Jerome Young, known to wrestling fans around the world as New Jack, died last week at age 58. Over the course of a three-decade career spent outside the WWE mainstream, he welcomed pain, harnessed it, made it his calling, and sometimes even broke the profession’s golden rule by deliberately injuring his opponents. By the mid-1990s, wrestling had left its “kayfabe” days in the dust, with long-running story lines and in-ring theatrics taking center stage, but New Jack’s propensity for legitimate, unpredictable violence remained as real, and really brutal, as the sport could get. Hardcore did make him unforgettable, but he achieved infamy rather than fame: our most vivid memories of him also represent some of the most deplorable deeds ever committed in a wrestling ring.
Maybe my favorite New Jack promo in ECW pic.twitter.com/vVAX9Lbh6B— Nick Piccone (@nickpiccone) May 15, 2021
Young came of age amid violent circumstances. His early childhood in Greensboro, North Carolina, took place against the backdrop of daily shouting matches and physical altercations between his parents. His father, from whom New Jack claimed to have inherited a habit for carrying weapons and a predisposition for misusing alcohol, stabbed his mother a half-dozen times on one occasion and then shot her in the leg on another. In both cases, Young wrote in his autobiography, the police swept the incidents under the rug because “nobody was going to put a Black man in jail for hurting a Black woman.”
The shooting and stabbing stood out as moments of extraordinary abuse flaring up along an interminable stretch of routine conflict. “They yelled, they cursed, they accused, they threatened,” he wrote. “I just sat around and watched, like it was another TV show or something. It had happened before, and I was pretty sure it would end soon, at least for the time being. This sort of thing was always starting and stopping in our place.”
In spite of all that, Young retained a fondness for his father—a “pretty cool guy” who would die of a heart attack when the wrestler was 5—as well as a disdain for his mother that he carried forward into the present. He and his mother moved frequently across the Carolinas and Georgia, usually trying to stay a step or two ahead of landlords seeking to evict them. He attended a dozen schools before finally graduating from D.M. Therrell High School in Atlanta.
While at D.M. Therrell, Young had a measure of success on the gridiron, backing up future Georgia Tech starter Darrell Norton on offense and starting on defense. He showed a talent for pass coverage and attracted interest from regional football programs like North Carolina A&T.
That future wouldn’t come to pass. Young and his friends took to robbing, starting with gas stations and sporting goods stores before proceeding to a jewelry store. There, for reasons New Jack claimed he never understood, he pistol-whipped the clerk who had already handed over the jewelry.
Security cameras—still a novelty in the early 1980s, but installed at this jewelry store—led to Young’s arrest, conviction, and finally a two-year sentence at Alto State Prison. There, he stayed out of fights and spent much of his time in the weight room, reaching a point at which he was, he claimed, “benching about 460 pounds.” After his release from the halfway house to which he had been transferred in 1983, he enrolled at Clark Atlanta University and secured a spot on the varsity football roster.
Newspaper articles from the time show New Jack continuing to excel on defense and special teams—blocking punts, intercepting passes, and returning kicks. He had aspirations of becoming a physical education teacher, and attended a tryout with the Atlanta Falcons. Nothing came of either, but after New Jack dropped out of Clark, he wound up playing on a semipro football team, during which time a teammate training to become a pro wrestler introduced him to Ray Candy, who would also become New Jack’s trainer.
It proved a fortuitous introduction. Candy, 6-foot-5 and 341 pounds, had achieved his greatest fame as “Kareem Muhammad,” one half of the Black Panther–styled “Zambuie Express” that ran roughshod over the Florida wrestling territory during the early 1980s. New Jack didn’t know who Candy was, and indeed knew or cared little about pro wrestling, but he learned the basics of the sport from the big man: how to fall and roll on the mat, how to lock up, how to sell the effect of his opponent’s moves, and, most important of all, how to avoid letting “these white people make a flunky out of you.” He wouldn’t need much more than that.
While in training, New Jack engaged in other rough-and-tumble activities. He worked as a bounty hunter, chasing down individuals who had skipped bail, and occasionally used the legitimate practice of catching fugitives as cover for his other part-time hustle: transporting cocaine intended for resale. Although questions remain about how engaged he was in either bounty hunting or drug dealing—how much of it was real and how much part of a wrestler’s fabulous backstory—New Jack stated in his autobiography that he didn’t “take any lives” despite rumors to the contrary.
