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Friday, April 25, 2008

Alan Wojcik Interview With ROH Announcer Lenny Leonard

Courtesy of Alan J. Wojcik:

Chances are if you have purchased a Ring of Honor or Full Impact Pro DVD you know who Lenny Leonard is. If not he is one of the premiere play by play people in wrestling and thanks to a national PPV deal ROH signed this past year he should be a household name in no time. Alan Wojcik conducted this online interview with Lenny about a variety of topics including their mutual favorite sports team the NY Yankees.

Alan Wojcik: Let’s start out simple. What was the first live wrestling event you ever attended and what about the sport made you to want to keep attending?

Lenny Leonard: Wow… that was a long time ago… It was Madison Square Garden, December of 1979. I was 8 years old, and it was a loaded show…Backlund and Duncum for the WWF title, Harley Race vs Dusty for the NWA title, a bunch of Japanese guys like Inoki, Choshu, Seiji Sakaguchi and Tatsumi Fujinami were there, Hogan vs DiBiase…It was a big deal, as they actually waived the 11pm curfew at the Garden for that show.. I guess like a lot of people I was hooked by the larger than life athletes, the drama, the blood, the battle of good versus evil... It’s something that sticks with a lot of people and I was one of them

Alan Wojcik: We first met at the old Florida Wrestleplex in 2002 when IPW Hardcore Wrestling ran there. How long had you been following IPW and what eventually led you to stop being a fan to become part of the promotion when it morphed with NWA Florida in 2003-04?

Lenny Leonard: I had been watching for about a year. I had only been to 1 or 2 indy shows in my life before going to IPW. I had been to a few Joel Goodhart TWA shows in Philly, that in some ways were the precursors to the old ECW. I heard a lot about the shows in St Pete, and decided to go check them out one night. In fact that was back in ‘01 and Scoot Andrews was wrestling Chris Daniels, AJ Styles was wrestling Mike Sullivan and there were guys like Rod Steele, Billy 5’s, and Buck Quartermaine there. It was one of the best shows from a fan’s standpoint I had ever been to. I had an absolute blast and was hooked on their stuff right away. I became friends with a few of the boys, and then Ron Niemi, who at first kept me at a bit of a distance, because he wasn’t sure of what to make of me. He liked me and after a while began to trust me as more than one of the smarks...not that I use that term in a derisive manner… I was proud to be "smart" back as long ago as I was, but I was respectful of Ron, respectful of the business, and Ron appreciated how much love I had for wrestling, because few people eat breathe and sleep this business the way he does. Out of that friendship, an opportunity to fill in on the fly at a show for Ron happened a few years later. His ring announcer was late, I was in the crowd as usual, and he asked if I could fill in, so I did a few matches, as I have always had a pretty good voice, and after a few fill in spots like that I started full time.

Alan Wojcik: You went from ring announcing to being a play by play person. Was
that an easy transition for you and how much of it was ok let’s see if I can pull this off? Did having people like Ron Niemi, Aaron Royal and Rod Steel calling matches with you help at all?

Lenny Leonard: Actually I wanted to do the play by play more than the ring announcing almost from the get go… I used to tease Ron and Aaron about how bad the announcing was on their TV back then, and I think Ron just got sick of me breaking his balls about it, so had me fill in on some DVD’s after they stopped running TV shows due to the cost involved. First show I did was Rage in the Cage 2003, and after 1 match I felt really comfortable, even though I had never done it before. Last match on that show was the 30 man battle royale in the cage with weapons, and Aaron was in the match as was Ron, and Rod, so I had to go it alone, and went the whole 23 or 24 minutes non stop by myself, the first night I had ever done play by play, and I still count it as one of the better matches I have ever done. Certainly though, having a guy like Ron with his style and personality for me to play straight man opposite made it so easy for me to move into the position. NWA Florida was a really good learning opportunity for me, and I will always be grateful to Ron for giving me that opportunity.

Alan Wojcik: Since 2004 you have been the DVD voice of the Jeff Peterson Memorial Cup (cruiserweight tournament in memory of the great wrestler). In your words what did Jeff mean to Florida wrestling that this coming summer will be the 6th annual event?

