(WFXR)– Tony Schiavone’s announcing career in professional wrestling got its start as a fan in the mid-1970s in Augusta County.
He watched his first match as a teenager when he stopped at his uncle’s house for a break from his job bagging groceries at the IGA in tiny Craigsville.
“I’d stop in to see Uncle John and we would have lunch. We watched Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling and that’s where my interest started, watching it on tv back in the mid-’70s,” Schiavone said.
He became such a fan, he and his friends would frequently hit the road to see live events in Richmond, Greensboro, and Roanoke.
Schiavone said, “I don’t think I missed an event at Roanoke from probably like 1975 through 1980. I remember Blackjack Mulligan. I remember the Anderson Brothers, Wahoo McDaniel, Ric Flair. We always tried to get our seats ringside. We just liked to be right at the edge where we could boo the bad guys when they would come out.”
A big sports fan, Schiavone set his sights on becoming a baseball announcer.
Shortly after graduating from James Madison University, he landed a job calling baseball for the Charlotte minor league team owned by the Crockett family, which also owned Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling.
Schiavone said he constantly lobbied the general manager of the baseball team, Francis Crockett, to let him work in her family’s wrestling promotion. “I would go to Francis periodically and I would say, ‘hey, you guys ever need a wrestling announcer? You know, I love wrestling and I used to stand in front of a mirror with a brush, pretending it was a microphone.’ I’d pretend I was interviewing guys.”
In October of 1983, the Crocketts finally gave him his big break.
“She said we need you to go to Ric Flair’s house and do an interview,” Schiavone said. “They need an announcer and I just [said] ‘Wow!’ So I went to Ric Flair’s house, did an interview. Ric liked my work and told the Crocketts, they could probably start using me.”
Shortly after that, destiny struck again when promoter David Crockett pulled Schiavone out of the stands at a wrestling event when the regular ring announcer failed to show.
It was that night he learned part-time wrestling announcing paid better than full-time radio work.
Schiavone said, “When it was all over, they gave me a $100 bill and I took it back to Lois (his wife) and we looked at that $100 bill. I remember thinking at that time, ‘man, we could make some money in this business.’”
His growing responsibilities for the Crocketts eventually led to him doing play-by-play announcing for their program, World Championship Wrestling.
The 6:05 p.m. Saturday night time slot was one of TBS’ highest-rated shows for years.
During that time, he went to work every week with the biggest names in pro wrestling including Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard, and Jimmy Valiant.
Even after the Crocketts sold the promotion to Ted Turner, Schiavone remained a fixture in pro wrestling.
During the 1990s, “sports entertainment” was hotter than ever as Hulk Hogan jumped ship to WCW.
For years, the promotion’s show “Nitro” dominated the cable ratings.
But all good things come to an end. Fans lost interest and WCW lost tens of millions of dollars.
In 2002, the network canceled all WCW’s shows.
That’s when World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) owner Vince McMahon bought the promotion for pennies on the dollar.
Few wrestlers moved to the WWE, but McMahon’s plans did not include Schiavone.
For the first time since he was a teenager, Tony was out of the business.
“When WCW went down,” said Schiavone, “it was not a good time for us because our finances changed and for 18 years, I did everything I could to keep this house afloat.”
He went to work for WSB radio announcing games for the Georgia Bulldogs and the Atlanta Braves AAA team.
But in 2015, cutbacks lead the station to let him go.
In an effort to keep health insurance, Schiavone took a part-time job as a Starbucks barista.
For the next 12 years, the former announcer refused even to watch wrestling. That changed when an Alabama mortgage broker and big wrestling fan, Conrad Thompson called him.
Thompson is also Ric Flair’s son-in-law and he was starting to build his reputation as a podcaster.
“So Conrad got in touch with me in 2017 and said, hey, do you want to do a wrestling podcast?”
At first, Schiavone didn’t want anything to do with wrestling again. But his daughter was getting married and his wife thought it would be a good way to pay for the reception.
“So I kind of said ‘I don’t think I’m going to do it.’ And Lois said, ‘Laurie’s getting married. We got to pay for the wedding.’ I said yes. Not only did it help pay for the wedding, it paid for the wedding because Conrad has a business plan. We have sponsors. We sell merchandise. We are in our fifth season.”
Their “What Happened When” podcast took off and Schiavone’s renewed visibility caught the eye of billionaire Tony Kahn, who is co-owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was launching a national cable show, All Elite Wrestling and he returned Schiavone to weekly television.
Schivone’s life has had as many twists and turns as a wrestling pay-per-view, and now it is finding its way to bookshelves.
A life-long comic book fan, he is telling his story in a new graphic novel called “Butts In Seats.”
When he launched a Kickstarter fundraiser to help pay for it, he didn’t think many people would be interested. Schiavone remembered, “We were hoping that our Kickstarter would get $20,000. It raised over $130,000.”
The ten-chapter book was written by Dirk Manning and drawn by 26 artists.
“Butts in Seats” goes on sale in stores and online by the end of November.
With a successful television show and podcast and now a new graphic novel, Schiavone says he is very pleased with his rejuvenated career.
“I couldn’t be any more excited than I am right now about the way my life has turned around,” Schiavone said. “I don’t like to use the word blessed, because everybody uses the word blessed. But I am blessed. I really am. I’m very fortunate.”
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