How Tony Schiavone’s AEW Comeback Saved His Reputation

A once reviled WCW commentator becomes a beloved figure in AEW.

I can’t think of another person in wrestling who has had the career trajectory of Tony Schiavone. Yes, wrestling has seen a million comebacks, but this is more than a comeback. Imagine working at a career for over a decade and a half and leaving at your lowest point, at a time when you’re mocked and outright hated, when some of the most beloved figures in your industry, your former coworkers, publicly took you to task. Imagine leaving that business pretty much entirely for another decade and a half.

Then imagine coming back in cold, and, within a few years, you are more beloved than you’ve ever been. That legend you were always compared to, the one whose shadow you lived in? For the first time in your career, you’re more popular than he is. Contemporaries no longer aim shots at you in tell-all books, now they tearfully tell national TV audiences how much you helped them. You’re in your 60s and you’re wearing more hats than you ever have before in an industry you once fled from, and appear to be having the time of your life doing it. Tony Schiavone is not a case of career rehab or renewal, it’s a case of reframing and reinvention.

Second or Third Best

Now, there is a misconception that Tony was always underappreciated and sneered at by wrestling’s most hardcore fans and journalists. That might make for a good story, but Tony’s is already so amazing that it doesn’t need embellishment.

If you look at the Wrestling Observer‘s annual year-end awards, you’ll find that for the first decade of his career, Tony was actually pretty well-liked. Certainly the voting base, the Observer readership, was very different than the wrestling audience as a whole, but they were a pretty good representation of wrestling’s most devout fans and industry insiders, particularly in the pre-internet years. In fact, looking back at the early years of the awards, back when Dave Meltzer included copious comments from voters, you’ll find thoughts from people like Mark Madden and Scott Hudson, both who would go on to be coworkers of Tony’s a decade later. Looking back at Tony’s performance in these awards, year by year,  I found they actually turned out to be a pretty accurate summation of his career.

Tony Schiavone Jim Ross WCW

Tony has never won the Observer‘s Best Television Announcer award, but right from the start of his career, he was liked. In 1986 and 87, Memphis legend Lance Russell won the award, Jim Ross took second, and Tony took third. A distant third, but third nonetheless. In ’88 Russell and JR flipped the one and two spots, and Tony took another third-place finish. Then, as Russell’s career started to wind down, a new slot opened for Tony. For five straight years, from ’89 to ’93, Ross won Best Announcer and Tony took a distant second. For the first eight years of his career, Tony Schiavone was voted the second or third best announcer in the world.

During this period JR and prime-era Russell were in their own tier, and then there was everyone else. Tony was seen as “The Best of the Rest.” General views on him ranged from “Decent” to “Pretty damn good.” People weren’t proclaiming him a future legend, but they weren’t relentlessly mocking him like they were with Gorilla Monsoon and Tony’s broadcast partner David Crockett (winner of three straight Worst Announcer awards. Whatever hatred voters had for David, none of it got on Tony). Schiavone was a smooth, pleasant professional. He was good with Ross, he was good with Jesse Ventura. You weren’t going to rave about him, but you were happy enough to hear him on the call.

The Mid-90s

Then, as we reached the mid-90s, something changed. From ’94 to ’96, Joey Styles won Best Announcer and bumped Ross down to second each of those three years. Tony meanwhile finished 8th, 10th, and 7th during that time frame, marking the first time in his career he wasn’t seen as one of the top three. Even a semi-retired, pushing 70 Lance Russell started beating him again.  In addition, these years also saw Tony in contention for the Worst Announcer award, something he never had been in danger of before, finishing 4th, 6th, and 8th. What happened?

I think if there is any era of Schiavone’s career that is underrated, where he gets a raw deal, it’s the mid-90s. Quality-wise, Tony had an up and down product to call then. There are some really underrated gems in those years, but there’s also a lot of bad as Hulk Hogan acted out a mid-life crisis, desperately trying to recreate the Hulkamania boom of a decade earlier. For Tony, the biggest change might have been in the booth. Ventura was out, Bobby Heenan and Dusty Rhodes were in.

Bobby and Dusty are two of the most charismatic people in the history of the business, all-time legends. Partly because of this, I feel like it’s very easy to look back at their WCW work with rose-colored glasses. Dusty and Bobby’s WCW work is also very clippable, there are all sorts of funny off-the-wall moments and calls that play great in twenty-second clips on Twitter. Watching the shows though, Tony was the guy desperately trying to hold the whole thing together.

