Jim Ross on his WrestleMania return, The Undertakerís retirement, and boisterous Chicago fans
Posted: Apr 8th 2017 By: Kevin Pang
Jim Ross is the greatest announcer in the history of professional wrestling, full stop. This is not in dispute. And when he was relieved from his position from the WWE in 2013, no one would have faulted him for riding into the sunset.
But Ross has not only kept busy, heís experienced a career renaissanceóbecoming the lead English announcer for upstarts New Japan Pro-Wrestling, host a popular podcast, and a one-man live show where he regales in wrestling stories, as well as dabble in boxing announcing. That circle was complete when, just last Friday, Ross re-signed a two-year contract with the WWE.
Itís also been a time of tremendous sadness for the 65-year-old Ross, whose wife Jan unexpectedly passed away in March. Nevertheless, he fulfilled all his appearances this past weekend in Orlando, home of WrestleMania 33, including a surprise return to announce The Undertakerís retirement match. It was therapeutic, he said, to be among friends during his grieving process.
Ahead of his ďRingsideĒ Chicago show at Zanies Rosemont May 21 (tickets go on sale Saturday morning), we spoke with Ross about his whirl-windiest of whirlwind weeks.
The A.V. Club: So youíre doing your one-man show in Chicago, and the venue is just three miles from the Rosemont Horizon, now called the Allstate Arena. A lot of wrestlers have said their favorite arena to work is the Rosemont Horizon. What is it about that venue that wrestlers enjoy?
Jim Ross: Itís got an indescribable feel, quite frankly. The buildingís got a personality, and it reflects the personalities of those sitting in the seats. For me, Iíve never performed or worked in a more memorable arena. And selfishly for me, I was sitting in that arena when I found out I was going into the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2007. The buildingís got a personality thatís living and breathing, and the atmosphere is really amazing. It makes you glad to come to work that day.
AVC: Any favorite matches from the Rosemont Horizon?
JR: The WrestleMania 13 card with ďStone ColdĒ Steve Austin vs. Bret ďThe HitmanĒ Hart, with Ken Shamrock as the referee, which often times gets overlooked. It was one of the best WrestleMania matches in my view. And I would have to say, with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, that my resounding victory over ESPN SportsCenter star Jonathan Coachman in a Country Whipping match would also rank high on my list of distinguished athletic accomplishments.
AVC: What other fond wrestling memories do you have about Chicago?
JR: In í89, Magnum T.A. and I called the Ricky Steamboat-Ric Flair match at the UIC Pavilion. As a rule, I never needed to know the finishesóit wasnít something I needed to precondition myself with. So I remember walking to the announcing position before the show, and George Scott was the booker. He pulled me off aside and said, ďYou know what weíre doing tonight?Ē And before I said, ďNo, I donít want to know,Ē he said, ďWeíre going to change the belt.Ē It didnít kill it for me, but I didnít need to know that. But they went out thereóthe two Ricksóand had a masterpiece. It was a pay per view event, and that match really will always resonate. That year in 1989, I called three Flair-Steamboat matches with three different partners, and I loved them all. I had the opportunity to see these guys write this amazing classical music, and theyíre depending on me and Magnum to give them the lyric to fit that music. It was a memorable night in Chicago, and there were a lot of them, honestly.
AVC: How did your deal come together with WWE? What will your role be?
JR: Talks with WWE began around six months ago. I never had any reservations about going back to WWE, it just wasnít the right time based on other things I had committed to do in my career at that time. Talks escalated a couple months ago, and my wife was very excited about the opportunity for us to go home, as she termed it. She was excited about going to WrestleMania and seeing all her old friends, and I shared her optimism. I didnít get a chance to get her to the red carpet, but I do believe she was present when I called the Undertaker match. Anyhow, my contract was signed Friday night of WrestleMania weekend. I did most of my negotiations with [executive vice president] Kevin Dunn. But [chairman and CEO] Vince McMahon was also very involved, and I did speak with him. I spoke to [executive vice president] Paul Levesque. It was a team effort. I think Iím going to do 30-40 dates in my first 12 months of my deal. Those dates are to be determined. Thereís nothing they can assign me that I havenít done before. How many wrestling matches you think Iíve called in my lifetimeó100,000? If they want me to do U.K. or NXT or Main Event, I donít care. Itís all good to me. My days of being the lead guy, the No. 1 voiceóall that is way yesterday. Guys whoíve had those issues like I have had in my career, they have self-esteem and confidence issues. I have both those. Totally happy to admit it, but I ainít got them no more. Iím 65 years old. I feel great, I just lost my wife, Iím trying to get back on my feet here, and Iíve said this and I truly mean it: Iím happy to get my jersey back. Iím happy to re-sign with my old team. Whatever role I need to play, Iím fine with.
