Jim Ross reflects on his time with, and the future of, wrestling commentary

Jim Ross and Lita recently served as the commentary team for the Mae Young Classic. Courtesy of Jim Ross

When building a theoretical Mount Rushmore of wrestling play-by-play announcers, the four names will vary depending on age, region and the wrestling era. Fans of a certain age could point toward a Gordon Solie or Lance Russell, while those who grew up on WWF in the 1980s could point to Gorilla Monsoon.

ECW fans and those that followed in the '90s might put Joey Styles in the mix, or throw WCW's Mike Tenay or Tony Schiavone into the conversation. But the most common denominator among fans from almost any era would almost certainly have to be Jim Ross, the voice of the Attitude Era whose announcing career dates back to the 1970s and continues in earnest today.

There are a great many reasons why Ross became as successful as he did, many of which are detailed in his new book "Slobberknocker: My Life in Wrestling." With a background in radio and an unbreakable passion for the wrestling business, Ross worked his way up from the bottom and picked up valuable knowledge and experience along the way. But the spark that drove Ross throughout his life started far earlier than his first job in wrestling.

"I believe that to be a great broadcaster one has to have basic fundamental, instinctual, communication skills, and I was blessed with having two very talkative grandfathers," Ross told ESPN.com. "They were very entertaining when they told their stories. And when you didn't have Wi-Fi, or cable TV, or satellite TV, or all the social media things we have, you did this strange thing ... you read books, and you talked."

His background and experience helped him anchor broadcasts for Mid-South Wrestling, Jim Crockett Promotions, WCW and, starting at WrestleMania IX, the WWF. It took a few years and different roles with the company, which eventually included talent scouting and acquisition, but by 1996 he became the voice of numerous WWF programs.

Despite his passion, experience and background, however, the second half of his WWE announcing career almost never came to be. After more than two years of being an entrenched presence during the formative years of the "Monday Night Wars" between WWF and WCW, in December 1998, Ross suffered his second bout of Bell's palsy while live on the air for the U.K.-exclusive "Capital Carnage" pay-per-view. It happened just hours after Ross learned of that his mother had died suddenly of a heart attack.

He eventually returned to produce the commentary team, but after The Rock and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin -- likely the two biggest recruits of his career -- pushed for it, Ross was tasked with returning to the desk for the main event of WrestleMania XV on March 28, 1999. This moment serves as both the opening and closing of "Slobberknocker," as Ross opens the account of his career by revealing that his nerves were getting the better of him.

"I was worried about my look. The second bout of Bell's palsy was pretty aggressive and I just knew that my broadcast run was over," said Ross. "I really felt that. But I know part of that was fed through the paranoia of the Bell's palsy. Upon studying Bell's palsy, you find a couple of things out. There's no known cause, and there's no known cure. It's so unpredictable."

The stakes could not have been much higher. Even having called WrestleManias and big matches all over the world, this particular match would be a turning point in WWF history. While the exact historic impact wouldn't be known for some time, as this would be the first of three matches between Austin and The Rock that would come to define each of their careers, there was clearly something special in the air.

Ross was as unsure of himself as he had ever been, but the boss, Vince McMahon, stepped up and reassured Ross that he was the man for the job.

"I was really in a fragile place, but Vince handwrote a letter to me, and had it delivered to my home in Norwalk, Connecticut," said Ross. "I used the letter in the book. It's pretty amazing. It was a 'Come to Jesus'-type pep talk. I was just so self-conscious with how I looked. I just thought how I looked, how I sounded with a little bit of a speech impediment because of the Bell's palsy.

"I was going through a tough time -- I was producing announce talent and I was happy to do it. But I really believed that WrestleMania was my last one, and I appreciated the fact that Vince decided to go with me in the main event because he knew that we'd signed two potentially all-time greats," said Ross. "I thought that would be my swan song, but we talked through it, the match was good, the fans were glad to see me back, so we started up a little run there, but it was very challenging."