He settled on his wrestling name shortly after watching director Mario Van Peebles’s 1991 action movie New Jack City. New Jack “sounded like a name that would get right into audiences’ minds … maybe scare them a little,” the wrestler wrote. He began using the name at the tiny independent shows in Georgia for which Ray Candy helped him secure bookings. When Jerry Jarrett and Jerry “the King” Lawler invited him to join their Memphis territory in 1993, they tried to rename him “Homeboy.” New Jack instead recruited his friend Mark Frear to tag with him in the territory, and saddled him with that moniker.
Though New Jack achieved a measure of success in Memphis, briefly holding the territory’s tag titles with Frear, he grew to detest Lawler after claiming to overhear “the King” use a racial epithet to refer to future WWE Hall of Famer Jacqueline during a mud-wrestling match—animosity that lingered into 2018 when New Jack posted on Twitter that he hoped Lawler would soon follow his recently-deceased son Brian Christopher, whom he also disliked.
After a brief run in Memphis, he returned to the Georgia independent scene and began pairing with former WCW enhancement talent Mustafa Saed. In 2994, New Jack and Saed joined Jim Cornette’s Knoxville-based Smoky Mountain Wrestling promotion.
There, Cornette branded them the Gangsters—New Jack revised it to the Gangstas to reflect “how proud we are of our street ranks”—and ordered the pair to behave in racist ways toward Smoky Mountain’s audience, which consisted primarily of white males from the South. Although New Jack thought that it would suffice to brutalize the promotion’s favorite wrestlers, such as Tracy Smothers and the Rock ’n’ Roll Express of Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson, Cornette recognized that New Jack had a prodigious talent for interviews and promos, and wanted him to lean into that ability.
This resulted in the best microphone and storytelling work of New Jack’s career. The Gangstas’ arrival on the Smoky Mountain scene evoked recent memories of the Rodney King and Reginald Denny assaults, as well as the 1992 Los Angeles riots more generally—they appeared, supposedly from “South Central Los Angeles,” wearing Oakland Raiders gear and backed by “bodyguard” Accie Connor (future WWF Intercontinental and European champion D’Lo Brown) and a posse of Black extras who surrounded the ring with them, and gave beloved, mullet-sporting good guy Ricky Morton a beatdown with nightsticks.
From there, it was off to the races in a months-long feud with the Rock ’n’ Roll Express that saw New Jack cutting some of his greatest promos. In arguably his most memorable SMW moment, he stood across from Bob Caudle, as old-school and soft-spoken as Southern wrestling announcers got, and sent a “special shout-out to my homeboy O.J. Simpson: Keep up the good work, baby! Two less we got to worry about!”
But New Jack’s visceral critique didn’t stop there. As strange as it seems from the perspective of 2021, watching as fans booed him and Mustafa out of the arena for antagonizing Confederate battle flag–waving good guys, New Jack also infuriated the Tennessee chapter of the NAACP. “I bad-mouthed Martin Luther King,” he wrote, “because unlike him, the Gangstas hit back. I told everyone how Medgar Evers wasn’t my role model. … I reminded my ‘brothers and sisters’ how many of them were on welfare. I told the NAACP to kiss my Black ass!”
The point of that was to ensure the Black fan base didn’t inadvertently turn the Gangstas into good guys, because Cornette had no interest in that. “If we just badmouthed white people, the Black communities might have gotten behind us, gotten all radicalized, and even agreed with how ticked we sounded, and that could have caused some problems,” New Jack explained.
Despite the intense fan hatred propelling their two major feuds, first with the Rock ’n’ Roll Express and later with the tandem of Tracy Smothers and “Dirty White Boy” Tony Anthony, the Gangstas still worked fairly conventional, brawl-style matches during this period. Their repertoire consisted of kicks, punches, and clotheslines, with New Jack as the instigator and the much larger Mustafa Saed as the muscle. They weren’t afraid to bleed or use foreign objects, but they didn’t do as much of that as they later would, and what they did in this regard fit into the long legacy of blood-and-guts Southern wrestling.
