From the earliest days of his childhood in the suburbs of Chicago, Justin Roberts loved wrestling.
It started by watching "GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling" and "Saturday Night's Main Event" on NBC, but a chance encounter with the Ultimate Warrior and Kerry Von Erich while on vacation at age 12 is what really got Roberts hooked.
An obsession with everything WWE (then WWF) and WCW followed. He went to every event he could get to at the Rosemont Horizon in Illinois. Whether it was using connections to get backstage or meeting superstars at the adjacent hotel, Roberts did everything he could to get himself into the wrestling business -- even creating a wrestling hotline in the times before the internet began to take hold.
After realizing that a career as a wrestler wasn't going to be in the cards for him, Roberts put his head down and threw everything he had into making it as an announcer. His work in the world of independent wrestling eventually led to an opportunity as a fill-in and live events ring announcer for WWE, and ultimately Roberts fulfilled his dream by becoming a full-time ring announcer.
From house shows and secondary programming like "Velocity" and "WWE Sunday Night Heat" to "E.C.W." to " WWE SmackDown" and finally the flagship, "WWE Monday Night Raw," Roberts spent the better part of 13 years as a fan who made it on the inside. His new book, appropriately entitled "Best Seat in the House", tells the story of his unlikely journey to becoming one of the most familiar voices to WWE fans worldwide.
In just over 300 pages, Roberts digs into the best and worst moments of his experiences during his time with the WWE, allowing fans an intimate look into the world they and he often obsess about.
Roberts, who left the WWE in October 2014, recently sat down with ESPN.com to discuss the contents of his book and his opinions on some current situations in the company.
Is there a specific moment or event in your life that you can point to that made you seek out a career in the wrestling business?
I would spend my grade school days daydreaming about wrestling stuff, and drawing wrestling logos, and looking forward to watching the next wrestling show that was coming on TV. So as a kid, I just loved watching wrestling. I lived for watching wrestling.
When I was in high school, that's when I was really like, "I'm not a little kid anymore. I love this, and I would love to work for the WWF or the WCW." I would still show up to the Rosemont Horizon, watch shows in Chicago, and I would go to the hotel that backed up to it, where a lot of the wrestlers stayed, to try to meet wrestlers. And in talking to the wrestlers, I would ask them, "Hey, I want to be a wrestler. How do I do this?"
When I was 15, I had met Justin Credible from E.C.W., who was also PJ Walker and Aldo Montoya, and he gave me the phone number to a wrestler in New York. So I talked to this wrestler, Tony DeVito, who I didn't realize was Tony DeVito that was enhancement talent for WWF, and we went back and forth. I called him and asked about training.
[Eventually] I realized that I didn't have the look, and I wasn't going to drop out of high school to go to New York and train with him. I just knew that that wasn't a possibility, so I thought, "If there's some way I can get into wrestling, any way that's actually doable, I want to do that."
I knew some people who were on a show, a local independent show. I asked if I could maybe be an announcer, be a ring announcer, because I did different voices, and one of the voices I could do was a ring announcer. I was 16, and they allowed me to go in there and announce a match. Then it became a regular thing, and that was how it all started.
For you, even as a ring announcer, it wasn't as easy as sending in a tape or attending a talent search. Do you feel like your experiences traveling the road with veterans played a big part in ultimately finding success in the WWE?
Yeah, that's sort of where I learned a lot. The first few years that I did it, I showed up to the show in Chicago and I'd announce. But once I got to [college] in Tucson, that's when I started driving to Phoenix and driving to different nearby cities and states, and it was my first time really being on the road. At the same time, I hooked up with the AWA [American Wrestling Association]. It was a promoter in Minnesota who was running really big independent shows, and it was rare for somebody to fly out and pay a ring announcer, but this guy, Dale Gagne, actually did that for me.
And being on the road for all these independent shows, the AWA shows, that was when I really got to learn the business. I was in college getting my degree in media arts and communication, but on the weekends, I was getting my degree in Wrestling 101. I was working with King Kong Bundy, George "The Animal" Steel, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, the Bushwhackers, Legion of Doom, the Honky Tonk Man, Sherri Martel. I'm working with all of these guys and girls, who came from WWF or WCW, who had been there, done that, and I'm in front of crowds -- we had 5,000 people at some of our shows.
So I was on the road, riding with these guys and picking their brains and constantly trying to get better. I would set up the rings. I mean, I did everything that I could do just to soak it all in, and it was awesome. It was an incredible experience, just the camaraderie with the other guys that I would always travel with.
So in 2002, you started working with the WWE. What was the progression like, with you eventually getting a full-time nod with E.C.W., and everything that followed?
I was basically the fill-in guy for a while, and then in 2004 I was hired full time to do the Raw house shows, and then I would do "Sunday Night Heat" as a TV show. So in 2006, when E.C.W. came back, they brought me in to be, what I was told, the "face of E.C.W." They wanted me to be the E.C.W. ring announcer, which was cool.
I went from the SmackDown crew to the Raw crew, then I was going to the E.C.W. crew, so every time we switched, it was like starting all over. I was definitely nervous, because I didn't really know the E.C.W. guys personally. I was a fan of E.C.W., but I didn't have a relationship with any of the guys, so I was definitely intimidated.