Lenny Leonard: The first time I met Jeff, and was at the Plex with my son Dylan, and had never seen nor heard of Jeff before. He was already sick at that point. He sat in the crowd, and talked to my son for an hour before going out and refereeing later that night, and I thought he was one of the most sweet, caring, likeable people I have ever met in my life, and the world, not just wrestling, is a much poorer place for not having him around anymore.

Alan Wojcik: This past year saw you call the JPC with former WCW announcer Scott Hudson. What was that experience like and if you could chose; past or present, a color commentator to call a match or show with who would it be?

Lenny Leonard: Scott was so good to work with. I guess I owe you some thanks for that…LOL.. He was such a pro, is so smooth in his delivery, and open to do whatever it was I wanted to do. I was worried, having not met him before that I was going to get big timed by him. He was in the show. Worked WCW in their hey day, made a ton of money, called high profile matches on national TV. He very easily could have come in and been a jerk who wanted to hog the mic, and do things his way, it he was such a treat to deal with from the moment he got to the building. He was affable, completely deferred to me as he knew I had done these shows for 3 years, and wanted me to be "the guy," and just wanted fill in the gaps when I felt like I was ready to stop talking. I thought we worked very well together, and he was on both nights, and considering he hadn’t called an entire show since he filled in that time on RAW during the buyout of WCW he did a great job. He showed it was important to him to do a good job for Jeff’s friends and fans, because he showed up and was completely prepared, studied up on the guys in the tournament beforehand, and delivered. I can’t say enough good things about Scott. He should be on TV somewhere…no offense to Mike Adamle…LOL. Anyone who says they wouldn’t want to work with either Gordon Solie or Jim Ross is crazy, but since we are all 3 play by play guys at heart, if I had to pick a color guy to work with, I would have to go with David Crockett, just so I could see if I could keep my composure as I heard him scream, "RICKY MORTON…LOOK AT HIM….."…no seriously, if I ever had the chance to call one match with any color commentator ever, it would probably have to be Jim Cornette or Paul Heyman, because no one could get across what the booker wants the audience to know about a match or a guy like Cornette or Heyman can, plus they both talk so much I wouldn’t have to do a whole lot but stay out of their way…

Alan Wojcik: Around the time frame when NWA Florida folded you began working for Full Impact Pro doing their ring announcing before working the mic on their DVD’s which are now sold nationally in stores. How did this come about and was it the association they have with Ring of Honor that got the attention of Gabe Sapolsky and led you to working for ROH?

Lenny Leonard: Yeah, I had known Sal somewhat but not really well through Ron. No secret those guys didn’t always get along back then…lol... of course they do now, but that’s the nature of wrestling I guess...and when Sal decided to change direction for FIP, and bring Gabe in as booker and do more of an ROH meets Memphis type promotion, he asked me to ring announce for him. I was happy to do it, as NWA Florida was finished at that point and I wasn’t ready to retire just yet. Mark Nulty at that point was doing the play by play for both ROH and FIP then, and I think both Sal and Gabe were ready to make a change. Sal made it first, and after a few months convinced Gabe to give me a chance with ROH. Gabe had me do a few tryout matches as a fill in guy on a few DVD’s during the summer of 2005 and after a couple of shows decided to go with myself and Dave Prazak on both ROH and FIP, and except for about 6 months in 2006 when I was out due to complete reconstruction on both of my knees, we have done every show together since then.

Alan Wojcik: You have called shows with plenty of people like we discussed, but FIP/ROH DVD’s pair you with the mind behind Shimmer Women Athletes Dave Prazak. Having heard you call several DVD’s with him what do you think makes the two of you so good at the commentating business?

