By Chuck Carroll
His voice is legendary in professional wrestling circles. Whenever he spoke, you knew that World Championship Wrestling was on. And for a time, Tony Schiavone’s pipes were more widely known than Jim Ross, whom many consider to be the most well-known announcer of the modern era. But it was Schiavone who led the WCW broadcast team as the company soared to new heights while battling WWE (then WWF) for ratings supremacy. It was the Monday Night Wars — the golden era of wrestling — and Schiavone was there for it all. He was the lead announcer of Nitro when it was clobbering RAW, and he remained at the helm as ratings tumbled. After Vince McMahon swooped in and purchased the carcass of WCW for pennies on the dollar in 2001, Schiavone led the final broadcast until the bitter end. And then, nothing. The voice that became like a warm blanket to wrestling fans was gone, and the chilly silence would remain for nearly two decades.
As plans were being crafted to continue the WCW brand under new ownership, Schiavone’s services were not retained. In fact, his calls to WWE went unreturned. Had a potential ownership group led by Eric Bischoff been successful in purchasing WCW from AOL-Time Warner, he would have stayed and called the play-by-play as the fledgling franchise marched into a new era. But it wasn’t meant to be, and he was okay with that.
By the time WCW rolled into Panama City, Florida for its final broadcast, Schiavone had grown miserable in his job. The pressure and demands imposed on him had taken their toll. He knew the end was coming and had already mourned his wrestling career before he signed off for the final time. So, with grieving out of the way, sweet relief was felt as soon as the cameras went dark.
He would never stray too far from a microphone, however. A short time after WCW’s demise, Schiavone turned to sports radio in Georgia and eventually began calling balls and strikes as the play-by-plan man for the Triple A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves. Pro wrestling was in the rear view mirror, he thought for good.
But then a funny thing happened. Former WWE writer Court Bauer began to resurrect his own wrestling career by dusting off his old Major League Wrestling promotion. He spared no expense and invested heavily in production value. He wanted MLW to quickly rise to the level where only a few other wrestling promotions resided. Getting there would require Schiavone’s help.
He was already hosting the “What Happened When” weekly podcast on Bauer’s MLW Radio Network when he was approached. Bauer offered Schiavone a deal that would enable him to return to the squared circle while still handling his duties on the diamond. After some encouragement and a few kind words, he agreed to come back.
In the fall of 2017, Schiavone dusted off the microphone, shook off the rust and called his first match in more than 16 years. Shortly thereafter, MLW signed a national television deal, and it wasn’t long before Schiavone also put pen to paper and inked a three-year contract to be the show’s lead broadcaster. Now he’s heard every Friday night.
The time commitment isn’t nearly what it was when he was caravanning around the country with WCW and leading broadcasts twice and sometimes three times each week. Under the terms of his new deal, Schiavone’s commitment is only one day a month. He shows up to a studio, calls the action for a number of shows and then turns his attention back to baseball. Burning out this time doesn’t seem possible.
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I caught up with the legendary announcer just before he was set to tape a number of MLW: Fusion broadcasts. It was like a trip down memory lane while looking into the future at the same time.
There were quite a few years in between your final broadcast with WCW and now with MLW. Were you apprehensive to return to calling wrestling?
Yeah. Court [Bauer] got in touch me, and we started in October, and he said, “listen, I’d like for you to come down and call some action for us.” He said, “I don’t have much money to give you, but I wondered if you’ll consider doing it.” And he told me how much he would give me to do the first show. I said, “Well that’s kind of nostalgic because that’s what I got my first show back in 1982.”
I thought about Court and MLW and said, he and Conrad Thompson had done a lot for me by opening up the world of podcasts, and I might as well go down and try to do it. I was really apprehensive, because I didn’t think my voice could handle it based on what I used to do. It was really kind of an unknown world for me to go back and do it.
Describe the feelings you had when you sat down in that studio for the first time and got behind the microphone again? I would imagine maybe you felt like you needed to knock some rust off. But was it also like, “Wow! I’ve kind of missed this!”
I needed to knock the rust off. The first one that we did, Chuck, we didn’t do at the studio. We actually were there at the event, and we were kind of close to the action, and fans were screaming, and it was pretty exciting.
There was a lot of moves that I didn’t know, and a lot of new high-flying techniques. You know wrestling has changed a great deal since when I called it. It had started to change back at the end of WCW, when ECW came about. And now we’re seeing a lot of acrobatic, what I call high-flying stuff, and a lot more hardcore stuff then I’m used to. The old grab a head lock, and grab an arm, and twist onto it for a couple of minutes is pretty much gone.
I was apprehensive that I could actually do it and call it. But once we started getting into it, it felt okay. I was concerned about my voice, but I’ve always been that way. Back in the days of WCW, there were times that I actually did lose my voice. There was one time we were in North Carolina, and I had to go to the Duke Medical Center because we had done a Pay-Per-View in Charlotte the night before. I had no voice, and so the doctor gave me a shot of Prednisone. I was on the gas that night when I called Monday Nitro.
I was concerned about my voice being able to hold out because I’m much older. But you have to take care of it, and it ended up being a very good experience for me.
You talk about the moves having changed so much, but do you feel like you had a little bit of an advantage because we saw some of the luchadores, the Mexican influence in WCW in its later years. Guys like Rey Mysterio, Psychosis, those guys?
Yeah, that’s helped me out a lot, it really did. But I think if fans remember back at the end of WCW — and I think it was one of the reasons that we went down — there were times that I just had to completely ignore a match and promote what was coming up or promote a Pay-Per-View.
