I recently spoke with WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross, who will be commentating tonight for boxing on FS1. During the interview, JR discussed his boxing commentating debut, Vince McMahon, how it is harder to be a good heel today and much more. Make sure to check back Thursday for the second and final part of the interview, where JR talks about his one man show in Chicago this Saturday (tickets), TNA, his favorite eras in the business, working for WWE and much more.
Wrestling INC: When did you first started watching wrestling and became a wrestling fan?
Ross: I was probably 10-years-old, so around 1962. That was an era before cable. Most households got three network channels and one of them carried the local territory wrestling program. It came on and my dad made a deal with me that if I do all my chores, because I'm an only child on a 160 acre farm and did well in school, I could watch wrestling on Saturday afternoon. It came on at 4 p.m., so it broke into the workday a little bit, so my dad would cut me some slack and let me watch wrestling. He wasn't a fan of the genre. I thought it was a good deal and I learned about keeping my end of the bargain and became a fan for life.
Wrestling INC: When did you start to think you wanted to be involved with the business somehow?
Ross: I think that came much later. There was an angle on TV between The Kentuckians and The Assassins which lit the territory on fire. I remember Jody Hamilton giving Grizzly Smith a hard way and the announcer thought it had to be some sort of an illusion and the camera zoomed in on a close-up and it darn near cost the announcer his job at the TV station. You have to remember this was the early 1960s and extremely graphic. This wasn't the days of 24 hour news or TMZ, where you're looking for jaw dropping pieces of footage. I really became interested in that storyline and I kept investing my time in it. When I was in college, my fraternity promoted two events for Bill Watts and Leroy Mcguirk in 1972 and 1973.
I wasn't really fascinated by the promotional aspect, the marketing. I knew athletically I would never be a wrestler, I was still a fan of the genre, but was interested in how it worked. I casually looked at it as a job during college. We did well on those shows and Bill Watts said, 'when you get out of college give me a call and I may have something for you.' That was 1974 and you get out of college and like everybody else you're looking for work to start a career. I intended on going back to college to get my masters degree in education and eventually try to teach at a college. Curiosity got the better of me and I called Bill on the phone and he hired me. That's where the adventure begins. I thought it would fulfill my interest about pro wrestling and 40 years later we're still talking about it.
Wrestling INC: You often write about how it is harder to be a heel today than back then. It does seem harder to be a heel today because it's hard to have the crowd hate you when everyone is breaking the rules and there's no set of rules.
Ross: It defines logic and common sense that most of the rules have been eliminated. The companies want you to get lost in their shows and suspend disbelief at what's going on, but they take away the tools you've utilized to do that. If there aren't any rules for a villain to break, then why is he a villain? They may have a look of confidence, but in today's world of attitude, does that make them heels? Of course not, it's just a part of the game. You need more than facial expression and posture to be a villain. I still believe in a fictional TV show that to some degree, there needs to be heroes and villains. You can't put them in the same pot and expect the dish to taste the same. It's easy to build heels around the seven deadly sins. Someone brought up to me why the athletes aren't checked. It's because it's show business or Disney. It takes too much TV time and it's too old school to check someone's pads. How can there be no time limits on a TV show that always ends on time? The business keeps throwing things in the formula that slap you into reality and slap you out of suspending your disbelief by what they do or don't do.
Recently they had Beat the Clock on RAW. By adding the clock, it adds a sense of urgency, immediacy, and a stipulation the most causal of fans can buy into because everything we watch in sports has some sort of timing element. By not having any time elements, it's a huge exposé. How do you throw a guy into the corner, get on the middle rope, start punching his face exactly 10 times, and you don't have a broken hand? More telling is the victim has no visible evidence that he was struck at all. There's rarely a black eye, bloody nose, or busted lip. That defies logic. Back in the day, the placement of a few punches was a great generator of heat. I have no idea what you look like, but if you struck me 10 times in the face you'll leave something behind. Don't oversell it, but make it seem real. If we did, then we did our job.
