The year was 1984. The summer weather was hot, and so was the career of The Junkyard Dog.
The big man had just entered the WWF, after coming off one of the biggest runs in the history of southern wrestling. As the main star of Bill Watts‘ successful Mid-South promotion, JYD was considered a jewel in the wilderness. A big fish in a relatively small pond, the bright lights of New York City were calling his name.
The quickly expanding World Wrestling Federation plucked him up, as one of the flowers in the bouquet of talent they were assembling at the time.
The Dog was a perfect fit for what Vince McMahon had up his sleeve. A larger-than-life character who was the definition of a 1980’s babyface. He was just over-the-top enough to be entertaining, but big and strong enough to be believable.
Before long, he would be lumped into Hulk Hogan‘s group of allies, and would benefit from the rub. Being closely associated with the number one personality in the industry had its perks. JYD would soon find himself as a cartoon character, an action figure, and a recording artist within his first handful of months in the promotion. It was more money and fame than he had ever achieved before.
Meanwhile, the company he left behind scrambled to try and replace him.
For Mid-South Wrestling, The Junkyard Dog was custom fit to be their biggest hero. As a North Carolina native, the real-life Sylvester Ritter spoke the language of the fans. In the territory’s strongest areas like Oklahoma and Louisiana, the 300-pound former football player was as believable as he was beloved.
JYD also fit the bill of what promoter Bill Watts envisioned as the ultimate ‘good guy’. He was a big dude with a legitimate athletic background. He had a charisma that attracted an audience, and was relatable to both children and adults. No one could resist his electric personality.
And the bonus on top of all of that? He was Black.
At a time when very few performers of color were at the top of the card, JYD broke a longtime stereotype. Watts saw the value in promoting an African American star as the ultimate underdog in the dirty south. It was a feel-good story that even the most cynical (and racist) fans could get behind. Before long, The Junkyard Dog became the symbol of everything that was right in Mid-South Wrestling. His acclaim knew no bounds, despite the history of oppression that had occurred in many of the towns he wrestled in.
Need proof? During that time, the New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune, took a survey of who was the most popular athlete in Louisiana. The Junkyard Dog won, beating out local sports stars like Pete Maravich and Archie Manning.
Junkyard Dog became the heart and soul of the promotion
Suddenly, skin color didn’t matter. Only the measure of a man did. And Watts told that story brilliantly through his biggest star.
When JYD departed, he left without giving his notice. In many ways, he simply took the money and ran. Watts wasn’t just miffed about the turn of events; he was vengeful. He went so far as to mock the Dog on commentary, saying he ran away because he ‘couldn’t cut it’ and was scared of Butch Reed. The Cowboy also decried the WWF product at the time… labeling it as fake and phony.
But at the same time, his promotion was desperately trying to find someone to be their newest star.
As JYD basked in the glory of the WrestleMania spotlight and Saturday Night’s Main Event, Watts struggled to fill his spot. It’s long been documented how the controversial promoter wanted another black, babyface star in the same role. Someone who could put asses in seats, while appealing to a broad and ever-changing fan base. For a southern promoter? That was his bread and butter.
The aforementioned ‘Hacksaw’ Butch Reed was given that opportunity, as well as a bevy of other regional stars of the era.
Several great, African American athletes were plugged into the ‘JYD role’, only to eventually flame out or leave the territory.
George Wells, a former football player who Watts re-packaged as a breakdancer named Master Gee, was one of those candidates. And while he was a terrific athlete, he couldn’t match the Dog’s level of charisma.
There were a few others that followed. Eddie Crawford, who wrestled under the name The Sandman, was brought in but proved to be too unreliable. Brickhouse Brown was considered for the role, but never fit the bill.
Years later, when Watts went national and re-branded his territory as the Universal Wrestling Federation, he put stock in Savannah Jack. Although a good performer, the TV Champion wasn’t great on the microphone. At the same time, the fan base had already caught on to the fact that Watts was grasping at straws by that point.
None of these attempts came close to the thunderous thump of JYD
Eventually, Watts would go out of business, selling his company to Jim Crockett. The memories of Mid-South Wrestling and the UWF would blow along like dust in the wind, along with the cheers that JYD once heard in the Louisiana Superdome. All those tickets sold and flashing televisions instantly became a thing of the past.
The lesson about the ‘search’ for a new JYD is that some stars are one in a million. Certain people are just made to fill a particular role, and no one else can ever claim that position, thereafter. We’ve seen that in television and movies, when a popular star is supplanted by another actor. No matter the level of their talent, the ‘new guy’ is never accepted by the audience.
In the Mid-South territory, there was only one Junkyard Dog.
And as Bill Watts learned once he left?
He was simply irreplaceable… As legends usually are.
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