With the exception of a seven-month hiatus after undergoing colon surgery, Ross was the full-time voice of Raw, and then SmackDown, until October 2009. He served various roles in the WWE, bouncing on and off of commentary and making other on-screen appearances. He was on the NXT commentary team when it began its current incarnation in 2012, but his tenure with the WWE came to an end in 2013.

While he had "retired" from WWE, Ross made the decision to carry on his announcing career elsewhere. He became the voice of New Japan Pro Wrestling on AXS, and worked on a variety of other independent projects including his new book.

Earlier this year, Ross came to an agreement to make special appearance with the WWE. He came back for WrestleMania, where he called the No Holds Barred match between The Undertaker and Roman Reigns. Ross also joined Lita as the commentary duo for the Mae Young Classic, and hopped on commentary for matches at NXT TakeOver: Chicago and NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn as well.

A full-time return to WWE commentary is seemingly out of the question, and while there are any number of reasons for that, it's a perfectly acceptable arrangement for Ross. The Mae Young Classic, in particular, harkens back to an older, in ring-focused product than the slickly-produced weekly shows the WWE puts out now.

"I'm not doing a lot of WWE things right now, but I did the Mae Young Classic tournament right now, which I thoroughly loved. And that was pretty straightforward wrestling," said Ross. "That tournament didn't have bonafide or pre-determined or distinguished babyfaces and heels. It was very athletically oriented. I love that, that's my forte I think. I enjoy it more, I can tell you that."

While the commentary style of Raw and SmackDown of 2017 bears little resemblance to what it sounded like in 2005, let alone the late '90s, Ross has sympathy for the trios that step out every week to call the action.

"A lot of folks get angry at today's commentators, but it's how they're produced," said Ross. "It's their skill-set, a lot of them, and it's what is asked of them to perform and to do ... the demands on today's wrestling broadcasters are extensive. The job description of that role has evolved and changed over the years. People can hear, and they can certainly tell that.

"It's changed a lot, and that's due to the fact that there are a lot of producers who are dictating what the product sounds like on the air," Ross continued. "It's a different mindset, they were raised differently. They have different values and they perceive things [differently]."

Even though it's a different process than the one Ross or many of his predecessors used, there's still a baseline skill set that most of the great ones have in common. For Michael Cole, he's had 20 years in the WWE and a background in news before that. Tom Phillips worked in radio and in sports before becoming a backstage interviewer and progressed to commentary from there. Corey Graves, Byron Saxton and Booker T all came up as wrestlers before stepping behind the desk.

While the WWE's Performance Center has allowed both in-ring talent and broadcasters an opportunity to work with state-of-the-art technology, and NXT has provided a platform to hone their craft for a smaller audience, Ross is of the opinion that they're still working from a distinct disadvantage when compared to previous generations of commentators.

"It doesn't do announcers today any favors that there are no wrestling territories still in existence to any degree," said Ross, "To give them the practice, the refinement of their skill. They don't have that opportunity. The whole business has changed in that regard."

But he also makes it clear that even though it's an entirely different world, there are core elements that carry through and help define the broadcasters who are truly great.

"The point is, any broadcaster that's good is a storyteller at heart," said Ross. "They also have a keen sensitivity to their demographic, and their target audience, and they never deviate too far from that target audience and what they believe that target audience is interested in. Great broadcasters have product knowledge. They have life experiences and they have good instincts. They're instinctually sound. They're very fast at processing information."

Will there ever be another Jim Ross? No. Times have changed, styles have changed, and even if there's a once-in-a-generation talent that comes along, they should be defined by their own work and effort. But they could certainly pick up a lesson or two from a guy who's been able to keep himself relevant in the wrestling business for five decades.

"I just believe that all those other jobs I had helped me pay my dues, had me respect the business and the people in it more, and more importantly, for the long haul for me, it gave me product knowledge to build several different key roles within the business," said Ross. "From 1974 'til this very day."