Looking at the New Book "The King of New Orleans" About The Heyday Of The Junkyard Dog
June 2nd marked fourteen years since Silvester Ritter passed away in an automobile accident… it was a tragic death for a man who rose to the top of the industry in the 1980’s – both in New Orleans and in the WWF – only to fade away into obscurity by the end of the 1990’s.
In an age where younger men were dying due to faster and more dangerous lifestyles, and at a time when his peers were becoming mainstream superstars, the tragedy of the man called the Junkyard Dog (JYD for short) becomes more bitter. He missed out on returning to the big stage, he missed out on seeing his daughter’s graduation from high school, and he became more a footnote than a headliner to the bulk of the professional wrestling audience.
His death was vastly more tragic than the scores of overdose stories, the scores of young men who lost battles with demons and the devastation of fast fame and too much money, and the situations with so many sudden stars and wannabe stars that couldn’t cope with the demands of the business.
His death came about after driving to see his daughter, missing the commencement ceremony, talking to her via cell phone, and then driving away…. never to make that destination.
Ritter went through all of the battles that claimed so many younger men during this era, a decade and a half earlier, but he seemingly escaped the reported drug abuses, he grew overweight instead of merely fading into obscurity, and he seemed to have survived it all, and persisted on the indy level.
His survival alone cast a pall of tragedy on a man who saw so much success, and reached such a peak that recreating that success was a fruitless obsession for Bill Watts (the man who opened doors and gave JYD that opportunity that ruffled the feathers of the region’s establishments).
Ritter – as the Junkyard Dog – saw great success, acclamations and big money. He basically walked away from that explosive success in Mid-South, even if it had already peaked, and took one of those WWF offers that helped to destroy one more territory all the while paying one more territorial star big bucks in doing so.
Those who saw JYD in his WWF days – as merely a parody of himself – saw the essence of what made him special: his sense of athleticism, in the form of a big man; his innate ability, even when running against the grain of the industry, even when displaying short bursts of action while others carried the workrate; his special charisma that seemed to have transcended his figure of a black man in an industry (and in New Orleans, a society) that didn’t always provide such opportunity.
Politics and segregation and the South are ugly truths. Debates about who did what, who did little and who is ultimately responsible is not in the scope of a professional wrestling review, but it remains fascinating to look back at what professional wrestling did to break so many barriers.
The color of money – green – did make enough wrestling promoters break the color barriers that segregated society. There is more than irony in the reality that Leroy McGuirk was a blind man, not blind to race. When Bill Watts and his vision and cohorts wanted to push the “Dog” to the top of the card, they found initial success with their formula, but also found resentment and roadblocks from the majority owner.
Whether or not we want to debate Klein’s contention that Bill Watts and Ernie Ladd were Libertarians or not opens a can of worms that is one of the biggest flaws of the book. Politics are always ugly, but realities are sometimes stranger than professional wrestling. I found it very troubling that a book that celebrates the accomplishments of a black man, despite the social and industry antagonism, goes out of its way to disregard the imagery of the heels involved in The Junkyard Dog’s biggest breakthrough, and throws in cryptic references instead.
When I think of The Freebirds, I think of two things: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song, and the Confederate flag on capes and trunks. It is amazing that in a ten page digression, there is no mention of this image, no mention that the biggest heels of the time were not just ‘wild eyed Southern boys’ but cast as such in the worst of ways, and that despite the clashes of culture and the meanings and the social commentary of it all, The Junkyard Dog still rose to the top of the promotion, capture the appreciation of a multi-cultural crowd, and still remained the biggest babyface of the region.
(The other huge flaw of the book is no mention of why JYD wore trunks with “Thump” on his backside. Aside from Buzz Sawyer, the Dog’s powerslam was tops in the business as a finisher. The Dog’s ability to do quick matches and have Bill Watts say that “The Dog don’t get paid by the hour” was based on this finisher. Strange how Wikipedia doesn’t miss this, but a book about Sylvester Ritter and how he became a “Superstar” does.)
Setting aside those flaws, Greg Klein’s efforts are very clear: he wants to give Sylvester Ritter his due as one of the biggest black superstars of the industry. Was he the first? Well, despite the arguments otherwise, there’s a lot of debate their. Bobo Brazil and Sailor Art Thomas were huge in their respective regions, easily equal to JYD’s success. And Klein’s efforts to say that JYD’s role could have been handed to guys like Tony Atlas, Thunderbolt Patterson or Rocky Johnson only detract from the unique success of Sylvester Ritter in the role; these references do not exactly build up the argument.
Does JYD deserve a place in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame or in the hearts of professional wrestling Halls? There is an argument. He is inducted in some of the industry’s notable and celebrated lists, including the ‘real’ Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, NY (2012 inductee) and that other one that resides in Vince McMahons head (2004 inductee).