AVC: Will you still be involved with the ITV show? And how about your New Japan announcing with AXS TV?
JR: No, Iím not gonna be involved with ITV. Yes Iím going to be involved with AXS TV and New Japan. Iíll continue to work with them and fulfill my contractual obligations with AXS. But Iím not going to be part of the World of Sport relaunch for ITV. I would have been, but Iím not able to do that now. Iíve got plenty on my plate as it is.
AVC: How about the G1 Long Beach shows with New Japan?
JR: If they do a special, Iím under contract. Iíll go to work.
AVC: Youíve had an awful few weeks, with the unexpected passing of your wife, Jan. No one would have faulted you if you missed WrestleMania weekendóand yet, you showed up for all your bookings. What was it like to be amongst fans and colleagues and friends who obviously loved and care for you so much?
JR: It was the perfect medicine. Itís what the doctor ordered. Some people, I understand, had a problem of my grieving technique. Apparently my grieving was not approved by everybody. I donít know the formula or have the manual on grieving. All I know is that I was shaken to my core, my life changed forever, in a way that did not have to happen to a beautiful, healthy woman who was the love of my life. I only had the option of moving forward, and trying to fulfill her wishes as best I could. It was timely and heartwarming. The love that I received in Orlando was overwhelming, and sometimes I got to my room and I was spent. Thereís only so much emotion you can dip into. I did my show on Sunday, kept it to myself without confirming where I was going to go after the show was over. I went back to my hotel, took a shower, ironed my shirt, pressed my suit, got another car from the WWE and they took me to the Citrus Bowl. It was a whirlwind of a day. Monday I did my podcast production. I was really busy, really tired, had three hours of sleep. Then Tuesday was when it hit me. Thereís no more noise, no more neon, no more adulation, no more hugs. It was just me and an empty house. That was a challenging day. Thatís the first time I come from a booking in WCW or WWE that my wife wasnít there.
AVC: I canít help but go back to that moment at the Citrus Bowl, when Boomer Sooner played, and the crowd erupted as you walked down that ramp. Take me back to that moment.
JR: I was completely impervious. I was so focused on taking a step at a time, not wanting to trip and fall like an old fool and break my hip. It was a surreal, slow motion, distorted audio thing. I havenít watched it back yet, but I will. Iím just preparing myself for that. But I was told it got a real good reaction, but I need to hear it back on TV to hear how it sound. A lot of my friends were in the arena, so it was really neat. I was thinking about my wife, but I didnít want to fixate on that. Because I didnít want to start crying about it, to be frank. Those that say, ďOh, heís just a wrestling guy.Ē They have, unfortunately, never experienced the love of their fan base like Iíve experienced from mine. And I feel for them, because thereís nothing really like it in the world. People Iíve never even met believe they know me because they grew up with me. I feel a certain obligation to not let them down, which was why I kept my bookings in Orlando. I met all my obligations. My wife would have wanted that, and it was a great moment in her memory.
AVC: You called what appeared to be The Undertakerís retirement match. Did you have any interactions with him after the show backstage?
JR: Yes, I did. And I had interactions with him before. He used an RV as his dressing area. I went in his RV when I arrived hours before we were going on. So we had a very good personal conversation. Weíve been joined at the hip for a long, long time, even back to the WCW days. I helped get him into WCW from World Class Championship Wrestling. I thought at the time, you donít see too many 6-foot-9, 300-pound guys who were athletic. Young Mark Calaway was an athletic beast. So we had a nice conversation. [And after the match], a big hug afterward. I cried, he didnít want to cry, though he might have had a tear. It was very emotional for him afterward, and I didnít want to monopolize his time. It sure as hell wasnít about me, it was about him. What he helped facilitate for me was the greatest honor I have received in wrestling. Iíve been in three Halls Of Fame, and they pale in comparison to having a legendary guy wanting to bring me backówhether I was under contract or notóto be part of the broadcast team, so I can add to his soundtrack of that match. It was a really emotional day.
AVC: The Undertaker specifically asked for you?
