Q&A with Jim Ross
Jim Ross has spent the majority of his time in WWE as the voice of Raw, but the WWE Hall of Famer and current Smackdown announcer also was the play-by-play man for the first episode of Smackdown in 1999.
Tonight on MyNetworkTV, WWE will broadcast a special episode of Smackdown that celebrates the show’s 10th year on the air. I spoke with Ross on Thursday to discuss the evolution of the show, his favorite Smackdown moment, his thoughts on leaving Raw, and John Cena’s well-documented comments about Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson -- who taped a segment for tonight’s show -- not loving the wrestling business.
You were not the voice of Smackdown for the majority of the time that the show has been on the air, but you did do the very first Smackdown in August 1999. What were your thoughts at the time about WWE adding a second weekly prime time show to go along with Raw?
I think that all of us thought that long term it was going to be a good thing for the company because it created another two-hour weekly platform to expose the product and establish more stars and build the brand. I think in the short term a lot of people were probably challenged by the fact that we were adding more work to our weekly schedule. It was going to be another day of television taping, which is a major undertaking. So, long term I think most folks had a vision of growing the brand. I thought it was a smart move. I thought in the short term it would just take some adjusting to a change in the schedule. Of course one always wonders when you do more creative how far that can be stretched and how it will affect the other products. In the big picture, though, it was the right move. And since that time it’s kind of settled in very well. Doing the live TV on Monday and now doing the second day of taping has become the norm and everybody’s used to the routine.
Even though you haven’t always worked on Smackdown, I’m sure you’ve seen all the shows. What is your most memorable Smackdown moment?
Even though I wasn’t on the broadcast itself, I was always on site on Tuesdays, because for a lot of the early days of Smackdown and a good time afterward, I was in charge of the talent department, so that necessitated me to be there anyway. When I ceased be the executive vice president of talent relations and was focusing from a TV perspective just on Raw, I would do Monday Night Raw and then go home, but I always watched the program. I think probably the most memorable night for me personally – and it was when I was not on Smackdown on a regular basis – was the Smackdown that followed 9/11. We had done Raw down in Texas – I think it was San Antonio – and then we had driven to Houston, and 9/11 occurred on Tuesday morning. It was such a tragedy and changed everyone’s lives, and on a small scale for us, it postponed the Tuesday night taping for a Thursday night airing, and we went live that Thursday night. I remember being part of that broadcast because of the uniqueness of it; the delicate nature of what we were addressing; the fact that it was one of the first public gathering of folks after the tragedy of 9/11. That to me was probably the most memorable Smackdown that I have been a part of. It was more memorable than the first one, even though the first one was exciting and it was a new venture. Just the nature of the subject matter of the program and what had happened in our country that week was much bigger than a wrestling match.
The first three years or so of Smackdown, Raw and Smackdown were not brand specific. What are your thoughts on the splitting of the roster?
I think very few will argue that the talent rosters within the business in general are dangerously thin. The mantra to develop new main event stars I think should be a business-wide referendum. It certainly is a priority in WWE. The only way that people are going to get their opportunities is to get television time. If you have a set hand of main eventers and they’re on every show, it’s going to preclude others from getting the opportunities that they need to break through and to become stars of their own. So even though the brand separation does have some liabilities, I think that in the long term the brand separation is an absolute necessity for individuals to be able to get face time on television and get ring time on television in a viable way. We’ve seen young guys like John Morrison and Dolph Ziggler that are starting to develop a following and they’re getting name identity and all the things that are important for them to become stars. It would have been more challenging for them to do that if there was one roster because I think their at-bats would be lessened. Their higher-level platform would be more challenging to achieve because there’s 11 segments to Monday Night Raw; 11 segments to Smackdown; and ECW has six segments in their one-hour version. So there’s only so much time and so many chances for people to get on television and to hear them speak. So I think the process of making stars is pretty much what it’s always been: it’s getting systematic exposure on TV; being put in a good light; and then the talent going out and performing at their maximum potential on a regular basis. With the brands separated, it’s given some of the younger guys the opportunity to gain the valuable exposure that they need to hopefully become a star. Just because somebody’s getting exposure and an opportunity doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to become the next big thing that’s going to headline WrestleManias in the future. But if they don’t have those opportunities, it is a certainty that they will never headline WrestleMania.
