Believe Half of What You See and Portions of What You Hear
My thoughts and feelings on Connor “The Crusher” Michalek, WWE and his recent Hall of Fame induction. The following blog is my opinion, from my perspective, based on being there and experiencing all of this personally.
Hi, my name is Justin Roberts. I was an announcer at World Wrestling Entertainment for about 12 years. Sometimes when you’ve worked there and you speak up about something company-related, it’s easy to be painted as a bitter, ex employee. What’s strange is that my unhappiness at this dream job didn’t start after I left; it started while I was there.
The last time I wrote a blog here, it was about how I loved professional wrestling. I was with the company at the time and loved (and I still love) professional wrestling. There were reasons why it wasn’t titled “I love WWE.” My unhappiness started in my last couple of years with the company and I was actually just as happy when they decided not to renew my contract as I was on the day that I signed. They told me I wasn’t getting fired, there was nothing that I did wrong, that they were going a different direction and the door was always open. I politely closed it behind me and with that said, I’ll now share one of the contributing factors on why I wouldn’t want to go back to this company.
I have always been a fan of the movie “Basic” where “telling the story right” is the theme. WWE also tells a story, week after week. Sometimes their stories seem “real” and we forget that they’re a company… that tells stories. Remember “Macho Man” Randy Savage’s jealousy over Elizabeth and Hulk Hogan? Matt Hardy and Edge battling over relationship reasons, CM Punk taking the title and leaving the company? Daniel Bryan overcoming the evil bosses who did everything to keep him down? These were memorable, reality-inspired storylines, but overall, they were stories that WWE told us fans.
This past weekend at the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony, they told a story. While using real life people and real stories, they did what they do best: they told a story and they didn’t let the facts get in the way.
Last year, just days before his unfortunate, sudden death, the legendary Ultimate Warrior suggested during his Hall of Fame induction speech that WWE should honor the hardworking people who work behind the scenes at the company. He spoke about those people who worked there: “Some of them for years, 20–25–30 years,” he continued, “To have a category in the Hall of Fame where you honor these people.” Unfortunately, the WWE track record shows that many people who work there and give their lives to the company for 20–30 years don’t get rewarded, they get released once they’ve been there for too long.
I can name numerous employees that I worked with at WWE who would be deserving of such an award. Those people devoted all of their time and energy to WWE, because they loved their jobs and thought they were working for a good cause. A guy like Mark Yeaton who was let go on the eve of what would have been his 30th anniversary. He was the guy that worked all morning and afternoon in the production office of the TV shows, then sat at ringside and rang the bell for the show, while communicating on headset with the bosses to make sure everything ran smoothly. Then he would return to the production office where he made sure the operations ran as they should while accommodating everyone who approached him about needing something done. Then he would go through the locker rooms to make sure no one left anything behind. He even cleaned up the towels and did anything else asked of him. Mark would take a bullet for the company and would have made an excellent and deserving award recipient, but he was let go for a budget cut. (You probably won’t hear much from Mark publicly as far as saying anything negative about the company, or the many others like Mark, as their employee contracts prevent them from speaking out. Mine doesn’t.).
Who else could be a good nominee? Lots of folks. There are so many hardworking men and women that work behind the scenes at that company. How about Sue, who arranges all of the great Make-A-Wish events, Adam who manages fan services…All of these people deserve recognition by the company, and that’s what the Warrior was trying to say. But the question is, how much publicity could those awards make for the company? Or how could you market that award to mean something to the public?
So rather than honor those people that you don’t see or hear about , who work hard to put on the shows that we all love, the company decided to tell a different story. This year, they spliced and spun the Warrior’s speech to make the award about “warriors” outside of the company, because that might make for a better story — and for better publicity.
“It’s inspiring to see people helping people.” …”I think it would be appropriate to have a category in the Hall of Fame where you honor these people.” But wait. I watched his speech last year. They took what he said and twisted it to become something totally different. Ok, you don’t want to honor the hard working employees? Ok, no problem. You’re going to honor people who help people, soldiers, Special Olympians, warriors? Ok, it’s not what he was going for in the speech, but I personally am ok with honoring these warriors.
They gave the award to my friend, Connor Michalek and I am very much ok with that, but I might be biased. Eight year-old Connor was a tough, witty, smart & lovable person. I met him in the crowd of the Pittsburgh Royal Rumble in January of 2014. He caught my eye as it looked like maybe he was going through some rough times.