JR: I was told by others that Mark and Vince collaborated, and they talked about it. Mark had a suggestion, VInce thought it was a great idea. Look, thereís one captain of the ship, and I give Vince a hell of a lot of credit, because if it wasnít for him facilitating it, it wouldnít have happened. Iím very grateful for both guys. It was quite the honor.
AVC: Any talents on the WWE roster youíre most intrigued by coming out of WrestleMania?
JR: I like the guys who were in the main event tag team match on Raw: Kevin Owens, Finn BŠlor, Seth Rollins, and Samoa Joe. You canít go wrong by giving those guys increased playing team and more valuable minutes in the hopes that as their evolution continues, that the fans will accept them on the level that they would have accepted Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, or The Rock. Big stars. Somebody on the rosteróhoping more than oneóhave got to have a breakthrough and become the next big thing. It might be Roman Reigns, it might be A.J. Styles, I donít know. The fans have got to connect with the talent. The good news is, the WWE has several talents that are on the cusp, that their work will certainly support the increased role, but they still have to make that all important emotional connection to the audience. And thereís just no formula for that, it either happens or it doesnít. But itís largely up to the talents to make the connection to that audience.
AVC: If you watched Smackdown on Tuesday, it certainly looked like Shinsuke Nakamura could be the guy. He felt like the most over guy on the roster on his first night there.
JR: Heís a phenomenal talent. I saw him at Wrestle Kingdom 9 at the Tokyo Dome. I told everybody when I got back that heís a fascinating talent. He has the most amazing charisma, heís an MMA guy, a tough guy, spoke some English. He told me he was influenced by Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson, and I loved that. But hereís the deal: Heís got to work on his English. He has to communicate with the biggest part of his audience. He doesnít need to be a skilled orator, he doesnít need to be Paul Heyman, heís got to convey his message and feelings verbally to his audience. Thatís the only missing piece heís got. And the good news there is that can easily be addressed and solved.
AVC: The last two years youíve had a crash course in Japanese pro wrestling. What do you know now about the Japanese style of wrestling that you didnít know two years ago?
JR: My experience with Japanese pro wrestling has been on a need-to-know basis. I didnít chase down the videotapes back in the day. Since theyíve become more accessible digitally, Iíve become a big fan of it. When Mauro Ranallo came to the WWE and AXS brought me in, I was solidly versed, but not expertly versed. The difference is, by and large, theyíre still very much invested in the concept of telling an understandable, transferrable, meaningful, bell-to-bell story. They still have the entrances and all the sizzle, but some promotions, and some talents, rely more on the sizzle than the steak. I love the fundamental soundness of New Japan. I think every promotion can learn from one another, and people can learn from New Japan how theyíre trained, how they approach the game, the realness of it. And I like the booking that on a given night, no one is untouchable. On a given night, a wrestler who executes his finisher could beat anyone else with that finish. Itís fundamental, old-school soundness, and I enjoy it.
AVC: Which New Japan wrestler do you think could transfer his talent to the WWE?
JR: The easy answer there is [Kazuchika] Okada. Heís 29, their number one guy. Heís a fascinating athlete and performer. Iím a fan of [Katsuyori] Shibata, I like [Tomohiro] Ishii, I enjoy watching [Yujiro] Kushida. Of the Japanese national guys, thereís a lot of guys I enjoy. Iím also a big fan of Will Ospreay, RicochetÖ
AVC: And Kenny Omega?
JR: Well, obviously. Kennyís a big timer, thereís no doubt. Heíll be able to pick his poison when heís ready to make that decision.
AVC: Have you spoken to Mauro Ranallo since he took his leave of absence?
JR: No, I did not. Iím respecting his privacy. But I did send him a text message. I saw how he tweeted out me being at WrestleMania, which was thoughtful and very kind. But I havenít picked up the phone and called him, simply out of respect for him. He knows I care about him, he knows Iím there for him. And if he ever wants to talk, Iím always available to him, night or day. Mauro fights a tough battle every day with his mental illness. The bipolar disorder heís talked about publicly a great deal, itís no day at the beach, especially when youíre in a profession thatís packed with pressure and anxiety. No matter how good people think a guy like Mauro is, and Mauro is very, very good, or they say ďJ.R. does this all the time, he canít be nervousĒówell none can be farther from the truth. We all have to hold up to our highest standard, which is ourselves. Iíve always believed youíre only as good as your last show. Every time I go out there, I havenít earned the right to coast.
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