An article by Mike Mooneyham
Published June 7, 1998
Few in the professional wrestling business enjoyed a more meteoric rise to stardom than Sylvester Ritter.
As the made-for-prime time character “Junkyard Dog,” Ritter became a major box-office attraction only two years into the business and was one of the sport’s top draws during the WWF’s national explosion in the mid-’80s.
But just as quickly as Ritter made his splash in the industry, his star plummeted from the national wrestling spotlight. The name Junkyard Dog, however, will forever assume its spot in pro wrestling history.
Sylvester Ritter, 45, known to wrestling fans throughout the world as the inimitable Junkyard Dog, or simply “JYD,” was the victim of a fatal one-car accident last Tuesday. He was killed about 11:40 a.m. on Interstate 20 near Forest, Miss., as he was returning home from his daughter’s high school graduation in Wadesboro, N.C. Preliminary indications show that he fell asleep at the wheel and his car flipped three times, but since there were few marks on his body, an autopsy has been scheduled.
“He had come home for my graduation,” said Latoya Ritter, 17, of Wadesboro. The graduation was at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, May 30, but Ritter didn’t arrive until 2 p.m. that day, and she had already left for the beach by the time he reached Wadesboro, Latoya said. Ritter spent the next few days with his family and was a short distance from his home when the crash occurred.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Ritter had resided in Magee, Miss., for the past seven months, after having previously lived in Baton Rouge, La. He was born and raised in Wadesboro and was billed from nearby Charlotte during most of his wrestling career. In recent years he had worked and promoted small independent shows in the old Mid-South area, and had worked part-time as a car repossessor.
The Junkyard Dog was one of the biggest drawing cards in the business from 1980-86. A 1980 match at the New Orleans Superdome drew 26,000 fans who came to watch JYD, “blinded” in an angle with Michael Hayes, battle Hayes in a dog collar match that catapulted him into superstardom and solidified his spot as a major attraction until he walked out on the Mid-South promotion in 1984 to work for Vince McMahon and the WWF.
Ritter’s lack of reliability, deteriorating workrate and drug problems, however, eventually spelled the end of his ultra-successful run in the wrestling business. His weight also ballooned to well over 300 pounds, and he became almost as well known by his underground nickname, the “Junkfood Dog.” His career had gone full circle – from wrestling’s penthouse to its doghouse – in a relatively short period. He was no longer a main-eventer by 1987, although he did enjoy stints in WCW during the early ’90s.
JYD, who usually wore full-length red tights with white boots and a dog collar that had a large chain attached to it, was known for his trademark head butts and a finishing move called “the thump.” His ring entrance, to the strains of “Another One Bites the Dust,” was one of the most familiar in the business.
“I’ve carried that chain with me since I started wrestling professionally. I think I’ll keep it until I retire,” JYD said in a 1992 interview.
Sylvester Ritter was a two-time honorable mention All-American on the gridiron at North Carolina’s Fayetteville State University, where he graduated in 1975 with a degree in political science and a minor in geography, and was selected as a small-college All-American. He broke into wrestling after having spent time in the Green Bay Packers organization. Surgery on his knee and back put an end to his pro football career, and Ritter found a new profession and a new name.
Ritter began his wrestling career working for Stu Hart in Canada’s Stampede territory in 1978. As Big Daddy Ritter, he held the North American championship in the late ’70s.
Former mat star Sonny King helped break Ritter into the business, but it was Oklahoma-based promoter Cowboy Bill Watts who gave JYD his name, music and basically the gimmick. Dog’s name came from a line in a Jim Croce song from the early ’70s – “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown – a tune that also gave birth to the late wrestler Leroy Brown’s ring name. Bad, Bad Leroy Brown was “badder than old King Kong, meaner than a junkyard dog,” thus the name. “(The name) Sylvester Ritter wasn’t too marketable,” joked Watts.
JYD, at that time packing 260 pounds on a granite-like 6-3 frame, headlined several shows at the Superdome in New Orleans that drew in excess of 20,000 fans and was one of the top draws for Watts’ Mid-South promotion.
“I worked against him quite a bit,” recalled former pro football and mat great “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd, who also served as booker for Watts. “He was a great piece of talent. I was shocked when I got the call that JYD had died. It’s a tragedy.”
“He was as big as they come through here,” Ladd said from his home in Franklin, La. “He and Ted DiBiase drew phenomenal dollars, as well as he and I. He and Dick Murdoch against Bad Bad Leroy Brown and Ernie Ladd also was a great piece of box office. That was one of the premier runs through Mid-South.”
