The big moment doesn’t just happen to play-by-play announcer Jim Ross as much as the WWE Hall of Famer tends to happen to it.
There’s no greater evidence of this phenomenon -- or compliment to his legacy -- than the many viral videos that flood social media immediately following a major sporting event, with one of Ross’ memorable pro wrestling calls dubbed over the top.
But when it comes to his philosophy of handling the big moment, Ross believes it’s instinctual.
“Every call can’t be the walk-off call, but you just have to feel it,” Ross said. “It’s a feel for the game and a feel for the moment of where you are. It won’t be contrived. It will be organic. And if I make a legitimate emotional investment, the audience is likely to do the same.”
Ross admits he probably never would have been successful calling sports like golf and tennis. But he has done just fine throughout a career that has spanned four decades and produced the kind of iconic sound bites that have become part of the pop culture lexicon.
While his booming voice is best known for his work in pro wrestling, Ross’ announcing background features stops in college football, pro football with the NFL and XFL, and most recently in boxing with Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions.
Ross will get a chance to add mixed martial arts to his resume tonight when he makes his debut alongside former UFC middleweight Chael Sonnen for the call of BattleGrounds MMA: "O.N.E." from the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma (10 p.m. ET, PPV, $19.95).
The event, which features a one-night, eight-man welterweight tournament, is a throwback to the early days of the sport and takes place in the same city where Royce Gracie submitted Dan Severn to win the UFC 4 tournament in 1994. On Friday, Cody McKenzie and Brock Larson will headline a group of fighters competing for a grand prize of $50,000.
“I have been a fan of MMA since the Art Davie days before Zuffa, where these one-night tournaments were kind of the bill of fare,” Ross said. “It’s a little guttural and quite visceral. You have to win three fights in one night, you have to stay healthy and you have to try to get your business done by going for finishes early and often. It’s about as gritty as you are going to get.”
Despite the predetermined nature of pro wrestling matches, Ross is comfortable making the transition into calling MMA fights because of what he calls a misconception about his previous role as a broadcaster.
“I really never encouraged knowing every minute detail of a pro wrestling presentation,” Ross said. “I felt like I did my best work when I didn’t know all of the minutiae. I didn’t necessarily need to know who was going to win and thought that the less I knew, the better my performance would be.”
One aspect of his new venture that excites Ross is the potential for chemistry with the man sitting next to him. Sonnen, who retired from fighting in June following a failed drug test that canceled plans for a bout against Vitor Belfort at UFC 175, is a seasoned broadcaster whose personality isn’t unlike the many heel announcers Ross has worked with in pro wrestling.
“I think it’s going to be exhilarating and absolutely fantastic,” Ross said. “Chael is a natural communicator. He’s funny when he needs to be. He can talk in sound bites when needed. He reminds me a lot of Paul Heyman -- very cerebral, high IQ, sound product knowledge. He’ll tell you what time it is, not how to make the watch.”
For Ross, it was also important to be paired with a partner who wasn’t reluctant or resentful to work alongside a “pro wrasslin’” guy. He looks at their relationship as being simple: Ross is the point guard of the broadcast and will look to provide information and tell stories while teeing up his analyst to provide the technical expertise.
“I’m an Oklahoma City Thunder fan, and to me, Chael is K.D. He’s Kevin Durant. It’s my job to get Kevin Durant the ball and, if I do, more often than not he’s going to score,” Ross said. “I want to ask him questions that I feel like the average fan would be curious to know and ask him to get inside the head of a fighter.”
Just as he did with his boxing debut in May, Ross is taking a somewhat cautious first step into this new venture, calling the show a one-off until he can evaluate how well he adapts to the genre.
“The bottom line is we have no control over the performance of the fighters inside the cage. That’s completely out of our hands,” Ross said. “They are going to make music. Is it going to be great music? I don’t know. But our job is to provide the appropriate lyrics to whatever music they choose to play.