In other words, the Gangstas had been rough-and-tumble, but they weren’t yet extreme. That changed for good in mid-1995, when they left Smoky Mountain to join Paul Heyman’s Philadelphia-based Extreme Championship Wrestling promotion. There, across a six-year span ending with ECW’s bankruptcy in 2001, New Jack pioneered a style of wrestling emphasizing violence and pain that, paradoxically, also made the self-evident fakery of the sport even clearer: He hit people with weapons, allowed opponents to hit him with weapons, and fell from increasingly greater heights, inflicting serious damage that at times looked like it should be fatal but never was. New Jack hurt you, and then you hurt him. Of course, if you hurt him more than he thought permissible, he would really hurt you.
New Jack grasped the ECW formula and delivered it as efficiently as possible: nobody has to fake or sell the damage they’ve received, because they’ve received actual damage. He came to epitomize pure violence, the way someone like Kenny Omega epitomizes the pure form of modern pro wrestling or Kurt Angle epitomized amateur wrestling.
When he noticed that the Gangstas were at risk of being lost in the shuffle, he decided to add sizzle to a 1997 match against D-Von and Bubba Ray Dudley by brawling with D-Von deep into the crowd. This by itself was nothing new, dating back to Jerry Lawler and Wayne “Honky Tonk Man” Farris’s Tupelo Concession Stand Brawl in 1979 and already part of many ECW matches. But New Jack took that form of extracurricular combat to an 11, leaping from the arena balcony onto D-Von, who was strapped to a table. Even though the Gangstas would go on to lose the match, Heyman recognized that the die had been cast, with New Jack recalling the promoter telling him that “you’re out there doing that diving shit so much, they don’t even remember the finish.”
And those dives would become a significant part of New Jack’s oeuvre, even if he felt increasingly ambivalent about their impact as time passed. He wrote that he didn’t like how the dives came to be associated with backyard wrestling antics, since he had spent many years as a dues-paying wrestler before he began doing them. The “backyard bullshit,” as he called it, struck him as “darkly humorous,” watching “someone jumping off a roof and crashing through two tables and a plate-glass window while his buddies record it, thinking he’s going to get anywhere in the business because of that stupid-ass shit.” At most, he thought, a promoter might pay a naive would-be wrestler $20 to do that, before “putting it on the web for his own personal gain.”
New Jack’s most infamous ECW incident involved a naive would-be wrestler. At a 1996 match in Massachusetts, the Gangstas faced longtime foe D-Von Dudley and Erich “Mass Transit” Kulas, a 17-year-old, 350-pound wrestler who had scored a booking by lying to Heyman about being 21 years old and having been trained by Killer Kowalski (a grainy VHS tape that showed Kulas manhandling a pair of little-person wrestlers lent a bit of credibility to those false claims). Kulas, whose “Mass Transit” gimmick consisted of him wearing a bus driver’s uniform, spoke to New Jack before the match, telling him what he wanted to do in the ring and requesting that the hardcore legend cut him so that he could bleed, or “get color,” during the contest.
New Jack, who was in the midst of a period in which he abused alcohol and relied on cocaine to get through his matches, bristled at Kulas’s lack of respect. Of course, while he couldn’t be said to have had all his wits about him, he certainly wasn’t the only one under the influence backstage at the time—drug use had gotten so bad in the ECW locker room that New Jack remembered wrestlers attempting to get high by shooting up with each other’s blood. Tag partner Mustafa Saed recalled in New Jack’s autobiography that “things were a little foggy” on the night of the Kulas incident “because of all the partying” they had been doing. When discussing the bout with Heyman, New Jack vowed to the promoter that “what I do to this kid, people are going to be talking about in 10 years.”
What he did consisted of taking a scalpel attached to a stick and dragging it across Kulas’s forehead, “gutt[ing] him across his forehead … blood was already flying out of his forehead like a balloon had burst.” Then, after pummeling the debilitated wrestler to the crescendoing jeers of his father and the rest of the crowd, New Jack ascended the top rope with a chair in hand, jumping off and dropping the chair—his signature “187” finisher—on Kulas’s forehead. He then told the crowd he hoped Kulas bled to death.
