he said recently. “There is no easier way to stream wrestling, MMA and other fighting sports content including special commentaries on those sports by me.”
As for his boxing gig, Ross is realistic and fully aware that there might be an adjustment period in transitioning to the sweet science.
“I can’t overnight become a boxing expert. There will be learned boxing fans, longtime fans, that are going know infinitely more about boxing than I do, and I have no problem with that. My strengths are storytelling and getting you to know the fighter, and then bringing that spontaneity, that voice that cuts through the clutter.”
Ross will work with veteran color commentator Al Bernstein, who liked Ross’ work when he called some fights on Fox Sports in 2014.
“Jim is an iconic broadcaster who comes from a different kind of telecast, but has already shown in brief forays into boxing that he is well studied and very respectful of the sport,” Bernstein told The Associated Press. “And, he brings to boxing the same wit and larger than life personality that has endeared him to wrestling viewers. It will be great fun to work with him.”
With opinions varying regarding the upcoming Wrestlemania 32 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Ross is optimistic that WWE will present a Mania-worthy show.
“I think the card will probably exceed expectations. I think WWE’s got everybody kind of right where they want them because there’s so much conjecture.”
Ross, a former Executive VP of Talent Relations at WWE, says the surprise return of Shane McMahon gives the event a big shot in the arm.
“Shane McMahon coming back was met with celebration by a lot of people, including myself, and met with disdain by others who had the crystal ball all Windexed up to see through it that it was going to be a fail on April 3. I don’t know how they figured that out a few hours after Raw aired when Shane came back. I felt embarrassed for some wrestling fans that had this strong case that this was the silliest thing they ever saw, that it wasn’t going to work. I just don’t believe that at all.
“I’m not worried about Shane being 46 and Undertaker being 50 or so. I espouse the philosophy that my friend Toby Keith has that ‘I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.’ I think those guys going out there and probably doing a 20- to 25-minute match is not insurmountable. I know there’s going to be a lot of punching and kicking and striking and a lot of contact. You talk about the New Japan strong style. I don’t know that Taker and Shane know any other way ... especially Shane. He’s not the refined, in-ring worker that a Ric Flair is or a Triple H even. But he’s got a great attitude. They’re going to lay their guts on the line. I can promise you that. I hope that they don’t reel it out too far. But I think they’re going to be fine.”
Ross also believes that WWE will reach its goal of drawing more than 100,000 fans to the event. With four weeks left until the big show, there’s plenty of time to fuel the rumor mill and create some major buzz.
“(Brock) Lesnar will give a good (butt)-whipping to Dean Ambrose. I also think that Reigns and Triple H will have a really good match that will hopefully close the show. I think it’s perfect for a double-turn. You can get a lot of people involved. It’s an interesting show. It’s a very personal issue-driven event and I think personal issues have been the lifeblood of the business for generations.”
Freebirds in Hall
It was officially announced last week that The Fabulous Freebirds, one of the most colorful factions in the modern era of professional wrestling, will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame as part of the 2016 class.
The group was founded in 1979 when Michael “P.S.” Hayes, Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy and Buddy “Jack” Roberts joined forces. Jimmy Garvin (Jimmy Williams), who occasionally teamed with the three during their heyday, later formed a top team with Hayes during The Freebirds’ run in NWA and WCW.
The Birds, the wrestling equivalent of a rock and roll band, were best known for a bloody feud with the Von Erich family that made the Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling promotion one of the hottest territories in the country during the 1980s.
Gordy, regarded as one of the best big men of the era, passed away of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 40. His career had come to a virtual standstill in 1993 when, at the age of 32 and already a 16-year veteran in the business, he suffered a drug-induced stroke during a flight to Japan that left him in a coma. Gordy was a shell of the dynamic performer he had once been, and his last few years in the business were marked by occasional independent matches and special appearances in Smoky Mountain Wrestling, ECW and the WWF.
Roberts (Dale Hey), who had formed a top team with Jerry Roberts during the ‘70s as The Hollywood Blonds, was given the nickname “Jack” for his affinity for Jack Daniel’s whiskey. He died in 2012 at the age of 65 from pneumonia after battling throat cancer for years.
Hayes (Michael Seitz), 56, the lone surviving original member, told rollingstone.com that his late partners would be well represented as he and Garvin speak at the ceremony during Wrestlemania weekend.
