Published February 21st, 2020 at 6:00 AM
A new chapter in Kansas City’s rich history of professional wrestling will be written next week, as All Elite Wrestling (AEW) comes to town for the first time since the promotion’s launch in 2019.
Wrestling fans will tune in to the AEW broadcast to hear the familiar voice of 68-year-old, WWE Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross, an Oklahoma-raised wrestling legend, best known for calling 26 years WWE action, including many of the sport’s most iconic moments.
Flatland phoned Ross, who is fresh out of retirement, to talk local wrestling history, including the tragic death of Owen Hart at Kemper Arena, how his own personal hardship led him back to the booth, what AEW’s done to become the first pro wrestling league to challenge the industry-giant WWE in the sport’s modern era.
All that and, of course, barbecue sauce.
JR: Yeah, there are a lot of memories. Unfortunately, one of the most prominent memories of my tenure in the wrestling business in KC is the unfortunate death of Owen Hart at Kemper Arena back in 1999. I can’t erase that visual out of my memory. To see a great friend, a terrific talent die within feet of where I was sitting at ringside is a hard visual to erase, so that was kind of tough. Unfortunately, although it’s not a positive story, it overrides so many of the other things because it really sunk its teeth into real life and our own mortality.
That old Memorial Hall had some of the most famous happenings and occurrences in the history of our business. Bob Geigel was the president of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), he was a big star there as a wrestler, but nonetheless it’s got its place. A lot of people wouldn’t be aware of it, but in that part of the world, Memorial Hall was their Madison Square Garden. They had some amazing talents come through there. (Ric) Flair beat Dusty Rhodes in Kansas City for Flair’s first NWA title reign and that’ll always be in the history books. A great wrestling city for traditional pro wrestling. I can’t wait to be back there.
When AEW was conceived by entrepreneur Tony Khan, Ross was the obvious choice when it came to a commentator — and the call couldn’t have come at a better time. Whether it was his age or bout with Bell’s Palsy, Ross’s tenure with the WWE was up. Around the same time, in March of 2017, his wife Jan was killed while riding her scooter home from the gym. The vibrant voice of pro wrestling was left alone in Norman, Oklahoma, without work, the love of his life and the will to go on.
JR: It’s kind of like a life preserver was thrown at me. I didn’t want to be in the WWE any longer, not because I was mad at WWE, or all the things that get you clicks on social media, it’s just that I needed to work. I needed to get out of that house and quit feeling sorry for myself and get involved with things. I felt like I still had something to offer, whether it was strategically, coaching, administration and I felt like my commentary was still applicable and I love doing it. So when this offer came along it was God-sent, really. It’s given me a new life.
I wanted to get back in the game and Tony Khan and AEW have provided me that opportunity. I get to tell him every time that I see him, “I’m not going to let you down, I’m going to do the very best work that I can.” We’ve got a nice little three man booth there, having fun. I enjoy doing it, I enjoy coming to work. The longest time of my life is on Wednesday afternoons, getting to the arena and looking at my watch and saying, “When do we get started?” I’m ready to go. It’s in my blood, man.
Ross brings his ringside ramblings, the same that fostered a suspension of disbelief for hundreds of millions through the years and more to AEW. As a talent relations executive and self-described senior advisor, Ross has done his part to help sign some of the sport’s most respected athletes from all over the world.
He’s happy to offer the two cents he’s earned over a lifetime in the business, taking a seat alongside veteran talent like Cody Rhodes, Chris Jericho, Matt and Nick Jackson and Kenny Omega to mentor the league’s crop of young talent and shape the future of pro wrestling and the AEW.
JR: Well it trickles down, their passion and their success. It’s a really unique dichotomy of how this company is structured. We don’t have any writers, we don’t have anyone that’s writing a script and expecting the talent to memorize the script the same day they receive it and, more importantly, interpret it the way it was written. The atmosphere in our locker room is more unique than any that I’ve experienced, because when I worked for “Cowboy” Bill Watts, he was a big time, 6’2”, 6’3”, 300-pound alpha male. Vince McMahon is definitively an alpha male. Tony Khan is a boss. He’s mid-30s, he is brilliant, but he’s not the intimidator, he’s not the alpha male walking around with his chest out. He’s an administrator, who has a great respect for the business. You don’t invest $100 million dollars of your money without having some sort of emotional attachment to it. They’ve done a great job there and I’m very blessed to be on their team, quite frankly. I think the best days are still to come or are still evolving.
JR: I think it’s definitely evolving and I think we are proof of that. We started on TV in October and by the end of the year, or by just a few weeks ago, TNT’s renewed us for three more years. So that’s amazing growth, an amazing accomplishment. I think the business, because of streaming and social media and things of that nature that have never been in place like it is now, as long as you understand how to function in those guidelines and in that game, the sky’s the limit. I think we’ll also see that fans want an alternative, they want a return to some semblance of tradition.
JR: The thing about it is, people like tradition, they like nostalgia. We are going to try to appeal to displaced or old-school fans with a young, vibrant roster of hungry guys that are looking to make their fortune. You’ve got 22-, 23-year-old guys who are still green around the gills, they are still learning their job and I love that enthusiasm. The fans who see us in Kansas City are going to see exactly that. They are going to see that our kids are hungry, they are excited and they are going to perform their tails off for you.
JR: You know, because of my love for my home state, Oklahoma Joe’s (now Joe’s Kansas City) has always been a go-to for me over the years. But I’ve mentioned this before and I don’t mean to be crass, but barbecue is kind of, in my world, like my experience with the opposite sex. The worst barbecue I’ve ever had was pretty damn good. I am very excited. There will be multiple barbecue meals, because one of the guys that I travel with lives in New York City, so one of his benefits of driving old JR around is the fact that we get to all these good barbecue places and I help him order. It’s a new food group for him. But we’ll hit a lot of barbecue and I’m not sure that you can go wrong. When you’re from out of the market, you’ll have a hard time finding bad barbecue in KC.
Jim Ross and AEW Dynamite come to Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence, MO., Wednesday, February 26 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $20. AEW Dynamite airs Wedndays at 8/7 p.m. CST on TNT.
This article is a part of Flatland’s SportsTown Series: A collection of stories covering the average athletes, niche-sport elites and everyone else who are dedicated to the games you’ve never heard of, could easily be a part of, and just might want to love that make Kansas City truly a one-of-a-kind sports town.