Writer’s note: For anyone who aspires to work at the WWE this is one of those columns you should print and carry around with you and re-read at every opportunity – not because of the writer but because of the content. Toward that end, although I retain copyright, I encourage wrestling websites to freely publish this column and encourage those with email lists to forward it to their lists. Take heed – do what Jim Ross says herein and you will greatly improve your chances of making it to the WWE.
If you had paid a thousand dollars to hear WWE’s Jim Ross speak for two hours this past Tuesday night at the Cauliflower Alley Club annual meeting in Las Vegas you would have severely underpaid. Do what he says and you could headline WrestleMania someday, even if, as he says the chances of that happening “are slim.”
His presentation – “The View from WWE” – was one of the free seminars at the well-organized event, held at the Gold Coast Casino, the home of the $30 hotel room. (That’s per night, not per hour you perv.) Whatever plans you have for April 2013, cancel them and book a flight to Vegas. Now. The Cauliflower Alley Club annual convention is not to be missed by anyone serious about a career in pro wrestling.
The room was packed for Ross’ talk, with hotel workers frantically moving in stacks of additional chairs even as Ross began speaking. (Among the attendees was The Rock’s mother.)
Ross gave a masterful presentation. He was pungent, profound, revealing, unreserved, occasionally profane, witty, hilarious, critical, brutal, compassionate, encouraging, compelling, essential and passionate. His goal, he said, was to provide a few rules that, while he believed they were simple, he often found them to be too difficult for many would-be WWE stars to follow.
Ross mentioned at least twice during his talk - and once during his presentation of an award to Steve Austin the following night at the banquet - that he had recently turned 60 and that he will soon be celebrating 20 years in the WWE. He seemed freed by that. (I know the feeling - when I turned 50 a few years ago it was a freeing experience for me. I knew I was more than halfway home, and was both resigned and happy about it. And I was more confident and comfortable and more competent at life.) Ross seemed willing to take chances because of this milestone. I felt like I was hearing Jim Ross unplugged. He knows what he has done and what he is capable of; he has nothing to prove to anyone. My guess is he has what Jim Cornette so indelicately calls “fuck-you money,” and he is now intent on speaking his mind, consequences be damned. He seems just fine with his lot in life, even embracing the Good ‘Ole JR character (I did not see him once without his black hat, including during his entire talk Tuesday and during the banquet and his presentation of an award to Austin Wednesday night.) He seems to have come to a place of peace and strength in his life, still puzzled that he was struck with Bell’s Palsy – a particularly cruel hit for a broadcaster – but unwilling to allow resentment about that to rule his life. He seems unwilling now to allow Vince McMahon, Jr. to roil the ocean of his emotions any more or direct his life in ways he is not willing to go.
Ross said a number of times that he was speaking for himself most of the presentation, but for the WWE on occasion.
He told the 200 or so in the overflowing crowd (about 40% of whom said, when he asked, that they are independent wrestlers who want to make it to the WWE), that he wanted to tell them “what the WWE is really looking for in talent.” He was blunt about their chances – “the odds of anyone in this room making it to WrestleMania are slim,” noting that there are about 1,500 players in the NFL while only 200-250 (a number that seems high to me) on the WWE roster. “Numerically,” he said, “you have a better chance making it on any NFL team than on the WWE roster.” But, he said, “notice I didn’t say there was no chance. The question you have to answer is ‘How do I maximize my slim chance?’”
In a mysterious aside, he said “in the years to come (the developmental program) will become a much more stringent program. It will be much tougher to get a shot” at getting into the WWE. He didn’t elaborate. I wish he would have. I wish I would have asked him to.
