Telling the remarkable tale of a man who is still remembered on the streets of New Orleans and in the hearts of professional-wrestling fans, this book aims to restore the overlooked Junkyard Dog to his proper place in the history books. In 1979, Sylvester Ritter, also known as the Junkyard Dog, managed to break one of the final color barriers in the sport by becoming the first black wrestler named undisputed top star of his promotion, and this biography reveals all the famous feuds and business back stories that made him a wrestling legend. By 1985, New Orleans was one of the hottest cities in the Mid-South for pro wrestling due in large part to the Junkyard Dog; he became a legend in the Big Easy, drawing sellout crowds to the Downtown Municipal Auditorium and huge crowds to the Superdome, a feat unparalleled by any other wrestler. The King of New Orleans delves into wrestling’s recent past and recounts how a region known for racial injustice became the home of the sport’s first black idol.
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A Primer on Mid-South Wrestling's Glory Years
As an Amazon reviewer noted, this book isn't really a biography of JYD the man, so if that's what you're looking for, you'll be disappointed. There's a reason the book isn't called "The King of New Orleans: The Life and Times of Sylvester Ritter."
Instead, Greg Klein uses JYD as an entry point and guide to explore the bygone territorial wrestling system, specifically Bill Watts' Mid-South Wrestling promotion of the late 70s and 80s. As the place where guys like Ted DiBiase, the Fabulous Freebirds, Jim Duggan, Jake Roberts, Paul Orndorff, Mr. Wrestling II, and of course JYD came to prominence, Mid-South holds a special place in the hearts of a lot of old-school wrestling fans who had not yet (or never did) buy into the "sports entertainment" offered by the WWF or later WCW. Klein does a nice job detailing how Mid-South, thanks in large part to JYD, transcended the label of "wrasslin'" and connected with its fans on a personal level. (Some of the heels were so hated that fans tried to storm the ring and stab them.) Because it's easy to assume that pro wrestling is the same now as it always was -- a billion-dollar, worldwide entertainment industrial complex -- it's important to remember, as Klein asks us to, the industry's roots as a network of loosely related regional carnivals, with performers and storytelling devices as distinct and varied as the geography. Seeing how this system changed when a black man became a main-event babyface in the deep south helps shed light on the bigger industry changes to come.
I greatly enjoyed getting a glimpse into the marketing strategy and booking psychology that went into making JYD the promotion's first black main event draw. For instance, Watts took JYD's weakness -- the fact that he was never a great in-ring worker -- and used it to his advantage by booking him in short squash matches that highlighted his charisma and made him seem invincible and credible as a title threat. Watts also established a rule that JYD would never need saving -- if he got in a scuffle, he came up with a way to bail himself out.
It was also pretty fascinating that, during his Mid-South run, JYD was more popular with schoolchildren in New Orleans than Archie Manning or Pete Maravich, according to a poll taken at the time. That made me rethink the impression I'd always had of JYD as a popular but not particularly transcendent performer (of course, all I had to go on were his WWF and WCW runs, by which point drugs and his deteriorating physical fitness left him greatly diminished).
To the previous reviewed who railed on JD Jackson's reading: Settle down. Breathe. No matter how big the problem, there's never a need to go full caps lock.
Jackson does mispronounce a number of wrestling-specific names. It's Oh-lee Anderson, not Ol' Anderson. It's Mr. Wrestling 2, not Mr. Wrestling the Second. It's Ben-wah, not Ben-oyt (seems like you could know that one just from watching the news). While not knowing the ins and outs of the Audible recording process, I would think getting those right would not be the responsibility of the narrator, but of the Audible producer. It's not like Jackson read the names wrong and the producer said, "Well he missed those, but crap, he's the narrator. I guess we have to leave them in." No one in the room knew, and yes, someone probably should have taken a few minutes to do their due diligence. Not everyone's a wrestling fan.
However, those occasional mispronunciations don't take away from the overall performance (they're actually kind of funny after a while). JD Jackson is a fine narrator who treats the material with the seriousness it deserves when dealing with the real-life issues of race and the perils of the pro wrestling lifestyle, and he finds enough humor in the cartoon world of in-ring wrestling without being condescending or campy.
Though later chapters get a bit muddled and repetitive with the ins and outs of the promotions in-ring storylines, this book is totally fascinating if you have any interest in this formative era of wrestling's history. Recommended.
- Robert Hicinbothem Jr.