For legendary pro wrestling play-by-play man Jim Ross, the key to a successful broadcast team is chemistry.
“It’s imperative,” said the 64-year-old World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Famer.
The man affectionately known as “Good Ol’ JR” spoke to TSN.ca ahead of Ringside with Jim Ross, his spoken word show coming to the Second City Theatre in Toronto on Nov. 20. Ross’s visit coincides with Survivor Series, the WWE’s annual fall pay-per-view event, being held that day that the Air Canada Centre.
While Ross’s commentary partnerships with the likes of Jerry “The King” Lawler and Paul Heyman are revered, Ross points to an ill-fated team-up that taught him about the importance of rapport at the announcer’s desk.
“Probably the most under-delivered broadcast team that I can remember in pro wrestling was myself and Jesse Ventura,” Ross recalled. “On paper, you would think that we’d have been really good and – if it had not been for my ego – we would have been really good.”
Ross and Ventura were paired together on World Championship Wrestling broadcasts when Ventura jumped over from the World Wrestling Federation in 1992. Ross says a look at The Body’s paystub was the impetus for submarining the partnership before it could take off.
“I was working as a VP of broadcasting for WCW at the time and I’m shown a contract and Ventura is paid three times what I’m earning,” Ross said. “I’ve got a full-time job, plus I have the same amount of on-air time. So I get all pissed off like a child and I didn’t want to work with the guy. And they were paying him a whole lot of money – I knew down to the nickel what they were paying him, but I dropped the ball on that. I learned a great life lesson in that whole experience. If you don’t have chemistry and you don’t want to sit there together to some degree, you’re going to soil the sheets.”
Ventura, the former governor of Minnesota, will be just one of the many personalities from the past and present of pro wrestling that Ross addresses in his Ringside show. With more than 40 years in the industry, Ross has a deep well to draw from when it comes to anecdotes and he likes to tailor them to his particular audience.
“When you’re in an almost circus-like atmosphere with these children who are massive in size, but haven’t grown up, it equates to a lot of stories,” Ross said. “So we’ll tell some stories, kind of take a little journey and talk a lot about some of the Canadian athletes I’ve worked with and my Toronto experiences. But the money part of the show is when we go to the Q and A. No question is off limits. The audience takes control. I follow them and it generally results into some unique content.”
While Ross has been gone from the WWE since 2013, he still keeps abreast of the company in which he spent nearly 20 years, including this past Sunday night’s RAW brand Clash of the Champions pay-per-view.
Though Ross enjoyed the calibre of wrestling on the show, he was critical of some of the booking decisions and the way certain matches were put together, namely wrestlers kicking out of finishers, a lack properly selling offence and the reuse of spots from matches earlier in the night. Ross believes that the card should be booked as a whole, rather than with each match in a vacuum.
“The simplest illustration is if you have someone use a steel chair in the second match, in my way of thinking, you will not see a steel chair again,” Ross explained. “So if you need to use a steel chair in your main event, obviously, you can’t utilize it prior to that. I just thought by the time you got to what was a really good Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins match, the toolshed had been pretty much emptied. A ton of stuff was done before that, especially kicking out of the other guy’s finisher, which I don’t think is good at any time. If you do it, it should be done once and it should be the biggest match on the show.”
In the main event, Owens retained his WWE Universal Title over Rollins, who after a long run as a hated heel, recently turned babyface when evil authority figure Hunter Hearst Helmsley sided with the Marieville, Que., native over Rollins in late August. However flimsy the impetus for Rollins’ turn might be, Ross doesn’t figure it to be an issue in the long run and expects the fans to flock to his side.
“I think once [Rollins] gets engaged in an issue with an established villain, once the hero is wronged illegally, once he’s faced with seemingly challenging odds, all that babyface stuff will start filtering his way,” Ross said. “He has always wrestled – with his athleticism and high-flying stuff – as a fan favourite, so he doesn’t have to change that. I think the subtle things – maybe his promo work will be tweaked a little bit, but he’s got to have a cause. Once his cause is established with an established villain, it will take care of itself.”
Over on WWE’s SmackDown Live brand, the WWE World Title is held by A.J. Styles. Long considered one of the world’s finest wrestlers, Styles signed with WWE this past January after a successful run in New Japan Pro Wrestling. With the WWE’s predilection for featuring monstrous wrestlers towards the top of the card, Ross is glad to see that Styles has shone as quickly as he has.
“I’m a little bit surprised because I didn’t know how the general WWE audience would receive A.J. – those who weren’t overly familiar with his work,” said Ross. “There are some folks who only watch WWE. They don’t watch New Japan or TNA or what have you, so I was a little surprised that the audience embraced him so quickly. You saw that immediately upon his entrance at the Royal Rumble. I believe he’s the best in-ring talent currently wrestling.”
