During the territorial era of professional wrestling there were certain performers who became synonymous with the region they competed in. Whether it was Ric Flair in Greensboro, Dusty Rhodes in Tampa, Jerry Lawler in Memphis or Bruno Sammartino in New York, each man left behind an enduring legacy that enabled them to become one with the local culture.
When it comes to the history of wrestling in New Orleans, there is one name who stood above the rest. That man was Sylvester Ritter aka The Junkyard Dog.
While JYD was one of the World Wrestling Federation’s biggest names from late 1984-1987, there is little questioning that his true legacy was established during his run as the top star of Mid-South Wrestling, where he set numerous box office records across the territory for his rivalries against the likes of Ted DiBiase, Paul Orndorff, Butch Reed and others.
Born in 1953, Ritter was raised in the rural, heavily black city of Wadesboro, NC. He played offensive guard at Fayetteville State University and was actually a good enough player to be drafted in the 12th round by the Houston Oilers in 1975 after graduating with a degree in history and political science.
Ritter was cut by the Oilers after suffering a knee injury. He tried out for the Green Bay Packers the following season and was again cut.
As with many former football players, Ritter decided to try his luck in the world of professional wrestling. He got first serious break in 1978 while working in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling territory under the name Big Daddy Ritter.
Ritter had a five-month run as North American champion and even got to challenge NWA world champion Harley Race. Although he was far from being considered a good mat technician, he had already began establishing himself as a superior talent on the microphone. It was during this period that he developed the charisma that would soon catapult him to unprecedented heights.
Ritter arrived in Louisiana at about the same time Bill Watts broke away from promoter Leroy McGuirk and took over promoting Mid-South Wrestling. At the time, the four-state region of Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi was considered a death knell to promote wrestling in. Watts’ first and most successful major decision was rechristening Ritter as The Junkyard Dog.
Considered a booking genius, Watts is generally given credit for making JYD into the first African American top babyface star of a major wrestling promotion. But Watts was in need of a big angle to kick off JYD’s run as the top guy.
Enter the Fabulous Freebirds.
No discussion of JYD’s career can be brought up without mentioning the Freebirds—the legendary trio of Michael Hayes, Terry Gordy and Buddy Roberts. In one of the best angles in Mid-South history, Michael Hayes sprayed the infamous Freebird hair removal cream into JYD’s eyes, thus blinding him in storyline.
In reality, it was nothing more than a modern adaptation of the 1971 Fred Blassie vs. John Tolos angle in Los Angeles.
To make the story more believable, JYD wasn’t allowed to leave his house for fear of anyone seeing that he wasn’t really blind. The attention to detail given to the angle was a large part of the reason why Mid-South was usually regarded as the most believably-booked promotion of its day. It has been said that no wrestling promoter in history ever produced as good of a weekly-episodic television show as Watts did. The key reason is because there were very few logical gaps in his booking.
To add fuel to the fire, it was pushed on television that the blinded JYD couldn’t even see the birth of his first daughter due to Michael Hayes.
One night during a particularly-heated angle between JYD and the Freebirds at the Downtown Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans, a fan jumped the rail with a gun and aimed it straight at Hayes, screaming, “Don’t worry Dog, I’m covering for you.”
While this kind of behavior may seem unrealistic by today’s standard of sports entertainment, the fans of Mid-South were trained to believe that the product presented before them was the real thing. There are numerous stories of JYD’s opponents being scared to drive to the building for fear that their cars would be destroyed. Some would sneak out of the arena in the trunk of someone else’s car so as to not be followed by the dangerous mob of fans. JYD wasn’t just another wrestler. He was a folk hero to the masses.
A few years ago on a WWE Legends of Wrestling roundtable discussion, Hayes said that he never feared for his life as much as he did during the period he feuded against JYD.
JYD eventually returned for revenge against Hayes in a dog collar match that drew 28,000 fans to the New Orleans Superdome, a record for the largest indoor wrestling crowd in history up to that point. To this day it still holds the record for the largest wrestling event ever held in the venue. It’s a record that will be broken when WrestleMania 30 emanates from the remodeled Mercedes-Benz Superdome on April 6.
Between 1980 and 1983, largely due to the JYD’s popularity, it is likely that no city in the U.S. drew more fans to wrestling than New Orleans. In that heyday of the promotion, they drew 5,000 to 8,000 fans every Monday night at the Downtown Municipal Auditorium chanting “Who dat think they can be dat Dog? Who dat?,” a chant that became part of area lexicon at New Orleans Saints games that continue to this day.
As with many top stars of the 1980s, JYD eventually found his way to Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (now WWE). He debuted in 1984, after abruptly quitting Mid-South. While Watts used other black stars such as Eddie “The Snowman” Crawford and Savannah Jack to fill the void left by JYD’s departure, the magic was gone. Though Mid-South continued to do big business, it never regained the spark it had during JYD’s run. It became clear he was the glue that held everything in place. With the territorial system of wrestling collapsing, Watts was forced to sell Mid-South (then named Universal Wrestling Federation) to Jim Crockett Promotions in 1987.
JYD had great success in WWF until drug and weight issues curtailed his career there. He later competed in various promotions including Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, but never again reached his previous peak of popularity. His final appearance on a major-league show was at ECW’s Wrestlepalooza PPV in 1998.
Tragically, his life was cut short in 1998 when he fell asleep at the wheel while driving back from his daughter’s high school graduation. He was 45. In 2004, he was posthumously inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
To illustrate how big of a household name JYD was, he was voted ahead of Archie Manning and Pete Maravich in a 1982 Louisiana newspaper poll of the greatest pro athletes to ever compete in the state. He won by a landslide.
Those interested in learning more about his legacy should check out WWE’s Legends of Mid-South Collection and Greg Klein’s book, The King of New Orleans: How The Junkyard Dog Became Professional Wrestling’s First Black Superhero.