I recently interviewed former WWE ring announcer Justin Roberts, whose new book, Best Seat in the House, is available now at Amazon.com. In the first part of the interview below, Roberts discussed his new book, growing up a wrestling fan, starting to work for WWE, meeting Vince McMahon for the first time, the Nexus angle and Daniel Bryan getting fired for choking him with a tie, how the locker room had changed during his time there and more.
Your new book is out, a really fun read. When did you start writing that?
"It took about three years. It was about 3-4 years when I first started."
So, did the idea of writing the book, "Best Seat in the House," right when you left WWE or was that something you did prior to leaving?
"It actually started when I was still with the company. I was on a long flight and trying to stay awake. I had been toying with the idea for a while and I thought, you know what, I'm just going to start this out. I started typing the story out and got quite a bit down and then I realized, okay, there are some stuff I can say, some stuff that I can't, I'm not going to do anything with this, and will just sit on it for a while. As soon as I got released, the next day I picked up the computer and started typing away again."
The thing that makes this story so interesting is that you are a ring announcer and I know a lot of wrestlers, their dreams are to be in WWE and they are not a wrestler-type but would like to be with the company in some capacity. You talked about being a wrestling fan in your book. Who were some of your favorites growing up?
"Right off the bat, Mr. Perfect. I like the characters such as The Genius, Brother Love, the Ultimate Warrior, Jake the Snake, Million Dollar Man, Legion of Doom, Nasty Boys. I just like everybody. I never had a favorite, I just liked everybody and don't believe I had just one favorite. I was just into everybody."
You were watching WCW too when the Monday Night Wars was taking place, right? You were also there when [Hulk] Hogan signed with WCW.
"Yeah. I happened to be in Florida for an occasion and kind of arranged it when I knew he would be at the MGM Studios, so I arranged it where I would be at MGM the day he would be signing, also met Eric Bischoff that day too."
You had a lot of interesting stories in the book; you were a wrestling fan and also a fan of movies. In the book you mentioned being friends with an actress that appeared in Home Alone 2 and actually went to the premiere and talked about wrestling with Macaulay Culkin. Was there ever a period where your interest in wrestling starting dying out a bit or were you always this crazy about it?
"No. It was supposed to. My friends, everybody was into it and then stopped at some point and I thought that the same thing was going to happen to me. Watch it for a little bit and then lose interest, but I never lost interest. It just kept building and building and got to the point where I liked being a fan but I wanted more. I wanted to do something in wrestling so I started doing it as a hobby. I got into the independence as a hobby. I never imagined getting to WWE, and just thought I would be doing it as a cool thing and being part of wrestling shows, it was fun."
Yeah, it's a strange feeling. I know with me when I started this website in the 90's and actually started talking to these wrestlers, it kind of blows your mind where you're just like 'wow.' From growing up as a fan to somewhat being involved in a weird way.
"Yeah. I had a lot of those weird moments too. The time when Steve [William] Regal gave me his phone number the first time when I was Reffing which I discussed in the book working at the New Mexico tour where I worked just so I can work the tour with Mr. Perfect. I'm there as a Referee as a first time Ref, and all these guys in the locker room I grew up watching and all calling me over and giving me the finishes of their matches and I was just so blown away and thinking just how weird these guys are telling me how their matches are going to end."
So, what was Mr. Perfect like backstage?
"He was very cool, calm, laid back. Very confident and funny, every time I saw him he told me that I looked like Tom Zenk [Z-Man in WCW] and he would tell me Tom Zenk stories and how he would stand up for him. It was in High School maybe, like people used to pick on Tom in High School and he would stick up for him so you would just hear these Tom Zenk stories every time I saw him; whether it was the times I saw him or whether it was at the Hotel Bar when WWE was in town, he was cool. When I Reffed his match he would grab my arm, and I had a very scrawny arm and I got bruised so I took a picture of it and called it the 'Perfect Bruise.' I marked out for anything with Hennig, I was just a really big fan."
