Dead Wrestler Of The Week: Junkyard Dog

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.

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.)

Of course, the notion of racism in wrestling shouldn't strike one as terribly shocking, although the history of African-American wrestling is heartier than one might think.

Prior to the 1960s, black wrestling — insofar as it existed — was almost entirely separate from the wrestling mainstream. But as the civil rights era approached, wrestling shows steadily integrated, and black wrestlers — though they were few — were given real opportunities. The first "major" black stars — this was still the territorial era, when a star was only a star in the area in which he wrestled — were Bearcat Johnson and Bobo Brazil, and they were soon followed by the likes of Rocky Johnson (father of the Rock) and Ernie Ladd, the San Diego Charger.

Acclimated as they were to the success of black athletes in boxing and other sports, audiences generally accepted black wrestlers with open arms. It's noteworthy, too that until the 1960s, black wrestlers were always cast as good guys. The promoters worried that black villains would incite white fans to riot.

From this inelegant tradition sprang the Junkyard Dog. Entering the ring to the thudding bassline of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," JYD was soon the top babyface (or good guy) in the region, and his feuds with (mostly white) baddies quickly became the stuff of (local) legend. The race issue was immediately at the forefront.

JYD's long grudge with Michael "P.S." Hayes and the Fabulous Freebirds — who notoriously "blinded" JYD in the ring with (ahem) hair cream — culminated in a blindfold-and-dog-collar match (wherein both participants were blindfolded and bound together by a length of chain between two collars). Hayes — who has a reputation for being rather unenlightened on matters of race — didn't hesitate to call JYD "boy" to solidify his wicked credentials.

When Hayes pushed racial buttons, the audience read his racism mostly as an indicator and booed accordingly — his racism didn't so much make him bad as he made the racism bad. (For a master class in this act, see Colonel DeBeers, wrestling apartheid advocate.) And, of course, JYD reacted justifiably. Even with the chains, what Junkyard Dog was doing was a sort of inversion of the racial stereotype act — and, moreover, a kind of artful integration-by-transposition in the world of pro wrestling. By playing up the antipathy inherent in racist sentiment, wrestling got the audience to cheer for JYD because he was black.

The Junkyard Dog's rivalry with his former protégé Ted DiBiase would come to a head in a Loser Leaves Town match that JYD improbably lost. (It was common in those days for the bad guy to lose this sort of match as an explanation for his real-life decampment for another territory.) When JYD lost, the fans were crushed, but their anguish was short-lived.

There soon after appeared a masked man who looked a lot like JYD, going by the name of Stagger Lee. Obviously, it was Ritter in disguise, and, as would be expected, the crowd was thrilled, DiBiase was incensed, and the referees were oblivious. (If this storyline sounds familiar, it should: neighboring territories during this era often passed storylines from one another in the way that old football teams stole plays or hobos borrowed stories. Running the same program, Tommy Rich masqueraded as "Mr. R" and Dusty Rhodes as "the Midnight Rider" in different regions, to similar acclaim.) The choice of the moniker "Stagger Lee" was particularly inspired, carrying with it deep mythic resonances. From Greil Marcus's Mystery Train:

Somewhere, sometime, a murder took place: a man called Stack-a-lee — or Stacker Lee, Stagolee, or Staggerlee —- shot a man called Billy Lyons — or Billy the Lion, or Billy the Liar. It is a story that black America has never tired of hearing and never stopped living out, like whites with their Westerns. Locked in the images of a thousand versions of the tale is an archetype that speaks to fantasies of casual violence and violent sex, lust and hatred, ease and mastery, a fantasy of style and steppin' high. At a deeper level it is a fantasy of no-limits for a people who live within a labyrinth of limits every day of their lives, and who can transgress them only among themselves. It is both a portrait of that tough and vital character that everyone would like to be, and just another pointless, tawdry dance of death.

Billy died for a five-dollar Stetson hat; because he beat Staggerlee in a card game, or a crap game; because Stack was cheating and Billy was fool enough to call him on it. It happened in Memphis around the turn of the century, in New Orleans in the twenties, in St. Louis in the 1880s. The style of the killing matters, though: Staggerlee shot Billy, in the words of a Johnny Cash song, just to watch him die.

Over the years and by benefit of a widely recorded song, Staggerlee became a symbol of a black man sticking it to the white establishment.

Even to the mostly white crowds of Mid-South, this storyline played to great success. The black-white implications were melded with David-versus-Goliath and good-versus-evil symbolism. "Stagger Lee" was a signifier of a man fighting against all odds — and anyone can sympathize with that. In this way, a vision of black empowerment, smuggled under the guise of universal empowerment, became fashionable to a predominantly white audience.

This is particularly potent when one considers Marcus's theory that Stagger Lee was actually white and his victim black, and that African-American legend usurped and reversed the story.

So blacks might have fought back through myth, first exacting justice in song, and then, wishing for freedom and mastery they could never possess, identifying with their oppressor, subsuming his image into their culture, taking his name, and sending him out to terrorize the world as one of their own.

Now, Stagger Lee was again terrorizing the white establishment, and white fans were cheering.

Stagger Lee pestered his foes until the stipulated 90-day banishment ended, whereupon JYD returned. He feuded with another former ally, Butch Reed, in a series of brutal grudge matches. But being that Reed was also black, the traditional matches were heavily freighted with racial implications: the dog-collar match again, but also the tar-and-feather match, and the (ahem) Ghetto Street Fight.

