A Long Conversation With Jim Ross (Part I)


Jim Ross (@JRsBBQ) hosts a weekly podcast. He will be announcing the New Japan Pro Wrestling PPV on January 4th; his live stand-up show hits the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, Nj. on January 23rd and the Trocodero in Philadelphia on the 25th. Part 2 of this interview — encompassing Sting, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and the idea of WWE unionization — will run in the next week or two. 

Ryan Glasspiegel: I saw your live show in Chicago a few months back. What you do at these shows is weave through your autobiography, stopping along the way for more specific anecdotes. One of your stories began: “I was on the road with Ric Flair. His wife was married, but he was not.” Can you tell us about one of those times?

Jim Ross: Being on the road with Flair was like a never-ending party. He had two great passions: in-ring wrestling and his social life. He was always the life of the party, so if you traveled with him on the road you kind of agreed to those terms. If you’re gonna ride in a limo and fly first class, like he’d facilitate in one way or another, you were essentially signing up for very late hours and ample alcohol consumption.

He would tell you himself that he was known to forget on occasion that he was a married man. That’s not a secret, he’s written and spoken about it. That’s just Ric, and the thing about him is that even in his mid-60’s he still loves to be … social. Sometimes you wanted to avoid the ride with him because you needed to sleep. He could operate on a higher level with less sleep than just about anybody I’ve seen — other than Vince McMahon. He’d get up early in the morning, go to the gym, and do over an hour of cardio. He and Ricky Steamboat used to have contests with each other on the Stairmaster machines that bordered on suicidal.

RG: What was one night that was particularly outrageous?

JR: You’d walk into a hotel bar with about 30-40 strangers in it, and Ric would just walk up to the bar and order 100 kamikazes, take them around to all the tables, do the Flair strut and the woooooooo’s. Obviously, most of the people knew him, but he didn’t know them. He’d buy kamikazes for the whole bar and watch them all get hammered. It would cause an Animal House-like environment where all these strangers would be hugging each other. You’ve got insurance salesmen woooo’ing, women swooning, music would come on, and he’d start dancing with everybody’s wives, having a great time. That was not an unusual night–

RG: So this was just your typical Wednesday?

JR: Yeah … He’s known for his stamina and endurance in the social and entertainment sides of his life. I wouldn’t recommend that to the young guys. There’s a lot of things Ric Flair did in the ring that are amazing, but I would not advise that any young wrestler imitate Naitch in outside activities. He’s an extraordinary human being — most men would’ve burned out years ago at the pace and grind he kept himself on. That’s really just a blessing. It’s genetics, his dedication, his passion. Everybody can’t count on having the same longevity.

RG: You’re a massive Oklahoma fan, and you’ve spent a lot of time on the team’s sidelines. What did you make of that whole love triangle with former Sooner teammates Brennan Clay and DeMarco Murray over the past few weeks?

JR: I know both of those young men quite well, and this whole ordeal has not been a productive use of their time. If I were speaking with them as part of a summit with Uncle JR, I’d tell them to cool it.

RG: You wrote a column for Fox Sports about how CM Punk in UFC is a win-win situation financially for both sides. At the time, I opined that the issues he says he had with WWE are ones that UFC fighters also face. Namely, there is one dominant company in the industry with one self-assured micro-manager in charge, and there seems to be a similar situation where they are independent contractors, which the UFC is getting sued for. Is this a case of the devil you don’t know?

JR: No, I don’t think so. This whole thing has been a very dramatic matter, made even more so by those of us who write about and speculate on it. I look at both Dana and Vince as smart businessmen. Are they alpha males? You’re damn right. Have I always agreed with everything McMahon wanted me to do or all of his basic philosophies? Not every one of them, no. He’s a very strong alpha male, and I broke into the business with one that is even stronger in his presence than Vince ever was — Bill Watts — so that’s how I thought the business was just always gonna be.