With as long as you have been a wrestling fan, what would you say was your favorite era in professional wrestling?
"My favorite would probably be the early to mid 90's, late 80's and early 90's. I loved the characters and the storylines. Everything was so well planned out and happened over six months, with a pay per view every four months, so it wasn't like a pay per view every three weeks. People ask me about pay per views, and I don't remember every pay per view because they happened so often and practically blended in but if you wanted to talk about pay per views in the early 90's, I remember those because there were only like 4 a year and you could keep track, and remembered everything that happened, so I loved that era and thought it was super cool."
When the Monday Night Wars started, wrestling had gone to a whole different level. You were in college at that point?
"I was in High School when it started. I was either a junior or senior."
Who were your favorites during that era?
"Oh man, [Steve] Austin and Bret [Hart] on Raw, just everybody on WCW because you had the Savage and Hogan, Sting, Flair and Luger, it just goes back to not having favorites and liking everybody, seeing everything going on. Brian Pillman was awesome in that era. Everybody was cool, it was just entertaining TV on both channels, just flipping back and forth between channels. I was lucky that my remote in college had a back button so when you hit it it'd just go back to the last station I was watching, so when you hit that one button it would go back to USA and TNT and that was what I did, I flipped back and forth every week. I would never watch just one show, just flipping back and forth."
How did you get the job with WWE?
"I was working the independents since I was 16 and when I was 22, I was sending video tapes and resumes all the time. I had been sending them to WWF and WCW and then when it became WWE and I just been sending stuff for a long time. Right when I graduated college I let them know that I just graduated college willing to do anything you guys need. I had sent a lot of emails and letters in the past, but they just never really responded. Then when I sent this one, we talked about it and said that they were going to give me a tryout so they gave me a dark match at Raw and two dark matches on SmackDown the next night."
Growing up a huge fan and then being on Raw for the first time. What was that like going there to work for the company even though it was a tryout?
"I dreamed about that moment for so long. What would it be like to stand on the entrance way? What would it be like to stand in the ring? Would I be too nervous to talk? So many different things that ran into my mind when I played it out in my head, so when they told me that it was coming I actually had the chance to find out. It was just mind blowing. To be backstage… I got to be backstage at Indy shows and I had guys that came from WWE to the Indy's, but to actually be backstage in WWE to be there to get in the ring that night, it was just mind-blowing, it really was. It was a neat experience because I had worked so hard just to get there and to show them what I could do for my tryout and then if they liked me, cool, that would be great, but at least I got the opportunity to show them what I can do. That is really all I wanted from that point."
Did you ever get any tips of how to act backstage because I always hear about shaking everyone's hand and looking them in the eye... that sort of thing.
"Yeah. Ace Steele told me about that from Chicago to make sure and shake everyone's hand. You don't really get it until you get there then you realized it makes sense. I watched Beyond the Mat and I had seen that plenty of times, but I watched it again to see what I needed to look out for and see if I can learn anything from watching that. That was really the only backstage view you got back then."
Which was why that movie was so fascinating because they were so guarded with that backstage stuff before. Did you get to interact with people when you were there or were you just kind of keeping to yourself?
"Oh yeah. Everybody, because everybody just kind of hangs out. Vince [McMahon] to Hulk Hogan, I was picking his brain, asking him if he had any advice for me and he said he had some advice and mentioned a conversation with him and Macho Man Randy Savage at the Garden, which was cool. Everybody was so casual, approachable and cool. Jonathan Coachman kind of took me under his wing and introduced me to everybody. Coach was great so it was a lot of fun. Fun couple of days."
What was it like to meet Vince McMahon for the first time?
"Intimidating. But, he was really cool and nice. Just kind of welcoming. One of the days inside an elevator it was me, John Cena, Shelton Benjamin, Rob Conway and maybe one more, but elevators are pretty awkward to begin with, and us in there with Vince was very awkward. One of them thanked him for the opportunity, but he said, no, thank you guys. You guys are the future. Cena really took that to heart there."
