There are moments in life that, for one reason or another, stay with you as the days accelerate and the sky darkens. They are images of great personal worth, occurring over time in a multitude of places and a variety of ways. They are the days of love’s first kiss and the birth of a child. Undoubtedly, a great number of people will find such memories upon the horizons of sport. Without showcasing my quite desperate ignorance of American sporting details, I?m sure many of you will recollect a glorious moment within your chosen sporting dynasty. In England, we remember when the English cricket team regained the Ashes in 2005 (and again in 2009). We remember the endurance and fortitude of Sir Steve Redgrave, winning Gold in five straight Olympia. In particular we remember 1966 and Bobby Moore, the England Captain, lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy aloft, symbolizing the nation’s greatest sporting triumph as we were crowned world champions at the football World Cup.
So much about that day is etched indelibly into the nation’s sporting consciousness. Depending on who you ask it might be the red shirts, a Russian linesman or Charlton’s tears. For others it is the following words: ?Some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over? It is now, it’s four?. Those words, spoken by the legendary commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme as Sir Geoff Hurst sealed England’s victory, ring eternally for a generation. So often we recall the colour and the texture of the memory yet neglect the oratorical impact. Think of Muhammad Ali in his indomitable prime and chances are those moments will be accompanied by the voice of Howard Cosell. The greatest commentators have the extraordinary ability to naturally blend into the moment yet articulate the deepest emotions when the time is right. When Mr. Wolstenholme said it was all over, we believed him and rejoiced. The commentator annotates the blows and annunciates the glory or the desperation.
Though a mere shadow of his former self, Jim Ross is one of the greatest commentators in all of sport. He marries passion and detail with a formidable sense of timing and awareness. He is a consummate storyteller who emphasises the key emotions in an event and thus governs the response to those events. Such a glowing appraisal is perhaps undeserving of the half-hearted and unenthused J.R. of the last five years. Such a truth does not in anyway diminish the splendour of Ross’s contributions and stellar standards prior to today. His work with an interested Jerry Lawler (1993-2000) or most memorably with Paul Heyman in 2001 was truly outstanding. The late Gordon Solie aside, Jim Ross is unquestionably the greatest commentator in the history of professional wrestling.
Jim Ross the man makes for an intriguing study. He is a proud Oklahoman who wears his affections for barbeque and the Sooners on his sleeve for all to see. His love of wrestling is deep-rooted and grounded in a respect for the old school traditions of competition and kayfabe-enforced credibility. That Jim Ross survived the maddening 25 year transformation of the business and emerged as one of its more credible voices is mildly surprising. This notwithstanding, his passion and habitual honesty has endeared him to the public. They?ve been seduced by his occasionally stage-managed bouts of candour and good ol? boy southern archetypes. He is a part of the traditional trappings of the show.
To call Jim Ross a survivor would be like calling George W. Bush awkward. As someone who dared to have an opinion and overcome the regional announcer’s curse (the reason he left WCW in 1993) Ross made himself a target. The sycophantic clowns who typify the modern WWE booking staff cottoned on to this and have tested Ross’s tolerance. The odious Brian Gewertz conceived of the idea of switching Ross to Smackdown simply to illicit a reaction. He did this to amuse his tyrannical employer (Vince McMahon) who gleans a perverse amount of enjoyment from watching the admittedly holier-than-thou Ross squirm. It was a rotten thing to do. As was the infamous Kiss-My-Ass club indoctrination ceremony in front of Ross’s family in November 2001. Vince has tried on multiple occasion to manoeuvre Ross out of a job or replace him, only for his reliability and popularity to perpetually redeem him. Vince’s folly is a barely interested J.R. still comfortably surpasses Michael Cole on Cole’s very best day.
Though a true believer in the sporting pretence of the business, Ross has been more receptive to change than many others. Before the descent into clich’s and two-bit phraseology, Ross was an eloquent and thoughtful orator. He famously referred to The Undertaker as ?The Conscious of the WWF?. This was a clever, insider-tinged tribute that acknowledged ?Taker’s longevity but also his standing as a locker room leader and example to the talent. Ross’s opinions, both in print and on the internet, often addressed life beyond kayfabe. This practise was severely curtailed by a Triple H dictum on company integrity. The Game apparently believed catering to the fans from a position of knowledge and mutual respect was dangerous, or something.
Jim Ross has paid a price for being too good at a job to simply be discarded and for willingly rolling with the punches. Up to 2005 Ross was WWE Executive Vice-President of Talent Relations. It’s a classy, corporate sounding job title that belies the bloody details. Ross was required to base himself in Connecticut, which he amusingly described as ?an overpriced hellhole?. He was essentially the hatchet man. He recommended who to hire and carried out the wishes of Vince McMahon when it came time to release a particular talent, incurring considerable (and inevitable) flak in the process. Ross handed over this peachy vocation to the hugely ambitious (yet wantonly feckless) John Laurinaitis. Stepping away from the corporate side, Ross paid the price for surrendering his powerbase. He did not sell his soul to WWE so he could not be trusted. As such, his influence was reduced to virtually nil and he was subjected to numerous indignities that he bore with considerable grace. It is this professionalism that has endeared Ross to so many. As he and Lawler took their place in the Hall Of Fame in 2007, there were smiles aplenty.
The career of Jim Ross is a testament to not taking things personally. He has always tried to consider the company’s interests and make something from nothing. This has ranged from wearing that silly hat, initially under duress, to taking credit for the fake Diesel and Razor Ramon in 1996. He is undoubtedly guilty of being irredeemably pious and po-faced at times. His apparent decline in interest in the art he perfected saddens and bemuses in equal measure. Jim Ross evidently loves the wrestling business enough to endure the juvenile whims of men not fit to polish his Stetson. As he faces his third battle with Bell’s Palsy I of course wish him well. Though not the force of old, Jim Ross is like an old and familiar leather coat. It provides security and warmth and it is fundamentally untouched by the ravages of time. It’s past it’s best, but that quality was at one time unparalleled.
In closing, I?d like to recall my favourite Jim Ross call. Many would doubtless site the Hell In The Cell/King of the Ring 1998 as his crowning achievement and they?d most likely be right. His sense of the drama and legitimate concern for Mick Foley enhanced and enshrined the memory of that match forever. For me though, his greatest call was during the Hogan/Rock epic at Wrestlemania XVIII. Hogan tore the house down ?Hulking up? and planted The Rock on the canvas. He nailed his patented leg-drop as the crowd went ballistic. ?He beat Andre The Giant with that move!? It was a wonderful, impactful call that emphasised the stakes and the history at work in the match. That Rock subsequently kicked out only confirmed the magic that was occurring in the ring. A perfect demonstration of the commentator’s gift. Though his best days are behind him and his legacy approaches summation, I for one believe the experience of watching and appreciating so many great memories was utterly enhanced by the power of Jim Ross’s commentary. No finer tribute can I pay.
Daniel R. Browne.