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The Tragic Life & Death of Junkyard Dog

Even though he never technically won a WWE championship, Junkyard Dog have a massive hit with wrestling fans back in the 70s and 80s. He created a kind of buzz that few performers even come close to generating. According to his official WWE bio, he equipped with this unique combination of power, grace, and charisma that is rarely seen in the world of sports entertainment. Simply put, he had the stuff.

His entrance theme music, that funky proto-rap classic “Grab Them Cakes” by Vicki Sue Robinson. It combined with his menacing scowl intensified by his collar and chain, struck fear into the hearts and minds of his enemies; And got his fans growling and barking like a pack of angry canines every time he went into the ring.

His fans so devoted that one of them once even jumped into the ring; and threatened to shoot anyone that dared lay a hand on the Junkyard Dog.  If you’re curious to learn more about that story, make sure you stick around for the whole video. We’ll get to that in just a couple minutes, so bare with us.

Anyway, back to what we we’re talking about. Long before he made a name for himself in the world of professional wrestling as Junkyard Dog; Sylvester Ritter played for his college football team. Eventually he even drafted by the Green Bay Packer. But instead of pursuing a career in the NFL, he chose to chisel out a place for himself in the ring instead.

Even though Viice McMahon never let him clinch a championship. Junkyard Dog did win the very first pay-per-view WWE event in 1985. Like so many of his peers, he struggled with substance abuse problems that would eventually take a toll on his mind, body and spirit towards the end of his career. Sadly his life would come to an end much sooner than anyone expected and under extremely tragic circumstance.

Stay with us to find out how he died. snd how his passing had an impact on the world of professional wrestling.

The Junkyard Dog Died In A Car Accident

Even though he left the WWE in 1989. Junkyard Dog still had the desire to wrestle, so he jumped ship and joined the National Wrestling Alliance where he had a rivalry with Ric Flair. After leaving the promotion in 1995 he continued to wrestle in other circuits and took the time to train other wrestlers in his free time – that is until that tragic, sudden car accident that took his life.

Sylvester Ritter pronounced dead on June 1, 1998. He was just 45 years old when he passed away. The accident happened while he driving home to Mississippi after visiting some family out in North Carolina. After losing control of his vehicle, it rolled three times before coming to a crashing halt. It’s not known whether Ritter had drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of the accident but it’s likely that he’s not sober judging by his substance abuse history. We’ll dive into that a little bit deeper in just a moment.

A funeral held in his memory in Russellville, North Carolina. Former Chicago Bull and NBA legend Michael Jordan counted Ritter as one of his dear friends. And said to have called his family to offer his heartfelt condolences shortly after the accident.

Ritter officially inducted into the WWE hall of Fame in 2004. His old buddy Ernie Lodd, who also happens to be member of the Hall of Fame, inducted him into the elite club comprised of wrestling’s greatest athletes. Ritter’s Daughter LaToya accepted the award on behalf of her father.

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He Faced A Lot Of Racism

Junkyard Dog still considered to be the first black wrestling superstar. Just like everything else, whenever someone is the first black anything they often find themselves facing a lot of backlash, bigotry, and racism.

You have to understand though, that it was a different time back then. That racism actually ended up selling a lot of tickets. It wasn’t uncommon for one wrestler to make racist comments towards him just to rile up the crowd and fill the arena with spectators eager to see that racist wrestler get shutdown in the ring.

For example, when it came to Junkyard Dog’s infamous feud with the Fabulous Freebirds; racism used extensively to add intensity to the narrative.  Michael P.S. Hayes was under the impression that black wrestlers didn’t need to employ any specific gimmicks because in his opinion just being black was their gimmick. Can you imagine if somebody said something like that today? That would be the end of their career, but like we said, those were very different times.

Hayes blatantly prejudicial views didn’t stop there either. Known for freely throwing around the N-word and referring to Junkyard Dog as ‘boy’ and various other slurs. Jesse Ventura was also well-known for spewing hate-speech around the ring. Sure, he was playing a bad guy when oing it, but still doesn’t give him a free pass to say the awful kinds of things that he did on a regular basis.

He Had A Crazed Fan

Kayfabe is the art of presenting staged performances as genuine and authentic. Everybody knows that professional wrestling tends embellishing the fact that a majority of fights are based on the script and choreograph. A good wrestler can convince the audience that what they are seeing is the real deal. That means that sometimes skilled wrestlers would find themselves in some pretty disturbing situations. It wasn’t uncommon back in those days to hear about pros getting threatened, chased down and attacked by fans who were caught up in the wrestling storylines.

