Jim Ross was the voice of wrestling for a generation of WWE fans, narrating most of the biggest moments of the most visible and mainstream era the business had ever seen. There was Mick Foley getting thrown off Hell in a Cell, everything between Mike Tyson and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, and a list of WrestleMania moments and other highlights far too long to list here.
If there was an iconic moment in the WWE in the '90s or early 2000s, there's a good chance Ross called it. He's widely recognized as one of the best to ever sit at a wrestling commentary table, through stretches with WCW, Mid-South Wrestling, NWA territories and elsewhere. But despite Ross' tremendous contributions in that regard, his life in the wrestling business and influence on the past 20 years in the WWE stretch so much further than that.
That influence is the backbone upon which his new book, "Slobberknocker: My Life in Wrestling," tells the story of Ross' life from his childhood all the way through his return to the announcing booth at WrestleMania XV just a few months after suffering through his second bout with Bell's palsy. And just like his announcing career is just one piece of the puzzle, wrestling is but one part of Ross' life journey detailed in a book that includes some deeply personal insights and reflections.
Even the process of writing the book was fraught with disaster and tragedy. Ross lost his wife, Jan, a central figure in his life and his career in wrestling, in a tragic vehicle accident back in March. There was a time that Ross felt as though he might not be able to finish the project, like it wasn't going to happen and it wasn't even worth moving forward.
"I thought about stopping in the middle of the journey," Ross said during a recent interview with ESPN. "My wife had died and she was such a big part of this book [and my life], and she was an unsung hero behind the scenes when I was EVP of talent relations at WWE. You know I thought, 'Well, God, I can't finish with it.' Then I followed through."
It was an almost unimaginable catastrophe that could have derailed Ross' life entirely, to say nothing of the book. And to top it all off, it was simply the final moment of disaster during the process. Writer Scott E. Williams, who had sat down with Ross to conduct the interviews that would weave their way into what the book would eventually become, died suddenly last fall in the midst of working.
"He'd also written wrestling books for Bill Watts and Terry Funk, both friends of mine, and guys I look up to a lot, " said Ross. "So I got Scott the right to be my writing partner. In addition to him being one of the most learned fans I'd ever been around in my life, his attorney background, and then his background in writing investigative reporting for the newspapers in that area, he was a perfect fit."
Left without a writing partner, Ross enlisted Paul O'Brien to help him finish the job. Through all of the most difficult moments, the same kind of drive that helped push him through severe health issues and personal tragedies helped him to finish the job.
"[It's] just my make-up, I don't know," Ross said. "Sometimes it's a blessing, as you read in that book, [but] it also could be a curse, my work ethic. I used to roll my eyes when I heard the term 'workaholic,' but I guess if the shoe fits, you got to wear it."
While "Slobberknocker" is not a traditional wrestling book by any means, with Ross having stepped into the ring under duress only on a couple of occasions, there are some incredible nuggets of wrestling history built into a book that covers so many years. WWE fans will certainly be interested in hearing about Ross' transition into the WWE. In addition to being blown away by the level of respect paid to Vince McMahon before, during and after the first meeting he ever attended while under a WWE contract, Ross felt a coldness from a lot of the people in that room who thought Ross' arrival from WCW put their own positions at risk.
"I was very much aware of the attention that the room paid to Vince when he spoke because everything that they needed to know, that affected their job," Ross said of the meeting that took place before WrestleMania IX, his WWE debut. "I thought that was pretty cool. He introduced me to the room and it was like there wasn't an audible sound. It was an audible non-sound. Nobody gave a s---. I was not welcome there, and I could see it from that very first moment."
"That's not the greatest feeling to have when you're getting ready to do your first assignment. It's only going to be a live show with no net, and the biggest event of the year," Ross continued. "So, that was a little unsettling, but you persevere, man, you work through it. Poor me. I'm going to broadcast WrestleMania IX. I'm a wrestling fan. It's taken me 19 years to get here. And I'm going to bitch and moan that I didn't get the Chamber of Commerce welcome wagon welcome? You kidding? The first night was an adventure, commentating alongside "Macho Man" Randy Savage and Bobby Heenan, but Ross pushed forward and did his job as well as he could do it, toga and all. Things could have gone sideways in a hurry if the iciness from the rest of the boys continued, but Ross found a pair of key allies in one of the most recognizable commentary teams in wrestling history.