I always looked to hire talent not to fill a card or hit in their seventh or eighth hole, but that could headline a pay-per-view. I needed to seem in them that they had the ability – at least at the time that I evaluated them – that someday if they continued to improve, with the aptitude they have and their physical gifts, that they could be the main eventer on a pay-per-view. Because the worst that can happen is that you recruit someone and sign them and train them, and they barely miss. And if they barely miss being able to headline a pay-per-view, you still have a real good, solid, reliable, talented performer who can contribute. He or she just isn’t contributing in that main event slot, which is very elusive and very hard to attain. You’re going to recruit and sign many more people that can’t headline a pay-per-view such as WrestleMania than you are going to sign those who can. It’s just like a college recruiter. You’ve always got to sign players that you think will start. But most colleges are recruiting 25 or so players a year, and you’re not going to have 25 new starters a year. Bottom line – I think that the brand separation is a good idea for the big picture and the long term. Short term, it certainly has its critics, and people are seeing that the rosters are thin and that the talent base is not as deep as one would like in a perfect world. But in order to get back to that level, you’ve got to expose more people to the right kind of environment to make them a star.
It’s exciting news for fans that The Rock taped a segment for this Friday’s Smackdown. What are your thoughts about some of the comments that John Cena has made in the past about Rock not loving the business and not giving back to the business?
I think that John Cena at times has been misquoted or what he’s said has been misinterpreted. I can’t speak for John Cena nor will I. I do know that The Rock has always been a fan of the product, and I know that it’s in his blood. You can’t be a third-generation performer and not have the business in your DNA to some degree. I think people get the misperception that any time – and fans are just as guilty as some of us are – someone chooses to do something else for a living and they leave wrestling for whatever reason that their love of the product has completely been eliminated, and I don’t agree with that. I’m sure that there are wrestlers who were famous in their day who have left the business and couldn’t care less about it today, and that’s certainly their prerogative. I don’t think The Rock is that way whatsoever. I think that the promo that he has recorded and that will air Friday night will certainly indicate that he didn’t go through the motions; that he didn’t give the promo any thought; that he wasn’t trying to phone in it and just make an obligatory appearance. He hit a home run. I thought that the promo that Rock did – and of course folks can watch the show and judge for themselves – was one of the highlights of the night, and one of the more significant highlights in recent memory on the broadcast. I don’t think anyone can do what he did and not still have a kinship and a respect for the business. Are we all selfish? Would we all like to see some of the major stars that were so significant in building the brand of WWE return from time to time? Of course we would. It’s just a matter that people move on, and for some reason, and maybe it’s the passion of the fans or the individuals that are in it, some let their emotions overcome what’s logical. For anyone to say that The Rock made a bad decision in pursuing a film career, with the success that film career has garnered, is ill-advised.
I really respect John and he is one of the guys that I helped bring into WWE, and of the reasons was because John is a great fan; he has an undying work ethic, without question; and his passion is one of the things that has gotten him where he is. Sometimes our passion will motivate us to say things that can easily be misunderstood. I’ve only read John’s comments in print. I haven’t heard John say things that have been perceived as controversial. And sometimes, in all due respect to the print media, we can interpret things differently as we read them. Would John Cena like to wrestle The Rock? Of course. Who wouldn’t? I don’t blame John for wanting to wrestle Rock if that’s his goal, but I can tell you this: I talk to John at every TV that I’m at and he’s there. I consider him a friend and we talk about a lot of things – and he knows that I have a good relationship with Rock and I signed Rock and brought him to WWE – and he’s never said one word to me negative about The Rock. It makes for a good story, do doubt, but I don’t think The Rock has lost any of his love for the business. He just happens to be in another field of work right now, and he’s devoting his work ethic that he developed in WWE to his movie career. I defy anybody to tell me that they’d rather be on the road 250 days a year in sports entertainment as opposed to being a major film star and making the money and working the schedule that those people have the opportunity to do.
When you were drafted from Raw to Smackdown over a year ago, you did not hide the fact that you weren’t happy about it, although you quickly came back and said that you are a team player and would put everything you had into it. Now that some time has passed, what are your thoughts about working on Smackdown?
