It took a while before Jim Ross’ friends would come and hang out at his family’s Westville, Oklahoma cattle ranch, largely due to the fact that, up until he was in the fourth grade, guests had to make due with an outhouse when nature called. “I grew up in a converted dairy barn,” the 65-year-old recounts over the phone phone, his tenor commanding but far less booming than when providing voiceover for AXS TV’s New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) reruns or play-by-play for boxing on CBS Sports. “My dad had a bedroom, I had one, [and] we had a kitchen and a living room. You notice nowhere did I say we had a bathroom. Which answered a lot of questions for me about why kids didn’t want to come to my house.”
He brings this up not to lecture about when times were tough, but as a means of illustrating growing up as an only child who had to make due amid 160 acres without access to indoor plumbing, let alone major entertainment. “I had to be creative,” he concedes. “I had to be a self-starter to enjoy my youth.”
But his family did have a radio and a TV, opening his eyes to the spectacle of pro wrestling and ears to the phenomenon of Harry Caray covering St. Louis Cardinals games, which he describes as having been “all part of my babysitting.” It wouldn’t manifest for a couple more decades, but the dye was cast for Ross to ultimately marry his knack for storytelling and passion for pro wrestling. As has been documented, that all culminated in a Hall of Fame career with WWE and surprising third act in sports entertainment with AXS, whose Ross-voiced syndication of NJPW’s marquee Wrestle Kingdom 11 began airing this January and will continue over the next three weeks.
“I think I got part of my storytelling ability from my grandfathers,” he says. “Both of them were great at spinning a yarn.” Ross offers his apologies for the dated euphemism, but finds it apt when thinking back on an era – i.e. rural youth circa the 1950s – when “telling stories and people getting together and talking was what people did when they didn’t have money. We couldn’t all go to the movies or go out to dinner. People brought a dish over to somebody’s house and they brought over some card games, and they actually read books and talked. That was how I was raised, so I think my [storytelling abilities] comes from my upbringing.”
Ross also speaks fondly of his mother and father, who had a steady and supportive marriage throughout his youth, and who set the tone for their son’s tireless work ethic. As a boy, Ross was free to get in his hour of televised wrestling, with one condition. “I had to qualify for that hour,” he recalls admiringly. “Every week, I had to earn my right to watch that show by having good grades and making sure that my chores were done properly and on time.”
It’s not hard to trace the arc of how Ross evolved from that dutiful kid into a tireless worker well past many peers’ point of retirement. More specifically, it provides some context as to why he’s chosen to soldier on and even diversify well into his seventh decade, despite health issues including three attacks of Bell’s palsy, which have irrevocably altered his facial articulation. Yet since a somewhat unceremonious departure from WWE in 2013, Ross has not only remained behind the microphone for TV commentary, but has staged sold-out national spoken-word tours, created a sideline selling signature condiments, hosted a popular wrestling podcast and – of late – endeavored on an autobiography due for release later this year. His second wind was borne of a desire for renewal, something that ensured he’d be remembered as someone who transcends his “good ol’ JR” archetype from all those years calling Monday Night Raw.
“I had the chance to do one of two things: retire and fade away into nothingness, or to reinvent myself in a still-to-be-determined way,” he says of those initial days and weeks after he and WWE parted ways. “I wasn’t angry at pro wrestling. I didn’t leave because I lost my edge or desire. I just didn’t have a definitive roadmap of what I was gonna do. Then it became obvious that nobody’s gonna do it for me. I didn’t need a telethon or a GoFundMe deal. It was up to me to find things I liked to do. The beautiful part of the last three years or so is I haven’t done any projects that I didn’t have fun doing. I can’t make travel fun. I can make arriving fun.”
And when Ross arrives periodically at AXS’s Los Angeles studios to record NJPW episodes, he’s at his most relaxed, freed from having to split his personality between pitchman and colorful orator. “I don’t know what New Japan has booked after Wrestle Kingdom,” he concedes with the lightness of someone operating with virtual creative autonomy. “I don’t need to know. All I need to know are the competitors on my monitor and how to embellish their story – how to make it good commentary that is product-specific rather than brand-specific. That’s the beauty of this gig: We’re just concerned about today’s wrestling event. There’s a whole generation of fans who have never heard this kind of commentary.”
Ross’s biggest accomplishment may not have even been industry-wide recognition, Hall of Fame status or a carefully crafted cult of personality. What’s most remarkable is that, despite tectonic shifts in how we engage with and consume mass media, sports entertainment, etc., he’s endured by staying rooted in the traditions he picked up at house parties on his family ranch.
“I have a philosophy that I’m gonna tell a story,” he says whole-heartedly. “And I’m going to maintain those fundamentals until I prove to myself that it’s not the right way to go. I realize I don’t have that toothy smile anymore, and some words I have issues annunciating, but you only have to be out of the game if you take yourself out.”