Ten years of discussion of the “Mass Transit incident,” New Jack wrote in his autobiography, turned out to be a low estimate. Though criminal and civil charges followed, the latter ended up dismissed and New Jack was acquitted on the former after Heyman took the stand to explain that the wrestler became enraged when Kulas’s father directed a racial epithet at him during the match. New Jack noted that he was simply following an established pattern whenever he was faced with disrespect. About six months later, he had introduced the aforementioned “187” chairdrop finisher in a match against wrestler Chad Austin during which he broke Austin’s leg because Austin treated him rudely while they laid out the match. A year before that, he had brutalized the wrestler Dances with Dudley in the locker room after that particular Dudley Boy continued throwing stiff punches in spite of New Jack’s requests to tone it down.
New Jack marched onward as a solo act after Mustafa Saed left ECW in 1997, leading to a title match on ECW’s short-lived TNN show, in which he put over the company’s next big thing, Mike Awesome.
But by 2000, the end loomed for ECW. Paychecks stopped clearing, and Heyman was directing the creativity he had once used to develop story lines and matches toward the company’s exit strategy. But New Jack very nearly met his end before the company employing him did, when an awkward fall from a 20-foot scaffold during a match against 300-pound brawler Vic Grimes at the March 2000 Living Dangerously pay-per-view forced a no-contest and sent the former Gangsta to the hospital. New Jack blamed Grimes for the bad landing. He claimed that this particularly devastating injury, after all the falls and blows he had already taken, truly rocked him: His vision began to fail and his memory started to deteriorate. When he returned to ECW shows in early May 2000, the company was on its last legs.
Even as other major ECW stars made their way to what was then called the WWF, New Jack remained on the sideline—perhaps, he speculated, because he was too much of a risk for the world’s largest wrestling company to sign. As soon as ECW closed its doors, New Jack began working dates for the California-based Xtreme Pro Wrestling. Like its East Coast competitor Combat Zone Wrestling, which would book New Jack a few years later, XPW offered loads of bloody, ECW-inspired hardcore mayhem. There, New Jack continued to follow his pattern: mixing the use of weapons brought to the ring in a trashcan with suicide plunges, occasionally spicing things up with a fall through some flaming tables.
The highlight of New Jack’s XPW tenure, as he would explain in the 2005 documentary Forever Hardcore and reaffirm in both his autobiography and the Vice Dark Side of the Ring episode about him, was that it gave him a chance to exact revenge on Vic Grimes for messing up the scaffold spot at Living Dangerously 2000. As he recalled it, he snorted an eight ball of cocaine and pocketed a Taser prior to commencing his 2002 rematch against Grimes at the XPW show Freefall.
The two old foes fought their way up a 40-foot scaffold before New Jack withdrew the Taser from his pants and drove it into Grimes’s body several times, stunning him before he unceremoniously dumped him off the scaffold. “There were stacks of tables on the mat that he thought would break his fall, but I was trying to throw him past them,” New Jack wrote. The Taser stunning, New Jack’s longtime booking agent Bill Behrens observed, likely kept Grimes from stiffening up and thus probably even cushioned the fall for him. Grimes hit a few of the tables on the way down and, to New Jack’s disappointment, broke only his femur.
In early 2003, just as he was making his return to mainstream television after signing with Jeff Jarrett’s NWA Total Nonstop Action promotion, New Jack took an independent booking against 69-year-old “Gypsy Joe” Meléndez. Born in Puerto Rico, Gypsy Joe had worked across the various Southern wrestling territories, doing an early variant of the sort of hardcore wrestling that New Jack and his ECW compatriots would transform during the 1990s. Once upon a time, he had been a sturdy-looking, 220-pound grappler, but by the time he got in the ring with New Jack, he appeared thin and fragile, barely able to walk around the ring under his own power.
The real problem here, as had been the case with wrestlers Chad Austin and Eric Kulas before him, was that Gypsy Joe approached New Jack in his wizened, enfeebled state and told the younger wrestler how he expected the match to go, adding that New Jack could learn a thing or two from him. As in the previous two instances, New Jack lumbered to the ring and proceeded to beat his opponent senseless—his fury reaching a fever pitch in part because his opponent’s gimmick was built around no-selling all the moves that struck him, but primarily because the small Tennessee crowd, seated on folding chairs around the ring, began to shout racial epithets at him. Eventually, he took a bat wrapped in barbed wire and laid into Gypsy Joe until the promoter declared the match a no-contest.
