Tony Schiavone is probably best-known as the announcer who told Hulk Hogan to "go to hell" after Hogan made his infamous heel turn to the NWO, yet that was only a facet of one of the most storied announcing careers in pro wrestling history.
Schiavone served as the lead announcer for both Jim Crockett Promotions and for the Turner family of networks in each of those organizations' respective battles against the WWE. He also spent a year announcing for the WWE, and over the course of his career Schiavone worked alongside some of the greatest commentators in wrestling history, including Jim Ross, Gordon Solie, Jesse Ventura, Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan.
I recently had the chance to speak with Schiavone about a number of topics, including how he broke into the industry, the time booker Vince Russo asked him to take a bump from an MMA fighter, and how Road Warrior Hawk nearly took Schiavone's eye out accidently with a spike.
ESPN.com: How did you become a wrestling fan?
Tony Schiavone: I started watching it in the mid-1970s when I was in Virginia. My father passed away in the summer of 1974, so it was just my mom and I. My aunt and uncle lived three doors down from us. My Uncle John loved Championship Wrestling from Florida and he got me into watching that show. He would always tell me, "One of these days I'm going to see you on TV." Sadly, he died only a month before my first appearance on television, so Uncle John never did get to see me on the air.
I then became a gigantic fan of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. I not only watched it on television but also spent a lot of money going to events. I used to sometimes say, "Hey Mom, I'm going to go out, I'll be late, don't wait up for me, go to bed." She thought I was just going to town or run around Craigsville or something -- and I would drive to Greensboro, which is three hours away, and see an event.
What was your favorite event back in the day that you saw live?
One time we went to Greensboro and they had wrestling on New Year's Day, and they had KISS on their Love Gun tour at the Greensboro Coliseum on New Year's Eve night. I think we watched the concert on a Saturday night, spent the night in town and watched wrestling the next day. That was great!
How did the job with Jim Crockett Promotions come about?
I always wanted to be a major league baseball announcer, and I got a minor league announcing job in Greensboro. A friend of mine named Bob Jamison, who was the play-by-play announcer for the Nashville Sounds, called me and said the Charlotte job is open.
I knew Frances Crockett [sister of Jim Crockett] was the general manager of the Charlotte team, so I called her for an interview in 1982. Bob had told her I was a good guy and I think you'd like him, so she hired me on the spot during that interview.
How did that lead to the wrestling gig?
Knowing that I loved wrestling, I would always tell Frances, "Let me know if your brothers ever need a wrestling announcer." She would say I will, but nothing ever really happened for a year.
Then one day, I think it was September or October of 1983, Frances called me into her office. She said, "Jimmy and David [her brothers who ran the wrestling business] want to use you as an announcer -- it's just kind of a trial thing, but they're going to use you on TV. They want you to go to Ric Flair's house and interview him for this event coming up called Starrcade." I almost flipped out. I said you've got to be kidding me.
I did the interview, and apparently Ric liked me, so he put in a positive word to Jimmy Crockett. A week later Frances called me in the office and said they want you to come down and do some interviews for them in the studio.
I started going down and doing the local interviews. They would have two positions in all of the local shows and they would customize them for every market. I would say something like, "NWA wrestling is coming to the Greensboro Coliseum with a triple main event, and let's bring in Magnum T.A." -- and he would promote his match on the local show.
In 1986, Jimmy said Frances is going to sell the baseball team and you can come to work for me full time, which was cool because I was making much more money part time in wrestling than I was working full time in baseball. That was one of the turning points of my career. The baseball love in me said stay with baseball, but the wrestling fan in me said, hell no, man, you get to do the show that Gordon Solie was doing.
Did it make for an easier transition from baseball to wrestling because the promotion was treating it like a sporting event?
Yeah, it was a really easy transition. But it was an easy transition because I loved it and understood it. Jimmy Crockett told me what you see backstage stays here and I respected that. I always remembered him telling me that, and that's why I took it seriously and always tried to call it straight. Now, of course, as we moved on, things got sillier and sillier and stupider and stupider and I fell into that trap.
If the promotion doesn't sell it as straight, it's hard for the announcer to sell it as straight, correct?
Jim Ross and I talk about this a lot. Back then our job was to sell the wrestlers as being bigger-than-life athletes. Even when they had a job match, it was up to us to sell the job guys as pretty tough guys. Fast-forward to the Nitro era and we weren't talking about the wrestlers that much. We were talking about getting fans to buy the pay-per-view. There were a lot of times we ignored the matches while doing this, so my job changed a great deal. I didn't necessarily like it, but that's the way it was, so I kind of went with it.