In terms of maximizing your slim chance, he advised attendees to “work as often as you can in the independents (although, he noted, “American independents are going to be largely the same experience over and over again”). You gotta compromise on the paydays to get something on tape.” And he advised young workers to go overseas – “If you can get booked internationally I would explore that,” he said. “If you can learn other styles it will morph into one that you can use to be your unique self.” Go to FCW (WWE developmental) tryout camps, he advised “get noticed, get on the radar.” WWE is going to set up a system where young workers will be able to send in clips of their work. He said he had no doubt that someone would send in porn, but that the WWE would deal with that.
In terms of character development, he advised young talent to “Be natural, whatever you are amplified. Don’t be ‘Stone Cold light’ or a version of Ricky Steamboat or the Undertaker. Make your character a natural version of yourself, amplified a little in the ring.”
He began with a fascinating recap of how he began in the business – “no in-laws, no contacts in the business” – working for Leroy McGuirk and Bill Watts right out of college. He said he often thought that “Danny Hodge drew the houses, but Bill Watts got the top payoff” of the night as the promoter/booker. He said Watts “networked with a lot of guys to solicit talent. He became a director. And as a director knows, he knew you had to have a good cast.” (Much more about the importance of talent later.)
He said he was paid $125 a week to handle Leroy (“I was assigned to Leroy”), supply him with whiskey, drive him (McGuirk was blind) and keep him out of Watts’ hair. “It was all on a handshake, no insurance, no 401(k). I was on wife one at the time,” he said. He handled the ring, refereed. “I had fallen in love with the business because I was a fan of the business,” he said, and he noted that he “had the advantage of working through the territories.” The arrangement, he said “got me an education” in pro wrestling. “I’ve been mainlining this stuff since 1974.”
He forcefully rebutted the contention that Vince McMahon, Jr. had killed the territories.
It is “laughable to blame Vince McMahon for the end of the territories,” he said. “McMahon could never have existed and the territories still would have gone out of business.” Ross blamed “cronyism” and incompetence for the demise of the territories - “the territories were run by people who had no business running a territory.” He contended, “the territory system would have died anyway,” because of the advent of cable television and the fact that wrestling was often not on the network affiliates anymore. “The guys on cable appeared to be bigger stars than the guys on local TV,” he said. “The gun was already loaded, it was cocked and it was slowly turning to their (local territories) head. It was inevitable and unfortunate.”
The lack of territories means “the journey (to success as a professional wrestler) is not as defined as it was.” He praised the territories, saying they made young pro wrestlers “socially and professionally mature. You would be ready” when the call came from the big leagues. The territories provided “an opportunity to ride in cars with veterans of the business. You got an education. Some of us got a crash course in steering the car with your knees and rolling a joint,” he said to great laughter.
Now, he said, “these kids are working in a warehouse environment. That is nothing like working in front of a live audience.” He said he “is working on a curriculum now” to help wrestlers develop. He encouraged people trying to become a pro wrestler to “read about the history of the WWE.” And he repeatedly encouraged aspirants to “have a Plan B. You need an education or a skill – an electrician or a plumber. Having a Plan B is essential. You need to ask yourself ‘What do I do to maintain a good quality of life in a changing economy?’” He noted how many times he had had his heart broken when the time had come for a wrestler to leave the business. He said “now that they can’t do it anymore they have a feeling of hopelessness. They say to me ‘This is all I know.’ I swear to God I have heard that a thousand times.” He said he had, as the WWE Executive Vice President for Talent Relations, sometimes given wrestlers beyond their prime a break, only to quickly find that they had “no self-discipline. They couldn’t manage themselves after a few paychecks.”
He was blunt. He advised the attendees to not “be misled by the exceptions to the rule. Flair and Lawler are still working in their sixties. You probably will never be in that category.”
He is often asked what wrestling school he recommends. He advised the attendees to ask the school “who have you trained and how many people did you get into the WWE? How many people did you put into the major leagues?”
He was critical of today’s young talent. “The younger generation works way too fast. If you hit someone four times, which punch should your opponent sell?” He goes to the FCW developmental territory about every three weeks and tries to help the talent develop. He said he believes WWE should have more than one developmental territory and said “Florida will expand to train people more-thoroughly,” but he did not give details.