Anytime I thought that about someone in the crowd, I felt like I should do something, anything, to try to help them, or at least give them an extra thrill. Whether it meant giving the heads up to a wrestler so they would approach them, grab them an autograph, merchandise, setting up an impromptu meet and greet — if there was any way I could help make someone else’s life even a little bit better from this crazy, lucky position I found myself in, I would do it. And it was so easy to make people happy by pulling these strings. It didn’t take away from the company and it made these fans feel special. Have you ever done something really nice for someone? You know that feeling, where you just feel beyond happy about it? I loved that feeling and I loved seeing smiles beam from the faces of these fans. I’ve always thought being kind to others just makes you a happier person in the end.
On this night, as I began asking him if he was having fun, his father was urgently trying to tell me something. I turned to his father and said hello as I noticed that another little boy was trying to get my attention. Connor turned to him and said, “Excuse me. Right now, he is talking to my dad. When he’s done, he will talk to you, you just have to wait your turn.” I smiled and turned back to his father who handed me a note. He told me that Connor did not have much time to live. He also mentioned that he was the little boy who made a YouTube video to try to meet his favorite wrestler, his hero — Daniel Bryan. I remembered seeing the video online and even texting the link to Daniel. He had used his Make-A-Wish to go to Disney, but through the help of a local radio station, he was able to meet Bryan.
He asked if I could give the note to Daniel and I assured him that I would. Then knowing that he had already met Daniel, I asked if he liked any of the other superstars — to which he told me that he likes everybody! It was rare to bring someone from the crowd backstage, but on this night I didn’t even give it a second thought. He instantly captured my heart and I felt that was the right call.
Dave Batista had just come back to WWE and was shooting an interview backstage when I interrupted. Without any hesitation, he joined me and I introduced him to Connor. While they were talking, I approached Sheamus and Randy Orton. All 3 guys immediately went over and had 1-on-1 conversations with Connor and even gave them their t-shirts and shoulder towels to keep. Connor handled the conversations like a little man. He wasn’t intimidated by these big guys that he saw on TV, in fact he was telling Batista not to hurt Daniel — he was laying down the law to the massive Batista who was smiling and blown away by this child.
The show had ended and most of the guys had left to get on the road for the long drive to the next town. While we were talking, Triple H’s bus driver had told me that Triple H and Stephanie were coming through. I asked if that meant we should move and he told me that they would probably love to meet Connor as well. The driver Terry is a really good guy, but I never had much of a relationship with H or Stephanie. I took his word for it and introduced Stephanie to Connor. Then she introduced him to Triple H. I took a picture for them on my phone and Sean from HR immediately gave Connor’s father, Steve his business card to contact him for the photo. I knew how much that picture would mean to them and immediately got his email address to send the photo right away so he wouldn’t have to jump through any hoops.
The next day, I handed that note to Bryan as promised. I flew home the following day and had lunch with a good friend. I explained that normally, I would help someone to make sure they had a great experience, but leave it at that. I told him that I felt like it would be selfish if I did that in this situation. I didn’t know if Daniel would be able to reach out to them, but just in case he wasn’t able to, I felt like I should. At that point, I wondered if I could maybe try to help Connor beat this thing with a miracle, or at least try everything I could to help him feel better, and I would use the power of my fortunate position — plus the help of my WWE superhero friends — to do it.
I didn’t even know what Connor was sick with early on. I didn’t ask. I didn’t talk about him being sick or anything negative. I only wanted to keep him positive and talk wrestling, because we both loved wrestling. I was at the arena one day when one of his other favorite wrestlers, Rob Van Dam happened to show up for a visit. I explained that he had a big fan named Connor and I asked if he could say something to Connor.
Connor lit up when he saw that video. His father told me how much that meant to him. His father loved to see him smile and was always by his side when we talked. Whether it was to watch wrestling with him, to take him to something wrestling related, or to let him put all of the wrestling moves on him, his father was always there and willing to do whatever he could to help his son. One of their favorite activities was playing the WWE video game. I told Connor that I was in the process of recording voiceovers for the next videogame and there’s a part of the recording process where I record non-WWE names for a build your own superstar section. I told him that I would record his name so when he built his own character, he could be introduced to the ring. I wanted him to be able to look forward to the release of that next game.
While his brain cancer made everything challenging, Mondays were especially tough on the eight-year-old who I never once heard complain. He would go through hours of chemo and attempt to stay awake to watch RAW. At first I would send him pictures from ringside to show him what was happening during commercial breaks. Then I would Facetime him and show him the live video of what was going on in the ring. He felt like he was right there! After that, I realized that I could Facetime him during the day while everyone was hanging out at the arena for that night’s show.
