Published on May 2nd, 2017 | by Bobby Mathews0
A Love Story Gone Wrong
JUSTIN ROBERTS Still Loves Wrestling, Despite WWE Woes
I didn’t know what to expect when I contacted Justin Roberts. It’s a Thursday morning, sunny here in Alabama, and we’re having a phone conversation about his time as a ring announcer in WWE. His voice isn’t what I expected, either. It’s a little deeper and slower than the fast-talking Chicago native I pictured in my head.
Roberts has been in the news recently for thoroughly detailing repeated bullying at the hands of multiple WWE superstars—specifically with John Bradshaw Layfield—in his memoir, Best Seat in the House. For longtime fans, tales of JBL’s abuse is nothing new. But the depth of his behavior in Roberts’s book has intensified scrutiny of the retired wrestler and current TV commentator, especially in light of WWE’s ‘B A STAR’ anti-bullying campaign.
In his book, Roberts tells the story of his relentless quest to first make it to the WWE, and then to stay there. But unlike a lot of talents, Roberts doesn’t sound like he misses the WWE.
“No,” he says, when I ask him if someone from WWE approached him with the right offer—in fact, he doesn’t let me finish the question—“Not interested.”
You don’t often hear of a talent shutting the door that firmly on a WWE return. In the world of wrestling, money almost always talks. Throw enough of it in the right direction, and fences can be mended. Even Bruno Sammartino came back to the WWE fold after enough outreach and cash. But Roberts is pretty clear that his days with WWE are over for good. And he doesn’t sound bitter about it.
“I just look at it as a closed chapter of my life,” he says. “I don’t think that’s bitter. If I were bitter, I think I would be going ‘I still ought to be there …’ but you have to realize that I was treated very badly by WWE, and I have no interest in going back.”
If Roberts’ story with WWE sounds like a love affair gone bad, it’s because that’s just what it is. As a boy growing up watching wrestling in the 1980s, Roberts played with action figures and booked his own matches between plastic superstars. He lived and breathed wrestling, and every step along the way—from high school to college to early adulthood—Roberts was continually working to get his foot in the door of WWE. There were fits and starts—one of the things we learn about WWE is that they never flat-out say “No” to talent—because they may have a use for them at some point. It’s an understandable philosophy, but it can also be used to string talent along with the prospect of finally making it to WWE in some capacity.
Roberts took pains to make the book as real as possible, and it shows. Readers see the good and bad side of WWE. The highs are very high, but the lows are very, very low.
“I spent 12 years in WWE,” Roberts said. “When you’re with a company that long, you’re not going to have a story that’s always happy. What some people never understood … people thought I had the greatest job in the world. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t happy at the end.”
But then you read the book. Roberts’s first international trip with WWE, where he was once held down in submission holds by Jamie Noble and Chris Benoit simultaneously, was a nightmare for the young announcer. Later on, as he rested in his hotel room chatting online with Colt Cabana, JBL and Benoit went through the building, rattling doors and looking for him. Throughout his tenure, Roberts would be a frequent target for JBL, who often asked why the announcer hadn’t killed himself yet. In any other corporate world, the atmosphere would be labeled toxic. Because it’s ‘sports entertainment,’ the superstars’ behavior could be written off as ‘boys will be boys.’
The best of times seem easy to see. Roberts’s relentless enthusiasm for wrestling converted his father into a fan, and superstars like Batista, Randy Orton, and Chris Jericho would contact the elder Roberts while he battled lung cancer. In a touching moment, Roberts details how Chris Benoit approached him and asked if he could call Roberts’s father.
But the most untarnished moment in Roberts’s mind is when he realized he’d accomplished his dream.
“There were a lot of really great moments, but the one that really stands out to me is the first time I was standing in the middle of the ring at Raw for a tryout,” he says. “Just knowing how impossible it was, I was thinking ‘Wow, I got this. I made it.’”