The early part of this book is the best, in which we learn much about Sylvester Ritter and his potential and his athleticism. Based on his potential, Ritter was destined for greatness.
But far too much is talked around, not with, his life story.
It reminds me of an essay I wrote in my senior year in high school, where I talked about me in the eyes of my teacher. I spent hundreds of words talking about other classmates, and very little about myself. I thought it was a great gimmick. My teacher likely used the gimmick to avoid a bad grade.
The initial chapters are strong, telling much about Ritter’s youth. But then come a series of diversions, and a lot of references to the Bill Watts book, the Ted DIbiase book and many others, and this “biography” of Sylvester Ritter seems to have ended prematurely.
While the stories of McGuirk, Watts, Ernie Ladd, Dibiase, Freebirds and all the guys who failed to replace Sylvester Ritter in New Orleans are vital to the story, the story simply must explain “How the Junkyard Dog Became Professional Wrestling’s First Black Superstar”.
Not just because, but because that’s the subtitle.
It is now an ECW Press staple to say the professional wrestling is scripted to the hold, to the word and to the finish… .and yet everything about Sylvester Ritter’s success is based on his unique abilities and talents. That’s readily learned from the book, because a half-dozen guys couldn’t recreate the formula, and despite references to babyface and ethnic wrestling successes elsewhere, the success or failure of ethnic/racial or cultural attempts to capture segments of the audience works or fails based on the talent of the man in the ring, not the adeptness of the booker.
The fact that JYD was embarrassed a few times by even Ernie Ladd (who should have known better than to book the “Dog” in a long match an expose his weaknesses) only shows that A) JYD could work a match at the basic level, albeit not so well if it went more than five minutes and B) there’s no way any wrestler could be successful just because the booker wants them to be.
The other amusing aspect of the book is that insistence that wrestling is storyline, and yet the retelling of JYD’s career by …. explaining the storylines.
But what seems to be missing is why and how JYD connected to the fans, despite the initial chapter on memories and reflections by those fans, despite closing chapters about why this project was important and why the sentimentality for JYD is there.
The matches and decisions are an important part of the story, including the Freebirds angle, the ongoing turns and feuds with DIbiase, Butch Reed and others, and then the failures of the Snowman, Reed, Savannah Jack and so many other wrestlers with whom Watts intended to capture the same demographics.
And what was going on at the booking level is JYD is touted a Superstar, but more so by the facts of his irreplaceable stature, yet the gold JYD earned was not trivial. He held the Louisiana Championship three times, the North American Heavyweight Championship four times, and held the Mid South’s Tag Team Championships eight times with six different partners, including one reign with Killer Karl Kox…. a name so fraught with racial overtones that he doesn’t get mentioned in the book.
Dick Murdoch is bad enough to those who knew Captain Redneck, but his mentor??? Imagine that! JYD and … well, Killer Karl Kox as a tag team in the Big Easy.
In 1980, the Junkyard Dog was named “Most Inspirational” by Pro Wrestling Illustrated. Some of his other achievements were less than positive, but he also held the Feud of the Year by the Wrestling Observer, in 1982, and no one can ever take away his winning the Wrestling Classic – one of the very first WWF PPVs.
JYD earned tremendous money, was given a huge contract to turn his back on Mid-South (or whatever it was called at that time) and move to Vince’s national promotional effort. And then it’s one more telling of the tale of national expansion that is required inclusion of every wrestling bio that covers the 1980’s, even though so much of it is clichéd, so much of it is simplistic, so much of it makes no relevance to the stated focus of the book.
Was JYD a Superstar of the highest level, for the region that includes New Orleans?
Was his cultural impact important?
Has he been sadly forgotten, even though he owns part of the professional wrestling legacy, even though he arguably (and quite nicely explained by Klein) had a role in the “Who Dat?!?” phrase that New Orleans (mostly via the Saints, these days) is associate with, even thought he had vastly more than 15 minutes of fame.
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Greg Klein’s forward and epilogue strike the chord in this wrestling fan, in terms of hero worship, wanting to do the best for a wrestler and wanting him to get his due. For that, I respect the efforts, even though I question some of the strategy.
Klein has put together a campaign on the web site IndieGoGo, to try to raise $1000 in Sylvester Ritter’s name, for the good of the GS Glory Church in Hickory, North Carolina. Look for this at
The King of New Orleanssets out to do justice for Sylvester Ritter and a career that started the eighties with so much potential, and now in another century, shows so much tragedy. In the end, the sentimentality of the book, the nostalgia for those who lived through and fondly remember the days where the Dog ran the Downtown Municipal Auditorium like his very own junkyard, and the sense of reading about a legend do make up for the various flaws of the writing.
If you know of JYD, it’s a fine book. If you never knew the Dog, it is a great story from start to finish… just don’t let the details (or lack thereof) dissuade you like they did me.