Ex-ring announcer Justin Roberts on WWE's politics, shortcomings
Justin Roberts felt the pit in his stomach as soon as he walked into Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center. It was the day of the 2014 Royal Rumble and something felt off. Sipping his second cup of coffee after a cross-country flight, the veteran WWE ring announcer couldn't believe what he was was reading. In his hands was a copy of the general script of the night's show, which he routinely read to prepare for the night's card. But the finish of the main event was not what he was expecting.
“The Royal Rumble was always my favorite pay per view, but that was a really weird night,” said Roberts. “I was sitting there at the show, thinking to myself, ‘Why can’t they just listen to the crowd?’”
Wrestling fans clamored for Daniel Bryan to win the Rumble and continue his quest toward WrestleMania, but WWE CEO Vince McMahon had other plans. Dave Bautista won the Rumble match, and fans were treated to the return of Rey Mysterio, who entered as the final contestant. Bryan did not appear in the match, and fans voiced their displeasure by booing Bautista and the universally liked Mysterio. They also lit up the pair all over social media.
“The crowd tells you what they want,” Roberts said. “But again, Vince was doing what he wanted to do. And that hurt a guy like Rey and hurt Dave Bautista. Everything about it was wrong. I was hoping they would really do what’s best for business. But [the WWE] wants to show that they controlled the show, not the crowd.”
Roberts, the former WWE ring announcer who was with the company for twelve years, has confirmed plans to write a book about his WWE career. Though the date of publication and publisher are still undetermined, he will bring readers along for the ride of his incredible twelve-year journey with the WWE.
“I am a wrestling fan who made it,” the 35-year-old Roberts said. “I’m trying to take everybody on that journey with me. I know there is audience out there that wants more than just what they’re seeing on TV. I’ll give a little insight into my story and what was on my path.”
Roberts worked with nearly every major name in wrestling and says he cannot wait to take readers behind the curtain.
“I’ve seen everything John Cena has done,” Roberts said. “There is so much he does for people that goes unpublicized. And another guy is ‘The Rock’. He was so good to everybody. Even now, he’s so huge in Hollywood, but he goes out of his way to be genuinely friendly to everyone.
“Hulk Hogan was there at my tryout. He didn’t offer any advice for me, but he told me a really cool story about Randy Savage. Even the day after WrestleMania XXX, I was getting ready for Raw, Hogan was telling me more stories. He’s just a really good guy. They’re called ‘Superstars’ for a reason, and they’re why I love the business of pro wrestling. Their schedules are insane, yet they pull through and do everything asked of them. They are extremely talented people.”
That 2014 Rumble also marked the final WWE performance for CM Punk, who, like Roberts, also hails from Chicago.
“We were on a lot of the same roads for a long time, and I was very happy for his success,” Roberts said. “Punk loved the business, and went that extra mile to make house shows more exciting. We weren’t as close in the final year, but we were the last two guys in the locker room after the Royal Rumble. He wasn’t feeling well, and we didn’t say much. I saw him the next day in Cleveland, and that was the last time. Everyone thought we were best friends because we’re both from Chicago, but we were buddies over the years and have lost touch aside from an occasional text.”
The WWE parted ways in October of 2014 with Roberts, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that he and Punk will, at some point, work together again.
“I was unhappy and contemplated leaving, but I didn’t just want to give up,” explained Roberts. “It was WWE’s decision – they told me they were going a different direction and did not want to renew my contract.”
Roberts attended UFC “Fight Night” this past December in his current home of Phoenix, and, when questioned, revealed he met with Dana White about ring announcing opportunities in the octagon.
“I feel like I did everything there was to do as a pro wrestling ring announcer,” Roberts said. “I like UFC, and while I was there, I met with Dana White and a few other executives. But they have their guy [Bruce Buffer]. He does very well at UFC, and I know that and I would never try to step on his toes. If anything ever changes, you never know what the future could bring.”
Roberts admitted that his final 18 months with the WWE were difficult.
“Live events used to be really fun,” he explained. “It used to be myself, a production manager, and a road agent. We would make decisions and the shows would be great, but they became a lot more complicated in the last year-and-a-half. Writers who are so out of touch with wrestling fans and wrestling in general were making decisions, and it became really hard to show up to work knowing the product was suffering because of it.”
One of Roberts’ biggest attributes is that he grew up loving the business of professional wrestling. He feels in tune with the fan base because, simply, he is also a hardcore fan. On top of that, he was at every live event over the weekends, every pay-per-view event and every televised event of his tour. That adds up to four shows a week, every week, year-round for more than a decade.
He says it's important that writers aren't removed from wrestling's fan base, and that he found himself disappointed with WWE at times throughout his career.
“The idea should always be to make it better for the fans,” he explained. “Freddie Prinze, Jr. was briefly on the creative team [from 2008-2009]. He was a long-time wrestling fan looking to change things for the better. But the company doesn’t want that. The kids on the writing team—who don’t go to live events—show up at TV and write wrestling, but don’t have the experience of sitting with the crowd three others nights a week, hearing the reactions, seeing what flops and what gets over. So many times we went off the air and the show was just awful, and I knew the fans knew that.
“People ask why I talk bad about the company that put me on the radar. The best analogy is waiting to meet your hero, but then finally doing so and discovering they weren’t who you expected. WWE was my hero. I was made fun of as a kid for liking it while everyone else grew out of their phase. When I finally got there, I found out the company—who I expected to love pro wrestling more than I did—didn’t love pro wrestling any more, if they ever did to begin with. It was just something they built their shows around while trying to get slowly away from it.”
Roberts is also extremely passionate about the wrestlers at WWE. He has witnessed the drive, commitment, and sacrifice these men and women lay on the line in order to succeed.
