Photo: Howard Kernats

As soon as Ian Riccaboni spoke, a person could just tell he was someone that absolutely loves and respects the professional wrestling industry. From the energy and passion in his voice to his detailed analysis of the different personalities that have passed through Ring Of Honor, Riccaboni is a true student of the game and one of the best commentators on the scene today.

In an exclusive interview with Still Real To Us, Riccaboni explained his humble beginnings as a kid who just wanted to live out a dream.

Before discussing his own road to broadcasting stardom, Riccaboni had some fun Bobby Heenan memories that he wanted to share with wrestling fans. The legendary commentator passed away on September 17, 2017 after a long battle with throat cancer. “Bobby Heenan was someone, as I got older, admired. He was one of the main reasons I became a professional wrestling broadcaster. I remember when I picked up a specific WWF Magazine. It was the 1991, July edition. It had Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts on the cover. I remember thumbing through it,” he recalled.

Riccaboni paused before continuing, “I was four years old and liked to look at the pictures. On the first couple of pages, there was a picture of Bobby Heenan. There was also a phrase, ‘Broadcast Journalist.’ I had no idea what that meant. I went up to my mom and said, ‘Hey mom!  What does this mean?’ I could read smaller words but nothing like that yet.” Riccaboni’s mother was more than happy to explain the job title to her son. Riccaboni continued his story. “She said, ‘That just means someone who talks on television. It is someone who is a commentator.’ From that moment, I said to myself, ‘Well, I want to be the guy who goes on T.V. and puts Bobby Heenan in his place. I want to be the guy that stands up for The Rockers, Legion of Doom, Texas Tornado, Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior!'”

Riccaboni told Still Real To Us that he wasn’t the only one in the industry that felt that way. He smiled, “Indirectly, Bobby Heenan inspired a lot of us to be in professional wrestling in one form or the other. If you look back, he is intertwined in Ring Of Honor’s rich history. He was on Colt Cabana’s ‘Good Times, Great Memories.’ He bestowed CM Punk with the championship and wore a Boston Red Sox jersey, very memorably.” There is no question that “The Brain” left his mark in professional wrestling. “He is certainly someone who can be considered one of the greatest managers of all time. He is also arguably one of the greatest commentators of all time. If you listen to folks who have seen him and watched him in his prime–he was also one of the best wrestlers of all time,” Riccaboni nodded. He followed up, “He was very accomplished in the ring before he made the full-time switch to managing. He could do it all. I hope Bobby Heenan rests in peace. Wrestling lost a great one.”

After giving Heenan his much deserved props, Riccaboni explained some of the best advice that he received which would ultimately change the course of his life. “I had a chance meeting with Colin Jost, who was the youngest lead writer in Saturday Night Live history. He said to me, ‘If you’re ever offered an opportunity to do something unusual or something you think where there is a minuscule chance you might enjoy–do it. Don’t say no. Go for it!’ It didn’t matter that I wasn’t being paid for a lot of things I was doing for a period of time.” Riccaboni noted that his vision to see his dream through played a factor in sacrificing money at the time. “I found ways to make a career in other avenues so I could afford to take chances and cover different events for Phillies Nation. A lot of those times was just me trying to create content, a name and a style. I was finding my voice. I think the important part is to establish an education and finding a good place to go to school which can provide you with good opportunities.” The broadcast journalist then listed a few locations as starting points. “Maybe New York City, Los Angeles or Miami where there is a heavy media presence. I knew I wanted to be a professional wrestling broadcaster. From there, I wanted to have some kind of back-up plan. I kind of resented that at the time. A few guidance counselors in high school told me to get an education and consider something else because I might not make it,” he sighed. Riccaboni was caught in an academic dilemma as he got different opinions from both sides. He stated, “It hurt me at the time because I was a seventeen year old kid. I also had teachers who told me, ‘You will never know if you don’t go for it. If you go and get an education, you will have something to fall back on and you can still have a career. At least you can say that you tried to do it.’ I wanted to make sure I had my education first. From there, I started to take some chances.”

One chance paid off almost immediately. It turned out to be too good to be true for the newly enrolled New York University student. “During my first week at NYU, I answered a casting call for an MTV special hosted by TRL’s Gideon Yago with guest Bill Gates. I was cast in it! My first week at college, woo-hoo. I thought, ‘Oh yeah, this is going to be easy. No problem. My first week here and I have it all squared away.’ Of course, there was a five year drought after that,” Riccaboni laughed. He continued, “It wasn’t for a lack of trying either.”