I think Dana’s a smart businessman, and the Punk signing was money from the get-go. As we speak, Punk is going through the ESPN car wash. That’s a nice get for UFC. The reason he’s on there is the same reason everyone is gonna buy his first PPV — he has global name identity. Where did he earn that? WWE. Where did he earn the money to live the lifestyle and be able to establish himself for independent ventures? Same as me — WWE.

He had these issues with McMahon. I’ve heard one side of the story. I’ve read about it a lot, but I have not heard the podcast. I’ve always said that wrestlers leave companies because of the two c’s — cash and creative. Apparently Punk had issues with those. Nothing new. Not a revolutionary statement. It’s just the way it is. I’m thinking the WWE opened a lot of doors for him, it’s unfortunate they got into a pissing contest at the end, but as I’ve said before I think this all came from a basic lack of communication. The problem festered and it was allowed to get out of hand where it got past the point of no return, for now.

I don’t know Dana as well as Vince, obviously, but both of them are smart businessmen and both of them would not want to miss the opportunity — if they could help it — to have a player on the roster that’s gonna make them money. Punk would make WWE money in any environment they put him in, and I think Dana sees that Punk’s got a great loyal fan following, he’s social media active, he’s the new kid on the block, and he can talk up the fight in a productive way. WWE fans will watch the PPV out of curiosity and hope that he wins. Die-hard MMA fans may not appreciate his intrusion into this land, being on PPV right away, and getting other special treatment, but they’ll tune in hoping he gets his ass whipped.

In the end, though, you’re gonna watch. That just equates to more money for the UFC, and their fighters, and their training camps, and everybody that’s involved. It’s like in the 80’s when WWE was running three shows a night. Wrestlers got the booking sheets, and the first thing they looked at was to see where Hogan was. Then they looked to see where they were. If they were on Hogan’s card, they knew they were gonna have a good pay week. If not, then it might not be as good. Punk’s first PPV will make a lot of money, and then anything after that will depend on his performance.

It goes far beyond just that, though. It gives them new programming content, and if they’re as smart as I believe they are, they’ll make CM Punk’s training a recurring feature on some of their Fox television programs. I also see that if Punk likes the people that he’s playing with in the UFC that even if his fighting career doesn’t materialize — and how long can it endure for at 36? Everybody can’t be Randy Couture — he could stay on as a television analyst. He’s a student of the genre, and he’s very well-spoken.

RG: You said you didn’t listen to the Punk podcast. Did you read about the medical allegations? He talked about various concussions that he felt were mistreated, and a staph infection that he felt was misdiagnosed. Do you have any thoughts about that?

JR: I was very surprised to hear that because I know from experience that WWE has invested untold sums of money on their medical staff. Full-time doctors, full-time certified trainers, CTE testing and things that are actually being followed by some of the other leagues. I know that the health of their performers is a high priority, and that anytime I ever had an issue that was job-related or in-the-ring, I always got excellent care and I communicated with the medical staff on a regular basis. They’d call me when I was home.

I was obviously not a trained in-ring performer. I did a lot of bits, that I equate to being a cow on ice, and I was a little clumsy and untrained. But I was cast in that role for that show, so I did my job — because I certainly could cash the checks. So I was surprised to hear that. I’m not disputing his claim because I wasn’t there and haven’t seen the medical records, but the issue is that it seems like it comes back down to communication. If I was in Punk’s place — and maybe he did this, I don’t know — and I was displeased by the doctor’s feedback, I would have gone to Vince after that, and said I believed the diagnosis to be incorrect. I don’t know if that ever happened.

RG: He said there were times where there were surgeries where he was told there was an X week recovery time, and that Vince would call him up and book him well before that. Not as a question of whether Punk could do it, but as a declarative statement.

JR: Again, you come back to that key word of communication. McMahon is a very, very bright man. He has great vision. We’ve had our well-publicized battles, but he’s a very bright guy. I don’t know that he wants to jeopardize anything about his company in any shape, form, or fashion by figuratively holding the gun to a head of a talent. I have a hard time understanding that. I really do. I booked guys and was in charge of talent rosters for many years. We’d have a guy who was rehabbing, and we’d fly him in for a promo, but not a physical role. That’s a different ballgame.

You have strong personalities in Phil Brooks and Vince McMahon. Both of them are very proud of what they’ve accomplished. You look at McMahon’s background — a product of the trailer parks in North Carolina — it’s pretty damn amazing. If you look at Phil Brooks’ background as an undersized guy, what he’s accomplished is pretty damn amazing too. You’ve got two strong personalities there, and if you’re able, as a facilitator, to get them on the same page, you can create special things.

We found that out with Steve Austin. He was home, he was angry. I got he and McMahon together for a little summit to clear the air in Houston, and they were able to talk through their issues. They’re both very stubborn, headstrong, and stuck in their ways, but when you got them back together the end result was they both had the same goal — to make all the money we can.

I just think there was a big breakdown in communication. I have a hard time believing that McMahon would ever demand — on the record or off — that a talent come back and put himself in physical jeopardy when that talent, by McMahon’s own doctor’s admission, was not cleared to return. I just don’t think that McMahon’s gonna put a gun to Punk’s head to make him come back two or three weeks early and get back in the ring. That would shock me if that was the case.

RG: As an outsider, it sounds like there’s a bidding war brewing between Bellator, UFC, and WWE for Brock Lesnar. I could envision something like that happening with Ronda Rousey in the future. Do you think this form of competition will lift wages across the board?

JR: No, I don’t see recruiting wars being a significant reoccurrence whatsoever. Lesnar is the exception to the rule. He had a great run here when my team got him right out of the University of Minnesota. I had him in Louisville just a few weeks after leaving college. We paid him a lot of money at the start. He was the defending NCAA wrestling champion, and he had an amazing look. We felt like he would be a star and we were right on that one.

But he got burnt out on the travel. We bought an airplane and hired a pilot to live with him and fly him to these destinations, and he just didn’t like it. He does not like traveling on a regular basis. His functional temperament is much more conducive to leaving home a handful of times a year and doing his business. I don’t know how well this schedule is working for WWE. It was great that he came back because he created a wave of excitement, but at the end of the day, when you’re only available for the dates that he’s been, it makes it very hard to do storylines and things like that.

Then you go look at the MMA side of negotiations. I think that Brock and Dana are still good friends, and I could see that business relationship starting back up. Bellator, if they don’t go out and try to poach him, shows no business acumen whatsoever, and I think their ownership group is very strong. Why wouldn’t they want to get him? This guy’s gonna bring eyeballs to televisions.

RG: That’s what I’m saying. I think that the various organizations are gonna be competing for each others’ name talent. There’s interest in CM Punk or Brock Lesnar in UFC. There’d be interest in Ronda Rousey in WWE. You don’t think there will be more talents trying to achieve cross success?

JR: I don’t agree with that. There are only a few guys that can do both. There is such a small, minute, minuscule percentage of guys that can be great sports entertainers for WWE and go be a legit mainstream sports star in an MMA environment. I could see guys in MMA, whose shelf life there have expired and have a good personality, they might be able to train in pro wrestling and get the last mileage out of their bodies.

I don’t know — I just don’t see it going back and forth that much. The unique skillset to do both chores is very rare. VERY rare. Lesnar came out of college as a specially gifted athlete in the basic fundamentals that you have to have in MMA. He was a national champion wrestler. He was very special in that regard. I don’t even think CM Punk went to college. He doesn’t have that background. We don’t know if CM Punk is going to be healthy and make it through his first training camp. If he does that, we don’t know if he’s going to be successful in his first fight. I hope he is. I’m a fan of his. I like the guy. There’s nothing guaranteed. Lesnar brought you some more sense of stability because he’d already done it on a real level in Division 1. He was the best in the land at it. I just don’t think there’s enough people that have the same skillset.

Ronda Rousey is a charismatic superstar whether she’s acting in the Expendables or on a talk show. I had her on my podcast. We talked about her fights — which last 16 seconds — for longer than that, but it was a minority of the interview. I found her to be extremely engaging, very witty, very bright. She’s got a great skillset. You can bring that to WWE for a one-time deal like a WrestleMania, and she can carry her part verbally and obviously we know that she can carry her part physically, but I don’t see her ever coming to WWE full-time. I could see Dana allowing her to do one WrestleMania for a big payday, to keep her happy. Anytime you can get your talent new money — whether it’s a marketing sponsorship or anything else — will make the talents happier, which is generally how you want them to be.

RG: Lawrence Taylor headlined a WrestleMania. WCW brought in Steve McMichael, Kevin Greene, Karl Malone, and Dennis Rodman. How come it seems like they haven’t gone after athletes like that in the last 15 years?

JR: I don’t know that they haven’t, and I also don’t know if some of the contracts of these NFL guys are restrictive of things like that. My God, they can’t ride a motorcycle. I don’t know. I think you’re going down a road that doesn’t end anywhere with that question. The generation of football players now, you can’t find very many guys who have had real success in the NFL that want to go and devote the effort and work you need to become really good at pro wrestling.

Lawrence Taylor was broke. He had great name identity, and he needed the money. He trained like a crazy man and pushed himself to be ready. We had a great performer in Bam Bam Bigelow to carry the match, and Pat Patterson was the referee to make sure he could talk to LT and guide him through it. That’s the exception to the rule. You’re just not gonna find a great star who’s fallen on hard times and is willing to put in the hellacious effort to make it work. He was a one-hit wonder, and it was never going to be anything more than that.

A lot of guys who have had long NFL careers don’t feel motivated to make the money that’s there for them in WWE based on what’s there for them from playing football. They want something for nothing. They want to be paid more than they might be worth. It’s a hard transition, and it’s just not a good fit sometimes. You mentioned Steve McMichael. That didn’t really work out in the long run. He was a role player. Now, you get some guys who were in the league for 2-3 years and flamed out, there are some people like that in NXT. That’s a different animal. Not just anybody can be a pro wrestler. The training is not anything like what people think it will be.

RG: You’re going to be announcing the New Japan PPV on January 4th. Who’s your broadcast partner, and what have you been doing to prepare for that?

JR: Matt Striker’s my partner. Jeff Jarrett made that call. It’s his money so I’m cool with it. I worked with Striker in WWE a few times, and I’ve been around him a lot. He’s a student. He’s a fan, which is important. He’ll be fine and I think we’ll have a very good show. We’re both approaching it as something extraordinary for our careers because it’s the first time that the Japanese PPV has been on PPV in North America in English.

It’s from the Tokyo Dome which is their Yankee Stadium, and this event is their version of WrestleMania. It’s a big deal if you’re a fan. I was reluctant to do more wrestling. I wasn’t and am not looking to do more wrestling as a business project. But, the business model that I was presented with was acceptable, and while that negotiation was ongoing I started watching the product and I liked it a lot. Without sounding like I’m a philanthropist, I’m getting paid and I liked the product.

It’s kind of an adventure. We’re visitors in their country and their building. I don’t even know if we are going to have English format sheets. It’s old school wrestling with modern sizzle. Great young athletes. They’ve recruited outstanding amateurs, and it shows in the ring. They have good fundamentals. I thought it would be kind of fun and we got the deal done. I’m celebrating my birthday while I’m there, I’m missing Oklahoma’s bowl game. This is not just for the payday — if that were the case I would’ve gone to Vegas with my wife for my birthday and watched the UFC event.

I think they have a great product. Very physical. Very athletic. But still fundamentally based. Fans that have been following the business for a long time understand that. Younger fans like yourself might be seeing something new there. To prepare I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube. A lot of friends of mine are big fans of the New Japan brand and have sent me information and helped me do research. I’m putting together a book of reference material that I’ll have with me. It’s a four-hour broadcast with no breaks. That’s challenging. It’s something new at this stage in the game. I want to try new things. I’m excited for this.

[Lead illustration by Evan Russell/USA Today]