“I’ve never been a person who is at a loss for words, so I’m pretty sure I’ll have some things to say. They may not let me curse, but I want to pay homage to Terry and Buddy and the group, so I’m going to tell as many stories as they’ll let me get away with. Believe me, I’ve got plenty of them.”
“I’m happy for them,” says Ross. “Obviously you wish that Buddy and Terry could be around. But that’s not to be; they ‘ll be watching hopefully. I’m happy Jimmy Garvin is getting to be included in that group. I was wondering about that. Especially happy for Michael Hayes who really has carried the banner of The Freebirds on his sleeve every day of his life it seems like. I think it’s well deserved, and Dallas is a great place for it to happen because of the rivalry with the Von Erichs. I assume Kevin Von Erich will be the guy that will be inducting The Freebirds. It’s shaping up to be a nice Hall of Fame.”
Ross, who spends his fall on the sidelines with the Sooners during home and away games, was on hand last December at the Orange Bowl in Miami when Clemson throttled his beloved Sooners for the second straight season.
Ross, who was a radio announcer for the Atlanta Falcons for a season, admits that Dabo Swinney’s Tigers were the superior team that night.
“They have better athletes ... especially on the line,” said the veteran broadcaster. “They controlled the line of scrimmage and all of us old football guys can say what the heck we want, but it still comes down to blocking and tackling, and the team that controls the line of scrimmage usually wins. And Clemson controlled the line of scrimmage. They had bigger, faster, stronger athletes. They’re very well coached.”
Ross remains good friends with Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who joined the Tigers in 2012 after serving in a similar capacity at Oklahoma.
“I’m always going to be partial to Coach V because he’s a buddy of mine and I think the world of him and his family. I had mixed emotions in that (Clemson-Oklahoma) game. I was at the game and certainly wanted my Sooners to win, but I could never root against Clemson. I just focused all my energy rooting for Oklahoma, but unfortunately, thanks to Clemson’s team, they didn’t give my Sooners much opportunity to celebrate. In any event it was a good experience for our guys. It was good to get in the final four. It was a team that overachieved.”
Ross, who works his schedule around OU football games, hopes the Sooners can maintain their late-season momentum and be a force in the upcoming season.
“We’ve got another shot at it next year, and we’ll see how that goes. We’ve got Ohio State at home, we go to Houston on the road first game. There could be several ‘tragedies’ before the Texas game at the Cotton Bowl in October. It’s going to be an interesting year. But that’s what makes the game fun and why we all love college football.”
Sooners dream job
For years Ross had envisioned a potential dream job in the Oklahoma booth calling Sooners football. But the school wanted someone who would devote his energies full-time to Sooners sports.
“A really good kid named Toby Rowland is the voice of the Sooners, and he is also the voice of baseball, men’s basketball, some women’s basketball, and he also works a full-time morning drive shift on the radio,” said Ross. “I never wanted to work that hard to be honest with you. Full transparency here. I wanted to do football, but they needed somebody to do all their sports. That was not me.”
A conversation with Sooners head coach Bob Stoops convinced Ross that things really did work out for the best.
“I can still call the games in my head when I’m on the sideline,” says Ross. “I have fun. I talked to Bob Stoops about that a year or two ago and he told me to think about it: Would you rather be preparing all week and sitting up in the press box, or be down here on the sideline with us?”
The answer, says Ross, was a no-brainer.
“Down here on the sideline with you guys.”
Ross, whose house is only three miles from the stadium in Norman, says there’s no other place he’d rather live.
“I’m a season ticket-holder and all that good stuff. It’s a wonderful destination for my wife and I to be here in Norman. I love the college town atmosphere. I love now being back on the road a little bit because I can control all my travel. The CBS boxing gig is going to be once a month in Vegas. It’s nonstop Oklahoma City to Vegas. I’ll go to LA eight times a year. That’s nonstop Oklahoma City to LAX. My wife likes to travel along with me. So we’re at the stage in life where we can do those things. I’m really not being philosophical here or hearts and flowers... I don’t do anything that’s not fun to me. Everything I’m doing I’m blessed to have the opportunity to do, so nothing feels like work. I get tired from lack of sleep, jet lag or something like that, but I never get tired of the projects I’m working on. Old dogs can get off the porch and go hunt too every now and then.”
Reach Mike Mooneyham at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.