Lost Dog: The Search For A Forgotten New Orleans Superhero

Junkyard Dog by Ben PassmoreOn a recent Friday night in the Harahan Community Center, the master of ceremonies had the capacity crowd’s attention. “This here,” he promised, “this tonight is gonna be some old-school professional wrestling.” All of us cheered. “Some of you may remember– folks my age, a little younger– the kind of old-school wrestling New Orleans was famous for. I’m talking about a certain Bill Watts. I’m talking about the Junkyard Dog.”

Some jumped to their feet, howling in approval. “Junkyard Dog!” they shouted. Most just clapped politely. When I spoke to people outside during the show’s intermission, no-one younger than forty had much to say about Junkyard Dog. Of the younger attendees, a few knew he was from here, but to the majority he was just another name, a minor figure from the distant days of Hulk Hogan.

Thirty years ago, Junkyard Dog was a New Orleans demigod. In the 1981-82 academic year, the New Orleans school system asked students which local sports star they’d most like to meet. It was the heyday of Archie Manning’s reign as the Saints’ quarterback. Basketball legend “Pistol” Pete Maravich had just retired from a hall-of-fame career centered on a still-unbroken division scoring record at LSU and five years leading the New Orleans Jazz. Both these giants received many votes, but New Orleans’ schoolkids overwhelmingly wanted to meet the Junkyard Dog.

Junkyard Dog by Ben PassmoreThe Junkyard Dog was an unstoppable, title-holding winner in a “sport” where a black man wearing the championship belt had been unheard of. He’s New Orleans’ greatest wrestling star, beyond any question. During his five-year run as Mid-South Wrestling’s top performer he captured the imagination and enthusiasm of South Louisiana to a degree professional wrestling never had before and never has since. Everywhere he went, not only regionally but nationwide, he out-earned everyone. The Downtown Municipal Auditorium, where thousands regularly gathered to see him handily dispatch his rivals, was nicknamed “The Dog’s Yard.” There and in the Superdome, where he drew crowds of over 20,000, his fans chanted “Who dat say dey gonna beat dat Dog?” years before the Who Dat chant caught on at Saints games.

Today, Junkyard Dog is largely forgotten. In a new book, The King of New Orleans: How the Junkyard Dog Became Professional Wrestling’s First Black Superhero, writer Greg Klein seeks to rekindle appreciation for this unlikely trailblazer by telling the true story behind Junkyard Dog’s awesome achievements and eventual tragic end. It’s story of Sylvester Ritter, a small-town boy who grew up to be a taboo-busting, body-slamming folk hero, an unparalleled and unprecedented figure thrilling record-breaking audiences across the South.

Klein’s book follows Ritter from his early days in North Carolina, where his athletic ability and charm distinguished him from early childhood. Ritter was a winner, but his teenage success on the football field earned him heat with white locals who didn’t like to see a person of color on the high-school team. His coach stuck by him, however, because Ritter’s talents made keeping him on the field worth the risks. A similar story would unfold on a much larger stage here in New Orleans: Bill Watts, the white promoter who held a monopoly on pro wrestling across Louisiana and much of the South, was more interested in the money Ritter could make him than in what his racist colleagues might think of it.

Bill Watts wasn’t a civil-rights advocate as such, but he was an entrepreneur who figured out he could sell tickets to people of color if he made a black man his top wrestler. To most in the secretive fraternity of promoters who booked pro wrestling matches and arranged their outcomes, a black wrestling star was unthinkable. People of color were employed only sparingly, as exotic special attractions, as savages, madmen or clowns. An African-American couldn’t be the tentpole hero of an entire wrestling territory.

King of New Orleans by Greg KleinThe Junkyard Dog proved them wrong. His charisma– the mystical “it factor” only a few possess– earned him a following that grew each month. His matches were short, because he wasn’t a technically skilled wrestler, and he won them all. “[T]he real secret,” Watts says, “was not letting a white man save [him]. I put JYD in situations that were fucking impossible and he always saved himself. And guess what? …Everyone loved him for it. He was a black man who was his own man.”

Throughout his career, the Junkyard Dog navigated a tricky racial terrain. His African-American fanbase made him a star, but once he got big enough his audience and supporters diversified. When Ritter teamed with white wrestler Dick Murdoch, known as “Captain Redneck,” the combination was billed by promoters as a step forward for regional race relations. It may have been, if ticket sales are any indication. Both men were already popular, Ritter predominantly with African-Americans and Murdoch with working-class whites, but their run as a tag team elevated them further and helped to broaden Junkyard Dog’s appeal. Watching tapes of Ritter’s matches from that era, Klein writes of being struck by the unusual sight of older white ladies and young black men sitting next to one another and cheering in unison, a rare demographic combination in any other venue.

