In the span of just a few years, Ian Riccaboni has gone from setting up the ring to lead play-by-play announcer for Ring of Honor (ROH Photo/Andrea Kellaway)
When Ian Riccaboni was getting set to call Ring Of Honor’s Death Before Dishonor pay-per-view card Friday night from Las Vegas, he had three women to thank for his rise to one of the most highly coveted seats in all of professional wrestling.
His mom, Shelly, who worked as a McDonald’s manager to help pay the bills and afford some other things like tickets to wrestling shows that came through their hometown of Allentown, PA.
His wife, Sarah, who holds down the fort at home with their infant son, Zach, when Ring of Honor is on the road and Ian needs to be there calling the action.
And of course, Lady Gaga.
But to understand exactly how the pop superstar fits into the narrative, you’ve got to go back to Riccaboni’s childhood in Allentown in the 1990s.
Started From the Bottom
“I was born in a trailer park and it was one of those things where that’s really kind of a source of pride for me because I was able to see really quickly early on in my life that you can change your situation through hard work,” said Riccaboni.
His mother worked all kinds of different shifts managing a local McDonald’s that allowed her time with Ian and her two other children and also improved the family’s financial situation. Her salary, combined with what her husband made working with Bethlehem Steel, meant that the trailer Riccaboni called home as a youngster, wasn’t permanent.
That didn’t mean the family left Allentown though. Not at all. Riccaboni stayed there, working his way through the same school system that his father had. Located about an hour outside of Philadelphia, Allentown is a blue collar town in the heart of Lehigh Valley that also holds an important place in wrestling history.
“It’s where Hulk Hogan returned to the WWF to save Bob Backlund from the Wild Samoans and it’s where the Wild Samoans had their training center for quite some time. So growing up in Allentown you were always surrounded by professional wrestling,” said Riccaboni. In fact, Riccaboni remembers his mom coming home from her shifts and regaling him in stories about some of the wrestlers who came through the drive-through that day.
Because of Allentown’s proximity to Philadelphia and New York City, Riccaboni always had a full selection of televised wrestling to choose from.
“We had just about every WWF TV show available, whether it was Superstars, Challenge, Wrestling Spotlight, All-American Wrestling, you could watch them all in prime time and you could also get the NWA because we had WPIX channel that would come in from New York, so we’d get the NWA and WCW as well,” said Riccaboni. “I think the reason I’m so into professional wrestling and it’s something that I pursued and became a broadcaster in was because I grew up in Allentown and not only could you watch just about every form of professional wrestling, including the big organizations, but a lot of the little ones too.”
Riccaboni’s parents didn’t just tolerate their son’s growing obsession with pro wrestling. In many ways they encouraged it. Magazine subscriptions, a growing collection of wrestling figures, or a trip to the local video store to rent a tape or two were all part of his childhood. So were tickets to live events.
While WWF was the big draw in Allentown, WCW also started coming around and then another Pennsylvania-based promotion eventually made their way to Ag Hall to put a show. Extreme Championship Wrestling. Riccaboni had followed ECW via the magazines he bought and some TV stuff, but the opportunity to see it live had the youngster drooling with excitement. He kept asking his mom for tickets and she kept turning him down. Of course, mom being mom, she already had tickets but wanted to see him sweat it out.
The day of the show, some of her co-workers were telling her that ECW was a bit different. It was blood, violent and well, real. Riccaboni and his mom got the arena just before the first match started.
“I know Blue Meanie fought the Sandman and that’s about the last thing we saw because it was pretty violent for my mom’s taste,” said Riccaboni. Still, looking back now at his childhood and where it lead him, Riccaboni knows his hometown had a massive impact on the path his career ending up taking.
“So it was really a cool place to be to grow up a wrestling stand. You know especially with supportive parents who were were into my hobbies, better yet obsession with professional wrestling,” said Riccaboni.
Thanks to the mentorship of the man he replaced, Kevin Kelly, Ian Riccaboni felt more than prepared for the play-by-play job when it was offered to him.
If You Can Make it Here
It might sound like all Riccaboni cared about growing up was watching wrestling, either live or on TV, but that’s doing the former trailer park baby a massive disservice. Following the example laid out for him by his parents, and later his brother and sister, the youngest Riccaboni worked hard in school to get good enough grades so that he’d have plenty of college options when he graduated.
Having grown up listening to Hall of Fame baseball play-by-play announcer Harry Kalas call Phillies games, Riccaboni was keen on pursuing a career in broadcasting, either in baseball or wrestling. Walking into his guidance counselor’s office, Riccaboni was hoping to put forward a plan to make that career goal happen. He heard some chuckles, but he also found some support and one of his teachers told him if you want to do this properly, you’ve got to go to New York.
That’s how Riccaboni ended up at New York University. He’d applied other places. Syracuse. St. Johns. Ithaca. Elizabethtown College. He made a couple of visits to NYU and knew that’s where he needed to be. It felt right.
