When I was a kid, I remember hearing my dad tell stories about going to places like the Municipal Auditorium and the Irish McNeil Boys Club in my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, to watch Mid-South Wrestling. Back in the early 80s, those venues and that promotion were some of the most popular in all of the south, thanks in part to likes of WWE Hall of Famers Ted DiBiase, Jack Roberts, and the King of New Orleans himself, Junkyard Dog.
Now, for people outside of the southern reaches of the United States, Junkyard Dog is mostly remembered for his brief run in the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) where he had some success as a hero for kids to dance with and a few big-time wins. But for people like my dad, my late uncle, and thousands upon thousands of diehard wrestling fans from the South, Junkyard Dog, whose real name was Sylvester Ritter, was a "great rassler," and king of Mid-South Wrestling.
To pay my respects to the late Junkyard Dog, his accomplishments in the ring, and the legacy he left behind upon his tragic death in the summer of 1998, I've decided to share some history with you about the man who was once more popular in the Crescent City than New Orleans Saints' legend Archie Manning.
Before Going To The WWF, Junkyard Dog Was The Top Draw At Mid-South Wrestling
Like I said up above, Junkyard Dog would later find some moderate success in the World Wrestling Federation with wins over Macho Man Randy Savage at the 1985 Wrestling Classic and a grand entrance at WrestleMania 3 in 1987, but JYD didn't get inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame just for that. Instead you have to look back at his groundbreaking career in Bill Watts' Mid-South Wrestling promotion, where he earned the moniker, "The King of New Orleans."
In Brian Shields 2006 book Main Event: WWE in the Raging 80s, it's noted that became the top draw of Mid-South in the early 80s, taking on everyone from "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan to Tully Blanchard and everyone in between (considering the talent pool of the territory, this is quite a feat). A 2015 Bleacher Report retrospective on the life and career of Junkyard Dog recounts a story when JYD, a fan-favorite at this point, was "blinded" by the villainous Fabulous Freebirds causing an upset fan to hop in the ring and threaten the trio for hurting his hero.
Junkyard Dog Won Mid-South Wrestling's Major Championship Four Times In The Span Of 18 Months
Junkyard Dog was a major part of Mid-South Wrestling for a total of four years before he left for New York in 1984, but during that four-year span, he had a total of 15 title reigns, including four as the Mid-South North American Heavyweight Championship, the promotion's top prize. The craziest part of all of this is the fact all of Junkyard's reigns as the heavyweight champ took place over a span of less than 18 months.
Starting with his first win against Bob Roop in New Orleans on June 21, 1982, Junkyard Dog would lose the title to Ted DiBiase, win it again as the masked Stagger Lee after he lost a "loser leaves town" match, vacate the belt, and then finally win it for the fourth and final time in a match against Butch Reed in Shreveport, Louisiana, on October 26, 1983. This final reign would last until he was defeated by Mr. Wrestling in New Orleans on March 12, 1984, just a few months before The Dog left for the WWF.
Junkyard Dog Once Topped A List of New Orleans Residents' Favorite Athletes
Promotions around the country would have their big blowoff matches take place on the hallowed grounds of some of the world's most famous arenas and stadiums, and that was no different for Junkyard Dog's marquee matches when he was still in Mid-South Wrestling. While the WWF had Madison Square Garden and World Class Championship Wrestling had Texas Stadium in Dallas, Mid-South had its major shows at the Louisiana Superdome, where Junkyard Dog was king.
When WWE was getting ready to host WrestleMania 30 in the now-called Mercedes-Benz Superdome in 2014, Junkyard Dog's former rival and longtime friend explained to The Times-Picayune newspaper just how much those shows, and JYD's presence meant to wrestling fans in the Big Easy, stating:
The crazy part about that survey naming Junkyard Dog the most popular athlete in the city of New Orleans is the fact that Archie Manning, longtime quarterback for the hometown Saints, was still a popular figure in the local sports world at the time. Junkyard Dog was more popular than Archie Manning.
The New Orleans Saints Famous "Who Dat" Chant Was Also Used By Junkyard Dog's Fans
The "Who Dat" chant has long been a fixture of the New Orleans area with its roots going back as far as the mid-19th Century, but it really came to prominence with local sports teams (including the New Orleans Saints) in the mid-20th Century. One of the biggest uses of the classic phrase was also used by Junkyard Dog's fans at the Municipal Auditorium in the early 1980s when they would chant: "Who dat think they gonna beat that Dog," during his matches.
In the same Times-Picayune article about wrestling in New Orleans listed above, Ted DiBiase recalled one of the first times he wrestled against Junkyard Dog in New Orleans and the deafening chant from the boisterous crowd:
The chant has gone on to become a staple of New Orleans sports culture, especially following the Saints first Super Bowl victory in 2010.
Junkyard Dog Was Posthumously Inducted Into The WWE Hall Of Fame In 2004
After leaving Mid-South Wrestling in the mid-80s, Junkyard Dog bounced around from the WWF to World Championship Wrestling as well as some smaller independent promotions before he passed away from a car wreck in the summer of 1998. And even though The Dog wasn't there to see it, JYD was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in the spring of 2004, the first year it was brought back following an eight-year absence. Inducted by Ernie Ladd, the same man who inducted the late Bobo Brazil a decade earlier at the 1994 induction ceremony, Junkyard Dog was recognized both for his in-ring work and the legacy he left behind after opening doors for African-American wrestlers in the years to come.
I hope after reading this you all have a greater appreciation for one of the wrestling world's most highly-regarded and groundbreaking stars. If it weren't for the life and career of Junkyard Dog, wrestling, and the city of New Orleans would be a much different place.
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Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or chatting about professional wrestling to his wife. Writing gigs with school newspapers, multiple daily newspapers, and other varied job experiences led him to this point where he actually gets to write about movies, shows, wrestling, and documentaries (which is a huge win in his eyes). If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.