ORLANDO, Fla. — ”I don’t want this thing to be a wake,” Jim Ross says from the passenger seat of a rented Nissan SUV, adjusting his trademark black cowboy hat and staring straight ahead through his red and white Oakley sunglasses as we merge onto Interstate 4 and head east toward downtown Saturday morning.
The legendary wrestling broadcaster is talking about his show that afternoon, the first of two weekend matinees at The Plaza Live, a modest movie-theater-turned-concert-hall about four miles from Camping World Stadium, the site of WrestleMania 33. It’s Ross’ first “Ringside” speaking gig since the unexpected passing of his wife, Jan, on March 22, and while he knows the topic of her death, a result of a March 20 traffic accident, can’t be avoided, he’d prefer it not become the focus of his 90-minute set.
Instead, Ross tells his manager and producer, Rafael Morffi, that he’d like to spend as much time as possible interacting with host Jeremy Borash, telling stories, answering audience questions and engaging his panel, which, over two days, includes Tony Schiavone, Bruce Prichard, Mick Foley and Jeff Jarrett, among others.
Not only will that make for a better experience for the fans, which Ross insists is always his primary objective, but it’ll help him take his mind off of the cruel curveball life has thrown him — at least for a couple hours.
“I got up this morning at 7 o’clock — woke up much earlier than that, but finally got up at 7 — and something set me off and the water came,” Ross said, describing one of the countless texts, calls and tweets of solidarity he’s received over the past two weeks. “And I’m thinking, ‘My God, I’ve got this show to do today, and I can’t do this. I can’t be a distraction.’ That’s the wrong kind of emotion to elicit out of your audience. They’ve paid money to come see you, and you’ve got to deliver more than just tears.”
Yet while Ross’ concern is the customer, it’s evident his followers and friends are worried about him.
Over the course of a two-hour pre-show meet-and-greet with VIP ticket-holders, virtually everyone who shakes Ross’ hand passes along condolences, one family with a young child bringing an orchid as a token of their support. After the show, another couple waits in line for more than a half hour, not for a photo or an autograph or to tell a story or ask him about his rumored return to the WWE broadcast booth — the question du jour — but simply to hand Ross a sympathy card.
Each time it happens, Ross’ heart skips a beat as he chokes out a thank you, and by showtime he’s a bundle of nerves — or at least as close to one as the Hall of Famer with more than 40 years of experience gets.
“I guess I just feel that I need to fulfill my end of the bargain,” Ross says when asked why he insists on performing when his fans would certainly understand had he canceled the dates. “It’s just old school, and that’s me, for better or for worse. I don’t need a parade in my honor. I’m not going to break my arm, as Monsoon would say, patting myself on the back. But the bottom line of it is that I feel obligated to reciprocate to these people who have been loyal to me all these years.”
Those same emotions also take over Sunday, on a deeper level, when “Boomer Sooner” roars from the PA and Ross joins Michael Cole and JBL at the announce table for the main event at WrestleMania — the first assignment of a new tenure with WWE.
“I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t have those bald eagle-sized butterflies, but that’s to be expected,” Ross said late Sunday night from his hotel following the Undertaker’s loss to Roman Reigns and subsequent retirement. “To be on the card at WrestleMania is not a right. It’s really, indeed, a privilege, and I was very happy that WWE reached out and wanted to, as they say, in their own words, bring me home.
“That conversation began months ago, and my wife was so excited about the prospects and about the potential of us coming to WrestleMania,” Ross continued. “She wanted to get dressed up and walk the red carpet at the Hall of Fame, and she wanted to hear me get introduced and to see me walk out and call a match. That was her dream, and I shared that dream, which is one of the reasons I was so willing to come here.”
Ross’ new two-year deal, signed Friday, will put him in a variety of roles with WWE.
“It has a specific number of dates that I’m obligated to work, which I think is good for me,” Ross said. “So look at it this way: I got my jersey back. I got brought back to my home team, and my opportunities back in WWE, I’m sure, will be multi-fold.
“They’ve got a lot of things that I can contribute (to), and I’ve been so blessed in the business that I’ve done so many different things,” Ross continued. “I’ve been an administrator and a syndicator, a marketing rep, a VP of broadcasting, a head of talent relations. But the fun part is what I did tonight.
“I hope to have more ‘fun part’ assignments in the future, but I’ve got my jersey back,” he reiterated. “So if the team needs me to play, to work more than they anticipated because they need it, I’m in.”
Perhaps sensing Ross’ pre-show disquiet one day earlier, Jarrett, the longtime WCW and WWE star, pulls Ross into the green room bathroom for a private chat as a local radio host warms up the crowd around the corner. Then, as he takes one last sip from his Crown Royal and steps out into the hallway leading to the stage, Ross walks into an extended hug from Jarrett’s wife, Karen, an entertainer in her own right who later says she’s “never felt Jim shake like that” before a show.
“I wasn’t nervous getting in front of a crowd; that’s never been my issue,” Ross tells me later, when asked about the embrace, before hearkening back to his first major speaking engagement, at age 16, in front of a crowd of 6,000 at the Future Farmers of America banquet at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla. “But I was certainly uneasy with my emotions. That was the big unknown. Could I keep it together and maintain my train of thought?”
Throughout the performance that followed, Ross stuck to the script he’d discussed Saturday morning, briefly acknowledging Jan’s passing at the outset before moving on to wrestling. The only time he became visibly upset was as he signed off, tears welling in his eyes as he told the crowd, “It’s been hard, and my heart is broken, but you’ve helped me heal, and I thank you a lot.”