Wrestling INC: You will be making your boxing commentating debut [tonight] on FS1, how long have you been watching boxing?
Ross: Before pro wrestling. There was a show back in the days that was hosted by Don Humphrey every Friday night at primetime. My dad was a huge boxing fan so it was a staple in our house. I remember around 1962 when Emile Griffith killed Benny Paret in the ring on TV because the referee didn't step-in and stop the fight. It was an ugly scene to say the least.
Wrestling INC: Have you continued to follow boxing since you were a kid?
Ross: Off and on. Like anything else, it's cyclical. As a teenager and young adult, it was great to live through the golden era of heavyweights. It was amazing how much attention Muhammad Ali created. I've also been disappointed with the overall growth of it. Boxing is trying to find the next guy. The Klitschko brothers are talented, but they have no charisma. If you're going to be a star in boxing, it needs to happen in America. You got to have your share of big fights in America and they have a lot in Europe. Nothing wrong with that, but the American audience could care less. The hardcore boxing fans will disagree and I get that.
In the last few years, unless your name was Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao, a lot of people weren't plugged in. If that's not true, look at the pay-per-view numbers. I would love to see boxing have resurgence and become more relevant. I've been a fan my whole life and been able to see different generations of boxers. Nobody created the interest like Muhammad Ali did and you had the same principles applied to Mike Tyson. Mike Tyson was a beast. He was knocking people out on his way to becoming the youngest heavyweight champion ever, but then it got to the point where people started paying money to see if Tyson would lose. People probably rejoiced when Buster Douglas knocked him out thinking Tyson finally got what was coming to him. Muhammad Ali realized that years before when he told me in the 1980s that he could make more money in his boxing career having people pay to see him lose rather than win. That goes back to my earlier wrestling comments where it's easier to make a star babyface than to build a roster of believable and marketable villains. The villains are the straw that stirs the drink. You can get a guy with a lesser skilled set, but knows how to sell and comeback and lets the heel work around him. If you're lucky, you'll find a profitable formula. People pay to see the heel lose and if you have that much heat, you're doing your job.
Wrestling INC: I think that's the current appeal of Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Ross: Without question it is and Floyd knows it. He perpetuates because he's a smart businessman. That's why you see him posting pictures of being rich and famous on Twitter. People can't relate to his populous wealth and it pisses them off because in today's society people are working hard to stretch all their dollars. It's not easy out there with the economy and high taxes. Then, there's Floyd with two private jets and everything money can buy. People are jealous of him—one of the seven deadly sins. People will pay to see who shuts his mouth in a 'can't wait to see it happen' type deal. They might be waiting the rest of their lives because right now it's him, his division, and everybody else.
Wrestling INC: When you were contacted for the gig on Monday Night Fights on FOX Sports 1, did you have any reservations accepting or did you jump at it?
Ross: I had a FOX executive come to one of my ringside shows in New Orleans during WrestleMania [XXX] week. We hooked up after the show and he wanted to know if I could broadcast boxing. Without sounding arrogant, I said sure with ample time to prepare and if the fight is good—I can't overcall if they aren't fighting. If my wrestling career could make some fans forget it was showbiz and completely invests in the match because of the soundtrack they were hearing, then why could I not do the same thing in a real sport? I need to put my money where my mouth is on Monday night. I've been preparing, trying to learn everything I can about these fighters, watching tapes, and listening to other commentators but I'm going to be me. I'm not an impressionist and can only be myself.
Some people will hopefully enjoy it and some boxing purest will say that pro wrestling guy has no business being involved in out sweet science. I'm going to take what the fighters give me and try to make it better. I have every confidence it'll be fine at the end of the day. It's a new adventure being back at ringside and the opportunity to work with a major organization like Golden Boy is good for me. They produce a lot of fights and TV. I have a wonderful relationship with FOX and I think that will lead to other things down the road. The FOX executives and their staff have been so respectful and appreciative of what I can bring to the table. They know I'm a huge UFC fan. If my wife was fine with it, I'd move to Las Vegas to go to more fights. We'll see how the relationship evolves in the boxing world. I could tell them 'I realized I was horrible; I appreciate the opportunity and the best of luck.' They may say it was solid for your first live boxing coverage. I've got some jitters and nerves, but that's good.
