When former WWE ring announcer Justin Roberts started writing his new book, Best Seat in the House, he had no idea what part of his autobiography would end up getting attention and coverage from wrestling fans. After all, the Instagram teaser post he put up in November is almost unwaveringly positive, even if it does hint at some potential issues beneath the surface. “There were so many ups, but also so many downs, and this title is the backstage pass for those who have always wondered what it would be like as a wrestling fan to actually get to work at the Disneyland of wrestling,” he wrote. “With no hopes or interest to return to WWE and unlike those who write books while still in a relationship with the company, Justin is very honest in sharing his story.”
The book is, taken as a whole, positive and uplifting—but it was released as a recurring character, WWE announcer/former wrestler/sometimes Fox News pundit John “Bradshaw” Layfield (“JBL”) has come under increased scrutiny for his reputation as a bully. Specifically, when Mauro Ranallo, his play-by-play announcer on SmackDown Live, recently won the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s “best announcer” award, he tweeted about it. Layfield, apparently seeing this as a personal affront of some kind, tore into Ranallo on Bring it to the Table, WWE’s hot-take show. Ranallo, who has been open about his struggles with bipolar disorder, has been off TV for the last several weeks, and it’s clearly a tense situation. Naturally, with this being a major story in the wrestling business, there has been a widespread focus on the abuse Roberts alleges he suffered at the hands of Layfield, among others.
“It’s honestly something I didn’t even think about,” Roberts told Deadspin when asked if he expected this reaction. “It happened in, like, 2003. The point of the book is to tell my story, and overall, it’s a positive story, but obviously, it includes negative elements. In order to tell my story, I had to tell my story honestly, so you could see what I went through.” Part of his surprise at others’ surprise was because this wasn’t really new—Layfield’s reputation was known, and some of the stories had been told by others in “shoot interview” DVDs. But seeing the stories on the page as bullying became a hot topic and at the time of year when there’s more attention on WWE than any other made a difference.
Backstage tales of Layfield’s hazing and bullying have long been legion among hardcore wrestling fans. At one point, even WWE wasn’t shy about it: One infamous story comes from Adam “Edge” Copeland in his WWE-published memoir. When Copeland first started with the promotion, he was taking a shower when Layfield, wearing his cowboy hat no less, entered the stall and began, Copeland wrote, “soaping my ass.” In a parenthetical, he makes sure to note that “there was no insertion and no disappearing knuckles, if ya know what I mean.”
One story Roberts tells stands out in particular: The time when his passport “disappeared” on a European tour. “They took my passport out of my bag, I got to the airport in Manchester, and I couldn’t get on the plane to go home,” he recalled. “I had to fly to London and go to the U.S. embassy to get a new passport. Once I got a new passport, I took the train to the airport, and eventually got a flight back. I travelled from London to Boston, Boston to Phoenix, then drove to Phoenix to Tuscon for TV for SmackDown.”
On Friday morning, Layfield addressed the increasingly angry fan response to the bullying stories. Curiously, even though Roberts has not named anyone in conjunction with the passport theft, as he doesn’t know who stole it, that was the story Layfield singled out when tweeting a denial:
Note the phrasing and invocation of this specific story: “I didn’t take Justin Roberts passport.” There is, perhaps, a reason for that.
“JBL asked me and my partner to steal [Justin’s] passport, and we didn’t,” John Hennigan (Lucha Underground champion Johnny Mundo) told Deadspin. At the time of the incident, he worked for the WWF as Johnny Nitro, teaming with current WWE producer Joey Mercury as “MNM.” “JBL was one of the main event guys at the time,” he recalled, “and I don’t remember exactly what Justin Roberts did to become the target for the hazing of this specific oversea trip, but JBL asked me and Joey to snag Justin’s passport.”
Under the circumstances, they had to think it over.
“I remember it ‘being a thing,’ you know? We were looking at Justin, he was a few rows ahead of us on this plane, sleeping. We were like, ‘What do we do?’” MNM had become a target of Layfield’s, as well, and they realized that if they went along with the abuse, which JBL presented to them as being a great prank, there was at least a decent chance that they would be left alone. Some of the abuse they endured included having the sleeves being cut off their ring robes—not only doing property damage, but getting them in trouble for not having the robes. “It’s enticing,” he said of going along with the plan.
“Ultimately, we considered the options, and wound up deciding to not do it,” he explained. “This is a weird thing for a wrestler to say, especially in that era, but I usually went by the golden rule. I wouldn’t have appreciated someone doing that to me, especially someone I considered a peer.” Johnny described how he ended up having to deal with Layfield’s torment on and off for several years, eventually being left alone after he had enough and shoved the larger wrestler. It wasn’t just about hitting his breaking point, though: In 2009, when this happened, Johnny (then working under the name John Morrison) was being used as one of the top wrestlers on the company’s SmackDown show. He knew he wouldn’t get in trouble for fighting back.
As for Roberts, though, there was a moment in Tuscon, right after he returned to the States from the passport mess, where it became clear to him that what he was going through was a lot bigger than John Layfield. “I was sitting in the production meeting, Vince [McMahon] is running the meeting, and when it ends, he’s the first to leave,” Roberts recalled. “I was sitting there, and as he walked by me, he just whispered to me: ‘Don’t forget your passport! Ha-haa!’ and walked away. That’s when I knew there was no sympathy in that company. This stuff is encouraged.” To wit, in this week’s edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, editor Dave Meltzer notes that “everyone knows how tight Layfield is with Vince McMahon” and “the belief across-the-board is Layfield’s weeding out those who can’t take it comes from above.”
“They like humiliating people. They like laughing at people,” concludes Roberts. “The way wrestling is entertainment to us wrestling fans, humiliating people was just entertainment to the bosses.”
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.