And so my actual calling of the play-by-play near the end of WCW was non-existent, I thought, compared to what I’ve gotta do today. Now I actually focus on the match, and put the guys or girls over as great athletes without having to promote ahead. Which I absolutely love. When I think about when I was a wrestling fan, back in the 70s, that’s how I fell in love with wrestling, when the announcers talked about the guys and made them seem bigger than life. And now that’s what I’m doing once again.
You talk about putting the talents over, which of them have caught your eye? I remember watching the inaugural broadcast and Austin Aries, far from a new guy, but to me he really shined. Who else on that roster has caught your eye?
Pentagon and Rey Fenix, the luchadores, are very, very good.
How impressive was that main event?
They were tremendous. The first one that I did back in October. which was an online broadcast, was Shane Strickland against Ricochet. Of course, Ricochet’s gone on to NXT. That was tremendous. We’ve been doing Maxwell Jacob Friedman’s match, and he’s a pretty good little heel. Sami Callahan can do a lot of great things, although he’s completely out of control. We’ve got the Hollywood Blondes that are … the Hollywood Blondes?! The Dirty Blondes, wow, how about that for being old? There’s a lot of old school about them that I like, and they’re just big kids trying to make a name for themselves. But those luchadores are absolutely tremendous, absolutely tremendous. ACH is good too.
Here’s what these kids do that I think is great, they actually sell. There’s a lot of high spots, but they sell and if you sell you make the other guy’s moves seem big.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about WCW, back in the NWA days even, were your studio promos. The Ric Flair ones really kind of have stood the test of time. I’ve always wondered this, was there any one promo that he was cutting where he was being so outrageous, so over-the-top that you had a hard time keeping your composure?
Yeah, the one that I remember was one that we did on the set of World Championship Wrestling back in the 80s. He was doing the angle against Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin and Precious, and he was trying to woo Precious, and he brought out a mannequin. He kissed and made love to the mannequin, while I was holding the microphone. If you go back and watch it, I think you catch me laughing.
He and I talk about that often, when I talk to him and I talk to him about how nutty he was. I say, “yeah but, I was there when you kissed a mannequin.”
I go back to some of the great things we did on World Championship Wrestling in the mid 80s and there was one where Dusty brought out a gorilla in a cage. He said, that he could team up with a gorilla and beat the Andersons at the Omni. And what he did he brought out a guy in a gorilla costume. And it was J.J. Dillon in that gorilla costume.
He said, “come over here Tony, I want you to ask the gorilla what he thinks of Ole Anderson?” And he said, “go ahead stick the microphone in there.” And I stuck the microphone in there and the Gorilla just made that motorboat noise and that was hysterical too. That was one that is gonna stand the test of time with me.
I believe recently you did an interview with The Baltimore Sun where you said that when Vince McMahon took over WCW it was one of the best days of your life. The time there was just miserable at the end. However, before all of that, Eric Bischoff was trying to put together a bid to take over the company before McMahon. Had he been successful, would you have continued on at WCW or do you think it was still time for you to hit the road?
I would’ve continued on because the money back then and the benefits were just too good. There’s no question. It’s funny because when we finally did go down, everything was so bad, and it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders.
I’ve often said, “you can’t put a price on happiness” and I really wasn’t happy. It was just too much pressure and I remember Eric used to say, “I know things get nutty here and I know there’s a lot of pressure and we drive you pretty hard, but buddy that’s why you make the big money.” I didn’t make the big money compared to the guys, but I made a very good living. But again, you can’t put a number on happiness.
The last show that we had when Vince took over we were down in Panama City, [Florida] and I got in my car and drove back to Atlanta that night and just felt great. I knew we were going down, and I knew eventually that WCW would go belly up. I didn’t know what would happen, but there was a lot of questions leading up to that moment through the months leading up to it. I had shed the tears about the business and what my life was gonna be moving forward before that moment. But when that moment came, I was really, really relaxed.
Was WWE ever an option? Were you even approached about that?
No I was not. I did contact them and they never called me back.
Now you are back in the saddle at MLW and it seems to me that the future is bright there. With MLW kind of being at its infancy now and you being at WCW during that boom, can you compare the two promotions? The feeling now at MLW versus the feeling WCW when things were still new there?
It’s really a different era. You think about the 80s, what was available to us back then compared to what’s available to wrestling fans today with the WWE network, with YouTube, with all types of outlets, and New Japan Pro Wrestling. It’s a much different world to try to make your way in, but what I like about what we’re doing is it looks good.
If you’re going to try to get out there and compete, and I’m not saying compete against Vince, but against other television shows you gotta look good. You’ve gotta have good production values, and I think that’s what MLW does. I think MLW is going to prosper because they have got people behind the scenes that know TV and know TV production. It’s a slick-looking show, and I think the future is really bright for them.
Back then, we were like the only other wrestling promotion, and we were on TBS with the bigger cable networks. We could afford to not look that good, and it’s not like that anymore.
NEWS & NOTES
Charlotte Flair will undergo surgery to repair a busted implant following WWE’s European tour, according to PWInsider’s Mike Johnson.
Chris Jericho would have taken Shane McMahon’s place at WrestleMania if the SmackDown commissioner was unable to be medically cleared in time. McMahon had been suffering from diverticulitis and a staph infection in the weeks leading up to the show. On his podcast, Jericho said Vince McMahon reached out to him personally about the possibility.
I’m told that Ring of Honor expects the HonorClub app to be ready for Apple devices and Roku “any day.” Developers have been in constant communication with the platforms to finalize the release. Beta releases for both platforms were made available weeks ago.
ROH will stream shows on this month’s UK tour live on HonorClub.
Despite Vince McMahon claiming the forthcoming reboot of the XFL will be completely independent of WWE, the company revealed that it owns a stake in the football league. The XFL will relaunch in 2020.
Chuck Carroll is a former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality who now interviews the biggest names in wrestling. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.