Wrestling INC: You've broadcasted some Atlanta Falcons and XFL games in the past. It seems like the transition between wrestling and football would be harder than boxing. Pro wrestling and boxing are two different animals, but are more closely related than football and wrestling.
Ross: They are and MMA fits into that scenario neatly. Striking in four ounce gloves is a nasty form of boxing. They combine it all and it becomes a successful and entertaining product to watch. I'm looking forward to calling the boxing show. Another cool thing is that we're doing it from the army base in Fort Bliss. Whenever we can do anything whatsoever to give back to our armed forces—the men and women who protect us and the sacrifices their families make, we should do it. We all can and should do more. For me to go meet some of these soldiers and their family, it's a huge honor. It would be a perfect weekend to put a smile on the face of those folks by thanking them for what they do.
We take things for granted and it's not healthy for our country. It's really cool giving back and it's going to be all military people at the gym. One or two fights are going to feature amateur boxers who are active in the military. They earned their way onto the show. These are some bad dudes. They're boxers and to find their way on a national TV card is awesome. You have to have a winner a loser since you play for something. There's not going to be a loser in that equation. One guy gets his hand raised in victory and another guy just didn't win that day.
Wrestling INC: What are some things when watching the UFC do you feel pro wrestling can take? The UFC has taken stuff from pro wrestling in the past to help build their business. Do you see it going the other way?
Ross: Sure, the pro wrestling business can make their titles mean more. The titles mean something in the UFC. Every title has value and a shine, no pun intended. Wrestling has too many title changes, titles being created, and titles being dissolved. The title picture in pro wrestling is a little bit embarrassing. A title with no credibility is sad and it doesn't have to be that way. The UFC has expertly made all their titles mean something viable and tangible. If there's one thing pro wrestling could take away from the UFC, it's to increase the value of your championships.
Wrestling INC: On the flipside, do you think the UFC or the fighters can take something from the wrestlers to improve their product?
Ross: The most obvious one is the fighters can't be compromised or intimidated by developing the verbal skills to promote their fights. They don't have to be phony or play a character; they just have to enhance their own natural personality. The tenure in the Octagon is only so long because of nature and time. Fighters have a shelf life, so maximize the opportunities. To do that, you need to sell yourself and the fight. If I have an emotional investment in you as a fighter, whether to win or lose, I'm going to watch more frequently and with more dedication. I need to care about you and some fighters feel self-conscious about expressing themselves. Some take it so far that it's overtop and it's an eye roller. These UFC guys need to be comfortable in their own skin, personality, and make statements without fear of repercussion. Don't be afraid to say something that's going to make you opponent want to fight harder. It's going to be a hard fight, but if it motivated your opponent to retaliate verbally, you can bet the fans are enjoying this process and more will invest.
Wrestling INC: It seems a lot of fighters lose lots of money in their post-fight promos when they say they'll fight whoever is put in front of them. That's a big opportune moment that gets missed.
Ross: It's a generic promo and the fighters aren't being coached or pumped up. Are they thinking about their verbal skills or thinking as they do in any other phase of their preparation? I'm not saying spend your entire time in front of a mirror cutting a promo. In their downtime, is it being made apparent by their management that expressing oneself is another key to being successful?
Wrestling INC: You mentioned on UFC Tonight that Ronda Rousey is your favorite fighter. Could you have seen how big of a superstar she would become in the organization? I think she's arguably the biggest star they have.
Ross: I would agree with that. When I saw Strikeforce, I had never seen a women's MMA fight. The fact that Ronda was a medalist of judo from the Olympics as a teenager was a great story. I had no idea how good she was until she won the [Strikeforce bantamweight championship] in one of her earliest fights. She had the 'it' quality that you can't teach, manufacture, or buy. She's like a [Steve] Austin, Rock, or Four Horsemen. They had 'it' and there was a reason why you wanted to keep your eyes on them longer than someone else who came across the screen. She has a great look and has the most amazing marketable fight face with her walk to the Octagon—bar none. It's real. She's organic and not working me. I feel her realness and uniqueness of being an attractive young woman is also very marketable in that male oriented genre.