Ritter’s Junkyard Dog persona was populist and relatable. He had cuddly good looks and a big, bearish body. In the civil rights era, his was a relatively unthreatening version of black masculinity– this is, after all, a man who wore a dog collar and chain to the ring. Often these dynamics of race and identity played out in complex ways, as in Junkyard Dog’s feud with Butch Reed, a younger black wrestler whom he’d publically mentored. Reed horrified fans by turning against Junkyard Dog, denouncing him to the crowd as a sellout, invoking the painful and fraught concept of the “house slave.” Their feud, escalating in the lead-up to a Superdome match, served as proxy for multiple overlapping racial and generational points of tension. The story on one level was simple– ingratitude, betrayal– and yet could be taken in wildly different ways given the times and the different contexts fans brought to it. Who wouldn’t buy a ticket to see such haunting, intractable issues exorcised in the catharsis of combat?

Sylvester Ritter died tragically early after a career that brought him national fame under the Junkyard Dog name, first in the South and later with Vince McMahon’s WWF. Junkyard Dog was in the first three Wrestlemanias; he had action figures made of him and was one of the stars of a pro wrestling cartoon show. His premature downfall was like that of too many pro wrestlers: nagging injuries, substance abuse, and a home life disrupted by countless hours traveling from gig to gig. He died in a car crash in 1998, driving back home after an unsuccessful effort to attend his daughter’s high school graduation.

The King of New Orleans not only tells Ritter’s story but ties it into the larger stories of the time, exploring the racial history of New Orleans and touching on subjects as disparate as the White League monument and the 1985 oil bust. We even catch a humorous indirect glimpse of then-Governor Edwin Edwards. It cost promoter Bill Watts $300,000 a year in payoffs to maintain his corner on the Louisiana wrestling market, and a good portion of the endless licensing fees, state-arranged patronage paychecks and sundry surcharges went directly into the Edwards re-election campaign.

Junkyard Dog by Ben PassmoreIt’s hard to overstate the passion Junkyard Dog inspired. In perhaps his most famous feud, he battled the Freebirds, a villainous trio of Skynyrd-inspired outlaws. They couldn’t beat Junkyard Dog in the ring, so their head honcho used a special hair cream to “blind” him. Ritter went on television and tearfully informed his fans that due to losing his sight, he’d no longer be able to wrestle. He’d have to find some other way to make a living as a blind man, and worst of all, he’d never again be able to see the face of his newborn daughter.

This wasn’t true, of course; his supposed blindness was just an angle to set The Junkyard Dog up for another miraculous comeback, but after that television interview envelopes of money addressed to Junkyard Dog began trickling into Bill Watts’ offices. At first it was just a few, but more and more arrived each day. Some held only a couple crumpled dollar bills, some contained twenty dollars or more, all spontaneously sent by sympathetic fans who wanted to help out a hero fallen on hard times.

Indirectly, Junkyard Dog also helped build more black champions; other promoters began elevating people of color, trying to imitate the success Watts and Ritter experienced. Long after Junkyard Dog had faded from the spotlight, Bill Watts was still trying to recapture the magic. During his brief 1992 tenure as a booker for Ted Turner’s WCW, Watts put that company’s historic World Heavyweight Championship belt on a black man for the first time, breaking another color barrier in an attempt to recreate the triumph of the Junkyard Dog.

I spoke with Klein about his book, how Ritter made history and vanished from it, and a possible Junkyard Dog memorial downtown.

I love how you open The King of New Orleans by taking it to the streets, walking through downtown New Orleans and striking up conversations about Junkyard Dog. The enthusiasm from those who’ve seen his matches or met him back in the day makes it clear how much he meant to people.
Greg Klein:
  I was also pleased when I hit the streets to ask about JYD. Social media had failed me completely it terms of tracking down fans. I never did hear from JYD fans online. Walking the streets, I didn’t know what I would find, who I would find. I was afraid I would discover that no one remembered JYD. Instead I spent all morning talking to his fans. That was gratifying.

What was your biggest challenge in writing this book and getting it into print?
Wrestling history is still sort of hit or miss. You have a great deal of information that isn’t online, that is lost to time. Even talking to the wrestlers themselves, you have to wade through a lot of BS. They all were the best, they all drew the most fans, etc. Ultimately I had to weave it all together, what I knew from being a fan, what I read from second-hand sources. I had to tell a story.

We lived in New Orleans at the time, but locally no one was interested in publishing this. It frustrated me because I knew it was such lost New Orleans history. Here you had a guy in Sylvester Ritter who was once a bigger fan favorite in the city than Archie Manning, for goodness sakes — and now he was completely gone from the city’s history or consciousness. I knew the story needed to be told.

Was Junkyard Dog simply in the right place at the right time, or would he have succeeded comparably in a different environment?
I think both are true. He had an amazing charisma. I’m not sure it’s something you can fake. Maybe you can in the short term, like a con artist (and lord knows wrestling has its share of them) but long term, you can’t fake it: he was a guy who cared about people. He had his demons, but he also had a very genuine, caring side to him. I think he would have been a big star in another time or another profession.