I have no problems with it. I was more concerned about how the news was broken to me than I was the actual move itself. Egocentrically, I felt that I had paid enough dues and has a good enough rapport that I would have been given a clue or a head’s up that, “hey, you may be changing brands” or “don’t be surprised if you are moved over to Smackdown,” and that would have been fine, but that’s not how it went down. I think at the moment it just struck me in a negative way. I’m man enough to say maybe that was my ego getting in the way, that I thought that I was a fixture on Raw, that I’d help build the brand and I thought that [Jerry] Lawler and I were one of the better announcing tandems that had been in the business for a while. But once I got to Smackdown it was just business as usual. It was all the same guys I’d worked with, a lot of the same guys I’d hired, a lot of the same guys that were friends. When the bell rings, you’re going to do your thing. I did have to get used to working with someone other than The King. I think any broadcaster will tell you that one of the things that you love about having a partner that’s been around a long time with you is that you have chemistry, and we had developed chemistry and a friendship, and I was in a routine. Maybe I was in my comfort zone, and I’m not one that’s big on comfort zones; I think they’re dangerous.
I know that WWE was moving Smackdown to MyNetworkTV, which was going to be a challenging proposition because of where they stood with other networks as far as audience delivery. They wanted to make a splash. Triple H went over, and Jeff Hardy was there, and Undertaker was there, and I didn’t feel belittled going to Smackdown. I am an emotional guy. I try to be very honest. I still believe in integrity and character, and I said what was on my mind. I got it out of my system, and I think if anybody looks back on that time, I probably within a few hours of that venting was able to reassess where I was. I decided that, hey look, I’ve always been a team player and I’m going to practice what I preach. I’m going to go on to Smackdown and try to do the very best I can with that broadcast.
In looking at the differences between Raw and Smackdown, it seems to me that Smackdown plays more to your strengths, since Raw has become more of a variety shows – especially with the guest hosts – and there is more of an emphasis on wrestling on Smackdown. Is that the way you see it or am I off base?
I think you’re close. It’s certainly a subjective thing to say Raw fits into this category and Smackdown fits into this other category and so forth. I think the intent of Monday Night Raw is to have more entertainment elements – whether they come in vignettes or backstage confrontations or guest hosts – to make it distinctly different than any other show that WWE produces. I think more often than not that Smackdown will feature more wrestling. I’m an old-school guy that came from a wrestling environment. I look at it like, if I was in the football business, I would be more comfortable doing games than I would the pregame and post-game shows. I like the thrill of the game. I like the bell to bell. I like to be close to the product from that perspective. But even if Smackdown was taking on a different form, my job is not to write or produce the television show; my job is to broadcast. And my role has changed as to how I’m positioned. So, again, you’re either a team player in this world or you’re not. You can’t be a team player today and not a team player tomorrow. As long as I’m accepting the pay and I’m cashing the checks, I’m going to show up and do the very best job I can in whatever role I’m assigned. I always thought it started with the team winning. That’s just me. I think Smackdown’s been winning lately. I think Smackdown has had more good shows than bad shows. And we’re also seeing some young guys get some spotlight and some opportunities, which I think is very, very important.
I got over my ill feelings toward the move within a few hours. Those few hours happened in June of ’08, so I’m long past that piece of business. If they told me next week that I would be moving to ECW, I would have absolutely zero issues. And I know that some people are going to read that and roll their eyes and say that I can’t mean that. Look, I’m getting paid a very handsome sum of money, and my pay doesn’t become effected if I’m on Raw or Smackdown or ECW. I do several functions for the company that people never know about or never see, and I’m very pleased with all those aspects. I like being on Smackdown. I have a business I’m building and I attend football games on the weekend. So for me to be able to travel to a football game away from the Oklahoma Sooners’ stadium and still have plenty of time to get to Smackdown on Tuesday, that’s a real cool deal for me.
Check back next week for more of my interview with Ross, as he talks in greater detail about the need to build new stars, WWE becoming more family friendly and what the future holds for him.
For information about J.R.’s Family Bar-B-Q and to read Jim Ross’ blog, go to jrs.barbq.com.