Former WWE announcer Justin Roberts on his career and his new book, a must-read for wrestling fans.
As a boy who was captivated with the art, athleticism and pageantry of pro wrestling, Justin Roberts had a childhood dream to work for the WWE. With no map before him, he tenaciously set out on a journey to make his dream come true. Little did he know when he began that his dream job would be filled with some of the most rewarding moments and relationships of his life, and the most difficult and challenging as well.
With the release of his new autobiography, Best Seat in the House: Your Backstage Pass through My WWE Journey, Roberts goes in depth on not just the road he paved to get there but also his incredible 12-year run as one of the top WWE ring announcers of all time.
Beginning in 2002 at the start of the Ruthless Aggression era, which spotlighted superstars such as gold medal Olympian Kurt Angle, “The Crippler” Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Booker T, and John Cena, until the end of the PG era in 2014, Roberts pulls no punches when it comes to a look backstage.
With over a decade of working and traveling with some of the biggest names in the business, such as the immortal Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, and the “Greatest of All Time” Chris Jericho, Roberts directs readers to the best seat in the house and shows them firsthand what it was like to be a fan of the largest wrestling promotion in the world and achieve his dream of standing in the middle of the squared circle announcing the most famous icons in the industry.
With unbridled candor, Best Seat in the House shows fans just what WWE Hall of Famer “Good Ol’” J.R. means when he says Roberts is “a true student of the game, which seemed to be a well-kept secret.”
I had a chance to sit with Justin for this exclusive Crixeo interview and get a “backstage pass” to his incredible story.
What are your earliest memories of watching pro wrestling?
Both of those shows hooked a lot of us back in ’80s. Was there a certain match or wrestler that instantly hooked you?
For WWF it was Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, The Genius, Mr. Perfect, Ultimate Warrior, Brutus Beefcake, Undertaker and Brother Love. For GLOW, it was Mt Fiji, Spike and Chainsaw, and Hollywood and Vine.
Justin Roberts with “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan (left and middle) and with Hulk Hogan (right) / Courtesy of Justin Roberts
You might be the first person to have listed “The Genius” Lanny Poffo over his brother “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Do you have a favorite today?
Loved Macho Man, but I did not see him until just after I started watching. As far as a favorite, I have never been able to pick one. So many of the guys nowadays are just so good that it’s impossible to pick a favorite. However, Undertaker is so different from any other character/performer. I was in awe as a kid watching his entrance and felt the same introducing him to the ring, so if I have to pick, that would be it.
You’ve spent over a decade in the business traveling with some of the biggest names in the industry. What makes your story different from other wrestling autobiographies?
I think that whether you are 18 or 85, you want one more run. I feel fulfilled with my run. I tell my story honestly, without worrying about burning a bridge. I wouldn’t knock any other wrestling autobiographies, as I have enjoyed reading the majority of them. It’s somewhat different in the sense that I don’t talk about how I should have been this champion or had a good or bad match with so-and-so. It’s a story about being a wrestling fan and basically pretending to be an announcer as a way of getting into the business. From there I grew and developed into actually being an announcer, and I take you on the journey of all the ups and downs.
It’s a story about being a wrestling fan and basically pretending to be an announcer as a way of getting into the business.
Your story definitely shows those ups and downs you faced, not just in pursuing your dream but once you actually caught it as well. What will fans be surprised to learn when they read your book?
I think there will be a lot of material that has never been discussed before about what it’s like to work at WWE. Even what it’s like trying to get there.
There are a lot of assumptions for WWE “superstars” and the biggest surprise I am about to spoil is that they’re human. They play a character on TV but, man, these are real, hardworking, great human beings and I hope this book will show you that.
You’ve worked with so many wrestlers in your career. Have you censored any experiences you’ve had with them in your book?
There’s no reason to. I wanted to tell my story honestly, which is why I struggled with writing a lot of this while I was there. I knew I’d lose my job if I released it then, so I barely touched it after I wrote the first version. Once I didn’t have to sugarcoat it, it was easier to write again.
Would you consider your story a “shoot” or “tell-all”?
It’s a shoot in the sense that it’s honest. I have no reason not to be. It’s not a sleazy tell-all. It’s not about giving away dirt. It’s about telling my story, my experiences from being a fan through working there, and then leaving. I wanted fans to understand why I could actually be unhappy with this dream job, but at the same time I wanted them to understand why I could actually be happy despite all the bad mixed in with the good. That definitely sounds confusing, but the book will clear it up.
Your story is surely a mixed bag of the good and bad that you experienced. What was your most memorable moment in the WWE?
Again, it’s hard to pick one. If I had to pick, becoming the ECW announcer and getting my “own” show to announce after being a fill-in, or becoming the SmackDown announcer, or becoming the RAW announcer, or announcing at my first Wrestlemania, introducing The Rock, Ultimate Warrior, Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair, Goldberg, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. I absolutely would not be able to pick just one. It’s about a 100-way tie, at the very least.
You were there for the rise of John Cena, the Summer of Punk and the Daniel Bryan “Yes!” movement. Seeing what it takes to make a superstar, who do you feel is the most underutilized talent today?