Lenny Leonard: Actually I agree with the fans on the ROH board who think we suck personally… No really, I think we both approach a match with the same mindset in that we are both play by play guys at heart, but can do color as well when we need it. ROH is a much more athletic type of a show, it is pro wrestling as a sport, an athletic competition between wrestlers where wins and losses are important, and so I don’t think we need the cliché sports entertainment "heel color commentator" persona for one of us. I think 2 announcers describing what goes on in the ring and touching on the important storyline points and trying to get across some things that may be subtle points in the story the wrestlers are trying to tell in their match is enough. We don’t need one guy being a loud mouthed jerk just because… When you watch a telecast from one of the 4 major sports, you don’t see announcers arguing and acting like a fool, its 2 people trying to get the story across to the viewers. One announcer doesn’t have to act like a jerk just because it’s pro wrestling. I know it bothers some fans because we don’t have that clearly defined role where one of us is the play by play guy, and one of us is the color guy, and for some people it’s not an issue. I don’t see it as an issue personally. We both are adept at switching back and forth between both roles, and in a sport that is as fast paced as wrestling, I don’t think that one guy should ignore calling the action, because its not "his job." If someone does something while I am talking and trying to make a point during a match, I would think it’d be worse for me to ignore the moves being executed so I could keep calling Larry Sweeney’s character a scumbag or something like that.

Alan Wojcik: You have gotten to call some memorable ROH matches like the arrival of then former WWE star Matt Hardy plus then ROH regulars Nigel McGuiness, Austin Aries, Colt Cabana, Jay Lethal, CM Punk, Samoa Joe, Florida stars Roderick Strong and Erick Stevens, Homicide and American Dragon. Do you have a particular one that stands out above the rest?

Lenny Leonard: Wow, I have been lucky to be a small part of some amazing matches, I don’t think I could pick just one, but I a few of my favorites have been Danielson vs. Nigel at Driven, Nigel vs. Aries at Rising Above, Danielson vs. Lance Storm at Better than Our Best, Danielson vs. Roddy at Supercard of Honor is up there too since at about 57 minutes long, it’s the longest match I have ever called. Long story short, there are too many to have one that stands out, but any time you can call a World Title Change it’s a big deal, and I have been lucky enough to call a few of them.

Alan Wojcik: During your time with ROH six different men have been world champion. This may be hard for you to do but of CM Punk, James Gibson (Jamie Noble to WWE fans), American Dragon, Homicide, Takeshi Morishima and current champion Nigel McGuiness; who do you feel was the best champion in the ring and as an ambassador of the ROH product?

Lenny Leonard: I think each and every one of those guys was an ambassador of the ROH product in their own way, and all of them left a legacy in ROH they can be proud of during their careers here, and some are still crafting that legacy as we speak today. They all embodied what ROH is about. Competition, athleticism, love of the sport of wrestling, and having the freedom to perform their craft to their best of their abilities in front of the smartest, toughest, but most appreciative fans anywhere, in a company that allows the cream to truly rise to the top. That being said, for sheer consistency of great matches night in and night out, against a wide variety of opponents, over a long period of time, no one is better at being the World Champion than Bryan Danielson, though Nigel McGuiness is certainly a credible, worthy champion to have representing your company.

Alan Wojcik: ROH currently features four faction/groups of wrestlers: Sweet & Sour Inc, No Remorse Corps, Age of the Fall and the Vulture Squad. Which do you feel is the dominant group in ROH and how do they stack against former groups like the Prophecy and the Second City Saints?

Lenny Leonard: Though Larry Sweeney is throwing around promises of lots of cash and trips up the river to Vince, and has a great group of athletes, it’s tough to pick against the NRC. They have the FIP World Champ, they just lost the ROH World Tag titles, they are 3 guys who can fight as well as anyone in Romero, Richards and Strong, I’d have to say it’s them.

Alan Wojcik: Let’s talk shop for a moment. How much prep work do you do before calling a show or do you like to just be in the moment?

Lenny Leonard: I try to prep when I know I am doing matches involving talent I have yet to see, so I can get a feel for what someone does. I will see what I can find on the internet and YouTube if possible, but as far as watching the matches before we call them, the only ones I usually get to see before I call them are the PPV shows because I am there live for those in the building. Everything else, when I call it, it is my first viewing, so it is "live" to me.

Alan Wojcik: Which do you prefer calling matches live in the venue or doing it post production style and why?

