Jim Ross is the most famous pro wrestling play-by play commentator of all time. He's a native Californian, but grew up in Oklahoma and took his trademark drawl into doing commentary. He's worked in wrestling for more than 40 years, calling matches on shows seen by millions of people around the world.
This weekend, he's in the Bay Area for Wrestlemania weekend (the first Wrestlemania in Northern California, and the first in California in 10 years). Ross no longer commentates for WWE, but he's still a storyteller, online and in person. He hosts regular live storytelling shows with stories from his decades-long career and a bit of comedy, along with a live guest, and he also has a huge online presence including a podcast that went to number one in sports its first week out.
Ross has been watching wrestling since he was a kid.
"My dad wasn't a big fan of it. He missed the point. The point is not whether it's real or if it's staged. The point is, are you entertained by it, or not? And I was," Ross said.
He's been at ringside for numerous historic matches, helping the wrestlers to tell their stories ever since he got his first job in wrestling out of college at 22.
"The greater the star, the easier it is to tell their story," Ross said. "Those participants make music. They make different kinds of music, and the announcers, the broadcasters, have to be able to provide the adequate lyric to the competitors' music."
Ross's voice is so powerful that it's become a meme online to pair his voice with another dramatic footage, from sports and beyond — you can even find it paired with dramatic moments from shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones." Ross says that the first time he saw someone do that was with a hit by Michigan running back Jadaveon Clowney, a video which went viral and sparked others to do likewise.
"I get sent these memes all the time. 'Hey JR, check this one out.' Or people will say, somebody will make a great dunk at an NBA game, and somebody will say 'I can't wait to see this get the JR treatment.' And now there are major sports websites that will send out a tweet, 'Here's a great play from Sunday's 49er-Charger game that's got the JR treatment.' So now it's got a name. 'The JR Treatment.'"
Those viral videos have even helped him land new commentating roles since leaving WWE. He did a call of a fight between NASCAR drivers for the Daytona 500 for a special pre-show video, and it's led to him having opportunities in traditional sports.
"It's been done in boxing, and MMA. Believe it or not, I've gotten feelers that we're entertaining now from a variety of combat sports entities that actually heard what my call would sound like doing their product," Ross said. "It had my tone, had my inflection, had my level of enthusiasm."
Ross also played a huge role behind the scenes, working as WWE's executive vice president of talent and signing future stars like the Rock, Mick Foley and more. He says that Mick Foley's match against the Undertaker in 1998's Hell in a Cell match was his most memorable to call.
"I have people walk up to me and start quoting my commentary when Undertaker threw Foley off the Hell in a Cell, this massive cage with a roof on it, that was about 17 feet high from the roof to the floor," Ross said. "It looked like no human being, quite honestly, could survive that fall. You don't practice falls like that in wrestling school."
Ross has managed to stay relevant with the help of a popular podcast and 1.3 million followers on Twitter, where he regularly dispenses his thoughts on wrestling and beyond. He started doing that podcast after being lobbied to do it by "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, and continues to try new things.
"I was very reluctant to engage in social media, and primarily because we sometimes get set in our ways, especially the older we get," Ross said. "But change, for any of us, in any walk of life, whether it's your diet, it's your relationships, the way you approach your job, or any changes that you need to affect, whether it's on doctor's orders, your significant other's suggestions — change is not always a negative thing. So I got on Twitter, and then Twitter connected me to so many people."
While some may feel that pro wrestling, given its predetermined results, doesn't need real athletes, Ross disagrees and says there are plenty of reasons to want real athletes.
"They're competitive. They don't want to be on the second team. They want to be in the game. And they've been in that mindset since some of them were in little league, or Pop Warner football, or elementary school wrestling, or whatever it may be."
He says they also understand how to be coached and how to play well with others, as well as handling the bumps and bruises that come with the territory and the difficult travel schedule.
"I don't know that anybody in any entity, unless you're the most well-traveled comedian or entertainer, has that. Because the thing about pro wrestling is it doesn't have an off-season, so you don't get a chance to really go recharge your batteries. You've got to maintain that competitive edge to survive."
Ross says there's one match he wishes he had another shot at calling: Ric Flair's retirement match against Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 24 in Orlando at the Citrus Bowl. While Ross has traditionally been a play-by-play commentator, that night he was assigned to be a color commentator, which gave him some different challenges.
"I thought I had great stories to tell because of my relationship with Ric — I've known him for 25 years — and I didn't think that I contributed as much to that match from an emotional standpoint as I could. I was obligated to get in soundbites and get in, get out," Ross said. "That's the biggest match at the biggest stage, and I love both those guys, and I really wanted to be extra special that night, and I just don't know in my heart that we got there."
He says California has its own wrestling legacy to be proud of. The California Wrestlemania match that Ross says he'll always remember: Bret Hart versus Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 12 in Anaheim, where two now wrestling legends wrestled for more than an hour.
He also thinks the economics of Wrestlemania make a lot of sense for whichever city hosts it, thanks to the travelers it draws in from around the world. Cities now bid to try to bring in Wrestlemania, Ross says. With Los Angeles gearing up to build a new stadium, Ross has a Wrestlemania prediction for that stadium.
"I will bet you money — I will bet you some of my barbecue sauce — if L.A. builds a stadium, that Wrestlemania will be one of the first non-football events in that stadium. And they will sell it out. They'll fill every seat. And it'll be great for the city, and the businesses of Los Angeles.
Ross says that what made him a great broadcaster is the same thing that can make someone a success in wrestling or anywhere else — most importantly, don't talk down to your audience.
"You have to be a fan of the genre, or a fan of the game, and you have to be willing to prepare and be ready for your broadcast," Ross said. "You have to be willing to tell the story that the average fan — not the hardcore fan, but the average, casual fan can understand and relate to. ... You know, we're storytellers, and some people are just natural-born storytellers."
Ross plans to continue telling stories for the foreseeable future, on stage, online, calling matches in the legit sports world and wherever else his life takes him. He's even gotten into acting — you can see him in the new film "What Now."
"I think retirement is overblown. How many days can you go fishing? How many rounds of golf can you play?" Ross said. "I had the idea when I left WWE after 21 years, I'm going to reinvent myself. I'm not going to become a trivia answer. ... I don't think you're going to read anywhere, anytime soon, that Jim Ross has finally retired — until you read my eulogy."
Listen to the audio for the full hour-long interview with Jim Ross, talking his career past, present and future — along with the origins of his signature barbecue sauce.