Were you there on the trip where Cena started rapping one day on tour and Stephanie McMahon saw it and it changed his character?
"No. I wasn't on that, but I know what you are talking about. Then he started with the Halloween episode and took off from there. He was then writing three rap songs at each TV."
So, you get this dream job. When did you find out that it was going to be a full-time gig? Was it shortly thereafter?
"No, actually it got drawn out for a while. I did two dark matches and then I didn't hear anything. They brought me out as a commentator tryout and that didn't go well because I never had done that before. You have to be really good to do that. I was just never really good with that. Even if I had tried it I never really knew how I would do. So, everyone once in awhile they would ask me if I could fill in for Tony Chimel on SmackDown and then it became a little bit more and a little bit more and in 2004 was when I got the call to do it full time. They pulled Howard [Finkel] off the road and would start doing house shows and then Sunday Night Heat before Raw went on the air."
So, the release of your book. There was stuff with Mauro [Ranallo] leaving WWE, and you are getting a lot of questions about it with the stuff mentioned about JBL. You mentioned that things with JBL happened much earlier than that. Did things backstage get better as time went on?
"Oh yeah, for sure. What JBL said was in 2003 so that is why when anybody just reads headlines like when Booker T mentioned that I wrote a book about bullying, the stuff I mentioned about JBL was in 2003, and I talk about how when a guy like Tommy Dreamer came in, the locker room completely changed. Raw had been a different locker room to begin with but when Dreamer came over, that is when the SmackDown locker room became completely different and became a fun place. I talk about Dreamer single handedly changed an entire locker room and made everything completely fun. We had an entirely different locker room after that."
What was the first WrestleMania that you worked?
"WrestleMania 23. It was supposed to be WrestleMania 21 in California but it became WrestleMania 23. I did the ECW match in Detroit."
What was that like?
"It was neat because it had been handed to me and then pulled away a couple of different times. I didn't really know it was going to happen until I got in the ring and the music started playing. I really didn't know if that match was going to happen, if I was going to be announcing it. When I did it was just really cool to see around 80,000 people in a football stadium and be in the middle of the ring was just really neat, really neat."
Then you got to announce the main event of WrestleMania 24 with Edge and the Undertaker.
"Yeah, and then next year I did the SmackDown matches for 24 and that happened to be the main event. I went from doing one match on the middle of the show to quite a few matches, including the main event the next year."
During your time there was much more of an edgy product early on and then it got to become more of a PG product by the time you left. Was there big shifts backstage as well as far as the mentality towards the business and just how things worked backstage?
"There were always shifts. People were shifting every week. Guys would come and go. Rules would come and go, and things were just constantly changing from day to day there. You might be able to do this one week and the next you couldn't like the girls weren't allowed to throw punches at one point. Things would constantly changed and you never knew what new rules would come up each week."
Speaking of which, there was that one time with Daniel Bryan. That was the only time I can think of since Howard Finkel where a Ring Announcer got kind of involved physically in a storyline. Did Daniel Bryan say anything to you after that? Because I know it wasn't a planned spot, and just became something on the fly.
"I talk about it in the book where it was the jist being out there from what was supposed to happen. The tie, it was just Daniel Bryan being very smart and went after it. What he did was made for great TV and everybody was happy about it including Vince and Daniel and myself, so we shook hands afterwards and everybody was great afterwards, everybody was happy with it and then a couple of days later WWE decided he broke a role that he didn't know existed and then they let him go. It sucks that he got fired for it, but at the same time, I will always say that it worked out for him because he was working some Indy events and then he caught fire and then came back right into the main event of Summer Slam afterwards so it all worked out okay."
Check back here next week for the second and final part of the interview, where Roberts' discussed working with Vince McMahon, WWE pay, Triple H burying the locker room during a promo with The Undertaker, a funny backstage Undertaker story, his WWE departure, what's next for him and more. You can purchase Roberts' new book, Best Seat in the House: Your Backstage Pass through My WWE Journey, for only $20.39 at Amazon.com.