“The wrestlers work hard, but if the company doesn’t want you to get over, you won’t get over,” he said. “Cesaro was ‘The King of Swing’ and was over, but they cut his legs off. That’s what they do when anything gets over that wasn’t their idea. Guys at NXT are allowed to get over and have cool gimmicks. But main roster guys are being told, ‘Don’t do this move again,’ and ‘Don’t say this again.’ There is so much potential there, but until Vince is ready to run with it, they just have to sit there and wait.”
NXT is the creation of “Triple H” Paul Levesque, WWE’s executive vice president of talent, live events and creative. Roberts devotes a great deal of time in his book to the man formerly known as Hunter Hearst Helmsley.
“Hunter is portrayed as the savior of wrestling, and people think he’ll save the business once he’s in charge,” Roberts said. “We all thought that, too, until he started running things. Paul started overseeing a bunch of divisions and one of them was live events. When he took over, our live events schedule was brutal. We’d start in one place and flew all over. Since he used to be one of the boys on the road, we thought he’d stand up and stop that, and he didn’t. The schedule got worse.
“Hunter started squashing stuff that really started getting over. If you notice, it’s all about the future, and the future is NXT. But focusing on the future shouldn’t mean ignoring the present. Zack Ryder got over huge to the point to the point where the crowd was cheering for him at Madison Square Garden while The Rock was standing in the ring. Dolph Ziggler got over. Primo and Epico [now known as Los Matadores] are fantastic wrestlers, but they get lost in the shuffle. There is a glass ceiling, and anybody they don’t want to get over is squashed despite the fans strongly getting behind them. Daniel Bryan is a rare exception, despite the company fighting it over and over.”
John Cena has lost cleanly in singles competition ten times in the past ten years without any interference, according to SquaredCircle. One of those losses occurred this past Sunday when he was pinned, cleanly, by NXT champion Kevin Owens.
“All of the emphasis now is on NXT,” Roberts said, “because that’s his baby. He knows if that succeeds, that looks good on his resume.”
Roberts, who is known for his close friendship with the late Connor “The Crusher” Michalek, has not made many appearances since parting ways with WWE. That is soon to change, however, as he is appearing at a “Legends of the Ring” this Saturday in New Jersey, a signing in England later in June and a Tommy Dreamer-led House of Hardcore show in July.
He explained his rationale for writing an autobiography.
“As much as I still love the business, I can honestly say I don’t miss WWE and the politics and the inhumane travel schedule,” Roberts said. “I’m glad that I got to do everything that I did, and I fulfilled my dream. Sure, there were some things that happened while I was there that weren’t fun, but I was this kid who chased an impossible dream—with no connections, whatsoever in professional wrestling—and not only did I get in the door, but I became the main announcer. I had a hell of a run, encountered a lot of great people, including fans from all over the world and people who worked for WWE, and figured I’d share my story. No matter how impossible your dream may seem, it’s possible.”
Roberts also said his autobiography will explain why individuals may be unhappy working for WWE.
“For those who wonder why people may be bitter when they leave the company, they were probably bitter, like I was, when they were there,” he explained. “They just couldn’t voice it because they wanted to keep their job. I am speaking up in hopes of the company changing the way they treat the talent that’s still there. I hope they treat the talent better and I hope they treat the fans better.”
It doesn’t take an insider to determine who runs the WWE, but Roberts explained that McMahon serves as the beginning, middle and end when decisions are rendered.
“Everything goes through Vince,” he said. “Nobody is going to tell him what to do. Not Michael Hayes, not Triple H, and not the fans. He’s going to do what he wants to do.
“The fans are better and smarter than they’re given credit for. The writing is very inconsistent. It completely changes by the week. Vince is in his own bubble. He has no drive to put on the best show. He won the competition with WCW, and that’s it. He’s fully capable of turning it up, but he’ll do what he wants to do until someone goes head-to-head with him.”
One man, Roberts said, capable of standing up to McMahon is crowd favorite Paul Heyman.
“I call Heyman the ‘Rabbi of Wrestling,’” Roberts said. “He’s so knowledgeable; he just always has the answers. I don’t know now, in 2015, if everyone knows how much he truly has done in this business, but he revolutionized pro wrestling.
“He used to bump heads with Vince all the time in his last run. Now it’s different. He doesn’t fight ideas like he used to. He knew his ideas were better than what they were telling him to do, but they want to do what they want to do. It doesn’t matter if it’s best for the fans. In his last run, he used to fight for what he believed was best, but now he is there to play a part, and he plays it very well.”
In addition to the upcoming book, Roberts is excited for new opportunities in his future, saying that he'd consider working in music or acting one day. He will appear in an episode of CW's The Messengers in August, and he voiced a recent Powerade commercial with NBA star Derrick Rose.
Despite the WWE letting him go, Roberts is grateful for his time with the company.
“I was able to stand in the middle in the ring during Monday Night Raw, with the microphone, and I looked around at the fans and saw myself,’ he said. “I could get 80,000 people at WrestleMania to cheer, to boo, or be absolutely silent by the tone of my voice. I got to introduce the Undertaker, who I grew up watching. I got to introduce Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania. Stuff like that were literally dreams that came true.
“I chased and caught an impossible dream. I grew up with posters of my heroes in my room, and they became my coworkers and friends. I learned how to control a crowd with the tone of my voice. I learned how to enhance already incredible talent – to add to their entrances, to add to events, and traveled with some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in my life. I tried to help as many people as I could. My only advice is to give everything you’ve got to chase your dream. I promise it’s possible. Once you get it, help as many people as you can and enjoy the ride.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.