Kurt Angle’s pro wrestling debut came in, of all places, Extreme Championship Wrestling.
Angle was less than two months removed from his triumph in the Summer Olympics on October 22, 1996 when ECW owner Paul Heyman managed to persuade the gold medalist to arrive at the ECW Arena in Philadelphia for an in-ring interview with Joey Styles.
“Here is an Olympic gold medalist who won the gold medal for America in America with a broken neck,” recalled Styles. “I’m just thinking, ‘How the hell did Paul Heyman get this guy here? Why is Kurt Angle in this craphole of a building in Philadelphia?’”
Styles did not call the matches at the ECW Arena live unless the show was a pay per view, but would instead voice over commentary in post-production. After the interview with Angle, he began to watch the remainder of the show, and was actually standing between Angle and Heyman when Raven infamously crucified the Sandman onto a cross in one of the most controversial storylines in ECW history.
“So I’m sitting there watching this match, and that’s when Raven and his minions crucify the Sandman, à la our lord and savior Jesus Christ, on a wooden cross that the Sandman built himself because he was a carpenter,” said Styles. “Raven even put a barbed wire crown around Sandman’s head, like a crown of thorns. South Philly was a very Catholic community, and they were sitting in stunned silence—until they started booing. And it was not the good booing, either. It was the ‘we don’t want you doing this’ kind of booing.’
“I’m speechless, but Kurt Angle turns to me, assuming—maybe because I’m wearing a suit and tie—that I know what’s going on, and he starts screaming at me. ‘I can’t be a part of this, this is disgraceful, this is awful, I don’t ever want footage of me being here to ever air!’ I look to my left to get help from Paul, and Paul is gone. Paul left me alone with this angry, Olympic gold medalist heavyweight wrestler. I am just getting dressed down by Kurt Angle, nose to nose, right in my face. Paul left, he claimed, to go fix the situation. He damn well also wanted to avoid a screaming Kurt Angle. Then he sends Raven out to apologize for his using his ‘religious iconography’—and those were Raven’s exact words—and Paul, to this day, claims he knew nothing about it, which I don’t believe for a second.”
Forever known as the “Voice of ECW,” Styles was a mere 21 years old when he was first hired by ECW. He worked for ECW until the company’s end in 2001, and ultimately signed with WWE in 2005. Styles worked for WWE for eleven years, both as a play-by-play man for Raw and WWE’s ECW brand, as was most recently the Vice President of Digital Media Content for WWE.com. Styles and WWE parted ways in September, allowing him the opportunity to return to broadcasting.
“Just when I thought my announcing career was long over, I am now announcing for three professional wrestling video-on-demand subscription services in Chikara, EVOLVE, and Beyond Wrestling,” said Styles. “Video-on-demand is the biggest game changer in pro wrestling.”
Styles will be easy to find, and heard, as he returns to the airwaves for his next live internet broadcast.
“When I announce for EVOLVE next on Saturday, November 12 from New York City, the internet pay per view is going to be broadcast on Floslam.TV as part of a brand new subscription service,” said Styles. “That is just my weekend job. I still work full time selling digital advertising. I’m back to doing what I did in my twenties—I’m commuting from Connecticut into Manhattan to sell advertising during the week, and on weekends, I’m calling wrestling matches. I’m 45 not 25, but I’ve got more energy now than I did then and I’m ready to go.”
Styles, born Joseph Carmine Bonsignore, came up with “Joey Styles” to add some personality to his professional persona when he and a friend were working out 25 years ago. Before that, he was just a kid at Hofstra University hoping to land a job with Pro Wrestling Illustrated.
“The main reason I chose Hofstra University was because they had a television production facility where I could study, and also because Long Island was where the Pro Wrestling Illustrated family of magazines were published and I wanted to get an internship there,” explained Styles. “By my junior year in college, I got an internship there, and [PWI journalists] Bill Apter and Craig Peters brought me backstage for a WCW event at the Meadowlands.”
The WCW show at the Meadowlands is where Styles was introduced to his fate. He met Paul Heyman, who was managing the Dangerous Alliance in WCW, and the relationship further developed when Heyman arrived at the PWI offices for a photo shoot dressed up as Uncle Sam, pointed to the camera, and said, “I Want You for the Dangerous Alliance!”