In Steen and Styles, the organization’s two top champions are not your typical superstars that the WWE tends to push prominently. With a pair of so-called “indie darlings” at the vanguard of the WWE, Ross likes the course on which the company is going.
“The WWE has done really well,” said Ross. “They gave a hungry Kevin Owens – a Canadian that’s loved wrestling since he’s been alive – and A.J., an overachiever, an amazing athlete and those are their two champions. So I think if that’s an illustration of where they’re headed, I kind of like their athletic direction.”
As for Brock Lesnar, arguably the WWE’s biggest star, Ross believes that the former Ultimate Fighting Championship Heavyweight champion’s mixed-martials arts days might not be over. Lesnar, 39, returned to the UFC this past July for UFC 205 where he defeated Mark Hunt by unanimous decision. Weeks later, the United States Anti-Doping Agency informed Lesnar of a violation in his pre-fight testing, later revealed to be clomiphene.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Lesnar fighting,” Ross said. “Even if he’s in his early 40s – say, 40 or 41 – when his WWE contract expires - and I don’t know that to be fact - I think he will strongly consider more UFC because there’s going to be a lot of money waiting for him for a one-time shot to see what he’s got left in the tank. And he sells pay-per-views. He’s like CM Punk. He sold pay-per-views and that was part of the bottom line in hiring both of those guys.”
While Lesnar’s future in MMA is up in the air, there is a UFC heavyweight that Ross sees regularly in Josh Barnett. Ross and Barnett are the commentary team for NJPW on AXS TV. Working with NJPW presents an interesting challenge in that the matches Ross is calling are often months old and on tape. Luckily, Ross was prepared for such a circumstance.
“Back in the day when I was working for Bill Watts [and Mid-South Wrestling in the early 1980s], we did a taped show called Power Pro Wrestling,” Ross said. “So I did a taped show every week, for weeks. Then, when I got to WCW, we had a whole bunch of customized shows. Some weeks I would broadcast from the voiceover room one match, maybe 10 or 12 times. So I did a lot of shows, a lot of volume. By the time I got to New Japan here a year ago or so, I was well versed in the post[-production] voiceover sessions. There’s no problem. I have no issues doing it.”
The nature of the taping means that Ross and Barnett are working with a safety net and have the ability to rerecord the audio, but they normally don’t.
“I try not to think about it, but obviously, you have it in your back pocket,” Ross said. “If I misidentify somebody or there’s something that’s just factually wrong, then we can do a pick-up and I can go back to knock that out and go forward. But I’d say 90 per cent of all of our work that you hear is a first-take pass. I’m prepared when I get there. I’ve become an anal preparation freak, which sometimes has been a blessing, but sometimes it’s a curse.”
Even with his broadcasting commitments and barbecue sauce business, Ross still makes time for his beloved Oklahoma Sooners. Unfortunately for Ross, Oklahoma (1-2) and much of the Big 12 are taking it on the chin, thus far. Only Baylor (#14) and Texas (#22) feature in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll. Despite the poor season from the conference, it appears that a proposed expansion for the Big 12 could push ahead, something that Ross has serious misgivings about.
“I think it’s a dysfunctional family in the Big 12,” Ross said. “I’m embarrassed to be living in the midst of it…the Big 12 needs to be solid. There are too many ‘maybes,’ ‘ifs’ and a lot of cooks in the kitchen. The Big 12 used to be run by DeLoss Dodds from the University of Texas, but I’m not sure who runs the damn thing now.”
With schools like Houston, Cincinnati, Connecticut and Memphis among the rumoured names for additions to the conference, Ross hopes the decision-makers keep geographical limitations in mind, something they didn’t do when West Virginia came aboard in 2012.
“I think somewhere along the way with these television money deals, you’ve got to look at them a little bit from the fan’s perspective,” said Ross. “I have friends with kids on the football team at Oklahoma who couldn’t go to West Virginia because it’s like a three- or four-day drive, roundtrip, and some of them can’t afford to fly. I think there will be some more teams added, but I just hope that they’re geographically sensible.”
And while travel is a concern for Ross when it comes to his college football, it won’t be when he returns to Toronto later this fall. For Ross, it’s the audience that keeps him going and doing shows like Ringside.
“I think our audiences – in all broadcast ventures – are getting a little bit more bold,” Ross said. “People are bolder. They don’t have any shame as to what they ask. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. They’re uninhibited. So [the shows] are very free-flowing and, quite frankly, that makes the show more cutting edge, more unpredictable and more fun at the end of the day.”
Wrestling fans in Toronto can see for themselves on November 20.