Do me a favor: think back to the ‘Attitude Era.’ Make a numbered list, one to five. Next to each number, write down the names of those men who best defined that short, yet ludicrously profitable, wrestling period from late 1997 until around 2001.
Now scan back over it. Who do you have?
‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin definitely makes the cut. So does Vince Mcmahon. Probably the Rock, or Undertaker. Maybe even Triple H. I’d even guess that Mankind and Kane have an outside shot being penciled in. But right there, smack-dab in the middle, underneath one and two but sitting comfortably above whatever combination of four and five you have, is the man who defined an entire generation of pro-wrestling. He’s the voice of the WWE. Good ‘Ol JR.
Professional wrestling is a nasty business, with cutthroat personalities, and enough nepotism to spell out the entire book of Genesis. Not only that, the sport itself is a dense combination of greco-roman wrestling, mixed-martial arts, boxing, dance, and theater. What’s the difference in a powerbomb and a powerslam? More importantly, why does it matter? That’s all to say, at times, pro wrestling can be a very alienating form of entertainment.
This is where the play-by-play commentator steps in. They’re responsible for not only explaining what happens, but explaining why what happens even matters, engaging in a delicate balance of teaching new fans while also engaging the wrestling historians. Every week, on every show, they have to sell the story more than anybody else on the roster. Commentators have possibly the toughest job because they are the final representation of the product to people watching from home.
Jim Ross understood this. He called stories, not matches. When a JR catch-phrase came through, it’s because whatever was happening in the ring literally excited and amazed the man. His voice plays in-sync with the greatest moments in WWE history, and professional wrestling is better because of it. Jim Ross made things relatable to the fans.
Calling him “the greatest announcer in WWE history” just seems overdone at this point. The man is undoubtedly a living legend. He’s the embodiment of wrestling at its peak, and he never had to step between the ropes to get there. But being the best at what you do is not enough, nor does it guarantee success. So Jim Ross redefined his role over the years, from “play-by-play commentator,” to “color commentator,” to “talent manager,” to “blogger,” to “legend.” He towed the company line, but spoke out when necessary. He wasn’t afraid to tell the boss how he felt. He also wasn’t afraid to call the fans out when their criticisms overshadowed the product itself.
Jim Ross was fired, both on-screen and in real life, but he’s still one of the most well-regarded people in the business. He remains relevant after 20-plus years because the man was always a professional wrestling devotee, first and foremost. If an ‘entertainment’ segment on Monday Night Raw was garbage, JR said as much, and we respected him for it. He naturally became the other person in our living rooms.
So as World Wrestling Entertainment embarks into a brave new world, without the most talented commentator to ever sit at ringside, it has to keep the Jim Ross philosophy close at hand. WWE needs to remember that the fans, not the company, are the most important thing about professional wrestling. They’re the ones who create those amazing moments each and every week.