The latest controversy in professional wrestling involves two WWE broadcasters.
Mauro Ranallo, the noted MMA play-by-play specialist and co-host of WWE Smackdown Live, has allegedly been the victim of bullying from John Bradshaw Layfield, who is longtime WWE performer JBL.
Ranallo, who has dealt with mental health problems and is a mental health advocate, last appeared on the March 7 edition of Smackdown. His absence from WWE programming is creating more attention by the week, and Ranallo has no plans to return to WWE before his contract expires in August.
Verified facts regarding the situation are scarce. Layfield criticized Ranallo on a WWE Network show, Bring it to the Table, on March 13 in response to Ranallo tweeting out that he won The Wrestling Observer’s award for announcer of the year. WWE programming is heavily scripted, meaning Layfield’s dig toward Ranallo was approved by WWE CEO Vince McMahon.
Ranallo then missed the following night’s Smackdown due, reportedly, to being unable to travel in the midst of a blizzard. Ranallo’s MMA podcast partner, legendary fighter Bas Rutten, insinuated on Twitter that Layfield had mistreated Ranallo. Neither Ranallo nor Rutten have answered an interview request from Sports Illustrated. SI also reached out to WWE for an official statement, which read, “Mauro Ranallo remains under contract with WWE until August 12, 2017.”
Though the situation remains clouded in speculation, some certainties do exist. The problem of hazing and bullying in wrestling does not start nor end with Layfield. His dismissal from the company, which is inevitable only if corporate sponsors call for it, will not change a culture and climate that has existed for decades.
Eric Bischoff, who was WCW president at the peak of the company’s success, was asked how he would have handled the situation as an executive.
“My time as an executive was 20 years ago,” said Bischoff. “Our society has changed so much that it’s hard for me to imagine how I would handle it in today’s environment. I can’t speculate.”
Bischoff explained that he does not have first-hand knowledge of the Ranallo-Layfield situation, yet he did offer to speak to the way he was treated while he was in WWE.
“If anybody deserved to be treated badly, it was probably me, but I was treated professionally and with respect,” said Bischoff. “I wasn’t always comfortable. Not everybody liked me, not everybody wanted me around, but I know that I was always treated respectfully by everybody I came across in WWE, including Vince McMahon and JBL. Everything else is speculation, interpretation, and digital chatter, and I refuse to participate in it.”
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Matt Striker, who worked for WWE as a wrestler and a broadcaster, and is now the lead play-by-play man for Lucha Underground, was asked his perspective on the alleged issue between Ranallo and Layfield, as well as whether hazing is a widespread problem in pro wrestling locker rooms.
"First and foremost, I don’t think anyone is qualified to speak about what is going on unless you have a first-hand, eye-witness account,” said Striker. “Number two, is hazing a thing in the wrestling locker room? First, you have to define hazing. I played organized sports my entire life, and I understand the stigma surrounding wrestling.
“People also have to understand, in a time forgotten, wrestling was a bastion for the ‘real tough man,’ the alpha man. Now, and it’s happening in society everywhere, the betas are trying to declaw the alphas to level the playing field.”
Layfield has also been a newsworthy subject as former WWE ring announcer Justin Roberts’ new memoir shares his memories of allegedly being bullied by Layfield. Over the years, many wrestlers–including Mark Henry (Author’s note: Mark Henry link includes foul language) and Matt Hardy–have discussed JBL’s penchant for hazing, which is deeply entrenched in the business of professional wrestling.
“What’s really at issue is here is the culture clash,” said Striker. “It’s between the outside world, especially in pro wrestling, and how the doors have been blown off the locker room for almost 20 years now. There is a guard that does not like that, so it’s all perspective.
“Go ask someone who was in the business 70 years ago about bullying and then come ask me, and even I’ll say, I barely have a toe in the pool of the business. You might say, ‘What do you mean? You’ve been around 20 years.’ But I didn’t go 60 minutes with Ric Flair in Greensboro. I didn’t travel down the road and share a locker room with Harley Race. It’s a different time.”
Sports Illustrated spoke with twelve former WWE wrestlers who declined to speak on the record. Alberto El Patron, formerly known as Alberto Del Rio, voiced support for Layfield as a friend, yet admitted that he could not speak to the current controversy with Ranallo.
“I know I had a lot of beef with some of the people in that company, and I can say that I hate some of the people in that place, but JBL was not one of them,” said El Patron. “He was always fantastic to me and he always treated my family with respect, so I have nothing but respect for JBL. But with all honesty, and I swear on my kids’ life, I don’t watch the product at all, I don’t follow, so I don’t know what the situation is with JBL.”
Ranallo has yet to speak out in regards to his absence from WWE television. Neither Vince McMahon nor Layfield have offered any official statement, and WWE has no plans to punish Layfield or remove him from his position. For now, the story – which still has more questions than answers – remains under review.