I was happy that I finally had my own show, but I didn't know what to expect. But E.C.W. turned out to be one of my favorite times in 21 years of doing this. Those guys were awesome. Every weekend was so much fun; we did nothing but have fun and laugh and just enjoy the shows, no politics. The E.C.W. crew was so great, so I really loved that and I got comfortable.
I got comfortable doing those shows, and I think the company realized that and eventually they said, "Hey, we're moving you to SmackDown," and moved me to SmackDown. Again, I got real comfortable and was just in a good groove, and then a couple years later, I moved to Raw.
What was your experience in the WWE like as a nonwrestler -- an outsider, in the minds of some?
When I first came in, it took a long time for me to get accepted and to not have to worry about getting harassed. When you're new somewhere, you get ribbed, there's a lot of playful fun ribbing that goes on. But then there was what I went through with JBL [John "Bradshaw" Layfield]. I came in in 2002, and I went through that up until about 2003, 2004. I wasn't there full time [at that point]. I was there sporadically and I was basically filling in.
Usually the problems would happen on overseas tours, so it wasn't like I could take it and go along with it, and then it went away [when I got home]. It kept happening. It really went too far, for sure, and then eventually the guys who did that kind of stuff moved out of the company and other guys came in, and that type of stuff wasn't happening [much] anymore.
The overall culture there definitely starts above JBL, and that culture exists in many different forms. You see it on TV, you hear about it, you see it behind the scenes, so it's really just something that comes from high up and trickles down.
With the recent disappearance of Mauro Ranallo from the SmackDown commentary team on TV, and the rumors and innuendo surrounding what might have gone on, how do you relate to that after some of the experiences you talk about in the book?
It goes back to the mentality there. The speculation is that it was JBL and whoever else, possibly riding him [Ranallo] and bringing up certain things and just taking jabs at him. That's what happens there, especially if you're recognized for doing something or if something good happened to you; there are guys who will just give you hell for it. They can't be happy for anybody else, they just have to knock everybody else down. There's a handful of very insecure people, and I don't know because I don't know Mauro, I only know my own story and what I've gone through, but I could definitely see that being a real thing.
You know, here's a guy who's really passionate about what he's doing and going out there and doing a great job, getting recognized for doing a great job, and then other people get jealous and give him a hard time about it. I could easily see that being a thing, seeing how far they could push him, and that's just how it is.
You talk in your book about how your super-fandom was something of a double-edged sword during your time in the WWE.
Yeah, I feel like some people, higher-ups in the company, look at it as, "When somebody's a fan, they'll take more." It kinda hurts you because they know how passionate you are, and it almost becomes -- I don't know. It seems like a lot of people who come in who aren't necessarily fans of the business get treated better, but whatever. I wouldn't change anything if I could go back in time. I'm happy to show that I was a fan.
My bosses, who were guys that I grew up watching on TV, like Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, Ted DiBiase, IRS, Skinner (Steve Keirn), those guys were my bosses. So when I talked to them, I was a professional -- they were my bosses -- but at the same time, the kid in me is like, "That's IRS, that's the Million Dollar Man." And I would call them by those names. I would call Ricky Steamboat "Dragon," I would call Ted DiBiase "Million Dollar Man." It was still real to me.
I was definitely a fan and I never hid it. I was professional and I got used to it, like I got used to it in the independents by working with guys that I grew up watching. But the fan in me was always marking out, so to speak, that I was working with these guys.
Did that kind of passion and obsession with wrestling also help you connect with certain guys on the roster?
For sure, because when I think about it, the guys that I am closest with are the guys that are also big fans. We love wrestling, we love talking about wrestling, we loved, back in the day, just talking like, "What if we do this, this, and this, and the storylines went here?" Just pitching different storyline ideas to each other and just talking about wrestling.
We all have that common bond, [being] very, very passionate about wrestling, and it's something we all had in common. I think that's why I've always gotten along with wrestling fans, too, because I'm the same as they are, except I got to go to the other side of the guardrail and pose as a ring announcer for so long.
Now that you've been outside of that bubble for a while, how do you judge your overall experience?
Overall, it was awesome. Obviously, there was good and bad, which you're going to get anywhere. But I got to live out my dream. It's the only thing that I wanted to do. When I graduated [from] college, I didn't have a backup plan. I had the degree if I needed it, but the only thing I wanted to do was to be a ring announcer at WWE, and I got to do that.
I got to work with all the guys that I grew up watching, all the guys who I was watching in high school and college, and the new stars of today. I got to work with everybody, the who's who in professional wrestling. Sting, Goldberg, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker, John Cena, Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, I mean everybody. I got to announce Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania, I got to announce the Ultimate Warrior. Overall, it was awesome.
That's why I wrote the book; it's to tell that story of somebody who is such a huge fan and chased that impossible dream -- not only chased it, but got it and lived it. I just wanted to tell the story of what it was all like. And yes, I did talk about a lot of the negative stuff, but it's part of my story -- I cover everything, because it's the ultimate wrestling story.