I had a great relationship with the rest of the talent and they were very open to doing anything they could to help everyone out. I would walk around the arenas on Monday and ask various stars and even behind-the-scenes friends to say hi to my friend Connor on Facetime. Over the weeks, he established a friendship with all of these great people. Vickie Guerrero, Kane, The Bella Twins, Dolph Ziggler, Mark Henry, Ryback, Charles Robinson, New Age Outlaws, Big E, Mick Foley and Daniel Bryan. These were his heroes and he was quickly becoming theirs as he made friends with all of them. Mondays at the hospital weren’t fun, but his father told me how he looked forward to the call and always used that to help Connor get through the sessions. “Who do you think Justin will call with today?” he would ask. I was determined to prove the doctors (who were amazed that he was still walking around) wrong and I really started to think it was possible.
I wanted to do anything and everything I personally could, to keep him fighting and hanging on. I would give updates to Stephanie McMahon who seemed very interested in keeping track of Connor and his progress. I told her my plan to use the power of WWE to do what medicine could not. I told her about the voiceover on the video game and I even pitched an idea that would bring that to real life!
I invited Connor and his family to come to DC for an episode of Monday Night RAW, right before WrestleMania. Stephanie asked if there was anything she could give him that he might like. I suggested maybe an Intercontinental Championship replica…I told her I had this crazy idea about being in the ring earlier in the day, before the show and before the fans were in the building. I would introduce Connor, like I introduced the superstars. He could come to the ring with a full entrance, just like the wrestlers. He could get into the ring, where he would be approached by Big E who at the time was the Intercontinental Champion. RVD called Connor the interConnornental champion, so maybe Big E told him to push him, he fell over and Connor pinned him and I would announce him as the new Intercontinental Champion! But then…Triple H and Stephanie, who were the authority figures of the show, would come out and hand him his own replica title and call him the new InterConnornental champion!
I got the runaround on the idea and was told to go through other channels. So I did. I wasn’t sure how it would play out, but I contacted Ryan from onehourtees.com in Chicago who did really good work. He not only designed a graphic for Connor, but he sent me a box of Connor t-shirts at the arena and also sent me the graphic to give to the stage designers, just in case the plan came into fruition.
Everything was all set. I got his family a hotel room right outside of town in case he was tired on the drive up, got them ringside tickets and couldn’t wait to watch Connor hang out with all of his new friends. I introduced him to Undertaker, Brock Lesnar, Hulk Hogan…I’ve never introduced my own family members to these stars. Nothing and no one were off limits for my buddy. The guys and girls were amazing to Connor, all day. I have lots and lots of stories about his interactions with them and they were all amazed away by this little man.
Stephanie had started contacting them on her own and even decided to invite him to WrestleMania, which I thought was incredible. She let me invite him personally, so I got to see his face light up while I did that over Facetime.
When he got to the building in DC, I had sent her a text letting her know that they were there. Shortly after we made our rounds, we met up with her. Connor gave her a big hug and thanked her for the invitation, then presented her with a necklace and gave me a bracelet along with a stone that had his picture in it. He told me that if I ever wanted to think of him, all I had to do was look at that stone. I appreciate that gift and look at it all the time.
We walked out into the arena from the stage and were approached by Triple H. He said hello to Steve, Steve’s father and Connor. He asked Connor if he were to walk to the ring, what music would he come out to? I thought to myself, Daniel Bryan-duh. Connor responded the same, minus the duh. As he started walking away, I called out “Triple H. If he’s walking to the ring, I sent the stage designers a graphic for the entrance wall.” He just talked into his headset and walked away. Daniel came over to say hello and gave him the sweatshirt off his back along with a hug. Before I knew it, the music hit — the graphic was up on the video wall and my plan to have him walk to the ring was happening. Unfortunately, I was no longer a part of my plan. I wouldn’t get to announce him and Big E wouldn’t be in the ring with him, but now Triple H would play that role. While it would have been very special to introduce him to the ring and announce him as the winner, being in there with the guy that was feuding with his hero was just as cool for him as announcing would have been for me, so I was just happy that this was taking place. On top of that, the locker room was around the ring and they cheered him on as he walked down the aisle and into the ring. It was an amazing moment. I stood in the aisle, watched, and recorded the video on my phone. And even though I wasn’t able to perform my dream part of it (after dreaming it all up), I knew how thrilled Connor was and that was all that mattered.
He had an incredible day and night. The next week, his father took him to WrestleMania where Stephanie’s team took care of all of the arrangements. They had a blast. Watching Connor’s face all night was the highlight of announcing that show. Daniel spotted him in the crowd and after he won the Championship, he approached, talked to and hugged Connor. He was cured, if only for just one night.
