Junkyard Dog: NOLA’s forgotten superstar

Jeremy Rosen, Staff Reporter

junkyard dog
Matthew Tate

When people talk about New Orleans’ greatest sports icons, professional wrestlers are seldom brought up. Since many tend to think wrestlers are just actors in spandex, they rarely get much attention outside of the sport’s very niche following. There was once a time, however, where New Orleans was home to one of wrestling’s brightest stars.

Sylvester Ritter, also known as Junkyard Dog, single-handedly turned New Orleans into the biggest wrestling hub in the South. His charisma, charm and unique aesthetic made him instantly connect with the fans in a way that few could ever match. 

Ritter’s massive size and iconic dog collar with chains made him one of wrestling’s most instantly recognizable stars of the 80s. He became a superstar in a sport that had never seen a Black man as one of the top guys of his promotion.

Ritter began his athletic career in the 70s as a football player, spending some time with the Green Bay Packers before injuries ended his football career. He then turned to a career in wrestling, going up north to join Stampede Wrestling in Alberta, Canada. Here, he would hone his craft, turning from a heel for a young Jake Roberts to a two-time North American Heavyweight Champion.

Ritter’s real rise to fame would come in the early 80s when he joined Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling, where the iconic Junkyard Dog character was born. Other promoters at the time refused to have Black wrestlers as anything more than side acts, but Watts went against that trend. He was far from a civil rights activist, but he knew that Junkyard Dog’s charisma and star power could make him a headlining star.

Junkyard Dog’s popularity in New Orleans, Mid-South’s primary city, cannot be understated. In the 1981-82 school year, New Orleans students were asked which local sports star they’d like to meet most. Even though New Orleans sports legends Archie Manning and “Pistol” Pete Maravich had just topped off their incredible careers, the students overwhelmingly voted for Junkyard Dog.

Junkyard Dog was a part of Mid-South’s greatest rivalry with Ted Dibiase, due to their incredible charisma and dramatic flair in the ring. The New Orleans crowds always rallied behind JYD, affectionately calling the Municipal Auditorium “The Dog’s Yard.” When Dibiase would climb into the ring, over 20,000 fans could be heard chanting, “Who Dat say they gonna beat that Dog? Who Dat!” The “Who Dat” chant has become synonymous with the City of New Orleans to this day.

With how popular JYD became, it was inevitable that the WWF— now the WWE — would come calling in 1984. He was never quite able to reach the same success that he felt in the Mid-South, becoming relegated to more of a mid-card talent in New York. Despite this fact, he remained extremely popular due to his magnetic personality. 

In an era when wrestling icons like Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage were at the heights of their careers, JYD would draw reactions just as big as them.

Ritter tragically passed away in June 1998 while driving home from his daughter’s high school graduation. He was posthumously inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004, accepted by his daughter LaToya.

While the legend of Junkyard Dog has slowly faded away in New Orleans, his legacy is cemented in the history of wrestling. WWE Hall of Famer Booker T has called JYD one of his biggest inspirations for becoming a wrestler. He became a superstar in a sport where Black men were never allowed to thrive, paving the way for others to reach their full potential.