He was critical of the often loudly-complaining internet fans. “That audience wants no foreplay,” he complained. “They just want the magic moment. They just want a ‘holy shit’ moment.”
He was amazed at how much the workers want to talk over their matches beforehand. He said “some even at WWE spend an hour talking over a five minute match. When I was refereeing they carried the news (the finish) back and forth between the heels and the babyfaces,” who were often in different locker rooms and did not see each other or talk to each other before they locked up in the ring. “They went out and felt the audience,” he said. “You’re writing fiction here. How’s your book going to end?”
To great applause he said “if you have your match memorized, you’re not a worker or a wrestler.”
He encouraged workers to “focus on body parts in a variety of creative ways.” He said “grabbing a hold and applying a hold are two different things. Apply a hold. Don’t hurt the guy, but make sure he knows you’re there.” He said he often sees “too much sunlight” between workers when the hold should be much more snug.
Ross said he brought on Mick Foley (“we reluctantly got him hired”) because the Undertaker needed a big opponent (Mankind, he said was “a deranged, troubled spirit that seemingly had nothing to live for.”) He called Foley “a good citizen, never an issue in the locker room. He knew how to tell time, he wasn’t a boozer and he had no drug issues.”
So what, specifically, does the WWE look for? “It changes,” Ross admitted, but there are some attributes that will always get you noticed:
A bigger-than-life personality: “You must have ‘it.’ Jerry Brisco and I knew that Brock Lesnar had ‘it’ before he knew he had ‘it.’” (Ross said the WWE began scouting Lesnar when he was a junior in college.) What is ‘it’? Ross said it was “something that makes you want to engage with that person. You cannot define ‘it.’ You cannot manufacture ‘it.’ You cannot smell ‘it.’ You feel it. ‘It’ is an intangible.” He said so much of the old-style wrestling is now on YouTube, and he advised talent to “draw on that, but create a unique style that is all you.”
Athletic ability/being in condition: “When you take a turnbuckle you need to assault the turnbuckle. If you want to win a gold medal in swimming at the Olympics you cannot be afraid of the water.” As to conditioning, he said WWE developmental “should have a full-time strength and conditioning coach.”
A good body: “You can’t look like you work at Best Buy,” he said, and he was critical of those who are critical of the WWE’s emphasis on the body. Stanislaus Zbyszko, Jim Londos and Lou Thesz, he noted “were all jacked. They had a look that made you look, a uniqueness,” he said cleverly. “You have to have a look and a personality,” he said. “We’re in the television business.” It is, he said “a look and a body business. Hopefully the Good Lord has given you ‘it.’”
Skill set in the ring: “Can you lock up, hit the ropes? Do you have respect for your opponent? Are you careless?,” he asked.
Character: “Character is a big issue. Honesty, integrity, keeping your word, commitment, work ethic. You can’t be successful in anything in life being lazy,” he said (although I must admit I have tried).
Respect: “I expect people to respect me because I am going to respect you. Respect your significant other. Stay away from recreational drugs. If you beat up your girlfriend or spouse I don’t need to do business with you. I’ve got not place on my roster for someone who does that,” he told what had become a very attentive crowd. He said he looks to see “who opens doors for ladies” and “who drops the F-bomb around kids.”
Financial responsibility: He advised the use of a debit card rather than a credit card. And he implored independent contractors to pay their quarterly taxes. “Uncle Sam, damn he has a long memory and long-reaching tentacles,” he said, with such passion that you thought maybe he had been touched at one point by the IRS. Ross told the story of “one of our biggest stars who was having seven-figure years (he noted that that is about $19,320 a week) and forgot to file income taxes for the last five years. The government garnished his wages. It happens on all levels,” he said.