Would the promotions let you know in advance what was going to happen on the show? Did they give you a general idea of what was going to take place, or did they keep things hidden so that you would have a natural reaction to what occurred on the show?
I can't put a number on it, but a lot of times we knew and a lot of times we didn't. Back in the WTBS days, Dusty Rhodes was the booker, and he would tell me some things he wanted me to say or wanted me to know what was going on. J.J. Dillon, who was Dusty's right-hand man, would also tell me some things that I should know. But other than that, they wanted me to react to what I was seeing.
Did that change in the Nitro era?
It got to a point to where they tried to keep everything secret from everybody. The classic example is the famous angle where Vince Russo cursed out Hulk Hogan when Hogan apparently wouldn't do the job at Bash at the Beach. Apparently Hogan was supposed to wrestle Jeff Jarrett that night and they wanted Hogan to drop the strap to Jarrett. He didn't want to do it and he walked. Everyone backstage was worried because Hogan had left, and I was thinking that's bulls---.
Russo called me the next day and said, "I need to talk to you." Russo and I were good friends, we're still friends, and Russo said, "I'm really upset that you think that was a work. It was a shoot. Hogan is suing us." I said OK. He said, "You still don't believe me, do you?" I said no. I said, "I don't believe anything here is real." They had a lawsuit, I don't think it was ever decided on, and I still think it was all phony. So they tried to do things like that to trick me, but I didn't believe any of it.
What did you think when David Crockett took the Russian Sickle from Nikita Koloff?
They didn't tell me that was going down. David used to always get on the heels, used to always dig them a little bit, but I remember thinking he's really laying into Nikita. I was standing off stage when I heard Toby Jenkins, our director, say into our shared earpieces, "We're about three minutes into this thing," and I'm thinking, why did he say that? Then Nikita went BOOM! They did not tell me it was going to happen, but when Toby said that -- and I swear he said it about 10 seconds before Nikita hit David -- that tipped me off that something was going down. And I mean, he clobbered him.
Did they ever ask you to take any bumps?
Russo had this idea of me doing this angle where Tank Abbott was going to grab my son, John Michael, at ringside and I was going to jump on Tank and Tank was going to knock me down. Russo said Tank will just hit you with a working shot and you'll go down, and I said no way. I'll do anything you want me to do, but don't tell me you're going to have an MMA fighter give me a working punch. So we did something where Tank got in my face, but I never ended up taking a bump. I usually was the type of guy who would do anything for the company, but not there.
There was also the time when Jim Crockett Promotions had this tour out West and we went to the Forum in California. I was standing in the ring and the Road Warriors came to the ring.
Road Warrior Hawk, who was one the greatest guys of all time, one of the nicest men ever, when the lights came on he was like another person. On this night, he walked towards the corner I was standing in and stepped up onto the turnbuckle. I was pinned up between him and the corner of the ring, and one of the spikes on his shoulder pads gouged me below the eye and another spike gouged me in the forehead. That's how close it came to taking my eye out. I remember blood coming down my forehead and going down my cheek, and Hawk looked at me and said, "Are you OK?" And I said, yeah, I'm fine. And I was very proud of the moment that I had finally done a blade job in the ring. Hawk felt bad about it, so during the Road Warriors next tour of Japan he went out and got me a watch.
How did your new podcast, What Happened When, come about?
In January I was working for the Georgia Bulldogs radio network. Cabell Philpott, a producer for that network, is a big wrestling fan. He asked me one day if I had ever heard of Conrad Thompson's podcast with Bruce Prichard. I said I had not. Cabell said it is a tremendous podcast and that I should think of doing that sort of thing myself because people would love to hear the old WCW stories.
I know Conrad doesn't know Cabell, but two days later I get this long email from Conrad where he laid out this organized plan about what he wanted to do with a potential podcast. I told my wife maybe this shows it was meant to be. I called Conrad up and said, "You know what, let's give it a shot." Because I saw when I was at the Mid-Atlantic Fanfest weekend that millennials are very much into nostalgia, and why not see if they want to hear what I have to say?
We got the show started and it was gangbusters. The podcast drops every Monday. We put it on Monday because that's where Monday Nitro was. We've gotten a couple of sponsors and I'm selling some T-shirts. It worked out perfectly because my only daughter is getting married in March 2018 and the podcast is helping me get some extra money to direct towards the wedding. It all kind of fell into place for me.