“It was truly something to watch a young kid come from just being raw with no confidence develop into a superstar,” said Watts. “He was a product of our system, and we had a pretty thorough system.”
JYD also enjoyed big-money feuds in Mid-South with such stars as Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Butch Reed, Tully Blanchard and One Man Gang. The promotion was a hotbed for up-and-coming talent who would later become major players on a national stage.
“Mid-South was really hot,” JYD said in a 1992 interview. “Half the guys on top of the wrestling world today came through that promotion – Sting, Rick Steiner, Ted DiBiase, Steve Williams. Bill Watts was what I called the `warden of professional wrestling.’ There were no shortcuts with him. He taught you the right way of doing things and expected you to do them. We sold out the Superdome nine consecutive times and drew more people in five years in the state of Louisiana than the football team or anyone else ever did.”
Watts readily gives much of the credit to JYD, who despite his limited ring ability, could talk the talk and was as charasmatic as any performer in the business.
“JYD had the tools,” said Watts. ‘He was extremely strong and had a great attitude. What is such a paradox is that there are no black superstars, and that shows that they’re so held back. I was the only promoter in the business who really believed in building the superstars – black or white – and I did more with blacks than anyone, and I had some great ones like Ernie Ladd and even cut my teeth on Thunderbolt Patterson.
DiBiase, who enjoyed major runs with JYD in the Mid-South area as a partner and opponent, last talked to Dog only two weeks before his death. It was the first time the two had spoken to one another in many years.
“I was speaking at a drug and alcohol motivational speech here in Mississippi, and had used Dog as an example,” said DiBiase, who is now employed by WCW in a manager’s role but also tours the country doing ministry work. “I mentioned what a good friend he was, but noted how you can have it all but lose it all because of drugs. I also mentioned that I hadn’t been in contact with him in a long time, but if I could ever talk to him, I’d love to.” One of the students attending the talk approached DiBiase and told him that JYD was living with an acquaintance in that same area, and was also running small independent shows. DiBiase gave the student his number and asked that JYD call him. JYD did, and DiBiase encouraged him to come by his house and visit. JYD never got the chance.
“There was probably no one ever more popular in the Mid South area than The Junkyard Dog. At one time there was a survey done in New Orleans, and JYD was picked as the famous person people would most like to see. He was that hot. My memories of JYD down here were great. It was a time Mid-South wrestling was flourishing. We were the `salt and pepper’ team. He was the black babyface, and I was the white babyface.”
Mid-South eventually began feeling the crunch of McMahon’s national expansion, and some of the promotion’s top workers began heading north to get on board. Mid-South, meanwhile, was looking for a hot heel to generate business. It was DiBiase who would come up with a plan to turn himself himself heel in a program working against JYD.
“I told (booker) Ernie (Ladd), `I think I have found your heel.’ Ernie asked who, and I said, ‘You’re looking at him.’ His eyes got as big as saucers.”
JYD hooked up with the WWF in the mid-’80s and joined Hulk Hogan as one of the few elite performers during that time to pull down six-figure salaries, second only to Hogan as the company’s top babyface.
One of JYD’s last major runs was when former NWA booker Ole Anderson brought him back into the spotlight in 1990 and tried to revive his career. Dog scored several non-title victories over then-NWA world champion Ric Flair that led to a championship bout with Flair on June 13, 1990, at the “Coastal Crunch” Class of Champions pay-per-view held at The Citadel’s McAlister Fieldhouse. A series of matches with Flair the previous year had been the champ’s worst-drawing title bouts up to that time, and Dog was fired in May 1989 for failing to show for a major live promotion and later a pay-per-view.
When Watts took over WCW in 1992, he brought his old friend back in for one last run as part of a group called “Dudes With Attitudes” along with Sting, Lex Luger and Paul Orndorff, but the magic that had worked before was just no longer there.
“I tried to get him on track then and he couldn’t, so I just refused to use him, because I have a standard and I’m not going to deal with someone you can’t count on.”
JYD’s last major title was the USWA Unified belt in 1992.
Dog made several attempts to straighten out and get a new lease on life.
“Over the years my dad had worked with juveniles who had committed serious crimes and had been put in juvenile homes,” said daughter Latoya, the youngest of Ritter’s three children.
Junkyard Dog made an appearance last month at ECW’s Wrestlepalooza pay-per-view in Marietta, Ga. Along with Bob Armstrong, Dick Slater and The Masked Superstar (Bill Eadie), Dog was honored as a “hardcore legend,” and got the biggest pop of the night, to the thunderous cheers of “JYD, JYD.”
Sylvester Ritter was laid to rest Saturday in his native Wadesboro.