Exclusive: Legendary Announcer Jim Ross Validates Folklore, Talks Amateur Wrestling (Pt. 1)

(The great Jim Ross – photo courtesy wwe.com)

Over the course of a thirty-five year broadcasting career, Jim Ross has become known as the singular voice of professional wrestling for many fans. Many of his famous catchphrases have entered into wrestling lexicon, and his enthusiasm for his job shines through in his ability make big moments seem even more special than they actually are.

Everyone knows Jim Ross, the pro wrestling broadcaster. But not everyone knows that Ross is one of the biggest mixed martial arts fans in the world. In this special Heavy.com interview series, we sat down with Ross to discuss everything from amateur wrestling and Danny Hodge all the way to Brock Lesnar and today’s current crop of UFC and Strikeforce broadcasters. We’ll publish the interview in multiple parts, so stay tuned in the coming days for more installments.

Heavy.com: How are you doing health-wise?

Jim Ross: I’m doing very good. Since my third attack of Bells Palsy in October, I’ve been on a quasi-medical leave from working on the air for WWE. Facial paralysis tends to slow a guy down from being on TV. So I haven’t been traveling a lot, but I’m feeling much better. I made some good decisions regarding my lifestyle and my diet. I’m exercising and going to the gym and things of that nature. Sometimes you have to be scared straight to make decisions that should be simplistic to make. But I’m feeling much better, and I think I’m getting better every day.

I think the worst is behind us. I’ve lost twenty or thirty pounds, and I’m probably going to the gym five days a week on a regular basis. The diet has changed a lot. I had to break a lot of old habits. When you’re a country guy or you’re from my part of the world, you grow up eating everything fried. So I had to tweak my diet a little bit. And it’s all something that I should have done earlier.

Heavy.com: I know you’re a long-time fan of amateur wrestling. How did you first become a fan of the sport?

Jim Ross: Well, when you grow up in a state that is really steeped in amateur wrestling heritage, it’s hard to escape it. It’s a lot like high school football in the state of Texas. Even if you’re not a football devotee, you can’t escape the Friday night lights, so to speak. You’re going to read about it in the paper. You’re going to read about it online. You’re going to see it on the news. It’s almost like a religion. It’s a real cool part of Americana. And in Oklahoma, we have that same passion for football, but it’s not on such a grand scale as it is in Texas and other parts of the country.

But wrestling has been a real big part of most high schools here for generations and generations because it was an inexpensive sport to fund. All you need is a wrestling mat and singlet. You’re not buying helmets and balls and all other kinds of equipment that you need for other sports. You don’t need a special area to do it, because you can do it in a high school gym where you play basketball. So a lot of schools here in Oklahoma have had strong wrestling programs forever, longer than I’ve been alive. And I’m 58, so I just don’t remember it not being a part of the fabric of life.

With that said, wrestling was always in the papers. It wasn’t covered as an afterthought. It was covered as the main sport. And as a kid growing up, before the national cable overlay and when there was only three stations in a market, quite often those networks would televise Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State or other major duels. It was a TV special. So you didn’t have the fragmentation of the audience. You had three stations to watch, and they would heavily promote those shows. The newspapers would cover all of those guys, and the amateur wrestlers became stars. You knew everything about these guys. You knew so much about them that, even as a young fan, you were able to make an emotional investment into that persona or that athlete.

So that’s how the amateur wrestling thing got rolling. It was just as prevalent on our sports pages, back when people read the newspaper, as much as football or basketball was covered. You knew just as much about your local amateur stars as you did about the football or basketball stars of the day. And Oklahoma was blessed with two state schools with strong wrestling programs, and they both produced some amazingly gifted wrestlers. National champions, guys that had amazing amateur backgrounds and accomplishments. It went along with the same thought that a lot of us had when we were playing little league baseball, idolizing Mickey Mantle. Every kid on the team, if they could, probably would have worn #7, because he was the small town Oklahoma guy that made it big with the New York Yankees. It’s still the same culture today. We continue to look for heroes. And just like Mickey Mantle was the small town kid who made it and left, a lot of these collegiate wrestlers became heroes to us.

Heavy.com: How much did Danny Hodge have to do with that?

Jim Ross: He had a great deal to do with it because of his success. He was a hero to small town youth in our state. He came from Perry, and Perry is like the Williamsport of wrestling. Where Williamsports is known nationally as the capital of little league baseball, Perry was a wrestling mecca where kids started wrestling at four or five years old. It’s a rite of passage there.