In pro wrestling, it's like transitioning from the Moolah and Mae Young era. Their look is a far cry from Trish Stratus, Sable, Torrie Wilson, and Stacy Keibler. [Vince] McMahon was a visionary in knowing he had a large male audience and he had some females coming aboard. A female is going to be a lot more interested in seeing what an attractive woman is wearing, her hair, or her athleticism than an unattractive woman. Heterosexual males will probably want to watch attractive woman in pro wrestling than one that isn't. Ronda has that package. She's a highly skilled athlete, who is intense and tough. She has that I can't take my eyes off of her appeal. She's got the intangible you hope to run across every now and then. The guys at the gym are all big UFC fans. She always comes up in conversation and she's a big star to the male genre for all the right reasons. There are a lot of talented fighters and more are being developed, but I'd argue she is the most marketable fighter in the company.
The brilliance of this deal is that Dana White said women wouldn't be fighting in the UFC. He's smart enough to change his mind. That's the mark of a great promoter and businessman—to have the ability to willingly change his mind for the better of the business and growth of the sport. Dana White facilitated Ronda Rousey's opportunity. He threw her the ball and she started making touchdowns. Dana doesn't get the credit for seeing the potential and I think the whole division will grow. It's not a one trick pony. She's the star, but a lot of young women watching are going to start training in mixed martial arts. It's great cardio, conditioning, and could lead to a career. She's going to draw those younger girls into the gyms to learn what Ronda Rousey does.
Wrestling INC: It's funny, when you were talking about Dana White and Ronda Rousey. In a lot of weird ways it's like Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan. There's the incredible charisma and the brains behind it that knows how to promote.
Ross: Vince McMahon is the greatest visionary in the history of the pro wrestling business. I've worked for some brilliant strategist in a booking room. Bill Watts had no equal booking abilities. When he was on his game, motivated, and hungry, he was as good as it got. He took the best from Eddie Graham, Verne Gagne, Roy Scherer, Vincent J. McMahon, and others guys. Bill's a sponge. He learned all these things and took all those ingredients to make his own dish. Nobody was better than "Cowboy" when he was on his game as far as in ring booking is concerned.
One of the things Vince had at his disposal was Pat Patterson, who worked a territory and knows how to book finishes. When you work 15 years in a territory like Pat did in San Francisco and you work for a guy like Roy Scherer, if he paid attention how could he not have learned this feel for the business? Bill kept in touch with anybody he came in contact with and I was lucky because I came in contact with Bill right out of the box. I drove to towns and took notes at meetings under the threatening hand of professional death of being silent and not telling what I heard. That was a difference maker for me.
Vince had this big vision for the company, but he needed a major superstar to be that hero and he saw that in Hulk. Vince was right, Hulk was the guy. Then Vince knew for Hulk to be successful he needed to wrestle colorable, threatening, and believable guys. So he needed great heels. He had Hulk in place and had a good support staff of other babyfaces that were good, but you had to have those heels. Every wrestler in the country knew if you made it to New York, you'd make more money than in any other organization. The WWE didn't have trouble recruiting talent and a lot of the territories were willing to let a guy go to New York because it was good for their territory. They would get dates with Andre the Giant for their big shows since Vince's dad booked Andre. It was a good deal and made business sense for everyone involved. You're right, that's a good parallel with Dana's vision with mixed martial arts and he needed a star to jump start it and he does.
Make sure to check back tomorrow for the second and final part of the interview, where JR talks about his one man show in Chicago this Saturday (tickets), TNA, his favorite eras in the business, working for WWE and much more. Also, make sure to follow JR on Twitter @JRsBBQ, and visit his newly designed website at JRsBarBQ.com.