Not long after arriving on campus, Riccaboni was being cast by MTV and had other opportunities open up for him. That bred confidence in Riccaboni, if not a little bit too much.
“I started to have some early success and so I thought, ‘Wow, this might be a little easier than everybody said it would be.’,” said Riccaboni. “And then the well dried up for about four years.”
Undeterred, Riccaboni finished his Bachelor’s Degree in Media and Communications all the while making as many connections as he could, hoping that one of them might one day pay off for him.
And this is where Lady Gaga (sort of) entered the picture.
“There’s a guy who I went to school with named Frankie Fredericks, and he had been promoting music and had been in Steinhardt, the NYU School of Communication. He had been promoting these little shows on the Lower East Side,” said Riccaboni.
Fredericks knew that Riccaboni played harmonica and had done some other shows and one day invited him to come out and play some songs as part of a show he was promoting.
“It was just a weird day or something and I didn’t really feel like doing it,” said Riccaboni. “He said, ‘Okay, well my friend Stefani is going to be there.”
Stefani, Riccaboni would figure out years later, was Stefani Germanotta, aka Lady Gaga.
“I missed an opportunity to open up for Lady Gaga,” said Riccaboni, who admits to wondering what would have happened had he played that show that night. Maybe he’s a world famous musician now and the Ring of Honor path would have gone to somebody else.
Four years after finishing at NYU, and feeling like his chances of making a career out of TV were fading a little bit, he met Colin Jost, one of Saturday Night Live’s youngest lead writers ever and instead of asking for a selfie, he sought advice.
“He told me, ‘Don’t say no to anything’ and I thought that’s interesting. And he also said ‘Don’t be afraid to ask anything,’,” said Riccaboni. The then 26-year-old took that to heart. He had been part of PhilliesNation.com, a blog covering Riccaboni’s favorite MLB team, the Philadelphia Phillies. The site was about to get a cable show and Riccaboni figured this might be an opportunity for him to expand his profile.
He asked to do a segment for their weekly show that would have him talking to well-known or even famous Phillies fans and asking about their love for the team, favorite players or memories. The producers gave it to him. The folks he interviewed in the first few were local personalities, TV hosts and the like. Then inspiration struck.
“I thought oh wouldn’t that be cool if we interviewed the Blue Meanie? He’s from Philadelphia, lives in Philadelphia, seems pretty accessible,” said Riccaboni. “I saw him interacting with fans on Twitter and Facebook and I thought ‘You know I’m just going to reach out to him and see if he’s if he’s interested’.”
A Man Among Monsters
Rather than doing another man-on-the-street-type interview, Meanie suggested they head down to the Monster Factory in nearby Paulsboro, New Jersey. The Monster Factory is the wrestling school that has turned out some wrestlers Riccaboni grew up watching including Bam Bam Bigelow, King Kong Bundy, Raven and the Headbangers. Riccaboni was all for it and it wasn’t long after pulling up to the facility that Riccaboni’s broadcasting career took a giant step forward.
After wrapping the interview with Meanie, Riccaboni and Danny Cage, co-owner of the Monster Factory, exchanged cards. A few weeks later, Riccaboni drummed up the nerve to call Cage.
“I said, ‘hey, if my friend wanted to be a pro wrestling announcer and had some ideas on how he might be able to help out the Monster Factory, how would my friend get involved?’,” said Riccaboni. Cage knew what was up and played along. “He said, ‘Well, your friend should show up and learn how to set up and break down the ring and your friend should come to the events in a suit.”
The kid in the suit kept hanging around the Monster Factory and Cage was more than happy to let him attend seminars. After one of those seminars, Brutal Bob Evans asked Riccaboni if he could share his contact info with “Kevin”. Riccaboni agreed, but there was a problem.
“I had no idea which Kevin he meant,” said Riccaboni. “But I said, ‘Sure, that sounds great’.”
Evans also suggested that Riccaboni do commentary on some of the Monster Factory matches so he could send them to Kevin. Kevin was, of course, Ring of Honor announcer Kevin Kelly. Riccaboni did exactly as Evans suggested and soon Monster Factory matches on YouTube included a very green Riccaboni calling the action. Those clips were sent to Kelly for feedback. A few months later, Kelly came to Monster Factory to run a seminar of his own.
“At the end of it he said, ‘Hey, I don’t know what your interest is in doing that to pursuing something maybe more than what you’re doing, but if you’re interested, it would be really nice if you started to come around Ring of Honor events and I’ll tell producers that you know that I invited you and maybe we can start to find some things for you to do,” said Riccaboni.
Remembering the advice that Jost had given him, Riccaboni jumped at the chance to start showing up at ROH shows and making himself visible. It provided him the opportunity to meet key ROH personnel including Delirious, Cary Silkin, Adam Cole and Bobby Fish. In July 2014 Riccaboni did commentary for a Future of Honor event in Laurel, Delaware. Six months later he called his first Ring of Honor TV match. All of it was a learning experience.