I hate saying it because it’s been said for so many years and he is my friend, but there is no reason for Dolph Ziggler to not be the star that Shawn and Bret became. He is one of the best guys out there in a long time, for a long time…and every time he got hot, he was introduced to the cliché but very much present glass ceiling. Also Cesaro. Why is he the Swiss Superman? Because he is Superman — his strength and skills are superhuman. If I had to build an entire wrestling company around one wrestler, it would be him. There were a couple of times that I thought they finally smartened up and were going to run with him, but instead they used him to get their chosen guys over.
At times in your story it seems that you, too, hit a barrier. What pushed you to continue to pursue your ultimate dream of announcing some of the biggest icons in the business at Wrestlemania?
I never stopped being a fan. Even when faced with real-life heels, or bad guys, my love for wrestling kept me going and there was always hope that things would get better.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to break into the business outside of a role as a wrestler?
Love it. If you’re getting into wrestling just to get into entertainment and using it as a stepping stone, the fans will pick up on it. If you love wrestling and want nothing more than to work in wrestling, go for it. Follow your dreams. Anything and everything is possible.
How did you view the business as a fan before getting in, and how do you view it after 12 years with the WWE?
I loved it. I lived for it. I sat in school and daydreamed about being a part of it. I imagined myself running down the aisle and into the ring and couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I loved wrestling. I loved the characters. I loved the story lines. I loved anticipating who was turning from a good guy to a bad guy. When one guy was leaving the ring from his match and he ran into another guy approaching the ring for his match, a new feud was developing. I remembered all the matches on all the quarterly pay-per-views. Now, after working there, I still view the business the exact same way watching those same shows. When I watch the shows now, I see a lot of talented individuals. The story lines may not play out over three months, or even one, and the characters may not be over the top the way they used to be, but it’s still wrestling and it changes over time. It changed from the Hogans and the Warriors to the Brets and the Shawns, and now it has changed again and will continue to change.
Do you feel the product is better today or when you were growing up?
You’re asking a 37-year-old man vs. a 12-year-old boy. Wow, where did the time go? Everything that I loved about ’90s wrestling was amazing in my head. If I were to be 37 in the ’90s, I don’t know how I would have felt about it. I recently watched Wrestlemania 10 again and definitely felt a little different than the kid waiting all Sunday for that show to start. I loved the gimmicky characters growing up. In the late ’90s I loved that every guy who came out was over with the crowd and got a huge reaction. I loved the drawn-out story lines that progressed over time. Today I may have been too close to judge. I know that a lot of the story lines came about that day and don’t make sense if you look at the weeks leading up to that show — and also won’t make sense with what happens the next week. I’ll say it again, though, there is a lot of great talent, and they have to play the cards they’re dealt. They don’t choose their own story lines. In one era, the sky was the limit if you caught on with the crowd; in another, you were pulled off television for getting that reaction.
In your book you speak in depth about your friendship with eight-year-old Connor “The Crusher” Michalek. How did you first meet Connor and how did your friendship begin?
I was heading to the back after the Royal Rumble in Pittsburgh and went over to talk to him. After that discussion, I wanted to do something for him. I ended up talking to his dad regularly and we would all FaceTime throughout the week to talk wrestling, or if I was at wrestling, I’d introduce him to all his favorite wrestlers.
Your close relationship with Connor and his dad created some incredible ripples throughout the WWE. How has your friendship with Connor changed the business?
I think WWE realized that the way the talent helped Connor really made them look good as a company. Even if they didn’t show heart privately, within this was a situation where they came off looking good to the public. Branding is very important to them, and they started showing the world what WWE meant to Connor. Instead of that being something that was done to show just the employees, they ended up showing the world. And if you happened to miss it, they showed you at every event. The business used to be about creating stars — good guys and bad guys. Now you see less emphasis on satisfying the crowd for the duration of a show and more emphasis on the company as a brand.
What have you been up to since your time in the WWE?
When I was with WWE, I was tied up 52 weeks a year. I didn’t have time for much outside, in the real world, and I wasn’t allowed to do just anything. When I left, I just wanted to take a break from flying. I’d flown about 200,000 miles in a year. Driven about 50,000. I just wanted to take a break and be with my family. I was able to do that and also start accepting invitations for opportunities that seemed fun. I was on a couple of TV shows (The Messengers, Graves), voiced over some commercials such as Powerade and Rivers Casinos, went on tour hosting for Grammy Award–winning band Tool. I have done so many random gigs that I just wanted to explore so I could see what’s out there. I even got back into the ring to give announcing a shot in the boxing world.
Where can fans buy your book and meet you next?
You can find out more about Best Seat in the House at my website. It comes out on April 1 as a hardcover, e-book and audiobook. I’ve heard that I might be in Orlando for some signings that weekend. It’s available through Barnes & Noble and Amazon. There is talk about doing signings, which will hopefully happen, as I’d love for fans to read this book and I would also love to meet them. I have been told this is the ultimate “fan” book, so I hope that’s how they will feel — and that they can agree or disagree when I meet them at a signing.