The King of New Orleans advertises itself as the story of how Sylvester Ritter, the professional wrestler better known as the Junkyard Dog, became wrestling’s first black superhero, but the thus-far definitive document on the former star is scant on biographical detail and long on attendance figures and gate receipts. Author Greg Klein, a journalist and former professional wrestler himself, explains his motives for writing about Ritter in mostly dry, academic tone from the start: this is no love-letter to a childhood favorite. Instead, it’s an argument on the behalf of a fan on the larger cultural importance of a much-derided artform and the legacy of a star mostly remembered, if he’s remembered at all, for his three-year stint as a past-his-prime member of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation.
In that regard, Klein’s book is a success. It’s hard not to be impressed, looking at the gaudy numbers Junkyard Dog drew as the main attraction of Mid-South Wrestling, which was one of only a handful of territories to survive McMahon’s initial bid for national supremacy. Before WrestleMania, companies like Mid-South and Verne Gagne’s AWA in Minneapolis regularly ran supercards in NFL stadiums. If you’ve seen one of the AWA’s big Metrodome shows on ESPN Classic, you know that attendance was often dire, the lack of fans in the crowd often overshadowing the action in the ring. Not so with JYD, whose in-ring exploits have been mostly-unaired for decades due to the Mid-South tape library being tied up in ongoing negotiations between McMahon and one of ex-promoter Bill Watts’ ex-wives. New Orleans Superdome shows featuring JYD drew unprecedented crowds of 20,000-plus fans, grossed gaudy, six-figure sums of money, things unheard of outside the wrestling stronghold of the Northeast, and especially in a town like New Orleans, which had no particular history as a wrestling hotbed.
Bill Watts’ success as a promoter came largely as a result of his willingness to take risks with his matchmaking and storylines. His biggest was to follow his instinct that a black man, booked as a powerhouse who overcame every obstacle thrown his way, would draw a black audience. Klein explains in detail that, despite wrestling’s history of African-American wrestlers, from good guy Bobo Brazil to the villainous “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd, there’d never been anybody quite like JYD before, the “black superhero” of the book’s subtitle, who only lost under grossly unfair circumstances, who didn’t need help from others in overcoming gang beatdowns, who conquered every foe and won every championship, and who did it all without drawing any particular attention to the color of his skin. Sure, Sylvester Ritter drew a black audience, but wrestling has always had a fandom of surly rednecks at its core, and they, too, loved Junkyard Dog.
For wrestling fans, The King of New Orleans is an easy book to recommend. In covering Junkyard Dog’s five-year run as the major draw of a fondly-remembered territory, Klein documents the Dog’s various feuds against The Freebirds, Ted Dibiase, Butch Reed, and other’s with a historian’s precision. Those with a working knowledge of wrestling’s past will appreciate the origins of some of JYD’s most famous angles—his accidental “blinding” at the hands of the evil Freebirds, his pairing with “Captain Redneck” Dick Murdoch, his betrayal at the hands of former friend Ted DiBiase—and how those became touchstones for later feuds and storylines throughout the history of wrestling. It may seem strange some 30-years later, but the fans in New Orleans and the surrounding cities on the Mid-South loop were utterly convinced that the events of JYD’s in-ring life were completely real. While playing blind, Ritter was paid to film sad scenes of his adjustments to being blind and looking for a way to support his family. He couldn’t see the birth of his daughter. He couldn’t get his revenge on Michael Hayes, the loudmouthed leader of the Freebirds. When JYD came to the ring to announce his “retirement” from the sport, a gloating Hayes confronted him in the ring. A fan jumped the aisle, pulled a gun on Hayes, and told his favorite wrestler that he had his back. Hayes was saved by security, but both he and Ritter remained in character. It was an insane era for wrestling, and Mid-South was notorious for playing host to a group of fans who punched, kicked, whipped batteries at, and stabbed the evil wrestlers who harassed their favorite son. It was also a time of unprecedented financial success. Before McMahon’s loaded contracts and Ted Turner’s later six- and seven-figure deals, Ritter pulled in up to $12,000 a week, unheard of for even a national champion.
But the money and the schedule led many wrestlers of Ritter’s generation to a life of endless partying, drugs, and estrangement. Beloved by thousands, Sylvester Ritter became one of wrestling’s most notorious cocaine users, and, in an era when strongman physiques became a defining characteristic of everybody on the card, his weight ballooned to the extent that wrestling magazines and newsletters had taken to calling JYD the “junk food dog.” When Ritter was let go by McMahon in a series of cost-cutting maneuvers, he was 35-years-old, an age at which many wrestlers just begin to hit their prime.As Klein documents, Ritter was practically done as a main event attraction at that point. He had a few brief runs in the early 1990s as a member of Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, but when his presence on the card failed to spike attendance for big New Orleans shows the way it once had, he was cut loose once again. Until his death in 1998, Ritter worked the independent circuit, trading in on his diminished name-value for modest paydays.
Junkyard Dog’s downfall is a subject that’s covered in The King of New Orleans, but in brief. The book is presented as an argument for Sylvester Ritter’s induction to various, legitimate halls of fame, and, as such, the sordid details of his life outside the ring are marginalized. Klein’s prose, which is never artful, manages mostly to dehumanize Ritter, further enshrining him as a historical figure, a lightning-in-a-bottle phenomena whose temporary ascent could never quite be explained and whose fall was simply human error. Klein notes with a hint of anger that Ritter’s story became fodder for the sermons of born-again Christian minister Ted DiBiase, who was guilty of many of the same things Ritter did, but who found God and sobriety. He also spends a chapter detailing Watts’ search for a second “black superhero” who could replace Ritter in the wake of his leaving for the greener pastures of the WWF, but neither of these details are more important than what Klein hints at in sentences about voodoo-practicing girlfriends, madhouse-occupying wives, and estranged daughters. Sylvester Ritter’s is a tragic story, but this, the most definitive document of the man’s life, barely expounds on the high cost of Ritter’s heroism. He was flawed, Klein argues, but his success is the real story.The King of New Orleans effectively charts that success, but is unable to capture the spirit of the man responsible for it. Ritter died before tell-all wrestling biographies became popular, and was likely too far removed from the height of his success as Junkyard Dog to merit one, so many of Klein’s anecdotes and quotes come from books written by Watts and DiBiase, not to mention the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, the long-running WikiLeaks of the industry. Though his book stands as a fine testament to the popularity of Ritter and is as good an argument as any to his continued legacy, the enduring image of Junkyard Dog, black superhero, is as a man whose image was largely engineered by white men who saw their audience not by the color of their skin, but the color of their money. Like the “civil rights victory” of his pairing with “Captain Redneck” Dick Murdoch or the success of black comic book superheroes and many blaxploitation film characters, Junkyard Dog’s box-office success was hollow at best, but oh what a ride, while it lasted.
The King of New Orleans: How the Junkyard Dog Became Professional Wrestling’s First Black Superhero, by Greg Klein. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: ECW Press, 2012. 280 pages. $19.95, paper.
Colette Arrand graduated from Bowling Green State University with an MFA in creative writing. Her poetry and fiction appears or is forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, JMWW, and Monkeybicycle. She maintains the pop culture website Fear of a Ghost Planet.