Junkyard Dog: A Tragic Ending for a Wrestling Great

Arguably, no one was more popular in the Mid-South area than Junkyard Dog (or JYD for short). What he didn’t have in technical wrestling ability, he more than made up with charisma. He entertained and electrified crowds by the tens of thousands but would lose his way later in life. He would die in tragic circumstances after returning home from his daughter LaToya’s high school graduation. And as fate would sadly have it, his beloved daughter would perish under bizarre circumstances thirteen years later.

There was arguably no one more popular in the Mid-South area than Junkyard Dog.
There was arguably no one more popular in the Mid-South area than Junkyard Dog.

The Junkyard Dog

Entering the ring with his trademark chain attached to a dog collar to Queen’s "Another One Bites the Dust," JYD regularly headlined cards that drew large crowds that routinely sold out the Louisiana Superdome and other major venues.

He would become the first black wrestler to be made the undisputed top star of his promotion. He had notable feuds in Mid-South with Ernie Ladd, Ted DiBiase, Kamala, King Kong Bundy, Butch Reed, and the Fabulous Freebirds.

In his feud with the Freebirds, there was an infamous angle where they blinded him with hair cream.

At the height of this feud, JYD’s wife gave birth to their first child, LaToya. This was made part of the storyline.

It was explained that JYD could not see his new daughter, something that increased the heat on the Freebirds to the point where they needed police escorts in and out of arenas.

The feud ended with the still-blinded JYD and Michael "P.S." Hayes of the Freebirds wrestling in a steel cage dog collar match.

After his time in Mid-South, JYD moved on to the then-World Wrestling Federation, where he spent the majority of his four years with the company in the mid-card but was still heavily over with the fans.

Junkyard Dog had wins over Randy Savage and The Iron Sheik, and notable feuds in the WWF with King Harley Race, the Funk Brothers, Adrian Adonis, Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, and "Outlaw" Ron Bass before leaving the company in October 1988.

Junkyard Dog would, from there, move on to NWA World Championship Wrestling, making his debut on December 7, 1988. He had a main event run with the company, defeating a young Undertaker (then known as "Mean Mark Callous") in just 39 seconds.

He would later became embroiled in a feud with Ric Flair for the World Heavyweight Championship and earned a televised defeat over Flair by DQ at Class of the Champions XI.

Later with WCW, he found himself wrestling in tag-team matches with Ron Simmons, Barry Windham, Big Josh, and Jim Neidhart. On July 28, 1993, he left the promotion.

Related: "The Spoiler" Don Jardine: The Man Who Trained the Undertaker

Gordon Solie interviews The Junkyard Dog, Ted DiBiase, and Robert Fuller on Georgia Championship Wrestling
Gordon Solie interviews The Junkyard Dog and Ted DiBiase on Georgia Championship Wrestling

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Ted DiBiase on the Junkyard Dog

Ted DiBiase, who was one of Junkyard Dog’s dearest friends in real life, opened up in the book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes and Icons.

"My memories of JYD down here were great. It was a time Mid-South wrestling was flourishing. He was the black babyface, and I was the white babyface. We were the ‘salt and pepper’ team.

"What a lot of people didn’t know was JYD was one of my best friends. He was the best man at my wedding. We drove up and down the road a lot together.

"Wrestling is an art form. It is ‘sports entertainment’ for sure, but to be really good at what we do, you have to be both an athlete and an entertainer. And actually, if you’re going to be lacking in one, then be more of an entertainer and less of an athlete.

"Dog was not a ‘great’ technical wrestler – he worked out, he had a great body in his prime – but the thing that he had more than anybody I’ve ever seen was charisma.

"He had charisma coming out of his ears.

Junkyard Dog
Junkyard Dog

"He became a phenomenon here in the deep south. He appealed to everybody… he appealed to black people, he appealed to white people. At one time, there was a survey done in New Orleans, and JYD was picked as the famous person people would most like to meet. He was that hot.

"I used to tease him because, you know, his matches were never very long… I’d go out there for 20, 30, sometimes 40 minutes and he’d go out there, howl and shake his rear and get in the ring and 10 minutes later it’s over.

"I said, ‘Man…you’re wrestling for 10 minutes and making all the money – something’s gotta give here!’ (Laughs)

"Jokingly, I said, ‘I guess the only way for me to get in that pool is to wrestle YOU…’

"So when I turned on ‘Dog and became a villain, nobody could believe it – ‘Oh my gosh, he turned on his best friend!’

"We made a LOT of money together, me and JYD.

"I think a lot of people know that he ended up with a big drug problem.

"But to his credit, he’s one guy that tried to fight it off and beat it. I remember down here, we’re in the state of Louisiana, I believe the thing is called the Marine Institute, and it’s like a boot camp. And it’s not just a rehab center – they really put you through it – and he went through this thing, and then he went back again.

"I know around the time of his death, the car accident, that he was going back. I remember he and I talking about it, and he was trying to help other kids that were at this place, doing drugs and stuff.

"Part of his life was tragic; in the end, I know he lost a lot. He lost his family. I mean, that’s why he died. He had driven back to North Carolina to see his daughter graduate from high school, and it was on the way back that he had the car accident and was killed.

"As a human being, as a person, he was a man of his word. He was straightforward, and he would literally give you the shirt off his back. He was just a good man. As a wrestler, he was one of those characters in our business that will never be forgotten.

"I miss him."

Junkyard Dog died on June 1, 1998, in a single-car accident on Interstate 20 near Forest, Mississippi, as he was returning home from his daughter LaToya’s high school graduation.

He had stayed involved in professional wrestling until the time of his death, appearing at ECW’s 1998 Wrestlepalooza event, just one month before.

Among JYD’s last contributions to professional wrestling was the training of former WWF wrestlers Rodney Mack and Jazz.

His daughter, LaToya Ritter, and his sister, Christine Woodburn, represented him as he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame class of 2004 at a ceremony held on March 13, 2004, by Ernie Ladd, the day before WrestleMania XX.

LaToya Ritter, daughter of Junkyard Dog, died unexpectedly on October 19, 2011. She was 31 years old.
LaToya Ritter, daughter of Junkyard Dog, died unexpectedly on October 19, 2011. She was 31 years old.

The Unexpected Death of the Daughter of Junkyard Dog, LaToya Ritter

Tragically, LaToya, JYD’s only daughter, died unexpectedly on October 19, 2011, thirteen years after the passing of her father.

According to her obituary on Legacy.com, "[LaToya] had been talking on the phone when her friend heard a loud thud and called 911. LaToya was 31 and appeared to be in radiant health. Her family hopes that medical science can solve the mystery of her death."

The cause of LaToya’s death has never been shared publicly.

Editor’s Update: A friend of the family reached out to us after reading our article.

"Love your site! Read the JYD article. I just wanted to pass on that LaToya died of a heart attack. Doctors said she was gone before she hit the floor.

“As tragic as her loss is, there’s consolation in the knowledge that she didn’t suffer.”

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JP Zarka founded Pro Wrestling Stories in 2015 and is the creative force behind the website as editor-in-chief. From 2018-19, he was the podcast host and producer for The Genius Cast with Lanny Poffo, brother of WWE legend Macho Man Randy Savage. His diverse career includes work as an elementary school teacher, assistant principal, and musician, notably as a singer-songwriter with the London-based band Sterling Avenue. Zarka has appeared on TV programs like “Autopsy: The Last Hours of” on Reelz (U.S.) and Channel 5 (U.K.) and has contributed research for programming on ITV and BBC.