“When Paul was in the office, I showed him a tape of the only indie show I had announced,” Styles shared. “It was at Mount Vernon High School in New York, and it was in June of 1992 and between my junior and senior years of college. It was called the North American Wrestling Alliance, and Hercules and Tony Atlas were the veterans on the card. Taz was doing a Tazmaniac character with no shoes, long hair, and his face painted. The pretty boy Tommy Dreamer was wearing these ridiculous sequined suspenders, baggy pants, and a robe that his mom made. Sean Waltman was there as the “Lightning Kid,” so there was a lot of talent there. I was a heel color commentator, and I made history by becoming the worst color commentator ever.”
Heyman thought enough of Styles that he asked him to get in touch after he graduated from Hofstra. Styles earned his diploma the following May and instead of applying for a job in WCW, where Heyman no longer worked, he followed Heyman to try out with the newly branded ECW.
“Paul told me to come to ECW for a tryout, but Paul wasn’t the executive producer—or booker—he was just a talent,” explained Styles. “His friend, Eddie Gilbert, was the booker and Tod Gordon was the owner. Unfortunately, Paul didn’t tell anyone that he offered me the tryout—because he had no business doing it—and I showed up in Philly. I found the building, started getting dressed backstage, and was in my tighty whiteys when Tod Gordon walked up to me. Tod asked, ‘Who are you?’ And I told him I was there for the announcing audition, and he said, ‘I own ECW and don’t know a thing about it. What the hell are you doing in my building?’ And that was the start of my career with ECW.”
After sorting out the lapse in communication, Styles was eventually hired. As Heyman grew in power, first by becoming the booker in September of 1993, he decided he wanted a fresh voice to establish himself as the voice of his product.
Heyman was close to hiring Mick Karch, who had worked in the Midwest, but ultimately decided upon Styles to be the man calling a holy mess of pandemonium in ECW.
“Paul saw a young, smart-mouthed New Yorker, and he thought, ‘I’m going to create my own announcer in the mold of Gordon Solie who can be the straight man in the middle of all this chaos,’” said Styles. “Paul made me his choice and he trained me. He had been trained to announce in WCW by Jim Ross. When Paul trained me, he told me, specifically, ‘Everything I’m telling you was told to me, word for word, by Jim Ross, so I’m training you the way that Jim Ross trained me.’ The first decision Paul made as booker was to make me his lead announcer, and I will be forever grateful to Paul for the opportunity.”
The majority of Styles’ most important moments in life can be traced back to a time when he worked in wrestling, including his twenty-first birthday.
“My twenty-first birthday was spent in a hotel room with Kevin Sullivan, his wife, at that time, Nancy, and Sherri Martel,” reminisced Styles. “I was the only one in the room who was not partaking in any adult libations, so I was sent out by Kevin to get food for everyone. His exact quote was, ‘Joey, go out and get us food. I would like a chicken sandwich.’ So I asked him what kind, and he said, ‘I don’t care, as long as it is a large chicken sandwich and there are a lot of chicken sandwiches.’ And that’s how I spent my birthday.”
Styles soon learned that life in wrestling grew even more challenging after getting the job.
“I was absolutely terrified,” admitted Styles. “I was just out of college, had no life experience, and I’d also just started a job as a sales assistant. I was commuting into Manhattan every day and spending the weekends in Philadelphia.”
The Philadelphia wrestling fans, as Styles politely recalls, were absolutely vicious.
“Jimmy Snuka [who was the first ECW champion] is coming to the ring, and some fan leans over and screams, ‘George Washington Motor Lodge—Allentown, Pennsylvania!’ right in his face,” said Styles. [Author’s note: The dead body of Snuka’s girlfriend, Nancy Argentino, was found at the George Washington Motor Lodge in 1983, and Snuka was charged with her murder in 2015. He was ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial in June.] “That’s when I realized these fans were insane. I wouldn’t have asked Jimmy Snuka for the time, let alone lean across the guardrail and screamed that in his face.
“Not only were the fans vicious, they hated me. There were a lot of regulars at the ECW Arena—everyone knows ‘Hat Guy,’ and there were also the Bailey brothers. One of them was asking me for details about the business of the company, and I replied, ‘Honestly, I have no idea. I’m just a talent.’ And he looked right at my face and goes, ‘Well, that remains to be seen.’ I was getting paid twenty dollars, sleeping in hotel lobbies or in my car when it was warm enough, but I was still auditioning for the fans.”