Often Dusty was like this attention vacuum made out of charisma, so wacky that he was sucking the focus away from everything else. Heenan meanwhile was not the Heenan people remember him as. In the WWF, Heenan was one of the best color commentators of all time, the soundtrack to millions of childhoods. He was funny, sharp, engaged. Everyone accepts that by the end of WCW, Bobby was completely checked out and clearly mailing it in, Heenan himself admitted that. Everyone accepts that as completely understandable. After all, late WCW was awful, who could get excited for it?

Tony Schiavone Dusty Rhodes Bobby Heenan

The truth is a little different. Listen to Bobby’s first WCW shows in early 1994. He’s the Bobby you remember, the WWF Bobby. Now jump ahead not very long at all, to late 1995. There’s already a noticeable difference. Jump to the Hog Wild 1996 show and you will hear Heenan get progressively more drunk throughout the night, to the point that by the end of the show even Gordon Soile would’ve been like “Maybe you’ve had enough, Bobby”. After the matches, as the announce team is wrapping up the PPV, a completely sloshed Heenan starts to ramble yet again and Tony cuts him off immediately. Some may have seen that as Tony one-upping a workplace rival, but to me? He was trying to save the segment, to save Bobby. All of this was well before WCW had declined, creatively or popularity-wise — hell, they hadn’t even peaked yet.

There’s one moment I always remember that perfectly illustrates this mid-90s dynamic. It’s Starrcade 1995, a show built around a series of WCW vs. New Japan matches. Tony is trying his best to call the action, Dusty and Bobby are having fun. Dusty starts mocking Tony for calling moves like a “Mafia kick” and a “German suplex” and wants to know what the hell Tony is talking about by, you know, calling moves by their correct names. Tony says “I do my research, it’s my job!” Bobby then joins in, mockingly calling moves like a “Yugoslavian neckbreaker”. Tony laughs and you can hear him just give up. It’s a funny moment, fun in a Twitter clip, but it also illustrates how tough Tony’s job was in this era. It’s more acceptable for the color men to goof off and joke. The play-by-play guy is the voice of his promotion, it’s his job to explain the action, the angles, the characters and to sell, well, everything. How Dusty and Bobby did their job made Tony’s job harder.

The Monday Night War

Mike Tenay won Best Announcer in 1997, and JR reclaimed his throne in ’98. Tony finished 6th  and 7th in those years. As far as Worst Announcer goes, Tony finished 8th in ’97 and 2nd in ’98, threatening to win it for the first time in his career. It’s worth mentioning that it wasn’t just Tony, the entire WCW broadcast team was seen as bad in the mid-90s.  Steve McMichael won Worst Announcer in ’96, Dusty in ’97, and Lee Marshall in ’98. In years like ’96 and ’97, almost every single other WCW commentator, even Heenan, got more votes for Worst Announcer than Schiavone did. For a period, Tony was seen as one of the best of a bad bunch.

If that started to change in ’98, the transformation completed in ’99, when Tony won his first ever Worst Announcer award (Heenan finished second). Tony didn’t even place in the top ten for Best Announcer. In 2000, Tony won Worst Announcer again, and in 2001 he almost threepeated, finishing second only to Michael Cole despite the fact that he hadn’t commentated since March when Monday Nitro went off the air.

Tony Schiavone WCW Nitro

Watching the shows, it’s easy to see why Tony won the award. As the play-by-play man, he was put in the impossible position of having to put over an all-time horrible product and explain storylines and decisions that were often unexplainable (made all the more difficult by the fact that WCW sometimes kept their commentary teams completely in the dark about what was about to happen). Even the very best commentators of all time would’ve failed at that task and would’ve lost credibility in the process. There’s a lot of Pavlov’s Dog in announcing: if you watch a great product it’s hard to not start liking the people commentating it, if it’s bad it’s hard to not hate them for constantly lying to you and insulting your intelligence, even when it’s just a byproduct of their job.

But Schiavone was not blameless. Yes, he was in a horrible spot, but he fell to the level of the product. He would jump back and forth between ridiculous overhype, proclaiming “This ____ is the biggest in the history of our sport” so often that it became a meme, and coming off as checked out, resentful, and jaded as anyone in the promotion — and remember, this is late 90s WCW, so he had a lot of competition. He could be as dismissive of his partner’s nuts and bolts commentary as Dusty and Bobby once were of his. At his worst, Tony deserved those awards.

