Justin Roberts discusses the "tie choke" that led to Daniel Bryan's controversial firing
The following is excerpted from BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE by Justin Roberts. Copyright ©2017 by Justin Roberts. Reprinted with permission of Meyer & Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd., English. All rights reserved.
We were on standby for a few days and just hung out at the Belfast hotel. Eventually we got the memo we had been waiting for and had another crazy travel day of buses and ferries to meet our charter plane. I guess the plane couldn’t fly to us, so we traveled to it. The good news was that we were flying to Newark and would be able to land and catch direct flights home, for the most part, since it was a major airport. That was, until we landed and found out the company had changed the plan to cater to the top guys. They flew us to Hartford where the company jet was waiting to fly Cena, Batista, and a few of the Tampa guys home to Florida. The rest of us would stay overnight in Hartford and take one, two, or maybe even three flights home the next day—just in time to fly out for that week’s pay-perview. We were held up for a bunch of days at the end of an already long tour, but WWE did take care of us. The same way airlines give out drink coupons for an inconvenience, WWE was nice enough to pick up a bar tab one night for some of the guys who were out at the bar as a thank-you for the extra travel and extra days on the road.
Over the years, Lilian, Howard, and even Tony had all been involved in various storylines. From matches to love affairs, they had gotten caught up in various situations. I always enjoyed being the ring announcer—no allies, no enemies, no history with anyone. I was just there to do my job. People around me got beat up, and I just announced it! That could only last so long as I was about to add an element to my history, which would disappear until right around WrestleMania 30. On June 7, 2010, I showed up for RAW in Miami, Florida. I had no idea that this would turn out to be a night that made history. Throughout the day, I walked around the building and, as usual, had no idea what was happening on the show. I had been told nothing out of the ordinary.
Within a half hour of when the doors were about to open, a giant black curtain was hung around the ring that blocked everyone from seeing it. This was only done when top-secret events were going to happen on a show, and they didn’t want any word leaking out. Arn Anderson was grabbing talent, mostly the newer guys from the NXT show who were still training in FCW (WWE’s newest developmental territory) and bringing them behind the curtain. As I was about to leave, he looked at me and said, “You, too.” Okay? Maybe I needed to see how an ending was going down so that I could make a complicated announcement. I usually didn’t like to see how things were going to end because I liked being genuinely surprised so that my reaction would make for a natural, genuine announcement. The NXT guys worked with the producers and referees, and no one was talking to me, so I wasn’t sure what was going on or why I was there. I finally overheard Arn say, “You’ll get the ring, Cena, and everyone else, and the very last thing you’ll get is him.” He pointed to me. “He has never been touched, but tonight, even he is not safe. Rip his suit off and take him down. He will be the final victim before we go off the air.”
That was it. I didn’t ask for any specifics, and I didn’t know any specifics. I had an idea that after watching everyone around me at ringside get beat up after all these years I was, as Arn said, no longer safe. Tonight, I wouldn’t and couldn’t run! I was very happy to participate and do whatever I needed to help. During the main event, while John Cena wrestled against CM Punk, all of a sudden, the NXT guys came down the aisle of the arena looking like a vicious gang. Wade Barrett, Daniel Bryan, Michael Tarver, Darren Young, Heath Slater, Justin Gabriel, and Skip “Ryback” Sheffield approached the ringside barrier.
It was a very intense moment. I knew something big was about to happen to spice up the show, but I didn’t know what. The gang immediately jumped in the ring and beat down Cena. Punk left, and they destroyed the ring. I mean, they tore the entire ring apart. The ringside area looked like a war zone. Then they knocked out Mark Yeaton, as well as all of the commentators. I stood there and watched until they grabbed me. They held me as Justin Gabriel knocked me down with a punch. Then they ripped my suit jacket off. Then my shirt. I wore a pink tie that night that knotted up when they pulled on it. As I laid on the ground with my suit pants and just a pink tie, Daniel Bryan did what he thought he was supposed to do: make an impact. He saw an opportunity to get one last shot in on “the last victim.” He sat behind me, pulled on my tie, and strangled me. To this day, I still get messages about that night.
I’ve seen pictures, cartoons, and memes that made fun of the “tie violence.” I have even seen a double action figure set of Daniel and me made by a fan that looked so real I almost convinced myself that I had an action figure. The choking was real. For anyone who commented about the face I made or the noise I made or anything else that people claimed to know, that tie was tight around my neck and that was 100% legit. These guys, later known as the Nexus, made their mark and left. The show went off the air with the war zone and its destruction of materials and people strewn about. I was walked to the back by referees, and when I came through the curtain, I started dancing around like Jackass’ Party Boy with my tie/no shirt combo. Vince immediately reached over to shake my hand, which was really cool but rare. Of course, when you work there, you always want his approval, and it doesn’t happen often. Everybody from Vince down was happy with what took place, and I went to the locker room to get dressed. The Nexus came to the door and shook my hand and apologized as we all exchanged thank-yous, instead. I told them that was great, and I thought it went well, and the bosses seemed to be happy. It made for awesome TV, and everybody was fine, so it was perfect. Well that didn’t last very long. As the week went on, our portion was removed from the highlight package.