Still, an exhausted Ross expressed disappointment as he decompressed following his post-show meet-and-greet, lamenting the instances where he admits he lost track of what he was saying.
“Generally, in non-stressful situations, I’ve always been able to capture the thought and bring it back,” Ross said. “But tonight I had a couple, three times that I couldn’t even remember what I was talking about. And that’s simply a facet of grieving.
“The mind has a short attention span and it takes you to places you didn’t necessarily want to go,” he continued in his trademark Oklahoma drawl. “So when I’m trying to answer some of these questions tonight, some of them reminded me of my wife, and that’s where I went, and then when I got there, that’s what dominated my thoughts and I couldn’t get back to where I wanted to be.
“So that was uncomfortable, and I get that it’s going to be a part of the process going forward for a while,” Ross added. “Am I embarrassed by that? Yeah, a little bit. But at least I’m honest.”
Ross is also nothing if not forthright about his experience dealing with the minority of detractors who have been critical of his quick return to the office.
“I’ve had some skeptics say, ‘Well, JR didn’t grieve very long. He’s already going to Orlando,’ and it pisses me off,” Ross said, his voice growing irritated. “How do you know I’m not grieving? What are you, Carnac? Are you some mentalist? And how do you have the audacity to say I’m not grieving about losing the love of my life, my angel? They say, ‘He’s already back at work,’ but what did you want me to do? Sit at home?
“I lost my best friend and soul mate, 24 years together,” Ross continued, “And I could have not come and sat in the darkness and cried more. But I was tired of crying, and I wanted to get around people that I knew loved me.”
That mindset represented an interesting and heretofore unfamiliar role reversal for Ross.
Several hours before he stepped on the Plaza stage, Ross took great pride in describing his shows as a “safe place” for wrestling fans of all ages and backgrounds to be who they are and enjoy what makes them happy without fear of ridicule, a sentiment he later shared with the audience, as well. However this time it was Ross, himself, who wanted nothing more than to surround himself with others who appreciate his insight and share his passion for the business.
“It really was cathartic,” Ross said after the show. “I needed this. I needed to be able to express myself.
“I say this as a completely humble man,” he continued. “My audience has followed me since they were children. If I heard it once this weekend, I’ve heard it dozens of times, that, ‘JR, you were the voice of my childhood, and I listened closer to you than I did my parents.’ So I knew that I was in a safe haven, and that’s the reason that I was here.
“I knew I might cry, but I knew that no matter what my emotions were during our show, that the audience would always understand,” Ross added. “And all I really needed was some understanding and a little bit of patience that what I’m going through ain’t easy.”
Nor will it be easy in the days, weeks and months to come, as Ross continues to reconcile the tragic events that led to Jan’s death, as well as his eventual decision to take her off life support two days after the crash.
“If I could, I would trade places with my wife,” Ross said. “I’ve had a great run, had a great life, and I don’t want to leave my kids, my granddaughters, my friends. I’m like anybody else. But she was 10 years younger than me, she was in spectacular health, she was the nicest, kindest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life. And it should have been me in that situation.
“She used to tell me all the time, ‘If something ever happens to me, don’t let me be a body that somebody just cares for — (someone) who can’t talk, can’t communicate, can’t clean themselves, can’t eat,’” Ross continued. “(Her doctors) were somewhat explicit that she would never be the person that I knew, if she was able to live. And I knew, unequivocally, when they said it that that was not the person she wanted to be.”
It’s not the first time Ross has had to deal with sudden death head-on. Both of his parents died at age 64, his father of a heart attack while hunting the day the Road Warriors returned to WWE in February 1997 and his mother in late 1998, while Ross was overseas calling a UK-only pay-per-view. Shortly after his mom’s passing, Ross, now 65, suffered the second of his three Bell’s palsy attacks.
He’s also, in recent days, been emotional and guilt-ridden over the passing of his late wife’s Persian cat, Mickey (named for the Hall of Fame slugger Mantle), who suddenly died Thursday — as a result of anxiety, Ross surmises, over Jan’s own death. But through it all he’s found comfort, not only in the familiarity of WrestleMania week and his interactions with fans and colleagues, but in the knowledge that his wife’s death was not in vain.
“Since she passed, four people have had their lives saved with her organs, and I feel so proud of her,” Ross said. “And it may not mean a damn thing to you or me if we don’t know someone who was a recipient of an organ from a donor, but because of this (those people) are alive, they’re productive, they have their family — they’re doing everything that all of us want to do.
“She was my whole life, and my life will never be the same,” Ross adds later, revisiting the topic after WrestleMania, “but — and I think this is what she would say — you’re challenged to work through this, come out on the other side whole, and do positive things.”
And so Ross will continue to do what he can to focus on the future and do the things that bring him happiness, despite how easy it is to get caught up in the heartbreak consuming his life. It’s not what Ross had planned for himself, and his world will never be the same again. But he’ll forge ahead, with a live mic, finding peace in the joy of doing what he loves.
“This is a day-to-day process,” Ross said late Sunday night. “I’ve never seen a manual or a training tape or anything along those lines to tell you what you’re supposed to do or how you’re supposed to act when you lose your spouse. I talked to people today who asked, ‘How are you doing?’ Well, I think I’m doing OK, but I’m not sure.
“I wish she had been there — I wish she was here now, with me,” a solemn Ross added, the time creeping up on 2 a.m. “It’s tough to come back to an empty hotel room. For all the lights and the pyro (at WrestleMania), it’s nothing now. It’s all over. And I guess even more sobering is the fact that when I get home, it’ll be very, very quiet. I’m leaving 75,000 fans to go back to an empty house and memories, but it’s up to me to make those good memories, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”