Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Deadspin's Dead Wrestler of the Week: The Junkyard Dog

Most people who follow blogs closely have probably heard of Gawker media. They are the pinnacle of blog popularity. One of the websites under them is Deadspin, which claims to deliver sports "without access, favor or discretion." They absolutely come through on that claim as their targets have ranged from the likes of Tiger Woods and Alex Rodriguez to Sean Salisbury and Steve Phillips. Anyway, I visit Deadspin for the sheer lulz and their often humorous take on sports. Plus, they have some excellent writers like Drew Margarey and Will Leitch. Anyway, a few weeks ago they started a weekly tribute to dead wrestlers. These columns have been absolutely great as they combine passion for wrestling, emotional attachment to the wrestlers along with some excellent writing. This week, they did an examination on one of the most underrated wrestlers; The Junkyard Dog

Here is Deadspin's own description of it.
Every week, the Masked Man, Deadspin's pro wrestling correspondent, honors the sport's fallen and examines their legacies — famous and obscure alike. Today: Junkyard Dog, who died in a one-car accident in 1998.
I will just do a teaser of sorts on here, if you want to read the rest of it, you should click right here
Wrestlemania I: the culmination of the feud between the Junkyard Dog and Intercontinental champion Greg "the Hammer" Valentine. The ending goes something like this: Valentine wins by (illegally) propping his feet on the ropes to leverage JYD into a pin; Tito Santana comes to the ring to alert the referee to Valentine's maleficence; the ref restarts the match; Valentine, seething, refuses to re-enter; Valentine is counted out; JYD wins the match, but, per the rules, doesn't win the title belt. The crowd applauds JYD's victory, tainted though it was, and JYD does his best to show his gratitude. But this is more than just a loss. It's a microcosm of JYD's whole WWF tenure. Popular as he was, and though very frequently victorious, he never held any championships.

This, for better or worse, is the way we remember the Junkyard Dog, a.k.a. Sylvester Ritter: operating successfully but basically ignobly, unable (or disallowed) to reach the highest level of the game. In retrospect, it's too easy to dismiss the Junkyard Dog, either as a minstrel-style sideshow (the dancing, the ghetto affectation, the chains around his neck) or as a plain midcarder, a popular but unspectacular sidebar with no upward mobility. But his shtick and his persona made him as popular in the early days of the WWF as anyone save Hulk Hogan, and that's without the merciless publicity machine that went into the Hulkster's ascendance. And, if history is any indicator, JYD had already established himself as championship material.

Sylvester Ritter played football at Fayetteville State, and it's often said he was drafted by the Packers, though there's no record of it. After injuries ended his gridiron career, he turned to wrestling. He did stints in Jerry Jarrett's Tennessee territory and in Stu Hart's Stampede Wrestling before settling in at Mid-South Wrestling, where promoter Bill Watts gave him the persona that would make him famous. (Lest the name fool you, Mid-South comprised Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.) Watts would never be mistaken for a civil rights activist, but he was a businessman, and he knew that an African-American wrestler could be a huge moneymaker. Borrowing a line from Jim Croce's "Bad Bad Leroy Brown," Watts dubbed Ritter the Junkyard Dog — and, ever the literalist, gave him a dog collar and junk cart. The Sanford and Son reference was flagrant — Watts was borrowing clumsily from a limited knowledge of black culture — and the collar with (ahem) chain leash was borderline obscene. (That Ritter made such a racially charged accoutrement a staple of his later fame is evidence of his charisma.)

It's been a while since the Masked Man wrote one of his excellent columns, but it doesn't look as if he has lost deviated from his usual quality. As I mentioned above, this week he wrote a tribute to the The Junkyard Dog. Whenever JYD gets brought up, there is always the matter of him never grabbing a championship. A lot of fans claim that it was because of his race that the Dog was never given an opportunity to grab a title. When people of color play the race card, there isn't a lot of argument, and most journalists/columnists/and anyone who values their job immediately starts pandering to them. I like that the Masked Man touched upon the race issue without totally pandering, he admitted that there was a lot of racism in wrestling, but he also presented some logical ideas as to why JYD was never given the WWF Championship. It's a good read, if you have the time.

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