But the road was still winding ahead of him. Some of the most impressive moments in the book come from Roberts detailing how he broke into wrestling, constantly pushing for a way to be involved with the business he loved. From working shows with Dale Gagne’s reborn AWA program in the 1990s to helping run independent shows with the Navajo Kid in Arizona to running his own indie promotion, Roberts steeped himself in the business. It’s impressive and gives a ton of depth and insight into Roberts’s character. He never took no for an answer. He looked for ways to be involved, to make the programs with which he was involved better.
We talk a little bit about the Nexus takeover of Raw, an angle that saw several wrestlers destroy the WWE ring and attack personnel at ringside. In a memorable visual, Daniel Bryan choked Roberts with the announcer’s own tie. It was great television—almost a throwback to some of the old territory days in its brutality and viciousness.
“I thought it made great TV,” Roberts said. “Vince was happy with it, Bryan was happy with it. Everyone was happy with it.”
Except then they weren’t. Advertisers thought the angle—specifically Roberts being choked—was too brutal for WWE’s PG rating. Bryan was released for a short time until the heat around the angle died down.
“Oh, that was real,” Roberts said. “He absolutely was choking me. Thankfully it wasn’t for that long. I tried to get my finger in there between my collar and my throat, but it was too tight. But I loved the angle. I mean, I was always down there, why should I be off-limits when things like that happened? I thought it added to the angle.”
There are things I’m not touching, like how WWE now has a charity (Connor’s Cure) that wouldn’t exist without the work of Justin Roberts, or how the announcer was informed that his contract wouldn’t be renewed following Raw one night after the talent had completed a grueling tour of Malaysia. Those stories are in the book, and they’re absolutely worth reading on your own.
As we briefly discuss 1980s wrestling, I hear the infectious joy in Roberts’s voice. He’s still a fan of wrestling. You can tell. That’s potentially the most inspiring thing about his story: wrestling is a business that can break people physically, mentally, and spiritually. Knowing that Roberts kept his outlook, kept his love of the game … well, that’s a great thing.
“I grew up liking wrestling. I didn’t have a favorite; I loved the whole thing. Loved the whole show. I was into everybody. All the characters were entertaining, different,” he said. “I’m still a fan. I’ll still watch if I’m at home. But I’m not into the show the way I used to be. Creatively it’s not the wrestling I love—it’s a different show.”
Ring announcers can be an overlooked part of a wrestling show, but Roberts was the everyman, the point of entry for fans who attend WWE’s live events. And his schedule was the same grueling schedule as the superstars he announced. The miles took their toll as they added up, year after year.
“It’s incredibly taxing physically and mentally. You might fly from California, go to the East Coast for a shot, then go off flying to Europe for a tour,” Roberts said. “Travel is crazy. The company doesn’t–look, they don’t factor in time for talent to adjust to the travel. You’re literally on the road all the time.”
A simple tip helped keep Roberts sane on those long journeys.
“My secret—I tried to get window seats on planes so that I could sleep enough to make the time go by,” he said. “And of course, some of the people, I mean, you’re around entertaining people who can make the time go by faster. I was riding by myself at first, and you can read about that in the book. But you kinda find people like you, and you get together, and it makes the time go easier. Towards the end, I was riding with Miz, Zack Ryder, and Dolph Ziggler.”
As we close our interview, I decide I have to throw Wreddit a bone. During every AMA for wrestlers, someone always asks about the size of Batista’s genitalia. It’s a recurring meme that has its own notoriety. So, laughing, I ask Roberts the question: “How big is Batista’s dick?”
Roberts is quiet for a second while he thinks of a response.
“I’ll say this: Batista has a huge heart.”
That’s Justin Roberts in a nutshell, I think: a good guy, willing to play along with a joke, keeping his sunny and optimistic outlook despite some of the tough things he’s had to face. If that’s his legacy in wrestling, that’s not a bad one at all.