There was this one time that the Fabulous Freebirds sprayed Junkyard Dog in the eyes with hair cream. He claimed that he would never be able to wrestle again nor would he be able to see the face of his newborn daughter.  It was a good show, but some people didn’t understand that it was just an act.

Many fans responded to his situation as if he actually injured. Quite a few viewers sent him money to help pay for his ‘medical bills’ while others decided to take a more direct approach. At one point during Junkyard Dog and the Fabulous Freebirds feud, an irate fan jumped over a barricade and pointed a loaded gun at the Freebirds demanding that they leave Junkyard Dog alone. Fortunately, security was able subdue the would-be assailant before he could fire.

He Was A Hard Drug User

A lot of wrestlers in the 80s were regular drug users. Junkyard Dog was no different, and his favorite substance happened to be cocaine. According to Maxim magazine, Junkyard Dog introduced The Iron Sheik to crack.

His drug abuse was no secret. Not only did his fellow wrestlers knew that he had a drug problem, but so did promoter Bill Watts. But it didn’t seem to matter as long as he kept on selling out arena’s like that.

While the average fan didn’t catch wind of Junkyard Dogs substance abuse problems until years later, his drug use well known among fans from New Orleans. It was a much smaller circle of wrestlers and fans and everybody seemed to know about his frequent trips out to the projects to go meet up with drug dealers.

One nasty side effect of his cocaine use was substantial weight gain. At one point he got known for his impressive physique, but as the 80s raged on he kept packing on the pounds. Commentators tried to explain it away by saying that he was gaining weight because he was taking on bulkier opponents like the One Man Gang but that excuse would only hold water for so long.

Wrestling magazines started referring to him as Junk Food Dog, and his weight-gain likely contributed to his ousting from the WWF. Vince McMahon has always shown a preference for tall, chiseled, toned and sculpted men over shorter or pudgier guys. But that makes sense, because it’s hard to come across as a world champion when most people know you for being the husky goof-ball that likes to dance around to children’s songs.

He Was Washed Up By The Time He Was 35

At 35, most wrestlers are in their prime. It’s typically a chapter of their lives where they are peak physical fitness while retaining enough experience and respect that they could practically run the whole show if they wanted to. This was not the case, however, for Junkyarrd Dog.

After he got cut from the WWF in 1988 to cut on costs, his time in the spotlight was essentially done. Not long after getting axed he joined forces with the NWA – which later morphed into WCW- and he was given a main event run in 1990.

Like we already briefly touched on, this is when he gave his feud with Ric Flair. Not everyone was stoked about the rivalry though. Wrestling Observer Newsletter called it the Worst Feud of the Year.

For the next few years, Junkyard Dog repeatedly signed with WCW only to get cut shortly after rejoinng them. This was largely because of his conditioning and the fact that he wasn’t able to draw in a crowd anymore. He had clearly lost his spark but he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet.

For the last few years of his life he was pretty active in the indie circuit. Instead of enjoying what should have been the best years of his career, he left doing gimmick matches with other washed-up wrestlers that found themselves in a similar position as him.

Even so, he was still enjoying himself, all things considered. He never got tired of life in the ring. Junkyad Dog loved the crowds whether they were big or small, it hardly made a difference. He was always around after the match to sign autographs and pose for photographs with kids. That’s what mattered most to him, the fans.

His Only Daughter Also Died Young

On October 19, 2011, Latoya Ritter, Junkyard Dog’s only daughter was walking down the stairs at her private residence when she suddenly fell to her death. She was just 31 years-old. No one in his family prepared for that loss. How could they be? After all she was an otherwise healthy young woman with her whole life still ahead of her.

A few years later, Pro Wrestling Stories, a wrestling news blog, published a biographical retrospective article on Junkyard Dog and they mentioned Latoya and how her cause of death was never officially revealed. A member of her family reached out to the site to clarify what happened. Apparently, she had a heart attack and she was dead before she hit the ground. At least she didn’t suffer.

Well, that’s about all the time we have today to talk about Junkyard Dog, which means we’re at the part of the video where you can weigh in with your thoughts and feelings.

Do you think Junkyard Dog would have been able to stage a comeback if he hadn’t died so young or do you think his career was essentially already over at that point? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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