“I think the biggest thing that I learned more than any any technique or any more with anything was to slow down, to breathe, to enjoy it. And when I do those three things I’m much happier after the fact when I listen back,” said Riccaboni, who listens to all his matches to get a feeling for how he’s progressing. He knows that if he’s unhappy with it, the chances are the audience at home is too.
Ian Riccaboni first began calling Future of Honor matches for ROH.
Don’t Say No to Anything
Over the next two years Riccaboni continued to help ROH wherever they needed somebody. He became the unofficial voice of the Future of Honor shows and was at as many shows as he could attend, soaking up as much of Kevin Kelly’s knowledge as he could.
In early 2017, Riccaboni’s phone rang with some unexpected good news. Kelly was going to become the English voice of New Japan Pro Wrestling and that meant ROH was searching for a new lead play-by-play announcer. ROH wanted to know if Riccaboni was interested.
“I was in a cab heading home from a work event to O’Hare and it just about knocked me out of my seat,” said Riccaboni. “In my mind it sort of had a timeline. I had hoped within the next five to 10 years that it would be something that that might happen because I held and still hold Kevin in such high regard.”
Sitting in the back of that cab, Riccaboni, who had previously only called one live pay per view match before, hung up the phone and the excitement he was nearly overwhelmed with a few minutes earlier was replaced by a very different emotion.
“The funny thing that happens is, you say yes right away and then you wonder, “Oh man, what did I just agree to? And then the doubt sets in. It’s never accepting the offer, it’s the moment afterwards,” said Riccaboni.
Riccaboni called the events in San Antonio and Dallas in February and then began preparing himself for the 15th Anniversary pay-per-view show in March. When he arrived in Las Vegas for pre-production meetings, he found a familiar face waiting for him; Kevin Kelly. Kelly would be part of the broadcast, but not the main play-by-play voice and it was during one of those meetings where Kelly put Riccaboni in his place.
“Originally they had me seated on the right of the (broadcast) table. Kevin raised his voice at the production meeting and stood up and said, ‘Hey we need Ian to be in the middle. Ian is leading the broadcast. We need the fans at home to feel that. Ian needs to be in the middle’,” said Riccaboni “That simple kind of vote of confidence from Kevin was a big confidence booster.”
Sure enough, when the broadcast went to air Riccaboni was seated in the middle seat with Kelly on his right and Colt Cabana on his left. A few moments earlier Cabana had given Riccaboni a friendly shoulder rub and told him he was going to do great. The show went off without a hitch and Riccaboni was able to exhale. The only thing missing from that night in Las Vegas was his family. Sarah and Zach were back home in Pennsylvania. Things were different three weeks later as ROH headed to Lakeland, Florida for their Supercard of Honor event on WrestleMania weekend. The Riccaboni family made the trip down to Orlando and were in the building as Riccaboni and Cabana teamed up again to call the action.
“We drove down and we did the show and then we saw my brother and his family, and then myself, Sarah and Zach went to DisneyWorld,” said Riccaboni. “It was really cool to see how nice everybody was. Everybody’s always so nice to Sarah, my wife, she’s been at the events before, but just how warm everybody was to Zach as well.”
Ian Riccaboni credits the support of his wife, Sarah, for allowing him to pursue his pro wrestling dream.
That warm welcome wasn’t just from front office types, but the boys and girls in the back as well. That atmosphere is one of the reasons that Riccaboni has been able to transition so smoothly over the last three years from “kid coming around to be seen” to lead play-by-play announcer.
“There’s a lot of great wrestlers, but I think one thing in Ring of Honor does better than anybody else is not only do we find the great wrestlers, but we also find the great wrestlers who are also great people,” said Riccaboni, who points to former ROH wrestler Bobby Fish as a perfect example. “When I found out Sarah was pregnant, I expressed to him how nervous I was and how scared I was to be a dad. He’s a father of two great daughters and he was the guy that put me at ease right away and really kind of walked me through it, almost like a big brother would.”
Now, in the same 12-month span that he became a father and became the Ring of Honor play-by-play voice, he’s also in the process of moving into a new house. Knowing what kind of impact Allentown had on his life, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that when the Riccaboni’s started looking for a place to buy, a house in Allentown was the priority – but it was actually Sarah who made that call.
“She had been getting those Trulia alerts, if anything that we were looking for popped up and something did. We went to take a look and I’ve never seen her react the way she did at a house. She was pumped,” said Riccaboni. “So we just kind of went for it put in an offer and it worked out pretty well.”
Having his life nearly come full circle with a return to Allentown and a blossoming career in pro wrestling is one thing, but Riccaboni simply can’t underscore the role Sarah has had in his career.
“A ton of sacrifices in terms of her own sleep and whatnot to make sure Zach’s where he needs to be on base that I am in a different part of the country or even a different part of the world,” said Riccaboni..”She has been you know my number one supporter. She’s also the number one reason I’ve been able to do all this.”