Lenny Leonard: Post production is great, because it covers a lot of sins, not just commentary wise, but camera angles, and being able to have the right shot when you are calling a particular part of a match. When guys like JR and King are announcing RAW, they have a director getting them the shot they want and are calling off a monitor not watching the ring, so basically the match is edited for them while they are announcing. In post production, we get the same concept in that the best shots are being used and we are seeing those "live shots" on our monitors as we call the action. Believe it or not though, most of our retakes, and there aren’t many, at this point we are pretty good at getting stuff in one take without any do-overs, but most of our retakes are when Gabe, who has so much on his mind at once, forgets to give us a specific point he really wanted us to hit in a match, and stops us early on so he can give it to us. If it’s in the middle or the end of a match though, he gives us notes much like guys get fed stuff through their headsets. I do love the feeling of calling it live without a net though. Part of the real sports broadcasting feel to me is that sometimes mistakes happen, guys flub lines and have to recover on the fly being able to do that and not make it too noticeable is a true art.

Alan Wojcik: 2007 saw ROH enter the world of PPV. Do you think things have gone right and wrong for ROH since that endeavor began?

Lenny Leonard: I think most of it has gone right. I am not privy to actual buy rate numbers, but all reports I hear from ROH is that the numbers are what they expected. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s no secret this was never a deal to make ROH into a major player to compete with anyone else. It was a low risk, moderate reward deal that gave the company another avenue at exposing the product to a larger audience. The fans that like ROH will like the PPV’s and those that don’t, won’t, but I have watched 3 of the PPV’s with people who are either not wrestling fans at all, or were casual WWE fans during the boom years, and to a person, all of them came away from those shows impressed with the product, excited about what they saw, and willing to watch it again. Now whether those translate into DVD sales and future PPV buys, is another story. I don’t think the answer to that question is in yet. Every show has been universally praised by the critics who reviewed them and the fans who read the newsletters, and websites. I think each show has been a bit different, some heavier on the wrestling end than others, but I don’t think anyone who bought one can say they, at between 10 and 15 dollars for a show, didn’t get their money’s worth.

Alan Wojcik: This past year saw WWE shut down Deep South Wrestling and bring their talent here to resurrect Florida Championship Wrestling (run by Steve Keirn, Tom Pritchard & Dusty Rhodes). Many say with the help of wrestler/promoter Ralph Mosca they are trying to muscle out FIP and other promotions. Having been a wrestling fan for years what do you think of the product (if you have seen it) and the notion they are trying to steal buildings from established promotions?

Lenny Leonard: I have never been to one of their shows. I know Ralph Mosca from the Florida Indy scene, and we always get along well. I have met Steve Keirn twice in my life, and would be willing to bet a million bucks he couldn’t pick me out of a lineup if I was the only person standing in that lineup, same for Dusty Rhodes. I have never met Tom Pritchard before. Not being in the promoting end of the business, I have no idea what Steve and or Ralph are doing to get FCW up and running. All I know is what I hear and read on the internet. If those things are true, I would say it’s a shitty way to do business if you are a company starting up with a huge head start over most Florida promotions, considering a big chunk of your operation is being bankrolled by a billion dollar corporation. That being said, Florida is plenty big enough for everyone to run and be successful….if they are willing to work hard, and promote their product. Fortunately for FIP, Sal has always done right by every building he runs. The people he deals with love FIP, appreciate the product we put on, and the fans look forward to seeing us every time we come back. If someone is trying to play dirty with FIP, it would most likely be a futile effort, because Sal takes care of his buildings, and they appreciate it.

Alan Wojcik: Do you see a day when ROH can compete on a national level with WWE and TNA or are they already at that level right here and now?