On the other hand, at that point in time, he was clearly the right man for the job. I laugh at how many times Bill Watts tried to recreate the Junkyard Dog, how many times he just pulled some random black guy out of another territory or out of training school, and how delusional he was to think it would work as well. It never worked again for him.

How much credit should we give Bill Watts for Junkyard Dog’s success?
He clearly gets some. He was a bit of a rebel as a promoter. When he took over Louisiana and Mississippi with Mid-South Wrestling from the old Tri-State promotion in the ’70s everyone expected him to fail. New Orleans was a dead town to wrestling before that — and it has been ever since too; that’s one of the more amazing aspects of this story.

Watts understood Ritter had the potential to draw black fans, and he and his bookers took the opportunity to do so when most other promoters wouldn’t have. He saw something in Ritter that maybe another promoter had missed. On the other hand, Ritter was already climbing into main events. Maybe his rise wouldn’t have been as historic, but he would have ended up a star somehow.

It’s funny. I’m not a libertarian. I love New Orleans, my wife’s a NOLA girl to the core, but we hated the state of Louisiana politics while we were there — the whole rise of the tea baggers. You’d never catch me at a Ron Paul rally. But if you look at Mid-South and Bill Watts and the decision they made in 1979 to push a black man as their top star in the Deep South, you’d have to say it was a textbook example of the “free market deciding” philosophy actually working. They made this decision in 1979 in the midst of the backlash to the Civil Rights Era.

The story I tell about Ritter and his teammates in North Carolina integrating Bowman High School is very similar. The coach I interviewed, Ed Emory, he still has his Ross Perot button hanging in his living room. He didn’t do what he did because he thought any great altruistic thoughts; he wanted to win football games. He was willing to stare down the KKK to win games. Likewise, Bill Watts was willing to punch out a good-old-boy racist to sell tickets to the Superdome.

Junkyard Dog was a black man working in an environment rife with racism. There’s been significant improvement– since as you say, green is the most important color to most promoters– but even today, in many cases minority wrestlers, including women, are asked to portray stereotypically demeaning characters. Are these backwards aspects of the sport a mirror for our prejudices, or is pro wrestling simply behind the times?
I have to admit, I don’t watch the product today, so I can’t comment on today’s characters. However, if you take a character like The Rock, for the most part his success had nothing to do with his race; his character got over on talent. I think that’s the progress part. I don’t think it is the institution of wrestling. I think there have always been bad promoters or bad group mentalities in wrestling. Sometimes it’s the lowest common denominator that wins out.

Let’s be honest, it still exists in society too. I think a percentage of the country went crazy when President Obama was elected. You don’t have to look too far for racist comments about him or the first lady. What is the whole “birther” thing if not racism?

What do you think accounts for the Junkyard Dog’s low profile here in 2012 New Orleans? Is the root a ruling-class distaste for professional wrestling, or is it that his fans were mostly (though by no means entirely) African-American? Put bluntly, is his star having faded a symptom of classism, racism, or some other combination of factors?
All of the above, probably. It’s wrestling, a form of entertainment that is disdained by the traditional media. It is also a form of entertainment that has never had much in terms of history, in terms of celebrating its own history. The WWE owns the likeness rights, so you can’t just go market the Junkyard Dog. They don’t do much with their rights either, so nothing is out there. Add in the race part, add in the 30 plus years, add in the uniqueness of New Orleans culture that people often don’t get… mix it all together. It’s like a gumbo. Not everyone likes it. Not everyone gets it.

There should be a statue of the Junkyard Dog in Louis Armstrong Park. I hope there will be someday. By my unofficial records, Mid South and JYD drew more than a million people to the Downtown Municipal Auditorium– the Dog’s Yard– over a five-year span. A million fans! And it was right there in the Treme, right where the park is going to honor all the other legends of the city.

I’m still pretty new to this idea of fundraising or any kind of politicing of city officials. I just started my first crowdfunding account. But I want to get that statue built.

I’d sign the petition. Thanks so much for writing this book, and for your efforts to revive awareness of Ritter’s accomplishments.
Thanks for covering it, and thanks for being a fan. I miss New Orleans, and I know my wife misses it too. We’re honored to tell this story and reconnect with such a special place. To help honor Sylvester Ritter’s memory, I set up an indiegogo crowdfunding account to raise money for a church in Hickory, NC, the GS Glory Church, being built by some friends of Ritter. People can donate at indiegogo.com/junkyarddog.

They have been building a new building and I promised them I would help. We’re trying to raise $1,000 by the fall to donate in Sylvester Ritter’s name. We just launched the account, but it’s been slow going so far. I am hoping some fans will give a few dollars to memorialize the Junkyard Dog. Your readers can also follow me on Twitter at @JYDbook. Hopefully I will have some good news updates along the way.

Greg Klein’s
The King of New Orleans: How the Junkyard Dog Became Professional Wrestling’s First Black Superhero is published by ECW Press. It’s available online and in local bookstores.

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