From there, Steve took Connor to Florida where he was able to play on the beach. Connor loved the beach. He would send pictures and we would Facetime. His health started to decline right after that. Stephanie told me that she wanted to put together an internal video for the employees of the company, to see the effect WWE has on people. The cameras recorded Connor at the arena, during WrestleMania and a producer would be calling me to discuss. I thought it was a great idea, even though I figured that it wasn’t just for the employees. I assumed it would make its way out to the public as well. I was ok with that; it was a beautiful story about making my friend happy. Connor and his interactions with the heroes who were helping him numb the pain, and all in the world of WWE. I just didn’t realize that when they retold this story, it was going to become just like those other reality-inspired storylines I mentioned earlier.
The next week came and went. The plan changed and only Stephanie and Daniel Bryan were interviewed. Stephanie was generous to Connor. Daniel was always good to him when they were face to face at the arenas. Daniel is a quality person and incredible performer. I feel bad that the company put him in a position where people on the outside might assume they were closer than they were.
When the video came out, I was surprised, maybe more surprised than I should have been, to discover that reality was not a part of the story. The company told the story the way they wanted it to be told. And then I remembered: that’s just what the company does — it tells stories. Maybe I experienced this one too personally to see it distorted, but it was not easy to take.
Connor fought a hell of a battle and eventually, the battle ended and he was laid to rest. I found myself Googling stories about him and finding pictures and videos of his wonderful community and how he obviously touched them as well. They all supported him, as did the Pittsburgh Pirates. This little eight-year-old touched more people in his short time than most will in a lifetime.
Triple H played the video at the arena for the talent to see. I couldn’t look at the screen, because I knew what happened the couple of times I watched from home, so I just listened. It was sad to watch, because my friend was gone. On top of that, it stung quite a bit to see how the company revised my history. Still, while the messages from Stephanie and Steve differed from the video, the smile on Connor’s face was the most meaningful thank you I could ever receive.
When this whole thing started, I never wanted anything other than to help Connor. So I kept my mouth closed and went on with my work. The company decided to form an organization in Connor’s name. “Connor’s Cure,” if you’d like to donate. After starting their own charity, they began playing that same video every night, at every event, which meant that as the ring announcer, I had to watch this video every single night and then talk about it afterwards to an audience of thousands of people. Between how sad it was not to have Connor anymore, and to be forced to watch a revised version of history — a story that was very personal and meaningful to me — the sting deepened. My boss even made a joke out of me making the announcement at the TV events. He would time me and threaten to cut my microphone if I did not finish the announcement fast enough. And this cavalier attitude was especially frustrating for me. After all, it was important to the company to show this video (bordering on propaganda), and the company wanted me to say something after — but make it snappy!
The Hall of Fame video package prominently showed Connor and John Cena in front of a Make-A-Wish banner. I love that foundation and everything they do to help kids. I knew that they couldn’t help everyone and always tried to help anyone I could who may not have gone through the proper channels, but still needed a little help and were right there at the arena. It was tough when I had to remember, this is business, and to the company, this story had gone from a genuine one, to business. I know Connor would love knowing that he is a Hall of Famer and that he’s famous! I’m happy that the terrible last few months of his precious life were just a little better than how they could have been. I miss him and I am glad he was a big part of my life. I see a lot of him in his little brother Jackson and the witty things he says and does to make me laugh. I’m also happy that he is in the Hall of Fame. There’s no doubt he could have ended up there later in life. He was brave, tough and an all around special person.
WWE told a version of the Ultimate Warrior’s story from last year. WWE told a version of Connor’s story. I just wish while telling stories, the company’s actions matched their words — they should actually care for the welfare of the people who actively care about the company and devote their lives to making it the best it can be. I wish instead of just paying for rehab of former talents, WWE would take care of the current talent who are on the road nonstop, with no breaks unless they are already injured. I wish they would appreciate those employees who have been there for years and helped them to grow, rather than fire them after they’ve been there “too long.” I watched the Hall of Fame and cried my eyes out. I bit my tongue and swallowed my pride for a long time, hoping everything stemmed from the kindness of their hearts. I thank all of the talent and employees who did and still do everything to help people, out of their kindness and not for business purposes. When I was reading Twitter this weekend, I felt like I was punched in the gut. Despite rewriting the story and using it to pat themselves on the back for being a standup organization, I wish Connor’s Cure and Connor’s induction into the Hall of Fame were driven by sincerity and not strategy. But sadly, it looks like they are just part of the “philanthropic” future of marketing: