Jim Ross' voice isn't exactly full of hellfire and brimstone when you call him for a casual conversation. It can throw you at first. That familiar Okie inflection is ever-present, but he speaks with such calm that it's hard to equate what you're hearing with this.
Yet, such quietude befits his current state of semi-retirement. After decades calling wrestling matches for WWE (where he also served as a talent-relations executive), WCW and NWA – and in the process, setting an unrivaled standard with a style that married nuanced insight and theatrical showmanship – Ross stepped down from his role as a full-time commentator in 2009. Over the ensuing years, he's made sporadic returns to the WWE and very recently traveled overseas to call New Japan Pro Wrestling's ballyhooed Wrestle Kingdom 9 event, which was broadcast on American pay-per-view through a partnership with Jeff Jarrett's Global Force Wrestling.
When he's not working, everyone's favorite Boomer Sooner has been hawking a signature line of barbecue sauces and snacks, getting deep with the likes of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin on his Ross Report podcast, reflecting on contemporary sports entertainment through regular blog updates and occasionally booking venues for his one-man show, Ringside: An Evening With Jim Ross, which storms Philadelphia and Sayreville, New Jersey later this month.
There's so much to discuss with an industry legend who's called it all in front of the camera and seen it all behind the scenes. And over the course of our two-hour conversation, the 63-year-old WWE Hall of Famer and I covered everything from what makes today's superstar a "draw" to paving that storied road to WrestleMania. Here are the highlights.
J.R. on the Current State of the WWE
"I look at WWE more like they're reloading rather than regrouping. But I do think it's a transitional period, and it's creating a lot of talk, because the fans are unsure of where the future's leading. Somebody's gotta replace John Cena. Who's it going to be? So there's a lot of unknown, but I don't perceive it to be overtly negative. In this case, the talents didn't go to another wrestling company. Some of them just got old. Some of them just got injured.
Here's the deal: As a football team, you're always obligated to develop a backup quarterback. So, I think the mistake the WWE's made is that they haven't developed that backup quarterback as readily as they would have liked. But it isn't formulaic. You gotta have a real good eye for talent, and you gotta create the right kind of people. I think it's a unique time in the business, and it's a unique time to study it."
J.R. on Whether There Will Ever Be Another 'Attitude Era'
"I hope so, but it's going to take the right talent at the right time, and that person's got to be greedy – they want to be the top guy, they need to be the top guy. And I don't know that society is producing an overabundance of young men and women with that mindset now."
J.R. on Jeff Jarrett's Model for New International Partnerships
"I think, quite frankly, it has a very viable chance to survive. It's a new business model. Some people of the old-school wrestling fraternity will have their doubts. I believe it has outstanding potential. The key is simple: There has to be a level of trust established with all these promotions that the money and all that stuff is going to be above board, the talents are going to be treated professionally and the financial partnerships are going to be upheld. But I think [Jarrett] does have a good chance. There's a lot of brands around the world that want to get exposed in the U.S.A. That's what he's trying to provide. It's so new, there's no precedent for it, so it's one of those things where you gotta just see how it's going to evolve. If wrestling fans are the least bit unsatisfied with what they see on a regular basis in this country, then they're going to be looking for alternatives."
J.R. on the Role of Indie Promotions
"If I was in WWE, I would tell you [the indies'] biggest role was to get talent ready for me to sign. They organically promote their shows through social media. It's very easy to have a scout go out and watch the crowd and watch the talents. So for me, the indies were a place to find that diamond in the rough. Now, it allows WWE to do that, and they've got some guys in their developmental program that are seasoned veterans, but they've just always wrestled abroad. But it also gives guys that wanna live their dream a place to work. If they're smart and have a decent day job, they're able to wrestle on the weekends or select dates to supplement their income, and they can do the wrestling thing because it's the passion, not because they have a gun to their head.
I would think some of the most stressed-out young guys in the business are the ones that only wrestle. They're putting all their eggs in one basket; 'I'm going to wrestle every independent show that I can, I'm going to book my own travel, I'm going to drive hundreds of miles, I'm going to wrestle for miniscule paydays and take crazy risks in the hopes that one of the big groups notices me.' I think the independents are basically like the Arena Football League. They can go play, there will be a few people there, but there's probably not a player on their teams that [wouldn't say yes to], 'Would you be willing to come play for an NFL team?' Independent wrestlers are WWE-bound if they can get there."
J.R. on What Makes Someone 'A Draw'
"It varies. There's not a formula. The first thing that you need to be a draw, to be a star, is the intangible 'It' factor. You cannot manufacture 'It,' you cannot replicate 'It.' When the Rock was cut from the Calgary Stampeders and he was back in Florida looking for work, a friend of mine told me about him. He saw that his lifetime dreams of being an NFL player were not going to happen, so, 'Now, where am I? I got that performer gene in me.' I saw this guy that I believed had amazing potential, and he was brash and bold, highly intelligent to talk to. He said to me on day one: 'If you sign me, I'm going to be the top guy in your locker room.' And I'm thinking to myself, 'This kid's got amazing cojones.'
But I loved the attitude, and I encouraged him to maintain that philosophy. Now, [the fans] are getting to exposed to this 'Attitude Era' product that WWE features, and they're saying, 'How come we can't have guys like that?' and they speak out on it. The WWE can use this information for market research – 'What are the most common complaints, and are they logical?' I've always believed that if you are in the WWE system, that in two years or less, the staff should be able to tell who's a keeper and who's not."
J.R. on Re-Introducing Sting's Character in WWE
"I think what you have to do with Sting is determine what his final match or event will be, and then book it backwards and build to that destination. Sting's got all these year of television exposure, [so] you don't want to overexpose him. You want to make sure you keep him in a positive light with your vignettes, your interactions on TV. And you sure as heck don't want him to wrestle on television before WrestleMania. I want his first match with WWE to be at WrestleMania, and he's gotta wrestle a top star. For years, everybody wanted Sting to wrestle the Undertaker, and because I'm not aware of the Undertaker's physical condition, and the fact that he lost this past WrestleMania, maybe some of the luster's been removed. Sting probably wants to wrestle one more major match, get that WrestleMania moment under his belt. It's like a veteran football player finally making a playoff team, and they get to the Super Bowl and then they retire. Bring him in as a reoccurring star that has a personal issue with Triple H, and they settle their personal issue at WrestleMania."
J.R. on What Will Make This Year's Royal Rumble a Success
"A lot of things depend on how healthy some of the guys are that are hurt. I would say you have a chance to have someone emerge from the Rumble that's going to be your next big thing. With that said, my feeling is that Roman Reigns wins the Royal Rumble. He has a great look. He has the confidence of the promotion, so I think he'd be a great potential winner. How he does it is another issue. Does he come in during the middle of the match and just dominate? Last year, he did that. I don't think it was followed up on like they probably would have liked for it to. If you're going to have [Brock] Lesnar be the champion at WrestleMania, and then the winner of the Royal Rumble meets the champion, then you would have the match between Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar, and there's where you would pass the torch."