In 1984 JYD was hired away by the WWF, which was then making itself into the first national wrestling promotion and was poaching the top stars from around the country to build its stable and its audience. They were also rather blatantly assembling a roster of multi-ethnic and multinational characters that traded on stereotypes to differentiate each wrestler in the broadest strokes possible. JYD was, in no uncertain terms, the Black Guy — just as Tito Santana was the Mexican Guy, Mr. Fuji was the (ambiguously) Asian Guy, the Iron Sheik was the Middle Eastern Guy, Nikolai Volkoff was the Russian Guy, Jimmy Snuka was the Pacific Island Guy, Andre the Giant and "Big" John Studd were the Big Guys (though Andre was demonstrably French), and Wendy Richter and the Fabulous Moolah were the women. Rowdy Roddy Piper and Hulk Hogan were, as their names suggest, originally cast as the Scottish and Irish Guys, respectively, though their celebrity grew (particularly in Hogan's case) to demolish those parameters. (Bob Backlund, the long-reigning good guy champ shortly before Hogan's ascendance, was unquestionably the White Guy.) The Junkyard Dog hardly stood out in this motley crowd of caricatures — except, of course for his great popularity. JYD was a wrecking ball in the ring. Never the most technically proficient wrestler, JYD's WWF-era routine was reduced to a crowd-pleasing blur of punches, headbutts, and powerslams. ("Thump," the unspectacular name of his powerslam finisher, was imprinted on the back of his tights.) The chains and white boots from his Mid-South days came along as well — as did "Another One Bites the Dust," until several years later, when it was replaced with a new original theme song (which JYD sang) called "Grab Them Cakes." The more literal part of his "junkyard" persona was largely abandoned, except in the Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling cartoon show, in which the stereotypes were played to the hilt. In it, JYD not only owned and lived in a junkyard, but spoke lines like, "That junkyard rat's been jivin' with my junk again."

(Also of note: Cartoon Hulk Hogan was voiced by Brad Garrett.)

JYD became an idol particularly to the younger audience, and he famously invited kids into the ring to dance with him after matches. So, yes, the trope of the dancing black man: Surely Spike Lee would take exception. And no one would deny that JYD was a panderer, but he was a panderer in an almost visionary way. His crowd interaction, signature moves, theme music, and outsized character presaged later stars like Rick Rude and the Rock.

JYD feuded notably with Terry Funk, Jake "the Snake" Roberts, "Adorable" Adrian Adonis, and the aforementioned Greg Valentine, who, perhaps borrowing from Hayes, race-baited JYD in some memorable interviews.

JYD emerged from that feud with only a moral victory. Despite his fame, and despite the WWF's multi-ethnic roster, it's fair to say that in his WWF period, JYD was hamstrung by race. Whether or not the world was ready for a black champion, the title scene was dominated by white men — particularly one white man named Hulk Hogan, whose pre-eminence made it nearly impossible for other good guys, white or black, to ascend to the top for most of a decade. But being a black icon for a company trying to expand its audience nationwide (and worldwide) certainly didn't help.

His last feud of note, and probably his most popular, saw him battling "The King" Harley Race over the crown that was symbolic of Race's "King of the Ring" victory — but even this semi-legitimate honorific would escape JYD's grasp. Their big match at WrestleMania III stipulated that if JYD lost, he would have to (ahem) bow to his opponent. And although he did lose (cleanly), he bowed mockingly and then stole the crown, robe, and scepter and strutted across the ring, atoning for his loss: Stagger Lee, terrorizing the world once more. The crowd cheered wildly — a response that hinted none too subtly at a missed opportunity. It was a poignant moment. (And yes, it's equally poignant that JYD's most famous feud in the WWF was against Race.)

The match was the highest JYD would climb in the WWF. He left the promotion soon thereafter. He resurfaced in 1989 in the NWA, which had recently rechristened itself WCW. They too were going national, but they were somewhat late to the game and so were eager to import WWF talent like JYD. Ritter's WCW run was unmemorable, though, except for his being part of a mostly ridiculous anti-Four Horsemen stable, helmed by Sting, called "Dudes with Attitudes."

Ritter left WCW soon after. He "retired" in the way that old wrestlers often do, which is to say that he took a couple of months off and then started wrestling at indie shows. In 1998, Ritter was driving near Forest, Miss., on his way home from his daughter's high school graduation. He apparently fell asleep at the wheel, and his car flipped three times, killing him. He was 45 years old.

So what to make of JYD's career now? It's worth noting that many wrestling fans and commentators place JYD, in hindsight, on the crasser side of black wrestling history. Ladd, Johnson, Tony Atlas, and Ron Simmons (prior to the Nation of Domination, one assumes) portrayed more straightforward wrestlers-who-happened-to-be-black. Certainly no one can ever overestimate the racial insensitivity of the wrestling promotional machine.

But whether you view JYD as a shirtless Stepin Fetchit or more of a musclebound Bert Williams is beside the point (although it's significant that both are being granted subversive cachet through the revisionist lens). In pro wrestling, everyone is a stereotype of one kind of another. The sport may have been capitalizing on JYD's Scary Negro juju, but it also made his foes so cartoonishly bigoted that even the most benighted sectors of wrestling's audience could feel virtuous for hating them. Wrestling made it easy for its fans to be broad-minded. It's cheap sentiment, maybe, but it's sentiment all the same, and certainly not something one associates with minstrelry. The Junkyard Dog was just jivin' with our junk all along.

Farewell, JYD. You were more than a champion to us.

The Masked Man works in publishing. E-mail him at themaskedman01@gmail.com. You can find the rest of the Dead Wrestler series at #deadwrestleroftheweek.