I’ll start with a question; who won the tournament and main event in the first ever WWF pay per view?
It wasn’t Hulk Hogan. It wasn’t Bob Backlund. It wasn’t Randy Savage. It wasn’t Roddy Piper. It wasn’t Andre the Giant. It wasn’t even the Iron Sheik.
Given the promotion’s reluctance to put black wrestlers on top (let alone refrain from outright mockery of black performers), it might surprise you to learn that it was the Junkyard Dog.
As Black History Month in the States winds down this week, it’s worth examining why at a time well before the first black WWE champion was crowned and McMahon seemed he couldn’t help but equate being black with either anger (Bad News Brown, Farooq) or dancing (Sapphire, Flash Funk, the Godfather), JYD somehow seemed above the that injustice, and was booked to win The Wrestling Classic in 1985.
Yes, The Wrestling Classic was seven months after WrestleMania I, but WrestleMania I was not technically a pay-per-view as we know it—it was closed circuit. Yes, you had to pay to view it, but you also had to go to an arena or theatre to do so. The Wrestling Classic was an endeavor to see if fans would pay to purchase individual distribution of a wrestling show to their homes. Today this all seems kinda cute—could wrestling really be a TV pay per view product?!?
Well of course it was gonna work, and we know now that pay-per-views ultimately became the anchor shows around which national promotions built and continue to build their product. As such, The Wrestling Classic is an important landmark in the wrestling industry (as profound as the first Starrcade or the first WrestleMania), and that a black wrestler took the tournament title and won the main event of that pay per view is as notable.
In that sense, JYD joins the list of civil rights wrestling warriors I chronicled last week here at TWM—Bearcat Wright, Ron Simmons, the Rock, and Kofi Kingston—as a key first for black wrestlers.
JYD beating bad McMahon booking ain’t no small thing either. Like Daniel Bryan or Kevin Owens or Rey Mysterio who would follow, JYD’s popularity with the fans pre-WWF/E had established his name and gimmick already, and prevented the WWF from packaging him in whatever ridiculous gimmick McMahon would have painted him with. It should be no secret that McMahon’s 80’s booking by today’s standards (and that day’s too) was racist. Oddly, this manifested most in two white men, the repackaged One Man Gang as Akeem the African Dream and the dancing Dusty Rhodes with the aforementioned dancing Sapphire – something I discussed at length a couple of weeks ago for OMG’s 60th birthday, and previously in columns about the American Dream. It shows too in the ridiculous length of time it took a black wrestler to be booked into the world title in the WWF, well after Ron Simmons won the world title in WCW in 1992.
Who knows what McMahon would have done with JYD had he not come already fully formed, with a lingo and style all his own, that the fans adored?
Junkyard Dog, real name Sylvester Ritter, hailed from North Carolina originally, and it was in the southern territories in the US that he became a star and household name. Most credit JYD as being the first black wrestler to perform as the top face of a promotion. Under a bevy of names including “Big Daddy Ritter”, he first wrestled in Tennessee for Jerry Jarrett and in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling in Calgary. There, he won Stampede’s version of the NWA North American Title. He then moved back south with Bill Watts’ NWA Mid-South Wrestling (later the Universal Wrestling Federation) and it was here that he adopted the gimmick that catapulted him.
As the Junkyard Dog he wore a chain and collar and rolled a cart of heavy duty junk to the ring to use if needed (a la New Jack). More important than his look and character was his interaction with the fans, especially his tendency to bring kids into the ring to dance after matches. That combined with his smooth, fast, southern talking dialogue and strange linguistic affectations—like using the onomatopoeia “Thump!” instead of naming an in-ring move or later describing grabbing a butt as “grabbing them cakes”—made him an instant star and indeed Mid-South’s top face (not unlike the Rock a decade later in the WWF: think “candy ass” instead of “cakes”). Again, he was awarded the promotion’s version of the NWA North American Title.
Under Watts’ innovative territory booking, JYD had big time angles with the Freebirds, Ted DiBiase, King Kong Bundy, Ernie Ladd, Kamala, and his protege-turned-enemy, Butch Reed that garnered major heat and continued to endear JYD to fans there. Eventually, as all territory wrestlers that became the biggest names in their area in the early 80s, the WWF and Vince McMahon came calling for the Junkyard Dog.
While he stayed in the mid-card there (as many top NWA stars would in the WWF), he remained uber-over and McMahon had enough savvy to capitalize on that popularity. Indeed, he did win the tournament of the first PPV, beating Randy Savage no less in the finals of The Wrestling Classic (Hogan and Piper were busy continuing their WrestleMania I feud and not in the tournament). Perhaps as significantly for the action figure collectors reading, he was also one of the Series 1 Wrestling Superstars from LJN put out in the first run of WWF action figures.
While the Hasbro figures would eventually become the more synonymous WWF toy, the early LJN figures were the first. For JYD to be included in the very first run of figures alongside Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Roddy Piper is huge. It suggests his profitability at the time, and now stands as another way that JYD broke a barrier in the pop culture as the first black wrestler with an action figure.
In 1988, the newly formed WCW lured JYD away from the WWF, where he was eventually reunited with Bill Watts (again check out last week’s article on Ron Simmons to see more about Watts and WCW). There, for five years he was used much in the same way as in the WWF. He was a mid-carder whose popularity put him in a special class of marketability. Clash of Champion VI in 1989 was booked in New Orleans in the Louisiana Superdome on really the strength of JYD’s popularity there alone. Appropriately, JYD got a grand jazz band entrance for that Clash, where he battled old rival Butch Reed.
At one point in 1991-92 Watts, knowing how over JYD had gotten in Mid-South/UWF, did consider putting the WCW title on the Junkyard Dog. However, by then, demons were catching up with Sylvester Ritter and his work was starting to decline.
Concurrent with his rise in the 80s, as with many, many wrestlers of the time, Sylvester Ritter had some heavy substance abuse issues. Toward the end of his life, he never hesitated to relay his struggles with addiction and substance abuse, and encouraged writers to use his story as a cautionary tale for young wrestlers or young people in general. At his peak in the mid-80s it doesn’t seem to have slowed him much in-ring. Any effects one notices from it at that time are more on the microphone where he sometimes delivered promos with a speed that only cocaine can induce.
However, by the early 90s, heavy alcohol and cocaine use had begun to take a physical toll. In 1993 he left the WCW and only popped up for a few independent shows over the next couple of years before leaving the business after 1995.
Unfortunately, as Dave Meltzer noted his in his wonderful article honoring JYD after his death in the June 15, 1998 Observer, Ritter spent his years after wrestling bouncing around without a permanent address. He worked for Wal-Mart in Las Vegas, he worked with a repossession agency in Mississippi, he tried—unsuccessfully—to lobby for cameo appearances or even a returning role with either WCW or the WWF, neither of which was interested in the Monday Night War Attitude Era. He continued to try, but did not defeat his addictions.
On June 1, 1998, Sylvester Ritter was driving to his home in Mississippi from his parents’ home in North Carolina and his daughter’s graduation weekend there (sadly, Meltzer reported, he actually arrived late and missed the graduation). Near Forest, Mississippi for unknown reasons, Ritter lost control of his vehicle and rolled his car three times. He was killed in the accident. When he was buried a week later back in North Carolina, nearly the entire population of the town turned out for the funeral. Along with the slew of wrestlers and promoters that sent well wishes and flowers, Michael Jordan made a personal phone call to the family.
While many narratives of the career of Junkyard Dog focus on what could have been had his popular run not been so short, had his addictions not been so great, let us not forget the milestones either. Among the pantheon of important black wrestlers, JYD still looms large.
You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.