“The King of New Orleans”, Biography of pro wrestler Junkyard Dog – Book Review
Sylvester Ritter is a name that all old-school pro wrestling fans must be aware of, although chances are they know him better by his stage name. “The Junkyard Dog”, or sometimes just JYD, won multiple single and tag team championship in his career during the 70’s and 80’s, and broke racial barriers along the way. Greg Klein, a student of the civil rights era, grew fascinated with Ritter, enough to write “The King of New Orleans: How The Junkyard Dog Became Professional Wrestling’s First Black Superstar”.
Released by ECW Press, this 180-page paperback tells the biography of Ritter from his early days all the way to becoming the first Black champion in a Southern pro-wrestling company, a big accomplishment in the 70’s. Living in New Orleans, Louisiana had passed many laws to keep Black people from competing in various sports, especially in interracial environments where they might mix with White folk. At the time, the majority of gimmicks given to Black men in pro wrestling were flat-out racist, and the wrestlers were always “heels” (or the bad guys for my non-smark readers).
After graduating from Fayetteville State University with a degree in political science, Ritter had dreams of becoming a pro football player. Fate intervened, as an injury forced him unable to join a team, and he instead was introduced to pro wrestling by a friend. Ritter debuted in the Tennessee territory, and eventually worked with Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling in Canada and Mid-South Wrestling in America, which is where booker “Cowboy” Bill Watts gave him his famous moniker.
During this time period, Ritter had matches with men like The Dynamite Kid, The Fabulous Freebirds, Ernie Ladd, Ted DiBiase, Kamala, King Kong Bundy, “The Natural” Butch Reed, and a young Jake “The Snake” Roberts before his DDT dropping days. In the mid-1980’s, JYD headed to Vince McMahon’s WWF, where his character grew in popularity and wrestled with some of the top stars before heading to WCW in the 90’s to feud for the world title there against Ric Flair.
Success was not an easy road for a Black man in that era, and Ritter had to battle against all sorts of racist promoters and unsavory characters to get to the level that he ultimately achieved. His hard work paid off, and opened the way for future Black wrestlers such as Booker T, Ron Simmons, Ron “The Truth” Killings, and many more who compete today.
Ritter sadly passed away in 1998, but Klein felt that his story was important enough that it must be remembered in this book, and what a great job he does of commemorating this superstar. Klein conducts interviews with many of the people that knew or worked with JYD, be they wrestlers, family members, friends, or even just admirers of his wrestling who inspired them to fight the good fight in a time where civil rights were still not accepted nationally. His writing style invites the readers in and offers every player a specific voice, and while this book is intended for wrestling fans, one does not need to be to enjoy this story. Klein weaves together these stories into one cohesive and fascinating biography that all wrestling fans should read, along with any history buffs who are interested in the civil rights movement. Entertainment was one of, and still is, the most powerful forms of political change, and JYD is an easily overlooked aspect of the struggle.
You can order The King of New Orleans: How the Junkyard Dog Became Professional Wrestling’s First Black Superhero for $13.43 on Amazon.com, and I definitely recommend it. I am glad that Klein wrote this book to cement JYD’s place in history, as I would have passed up on this book since before reading it, I simply took Ritter for granted. Professional wrestling has always thrived on racially-heated angles in their booking, and JYD was one of the first Black athletes to overcome stereotypes and cliche booking, to be treated just as a human being and not as a color. Pro wrestling fans will not be disappointed with this quick read and will be in for quite an unsuspecting treat and history lesson. Klein has ensured that future generations will not let this barrier-breaking, “thump” dropping, larger-than-life superstar become a forgotten hero.