Leaving On the Worst Note Possible

If you want my personal opinion of Tony Schiavone’s first run from 1985 to 2001, it’s that he was most often a pretty good but not quite great announcer.  He was a little underrated in the mid-90s and as bad as everyone says he was in the late-90s. In wrestling we celebrate people who can “carry” people and matches to be better than they are. An amazing announcer can make a bad match seem average, a good match seem great, and a great match seem like the best you’ve ever seen. Tony couldn’t do that. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t talented. He was mortal like most of us, as good as the product would allow him to be. If the show was good, Tony was good, if the show was bad, Tony wasn’t saving it, he’d be just as bad.

But while we all tend to focus on the importance of first impressions, we sometimes forget how powerful last impressions are. When WCW died in 2001, apart from one infamous 2003 appearance in TNA, Tony Schiavone did something pretty rare in pro wrestling, he got out and stayed out. For almost 16 years he worked other gigs. He did sports radio, he called baseball games, hell, he took a job at Starbucks. That meant that the last real impression he left on the wrestling world was the worst three years of a much longer, much better career, and I’d say it unfairly tainted the whole thing.

Something else greatly harmed Tony’s reputation during these lost years, and that would be the words of his former co-workers. In 1999, Mick Foley, one of the most well-liked wrestlers of his generation, put out his first autobiography, Have A Nice Day. It’s a great book and an important one, the thing that convinced a lot of publishers and wrestlers that wrestling fans knew how to read and might be interested in paying to do so. In 2002, the year after Schiavone’s exodus from the industry, Foley’s sequel, Foley is Good, was published.

In the book Foley recounts a famous incident. Back in 1999 there were weeks Nitro was running live and Raw, going head to head, was taped. Eric Bischoff loved having his commentary spoil Raw results to try to discourage channel changing. On the night of Mick Foley’s first WWF title win, Tony was instructed to do just that and he carried out his bosses’ wishes, ending with the sarcastic, dripping with disdain line of “That’s gonna put some butts in the seats.”

With Foley’s retelling, the story was framed going forward as one of the more memorable turning points in the Monday Night Wars, a huge miscalculation that caused over 100,000 Nitro viewers to instantly switch to Raw. Tony has become so associated with the phrase “Butts in Seats” that when his biography recently came out and he wanted to title it I, Jabroni, he was pressured to change it to Butts in Seats. Imagine being so associated with one of your low points, something that according to Foley, Schiavone was remorseful for when Foley called him the next day, that you are forced to name your own book after it.

More Professional Wrestling

Foley’s success with wrestler auto-biographies spawned a million others to follow in his footsteps, and eventually, Bobby Heenan joined the fun with not one, but two books of his own. The Foley comment seems like a wedding toast compared to not only what Bobby would write, but what he’d say in interviews in the years following WCW.

Bobby portrayed Schiavone as a sniveling careerist, hiding knowledge of upcoming angles and finishes so he would have an “edge” on him and Mike Tenay. He painted him as aloof to the degree that he never invited Heenan to his home even though they lived close to each other. He tells stories of a man so insecure that he had to have his chair be higher than everyone else’s, a man so heartless he objected to Bobby paying tribute to Gorilla Monsoon on Nitro after his death. Over time, other WCW employees would echo Heenan’s thoughts. In The Death of WCW it is written that Tenay and Schiavone hated each other, and the Vince Russo-directed worked shoot between them on Schiavone’s one TNA appearance certainly plays into that. Gene Okerlund called Tony “The consummate politician”, someone who would bury people to get ahead.

In recent years Tony has defended himself in some respects, denying the chair and Monsoon stories, and he has tried to explain others, such as the accusation that he completely cut off contact with Heenan at the end of his run (Tony says he was instructed to do so for a time as Bobby had threatened a lawsuit against WCW). At the same time, he also has accepted some blame and took responsibility for the broken friendship with Heenan. But all of this came recently, for so many of those years Tony was out of the business all you heard about Tony Schiavone was coming from everyone but Schiavone, and most of it wasn’t good.

The end result is that before 2017, I’d say Schiavone was generally seen by fans as not only someone who was a worse announcer than he actually was, but as a fairly big asshole that actually didn’t even like wrestling. In writing some tweets about Tony that inspired this article, multiple fans reached out to me to recount encounters with Tony during these lost years where whenever pro wrestling was brought up, Tony reacted as if that was the last thing in the world he’d ever want to talk or think about.