Lenny Leonard: I would put ROH’s in ring product up with any company in the world right now without hesitation, but I know that isn’t what you’re getting at. No one is going to "compete" with Vince. He is a billion dollars ahead in the race for financial supremacy. You don’t make up that kind of ground. I think TNA and ROH both have opportunities to be successful at what they do in their own way. TNA has hours of weekly first run TV on a national network and draws a solid and consistent number of viewers every week. Their challenge is to convert those viewers of free TV to paying customers of PPV shows and house shows. Any other goal is putting the cart ahead of the horse in my opinion, and I would think, not knowing anyone in the hierarchy of that company personally, they would probably agree. ROH has an opportunity to be the best ROH it can be, whatever that is, and nothing more than that. Fortunately the people in charge are smart enough to not make deals that will jeopardize the company in any way. So if a TV deal comes along that makes sense, they will consider it, and if one comes along that doesn’t, they won’t. If an opportunity to go to a new market, new country, new building, whatever…comes along, and it makes sense, they will consider it, and if it doesn’t, they won’t. No one wants to make deals for the sake of making a deal. Bad decisions do not just kill small companies, they kill big ones too. The lessons of ECW and WCW are not far removed from anyone’s minds.

Alan Wojcik: Time for you to give some opinions. I am going to give you names of wrestlers who got their start here in Florida over the past few years. Let’s start with Antonio Banks the current WWE Superstar known as MVP.

Lenny Leonard: Man has he improved so much. I could not be happier for the guy. He worked as hard as anyone I knew when he wrestled down here, always wanted to get better and worked tirelessly until he did. Plus he pursued his dream relentlessly. The door was opened just a crack for him due to his persistence, and he kicked that door in by working hard and never giving up. Many people should take a lesson from him.

Alan Wojcik: Current ROH/FIP star Roderick Strong.

Lenny Leonard: He had star written all over him when I first met him when he was a skinny teenager back in IPW. Always has entertaining matches, hits as hard as anyone no matter how big they are. If his promos ever approach his ring work he’d be among the best wrestlers in the world.

Alan Wojcik: Another current ROH/FIP star Erick Stevens.

Lenny Leonard: He used to sit in the seat next to me at the Plex watching IPW as a fan. He was fat, smart and lazy, now he’s in shape, determined, and incredibly gifted. Tons of upside, just scratching the surface of how good he can be.

Alan Wojcik: He used to be Agent Steele but he has become "the Marquee" Bruce Santee.

Lenny Leonard: Man I love this guy. Needs to not get down on himself as often as he does. Has all the tools to make it though.

Alan Wojcik: Quite possibly the three best teams in years: The Shane Twins, the Black Market (Machete & Murphy) and the Heartbreak Express (Sean & Phil Davis).

Lenny Leonard: 3 very good and very different teams. Shane Twins, amazing talents, physical freaks, incredibly gifted athletes. WWE made a big mistake with them. If you can’t figure out what to do with 300 lb identical twins, release the writers, not the wrestlers. Black Market, 2 tough tough dudes, can wrestle, brawl, work any style you want, and both guys love this business so much. 2 of the good guys in my book. HBX, as entertaining a team as you will find anywhere. Willing to do anything to have a memorable match. They can work; Sean can talk for them both, a real throwback type of a team. If they were 20 years older they’d be rich men.

Alan Wojcik: I wasn’t going to let you get away from an interview without asking about a common interest we have, love for the NY Yankees. What do you think of their current season and would you gauze up Hank Steinbrenner for all of us?

Lenny Leonard: I think like any team, it all comes down to pitching. Hughes, Mussina and Kennedy need to be better, because if they aren’t they now do not have the chips in which to make a deal for a front line guy, as the 2 pieces they wouldn’t trade for Santana will have been proven to be busts, and they wouldn’t be able to get a bucket of Gatorade for them afterwards. That being said, real Yankees fans don’t get worried in April. Come see me in August and we’ll talk. But Hank needs to shut his yap and let Cashman and Girardi do their jobs. He ran Torre out of town for Girardi, and he’s taken 1 month to 2nd guess his hand picked successor…He’s a big fat blowhard like his old man, but at least George earned the right to run his yapper. It was his freaking money on the line. Fat trust fund baby playing with his billion dollar toy… makes me sick…

Thanks to Lenny for taking time out of his busy schedule for this interview. For more information on Ring of Honor log onto www.rohwrestling.com and Full Impact Pro’s site is www.fullimpactpro.com