Some of the stars of ECW were not always the most understanding or compassionate toward new faces, so Styles also hid his intimidation from the wrestlers.
“I just hid it because you don’t ever want to show weakness or fear, especially in the entertainment business and even more so in the professional wrestling business,” explained Styles. “Because of the behavior of so many of the wrestlers that competed in ECW—and I don’t want to speak ill of anyone who is no longer with us—that almost immediately after debuting for the company and staying in the same hotels as the wrestlers, I went out of my way not to stay in those hotels any more.
“Whenever I knew where all of the boys were staying, I would go stay someplace else. I never wanted to party, I never wanted to be famous, I didn’t want to meet girls because of wrestling. I loved calling matches, and I still do. I love getting lost in the moment of a match, so I was not there to party. I steered clear of all of it, and then it got to the point where I met my wife shortly after starting with ECW. As we got closer, she was actually doing all the bookkeeping and the accounting for ECW.com by the time we were engaged, and so I had my wife traveling with me. And then I really didn’t want to be around any of the boys after the shows.”
Styles has battled doubts his entire career—whether it was that he was too traditional of a play-by-play caller, not enough of a storyteller, or too honest in his assessment of talent—but Styles has continually won over critics with his talent, passion, and willingness to work, just like he did over twenty years ago in ECW.
“The fans started to embrace me as the crowds started growing,” recalled Styles. “At first, I thought ECW was going to be a stepping stone to a bigger company. Never did I think I would purposely turn down close to ten overtures during the seven years I was with ECW, and I went down with the ship. Tommy Dreamer and I were the only two who went down with the ship rather than taking contracts to go elsewhere, and while that decision cost us money in the short-term, it benefited the both of us in the long term. I’m still called ‘The Voice of ECW,’ and Tommy is called “The Heart and Soul of ECW,” and the reason we are still relevant and still working in wrestling is because of ECW.”
Styles is still famous for his “Oh My God!” call he delivered so memorably in ECW, which he was prompted to do – again and again – by Paul Heyman.
“There was something crazy happening in ECW, and while calling it in post-production, I automatically just said, ‘Oh my God!’” explained Styles. “I didn’t know what standards and practices would allow. I just didn’t know any better. I looked at Paul and said, ‘Can I say ‘Oh my God’ on the air?’ And Paul said, ‘Not only will you say it, that’s going to be your new catchphrase.’
“I’m asked to say ‘Oh My God!’ at every public appearance like a wind-up toy. It’s taken on a life of its own, and fans seem to still love when I say it during a match.”
Styles remains forever grateful to Paul Heyman for granting him the opportunity to succeed in wrestling.
“Paul created so many opportunities for so many people that I’m not sure which is stronger, his own legacy as a performer and creative mind or his legacy at creating opportunities for others to succeed,” said Styles. “Look at the stars he created—personally, no one else would have given me a shot in wrestling—but Paul did. He saw something in Taz, Tommy Dreamer, the Public Enemy, he knew that Rey Mysterio and Psicosis would electrify fans, he looked at Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko as main eventers in the United States.”
Heyman is now attached as the advocate to Brock Lesnar, who shares a slight pre-fight—or in this case, pre-broadcast—ritual with Styles.
“Before a show, I still move around and shadow box to get the nervous energy out of me, then I drop to one knee and say a quick prayer,” explained Styles. “It’s almost like what Brock Lesnar does, except I am in no way comparing myself to Brock Lesnar. I don’t even think we’re of the same species. But that’s become my ritual.”
Styles encourages fans to introduce themselves in-person. He will be announcing two shows in Philadelphia on Saturday for Chikara before calling the action for Beyond Wrestling and Women’s Wrestling Revolution at the much-anticipated Tournament for Today this Sunday in Providence, Rhode Island, and getting up at five AM the following morning for work in New York City.
“I am flattered for the affection and connection with the fans,” said Styles. “I’m an advertising salesman who lucked into professional wrestling. I love doing these shows with 150-to-500 people, because it means I’ll get to meet most of these passionate fans. It’s been a blessing, and it continues to be a blessing.”