The big gap didn’t stop Riccaboni from going after what he wanted. The ROH commentator told Still Real To Us, “One of my friends from high school worked for big companies in different production roles wanted to take his own shot too. We started a public access show in Allentown, PA where I grew up. We made some contacts. I started writing for Phillies Nation. From there, one of our guys started creating video blogs and they were good quality.” The hustling started to pay off for the hardworking visionaries. Riccaboni continued, “We had discussions with the contacts I made. We got Phillies Nation TV on public access. From there, it became a cable television show. Through that, I started interviewing famous Phillies fans. I met The Blue Meanie and went to The Monster Factory. All of the sudden, I’m calling professional wrestling matches.”

Riccaboni finally got the opportunity he was looking for. He was confident that other people could have similar success if they stuck to their guns. “In less than a year later, I was calling Ring of Honor matches. It was a wild ride. Looking back, the best advice I got was ‘Don’t say no.’ If it sounds interesting, won’t cost you a whole lot, and not wasting valuable time with your family, go for it. Those were things that I did and I took a couple of chances on myself even beyond education,” he smiled.

It wasn’t all just luck. The sportscaster always showed up ready to work. That impressed a number of talented wrestlers who found fame and fortune inside World Wrestling Entertainment’s squared circle. He elaborated, “I was persistent in wanting to learn every aspect of professional wrestling. There were times where I would go to the Monster Factory where there were just seminars. Cliff Compton would come in. D’lo Brown would come in. The Headbangers. All of our notable alumni seemed to come through when I was there. I was learning from these folks who have been to the pinnacle of professional wrestling.”

It was a veteran trainer that took note of Riccaboni’s persistence in developing his craft. Riccaboni said, “‘Brutal’ Bob Evans came in during February of 2014. He said, ‘Oh. I should introduce you to my friend Kevin.’ I thought, ‘Hm, Kevin who? I don’t know a Kevin. But okay, cool!’ Over the next couple of months, I kept in touch with Bob over small talk. We developed a friendship.” The young broadcaster took his work seriously. He knew if he wanted to make it, he would have to put in a great deal of effort to earn the respect of his peers. “These seminars always said they were for professional wrestlers. I didn’t take that as I couldn’t attend. I was working there with Dan and explained to him I was interested in learning everything inside-out,” Riccaboni told Still Real To Us. He continued, “For me, it was really critical to be there and absorb this knowledge. It was about owning the fact that if I was going to be a professional wrestling announcer, I wanted to know everything that I could.”

Former WWE announcer Kevin Kelly also came through the Monster Factory’s doors. Evans’ connection was looking for the next wave of talent to feature in Ring of Honor. It was judgement day for Riccaboni. “When Kevin came, I knew all the wrestlers were wearing their gear because Kevin, at the time, was the decision maker for Ring of Honor and had influence over who would come to ROH as a wrestler. I thought, ‘Well, that’s true for the wrestlers so why wouldn’t that be true for the commentators?’ I wore my suit and came to the seminar,” Riccaboni said. “I remember him talking about the art of speaking, the art of selling tickets and the art of the promotional interview. He had all the wrestlers go through it. He finally pointed to me and said, ‘Guy in the suit! Stand up and sell me some tickets,'” Riccaboni gulped.

It truly was Riccaboni’s time to shine. It was now or never.

Riccaboni recalled, “So, I stood up and I had sixty seconds. From there, I ran down the night’s events and hit sixty seconds right on the dot. Then, I breathed because I don’t think I breathed the entire sixty seconds,” The Monster Factory trainee laughed. He continued, “Kevin said, ‘Okay. I want to see you do that again’ and gave me a couple of things to tweak. I went at it, tweaked them, and hit sixty seconds again. He said, ‘Okay, great job. Have a seat.’ Throughout the day, he would have me do different things. He really coached me.” The former WWE announcer hinted to Riccaboni that a potential opportunity might one day come his way. “At the end of it, he pulled me aside and told me, ‘If you’re interested in pursuing this, you have my blessing to attend ROH events backstage. Bring something nice. I can’t promise that we will use you but if there’s an opportunity, you want to be prepared and ready. Don’t give us any reason why we can’t use you,'” Riccaboni shared with Still Real To Us.