Best Seat in the House
by Justin Roberts
That Thursday night I was out in Scottsdale, and I got a message that Daniel Bryan was fired. Wow, I thought to myself. I wonder where they’re going with this storyline. The next day, word was going around that this wasn’t a storyline. I immediately got Bryan’s number and gave him a call. I asked him what was going on, and he explained that Vince had called to tell him that he had to let him go. Something about choking not being allowed, and it was out of his hands. This was a typical example of a rule being broken without anybody knowing that it even existed. It wasn’t like guys haven’t choked each other before, but for some reason this choking incident got Bryan terminated. Bryan was a very talented guy, and I knew he would be okay. Time just needed to pass, and this incident would be forgotten. The next morning, I began receiving all sorts of hate messages. I heard from fans that I had “told on Bryan” for choking me; that I had gotten him fired because he choked me; and all sorts of crazy assumptions spun by people and their imaginations. The Internet really is a giant forum where people make things up daily and spin these stories that just become the truth because the real truth is kept quiet by the company guys. Anytime I was in the ring to announce, the fans would direct Daniel Bryan chants at me. Fans went from liking me, or at least being indifferent, to instantly hating me. They blamed me for him getting fired! Fans would constantly ask me about the incident and couldn’t understand why I would do such a thing. I got choked in a storyline. I didn’t fight back. I just laid there and took a beating. Why was I getting blamed?! The Internet can be rough. One person makes up and reports a story, and the world runs with it as fact. It wasn’t a fun period because I genuinely felt bad for Bryan, but there was nothing I could say to convince the masses. Daniel was allowed to work independent shows, and he loved doing so.
After TV time on NXT, plus the controversial firing, he was an even bigger name. He came straight off TV and made a ton of money on merchandise. I even heard that he sold neckties at shows. He spent his summer working every week all over the world and making a killing. At the end of the summer, he was brought back to WWE, given a new deal, and returned directly to the main event of SummerSlam. From there, he went on to greatness in his WWE career, which, as the talent he is, he deserved. It’s safe to say that the firing worked out for him in the long run. I had done an interview with the local newspaper back in Chicago after all that had passed. I loved being able to tell my story in hopes of inspiring others to follow their dreams. Anyone who knew that I was a fan and had gone on to chase my dream and become the announcer thought that was an amazing story to share, and I was proud of it.
I pitched the story to WWE magazine about being a fan that chased his dream to get there. I explained that other media outlets loved the inspirational story and how wrestling fans would probably like to hear that story more than any other demographic out there. I explained everything to the editor of the magazine, but he hesitated. “I think you have something. I just can’t put my finger on it.” I explained that they have to come up with stories every month, and this is a great story about a kid who loved WWE and chased his dream to get here. “Yeah. There’s definitely something to this. Maybe a ‘how-to’ piece,” he said. “What?” “You know, like how to make something or like when we do weight-training tips, maybe you can do something like that.” I told him we are not on the same page. I thanked him anyway. So that never happened.
What did happen was a call from another writer at WWE magazine. She explained that they were going to be doing a story on the people who work behind the scenes at the company. Jen from catering, Tom from props, Mark Yeaton in the production office. I just looked at the ceiling. “So let me get this straight, you want to do a story on people who work behind the scenes, and you want to do a story on me as a behind-the-scenes guy? I show up, drink coffee, talk to everyone at the arena, throw on a suit behind the scenes, and then go and do my job right in the center of thousands of people?” “Yes.” And they did. My one mention in WWE magazine was for the work that I didn’t do behind the scenes because I guess that the company viewed me as a behind-the-scenes guy rather than an on-air talent. In the fall of 2010, Vince’s wife, Linda McMahon, ran for senate. Her opponent and the media were starting to attack WWE. They weren’t really making up allegations; they were just bringing up facts about WWE and past actions. They held a meeting for the talent and told us about a campaign called “Stand Up for WWE” in which employees (the people at the office who didn’t endure the brutal travel but did, however, receive benefits), the talent (brutal travel, no benefits, no insurance, no 401k), and fans could stand up for this wonderful organization. Many of us felt the company wasn’t one that took good care of us, but we were happy to have a job. Many employees were let go once they were there too long, but for the folks who were still employed, they were able to speak up for the company. The talent were told they could go into the pre-tapes room where the camera was set up and speak freely, if they would like.
We endured some pretty brutal loops on the weekends. Traveling to a smaller city on the first day meant sometimes leaving the night before and taking two to three flights plus a drive. We had many nights where we had a long drive with an early show the next day or travel that would keep us from getting sleep before having to work again. It wasn’t rare on TV days for the higher-ups to fly in on the jet and talk down to the crew that had been touring all week. On top of all that, and despite almost feeling like a ghost at WWE, I knew what the company meant to me as a fan and how the superstars helped my dad when he was sick. I lived for WWE, and despite some of the mental abuse I was taking, I was the first to go in the room and talk on camera. I told my story and told them what WWE meant to me and my family. There were times that I wrote letters to Oprah and Howard Stern and even a blog, defending wrestling, because I really do hope others can understand what it’s like versus seeing it as “that fake stuff on TV”. Oddly enough, I was one of the only people who took advantage of the pre-tape time. In our next meeting, we were all now required to go in and speak. I guess not enough talent felt like standing up for the company the first time around. I went again, and this time, of course, it was more of a structured interview where we didn’t tell our stories; instead we were asked questions. My interview, which was one of the few to come from the heart, by someone who spoke up by choice, was never aired when they played a series of the interviews as part of their campaign.