“But I have no trepidation whatsoever that my partner and I won’t be able to deliver a unique, exciting and very entertaining evening of fights. Chael is going to say whatever he wants, as will I, and I think that has the potential to make the broadcast very unpredictable and unique. I think we are going to have a blast.”
Ross, 62, retired from WWE in 2013 and stays busy with his traveling one-man show and his successful podcast, “The Ross Report.” He also shared his thoughts on a number of other topics related to pro wrestling and MMA:
Brian Campbell: How would you compare the similarities of marketing big fights in both pro wrestling and MMA?
Jim Ross: There are a lot of similarities and that may not be what some MMA purists want to hear. I think as time moves on, more and more fighters in an organic, natural way are going to learn how to better sell their fights. You don’t want to take it to the eye-rolling level of building a fight, but you want to be able to make it more personal. Muhammad Ali told me a long time ago that he realized he could make more money encouraging people to buy tickets to come see him get his ass whipped than he could to see him win. I think that what you’re seeing is the same thing that Floyd Mayweather Jr. does now. You buy his fights to see someone shut his mouth or him continue to win. There is no gray area. There’s no Switzerland or neutrality. And I think some of these fighters need to understand that you don’t have to go to the pro wrestling promo school to learn how to sell your fights; but somewhere along your journey, if you want to maximize your opportunities in a business that traditionally doesn’t have a long shelf life, you'd better maximize your fights. To do so, you have to learn how to sell.
Campbell: Which pro wrestlers throughout history would have had the most success in MMA?
Ross: Do a Google search on Danny Hodge, whom the equivalent to the Heisman Trophy in college wrestling is named after. He was a three-time national champion at Oklahoma in the 1950s and never lost a match. In his senior year, he never gave up a point, so no one ever escaped nor was he ever taken down. He went to two Olympic Games [winning one silver medal], and when his amateur career had ended, he decided he would take up boxing with zero formal training and won the United States heavyweight Golden Gloves championship. He had the ability to take people down, escape, knock you out and had this amazing strength where, today at 82, he could still take an apple and squeeze the pulp out of it with his grip. I saw him break a pair of pliers in his upper 70s. He had this uncanny, inhuman grip where once he latched on to you, not only was it excruciatingly painful, but it was hard to pry him loose. In today’s world, I would say Jack Swagger [formerly Jake Hager], who was an All-American at Oklahoma as a heavyweight. He was 6-foot-6 and about 260, and coincidentally went to the same high school as Danny Hodge in Perry, Oklahoma. The other guy is Dolph Ziggler, who wrestled as Nick Nemeth at Kent State. He was a really good amateur and a high school teammate of Gray Maynard in Ohio.
Campbell: What are your memories of WWE’s “Brawl For All” tournament in 1998, which featured elements of boxing and amateur wrestling? Were the results as unscripted as advertised?
Ross: It was a horrific idea, and I’m not taking myself out of the culpability factor because I was in administration at the time managing the talent roster as the executive vice president of talent relations for WWE. Creative came up with this idea off the heels of MMA kind of getting their toe in the water and becoming popular. We quizzed the locker room seeing if anybody would be interested knowing it’s not going to be staged. You are going to go out and beat the hell out of each other, so understand the criteria going in. It’s going to be the real deal. At the end of the day, because of all the injuries that those guys sustained, our medical bills were exorbitant. It caused some friction in the backstage area. Instead of going out and putting on a theatrical performance, they were really fighting each other. It’s very challenging to go out and remain buddies when you are being encouraged to beat the hell out of each other. It took them out of their element and what they signed on to do. Now, they volunteered and got paid, and the king of the four-rounders [boxer Eric] “Butterbean” [Esch] got to fight the winner -- and boy, was that ugly -- but I don’t know what good came out of it. As the guy who had to quell some hurt feelings and, out of my [own] budget, had to pay them while they were off work healing, it was a nightmare. But it totally was real.