New Jack knew he had only a few more earning years left. Because ECW didn’t pay even its main-event stars anywhere near what an average WWF or WCW wrestler made, even a throwaway match like the one against Gypsy Joe represented a threat to his livelihood and his dignity. “If I’d let [Gypsy Joe] kick my ass, I’d have looked like an idiot,” he wrote. To make matters worse, “the scumbags in the crowd would have been cheering him on for beating up a Black man, and I’d look like I’d taken part in some dog-and-pony white supremacy show.” Gypsy Joe’s toughness nevertheless shocked even New Jack, as the battered old man thanked his younger opponent for the match as New Jack was hurrying to exit the building before the police could get there.
New Jack’s back-on-television stint in NWA Total Nonstop Action lasted only from April to July 2003, but it contained some of the best character work he had done since his Smoky Mountain days. The promotion, run by Jerry Jarrett’s son Jeff, was a mess creatively, but New Jack got to reprise his old bloodbath battles with the likes of Sandman and Sabu while also doing comedy skits with Dean Roll, who wrestled under a dorsal fin–adorned mask as Shark Boy. The two argued while playing Candy Land, Twister, and Chutes and Ladders, then later played together in a kiddie pool. “Not really a Black man’s typical pastime, but if he could mess around once in a while, I could too,” New Jack wrote.
His time in NWA TNA came to a rapid close because, in the words of Jeff Jarrett, the promotion “was such a revolving door at the time,” with wrestlers coming and going while the major story lines remained built around Double J. New Jack never liked losing matches without a good reason, whether in a major company or on the indies, so he went back into business for himself, and would continue that way until his in-ring career wound down in the late 2000s.
New Jack’s final wrestling conflagration occurred in 2004, when he worked a match against William Jason Lane for Florida-based Thunder Wrestling Federation. Lane, like others before him, had an awkward discussion with New Jack while attempting to outline the match, ending with the novice wrestler slamming the table in frustration. New Jack snorted another eight ball of cocaine, then began thinking about “all the ways I could hurt this guy … take him out forever.”
The match—if you can even call it one—consisted of Lane throwing a few stiff punches at New Jack, who then pulled out what he called a “Wolverine-type claw” and began stabbing his opponent. New Jack even cut his own arm so deeply he had to go to the hospital.
The story, like Erich Kulas’s before it, had a few additional twists and turns. This time, New Jack was arrested and his fans raised money to pay his bail, only to have Lane drop the charges in exchange for New Jack promising to train and perhaps even feud with him in the future. New Jack, more interested in survival and self-respect than anything else, swerved everyone: He didn’t lift a finger to train Lane, and he pocketed the money that the fans gave him for bail. “It was some of the easiest money I’d ever made,” he recalled.
From there, New Jack receded into wrestling history. He wasn’t quite out of the business, and would still show up for bookings and perform whatever limited version of his signature ultraviolence he could manage, but his myriad of injuries slowed him greatly. His vision continued to worsen, and heart problems—which had killed his father—became impossible to ignore. In 2016, he collapsed while walking home from a wrestling event, and doctors found blood clots throughout his legs and back. “With the heart trouble I already had, I could feel myself getting close to the final bell,” he wrote.
New Jack understood the complicated nature of his legacy. He certainly hadn’t failed at wrestling, but perhaps hadn’t gone as far as his top-tier microphone skills and personality could have taken him. Nor had the acting efforts discussed during his appearance in the 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat ever led to anything beyond script readings; improv in the wrestling ring remained his forte.
Above all, though, New Jack had succeeded in keeping it real. Wrestling’s aura of “kayfabe” reality faded during the 1980s, and New Jack replaced that carny-derived aura with actual violence. Nobody told him to hurt himself; he chose to work at the extremes. If he had decided to tell a promoter he didn’t want to jump off a balcony or further scarify his forehead, things could have been different. “People can’t force you to go that far … what I did in wrestling was what I wanted to do,” he wrote.
And if fellow wrestlers tried to dictate to him how a match would go, or otherwise disrespected him, he did what he wanted with them, too.
Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at www.oliverbateman.com.