Hodge, coming out of high school, goes to the ’52 Olympics without any international experience. He’d never been on an airplane, never been on a boat. He goes to the Olympics and competes and then starts college at OU. Then he went to the Olympics again in ’56 and ended up in a match that, if it happened today, would have been a national headline. It would have been an international incident because he really got jobbed at the Olympics by an Eastern European judge who shared the same political affiliation as Danny’s opponent. He beat the guy to death, goes behind him and takes him down, rolls him over and Hodge’s shoulders touch the mat. In the blink of an eye, he gets called for a pin. He was ahead of the guy like 9-2. He was just crushing the guy. But this happened near the end of the match, so he got a silver medal. It would have been a major news story today.

You hear the folklore about Danny. Here’s a guy who never got taken down. Here’s a guy that nobody ever scored a point on during college. That’s pretty phenomenal. He was a hero, and he became a star. His work and his work ethic and the results he got made him a star. And of course, he continues on and decides he wants to box. He becomes a Golden Gloves national boxing champion as a heavyweight, with no formal boxing training. None. Perry didn’t have a boxing team. He was just very talented and gifted.

Heavy.com: It seems like he would be the prototype for a mixed martial artist, if the sport had existed in those days.

Jim Ross: He would have been dominant in today’s MMA. Dave Meltzer wrote a really unique article about that a few weeks ago. I’m sure to younger and older fans who weren’t student of the games, it was a revelation to read about this freak of nature. They probably wondered if Meltzer even got his facts straight. It’s astonishing that a guy could go through three years of college and win three national titles. And the only reason he didn’t win four is because freshman weren’t able to compete on the varsity at that time. Nobody would have beaten him as a freshman, either. You have to remember that he’d already competed in the Olympics before college.

So in today’s MMA, he would have been a natural light heavyweight. He could take anybody down. He wrestled at 177 and had to cut weight. He was probably walking around at 210 pounds. The fact that he could take anybody down, be it light heavyweight or heavyweight, goes without saying. And then you add in his incredible punching power as the best amateur boxer in America to go with three NCAA championships in wrestling. You just created the perfect model for an MMA superstar.

He’s a humble guy. He’s not brash. But he would have been incredible in MMA. It would have been very interesting to see Danny Hodge against Randy Couture or Anderson Silva. He could have gotten to 185. If you would put him against a heavyweight, he’d have no issues there, either. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone in MMA that would have had the same pedigree.

Heavy.com: I’ve read stories where, even at 79 years old, he can still crush an apple with one bare hand.

Jim Ross: All of those folk stories about him crushing apples or breaking pliers with one hand could certainly be hard for a regular fan to believe. But they’re true. I’ve actually seen it with my own eyes on many occasions. I saw him at 77 take apples and make pulp out of them with no effort. I’ve seen him break multiple pairs of pliers with one hand. Just take a pair of pliers and grip it so hard that it would snap the pliers. He has amazing strength. He could simply control people.

He was a freak of nature. He would have been a major star in today’s world of MMA. He’d be one of the few guys in MMA that doesn’t have tattoos, that doesn’t talk trash. And I’m not saying that in a negative way. I’m not the tattoo police, and I don’t have any problem with it whatsoever. I kinda enjoy the trash talk, especially having a 35 year pro wrestling background like I do. But he was a very humble, soft-spoken guy. A lot like Randy Couture in that he let his fights do the talking for him. He’d tell you what he thought, but he wasn’t going to go over the top. He would talk to you organically. He wasn’t the showman, and that’s one of the things that hurt him as a pro wrestler. He wasn’t the kind of showman that Brock Lesnar was.

But when you started spouting out all these wrestling credentials, they were real. He wasn’t from parts unknown. He was from Perry, always. He was the first wrestler to ever grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. April 1, 1957. I have a framed copy of it. All that stuff was real.

Danny was a small town kid who got involved with the shady world of pro boxing and the dubious underbelly that it had. It wasn’t a good experience for him. But if he hadn’t gone into pro boxing, he told me that he’d thought of trying to make the 1960 Olympic team as a pro boxer. And of course, the heavyweight boxer that year was Cassius Clay. It would have been an amazing feat to go to three different Olympics in two different sports.