Photo: Lee South

“The key was always being ready and always imagining the best case scenario for every event. Being ready if the best case scenario happens,” Riccaboni nodded. “I first started out with my goal being to call one Ring of Honor match. That started on January 3rd, 2015. I drove myself, my wife and my dog to Nashville. We went down with no promises guaranteed. I helped out with ring crew as I had been doing the last couple of months. I pressed my suit. I pressed my shirt. I didn’t know what was going to happen,” the commentator stated. He continued, “An hour before the event was supposed to start, Kevin walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, we are going to have you call the dark match tonight involving Cheeseburger.’ You never know when that moment is going to come. To be honest, we’ve been having a couple of those moments lately in Ring of Honor.”

The popular wrestling promotion recently made some changes to its programming. Riccaboni told Still Real To Us, “You can look at myself and Rico DeLaVega calling a couple of the television episodes because of travel delays. Some wrestlers got opportunities because of the same thing. You just always have to be ready and be prepared. For me, it was about visualizing the best potential outcome and being prepared to execute it should that occur.”

One wrestler who always comes ready to work is Jay Lethal. As one of the most important assets to Ring of Honor’s roster, Riccaboni acknowledged what he means to the company. “Whenever I see Jay Lethal, I call him ‘The Franchise.’ At my very first television taping as the lead announcer, I called him ‘The Franchise of Ring of Honor’ because that’s how I see him. He’s ROH through and through. He is the guy that always gives you all of his effort and energy. He is a student of the game.” Being there from the very beginning, Lethal has seen a lot of guys come and go. Despite the craziness of the wrestling business, he never lost his roots in the industry. Riccaboni explained, “He is somebody that knows not only who he is, but he also knows who has come before him and respects that history as well. Jay Lethal is an incredible athlete that I think doesn’t get enough due. He’s a guy for over two years was either Ring of Honor World Champion and or Television Champion. He’s also very good at 80s music trivia,” he busted out into laughter.

Lethal isn’t the only one getting Ring of Honor attention from the fans. Bullet Club member and Ring Of Honor World Champion Cody has been making headlines around the clock. Riccaboni isn’t surprised why people are drawn to the popular athlete. “When I look at Jay Lethal, I think of the word, ‘Franchise.’ When I look at Cody, I think, ‘Champion.’ Everything about him. The way he walks. The way he talks. The way he dresses. The way he carries himself. He and guys like Bully Ray, The Hardy Boys and some of the top talent around the world, veteran and up and coming proves that Ring of Honor is the destination for professional wrestling,” Riccaboni said. He continued, “Those guys validate that thought. For me, Cody, as our World Champion, speaks volumes as to where Ring of Honor is right now. He is just at the top of his game. He is really challenging himself. He is someone who just defines the word, ‘Champion.'”

As for future World Champions in Ring of Honor, the charismatic announcer said to keep an eye on a long lineup of talent that ROH is currently featuring. “For me, I think the list begins and ends with ‘Punishment’ Martinez. I think he is a guy who is 6’7″ and one of the most agile wrestlers in Ring of Honor. One of the strongest. One of the quickest. I would put him at the top of the list,” Riccaboni said. He isn’t the only one to watch. “I would also look at guys like Kenny King and The Kingdom–who are some of the most unsung talent. That’s not including guys like Marty Scurll who gets his due but I think can be an international megastar. We are also getting the cream of the crop of the young stars that are out there.”

Besides the male competitors delivering amazing in-ring action for ROH, the Women of Honor are changing the wrestling business for the better. They made recent history for the company by competing live for the first time during the promotion’s co-produced Global Wars 2017 tour.

Riccaboni has a soft spot in his heart for ROH’s female division. Riccaboni proudly stated, “Women of Honor has been a great thing for us. It helped me get my feet wet and cut my teeth in Ring of Honor. I was very fortunate to call the very first Women of Honor match at Baltimore back in July of 2015. I’ve called every Women of Honor match but one. I’ve been a part of it since the relaunch.”

Before Riccaboni had to catch a flight, he hinted that wrestling fans should be excited for the future of Women of Honor. “We have a number of great athletes. It is a great atmosphere. A lot of folks are asking, ‘Will there be a Championship?’ I would say to them, ‘Not if. Rather when.’ The viewership proves that it is something that fans like and enjoy regularly. It’s been great to see the expansion of the Women of Honor,” Riccaboni stated.

You can follow Ian Riccaboni on Twitter.  You can also keep up with Ring of Honor by clicking HERE.