"Luckily for me, [Gorilla] Monsoon and Heenan became my surrogate WWF uncles (at the time). They loved me. I loved them. We traveled together. And they were great liaisons for me to break the ice with some of the less trusting."
It wasn't the easiest of paths to success within the company, but Ross' doggedness worked in his favor. WWE let Ross go twice before bringing him back again each time, and he finally stuck because he was able to take advantage of every opportunity that came his way.
Ross' role continued to shift within the company, between on-camera and off-camera roles, as WWE experimented with all sorts of different combinations on commentary. He became the face of the disastrous "fake" Razor Ramon and Diesel before settling into a role on commentary, but even that took a disastrous turn when, in a single day, Ross lost his mother and suffered his second bout of Bell's palsy.
Through it all, Ross started to take a larger role in talent scouting. He played a big part in shaping the roster that would come to define the "Attitude Era," and the fruits of his labor can still be seen in the modern WWE. But it wasn't, by any means, an easy task. The business was changing at a rapid pace, and so the means of acquiring talent and shepherding them to success in the WWE had to change along with it -- as did the group of people searching for the next generation of stars.
"The territories were gone, and that was my issue there all along," said Ross. "[Vince] and I had this issue -- we can't keep repacking a short list of wrestlers. We can't keep re-jump-starting a career for the third or fourth time. Fans were tired of this.
"The great thing was our team that I was privileged to be on was able to put together the foundation of the talent roster that has fed into the WWE productivity and profitability for decades."
Among his greatest successes in the WWE are the two stars who came to define the WWE the most over the course of their careers -- Austin and "The Rock" Dwayne Johnson. "Slobberknocker" begins and ends with the story of Ross' return to commentary for the main event at WrestleMania XV -- a move hastened by Austin and The Rock. They went to bat for Ross, who thought he would make this appearance and a return from Bell's palsy for one night, fall flat, and see his career on TV fall flat. Instead, the match was a stunning success, Ross found his groove, and he continued to commentate regularly on WWE TV through 2009.
"They are two of my signees. They're two guys I had a very strong personal relationship with," Ross said. "And you know I just thought the world of both those guys. They were what we needed to revitalize the talent relations department. They were components of what we needed to re-jump-start the competitive feeling you get often times when you have a locker room that's dotted with overachievers and ex-mainstream athletes."
The effect of Ross' efforts can still be seen in modern WWE over a decade after his role in talent relations ended.
"It's all because of that group of guys and gals that we assembled, that we put in that team environment, that had great skills and we were able to, maybe not 100 percent of the time, but more often than not, give them the opportunity to fully express their creative abilities," Ross said of an era of signings that has had a lasting impact. "And those are still being felt. Randy Orton's still a key member, John Cena, those guys are two of my last guys."
Though Ross' life story is chock full of his accomplishments in the world of professional wrestling, much of it serves as the backdrop for the life experiences he had in between all of the craziness.
"'Slobberknocker: My Life in Wrestling' is really not a wrestling book. It's a book about life, and there's a great love story in this book. There are great life lessons in this book about not allowing others to define you."
From the moment he rose to prominence in the world of professional wrestling, Ross was an unlikely voice of a generation (and probably more than one). Even through the hardships, the ups and downs, he leaned heavily on his ability to keep his head down, drive out negativity and determination to succeed despite what anyone else thought.
"'We can't hire him because he's got that Oklahoma accent, he's a chubby guy and plus, unfortunately, he's had facial paralysis called Bell's palsy,'" Ross said, recalling some of the criticisms he absorbed. "If I got still long enough to think about all that information I just said, it would have had a profoundly adverse effect on me because of paranoia, and the anxiety, and the insecurities. I couldn't stay still that long. I had to keep moving forward in any way that I could.
"It's a story that you could live. It's a story you may live," Ross continued. "I got on a really unique road in a really wacky vehicle and for 40-plus years I've been riding in it through all these bumps and turns. Some major crashes, some minor crashes. But we always got back on the road -- we always got back up with pride. We got back behind the wheel and we kept driving. And until my time is called, and my vehicle is out of service, I'm gonna keep drivin'."