Fan of the business: “There’s only two or three guys that I can recall who made it big in the business who weren’t fans,” he said. “The Rock, HHH, Shawn Michaels and Undertaker all had an emotional investment” in professional wrestling. He said when he first met John Cena in a locker room at a pro wrestling event he knew quickly that Cena had been a fan of pro wrestling because of the angles he talked about.
Persistence: “It’s tougher than ever to get into the business,” he said. Send people your matches via Twitter and e-mail, he advised, and get to know Florida Championship Wrestling. “That’s the clearinghouse,” he said. “You need to know about that website.” Twice he said “you’ve got to get your body of work in short form to the decision-makers.” And don’t send them ninety minutes or even five minutes of your work – “they want to see about two and a half minutes. Do a two minute match and a thirty second promo.” Provide video of you doing a “sell, comeback, take a bump or two and call it a day,” he advised.
As to persistence, though, don’t be stupid, he advised. “Don’t give up on your dreams, but be realistic about your goals. If you’re 35 and you haven’t got there yet, it might not happen for you.”
(Still, in a startling admission, he said “right now the roster is thin. The WWE is going through a transitional period.” He acknowledged that fans are seeing “the same two to three guys against the same two to three guys.”)
Promo ability: Ross said he says he sees many promos that are “written, memorized, recited. Fake, fake, fake,” he said, prompting loud applause. “Have a beginning, a middle and an end. Give me your ending line and work backwards.” He said “the great old-timers could ad-lib.”
He took questions, such as whether “the death of kay fabe has completely changed the business.” He said “that doesn’t impact me. We dwell on that a whole lot. When you see a movie, you immerse yourself in it. Fans just want to be entertained,” he said.
Asked about UFC/MMA, he advised UFC to “teach their fighters to communicate to the ticket-buyers.” He said “I love MMA. I’m not knocking it.” He said WWE “wants to have a recruiting program where we can convince amateur wrestlers to come to WWE rather than UFC.”
In what may have been his only misstep with the attendees, he called the championship belt “a prop. It’s very sacred in a lot of ways. It’s changed in different eras. We have to kind of let it go.” He was met with silence on that one.
As to titles, “I kinda think that there are too many titles. They’re a little watered down. You can only have one champion, but ten stars.”
“It’s a different era. We’re dealing with a different constituency and a different audience. The times keep changing and the tastes keep changing.”
Are there too many PPVs? “It certainly puts a tremendous challenge on creative,” he said, “but I think the financial model dictates that WWE have monthly pay-per-views.”
Ross knows that talent drives the business, and it is in that arena - developing and exploiting talent - that the WWE has proven less than competent. “Talent is the be-all, end-all to our business. Players still win games. Talent still draws ratings,” he said. Ross knows that, McMahon knows that, and everyone at the WWE presumably knows that. But turning that knowledge into the acquisition and development and exploitation of talent is proving to be much tougher than WWE probably ever thought.
Despite his tussles with Vince McMahon, Ross is clearly loyal to the WWE. He said WWE is the place where a professional wrestler can have “the longest and most productive career, although he acknowledged that “it is certainly not the only place you can go to make a living in pro wrestling.” He called WWE “the NFL of professional wrestling. I have my team that I play for. I am very comfortable with the team I play for at the current time (emphasis added). I am not going to TNA.” He said he was not, in calling WWE the NFL of professional wrestling “comparing TNA to an indoor league.”
He believes the WWE is the place to be for athletes who want to make a mark, and make some serious money.
“Guys are making more money now than they ever have,” he said. “There’s no better time to be in the wrestling business than today if you’re trying to have financial security.” He repeated that last line.
I agreed with most of what he said, except when he told the attendees “I never thought I was the best announcer – I always thought (Gordon) Solie was.” I’m a Washington, DC-based reporter for the Voice of America now. When you report on what is happening in Washington, you learn quickly how to detect bullshit. And that statement was 100% pure bullshit, as surely everyone knows, perhaps, one hopes, even Jim Ross himself. Hey Jim, it ain’t bragging if you can back it up.