What Happened When

Then in 2017, things changed. After an absence from wrestling that was about as long as his career within it, Conrad Thompson started a podcast with Schiavone, with Tony’s end goal to raise money to pay for his daughter’s wedding. Early on you can hear Thompson try to slot Tony into what has become the tried and true Conrad formula: find a legendary figure from a major promotion, ask them for the backstage stories behind the shows they worked, quote the Observer a lot so said wrestling figure can shit on it and say Dave is a liar. That formula did not fit Tony, he was unable or unwilling to dish or offer great insight into his career.

What Tony was able to do was show a side no fan had seen of him. He was loose, vulgar, funny. He was miles removed from the straightlaced announcer trying to keep Bobby and Dusty in check, and from the uptight insecure loner he had been painted as for the previous 16 years. Soon the show became just watch alongs, fun hangouts with a guy who wasn’t taking anything too seriously.

Before 2017 was over, Tony would be back in the announce booth, calling the relaunched MLW. To most of us it came off as just another nostalgia play, and it probably was, but Schiavone made it more. He took it seriously, but also had a looseness that was missing from him before. There was also just something fun about this figure from another era walking in, seeing what wrestling was now, and actually having fun with it rather than Cornette-ing it. How often do you get to witness a fan of something who completely drops off of it for a generation come back and rediscover it?

All Elite

Despite this resurgence, it still seemed kind of crazy when AEW hired Schiavone. It was all fun and games to listen to him joke about Klondike Bill on a podcast, or call a smaller fed, but this was the biggest promotion to launch since WCW. Tony Schiavone, really? In a three man booth? In 2019?

Not only did it work, I’d argue Tony is the most popular member of AEW’s broadcast team. He’s certainly their most important. He not only announces AEW’s weekly A-show and their PPVs, he conducts interviews and he co-hosts their podcast. His interplay with Britt Baker was a big part of what turned her from a failed babyface to one of the bigger stars in the promotion. At the age of 64, Tony Schiavone is more popular than he’s ever been, and ironically, for the first time in his career, he has eclipsed Jim Ross, who sits beside him every Wednesday.

The amazing thing is what had been Tony’s biggest weakness, his sincerity, is now his biggest strength. Freed in a three-man booth from doing play-by-play or color, he is now your cool uncle who can’t believe what wrestling has become, and he’s so jazzed about it. He’s amazed by the modern pace of crazy highspot matches, amused by the crazy move names Excalibur spits out, and when an old contemporary like Sting or William Regal shows up, it’s Tony who is the one welcoming them to join the fun. He comes off as warm, he comes off as if he’s having a great time. What Schiavone brings to AEW’s commentary team is enthusiasm.

Role Reversal

He stands in stark contrast to the man sitting next to him, who in so many ways has become his polar opposite. Tony left the industry for a long time, Jim Ross never did. Unlike Tony, there has never been a doubt that JR loves his job, which is why through family tragedy, humiliating treatment from his bosses, and a recent bout of cancer, he has always fought to commentate, to do the job and never stop. But what 2021 Tony has in spades is what 2021 Jim Ross is missing: a palpable sense that he loves what he is watching. Today’s Jim Ross clearly does not love a significant portion of modern wrestling. It’s become too fast for him to follow, it’s full of stories and figures he doesn’t relate to. There are fewer former failed NFLers with college pedigrees and there are more Orange Cassidy’s.

Tony Schiavone Jim Ross Excalibur AEW

I don’t think JR dislikes all of what AEW and modern wrestling offers, but more often than not today’s Jim is just as likely to get caught up on the ref not sorting out the legal men than getting pumped about a big exchange of moves. I look at Jim Ross and see a legend trying to cling to ever disappearing strands of the kind of wrestling he loved, of the job he loves. I look at Tony Schiavone and see a guy who left his past career and all its baggage behind and is having so much more fun for it.

Maybe Tony Schiavone was a jerk. Maybe he secretly still is. Or maybe he never was. Or maybe he was and has matured in this second shot. Maybe Tony has very little passion for wrestling. Maybe he never did. Maybe he always would’ve preferred calling Gwinnett Braves games and maybe he still does. Maybe he’s just really good at faking a love for wrestling and has found a way into a revitalized career. Or maybe he has rediscovered a passion for something that he lost a long time ago.

The nice thing is that as a fan, none of that matters. What matters is when you’re sitting at home, watching the shows, listening to the podcasts, it feels like Tony is having fun, and much like pro wrestling, if it’s fun, it doesn’t matter if it’s fake. Either way, Tony has earned this second run.

In the recently released 2021 Wrestling Observer awards Tony was back in that familiar 3 spot in the Best Announcer voting. As for Jim Ross?

He finished 9th.