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  • Writer's pictureChris Butera

The Surprising Parallels Between Voiceover and Professional Wrestling


A masked professional wrestler leaps through the air on top of his foes in front a packed indoor crowd.
Photo by Claudia Raya

If you know me, there are a couple of things you’ll figure out pretty quickly. I’m a voice actor, and I’m a lifelong fan of professional wrestling. I even had the pleasure of interning at WWE in college, spending the summer of 2013 watching Monday Night Raw next to the legendary ECW Commentator Joey Styles every week (great times).


At first glance, these things couldn't be more different. I thought that too until I was chatting with a fellow voice actor and industry veteran about a month ago (the names and identities will remain confidential to protect the innocent).


As this prolific voiceover artist was telling me stories of how the business was in the early days, I couldn’t help but notice comparisons to the old-school days of professional wrestling. We were wrapping up some stories about Andre the Giant, whom It turns out they worked with on commercials as a child when they said something that blew my mind.


“You should write an article about this.”


Baffled, I asked why.


“Because I don’t know anything about professional wrestling and this stuff is fascinating.”


Okay?


“If someone wrote an article comparing voiceover and professional wrestling, I would read the shit out of it.”


Challenge accepted.


Here’s the craziest thing I’ve ever written so far!


Voiceover in a Nutshell


The voice-acting world is a fun one. I stand in a booth and talk into a microphone, and then someone gives me money. Of course, it’s a lot more intensive than that, but to the average human, that’s what voiceover is. In actuality, voiceover is a unique skill in which an actor takes someone’s words off a page and brings it to life, recording the moment. Once they’ve done that, the voice actor and/or sound engineer puts it together and adds the finishing touches. Then they get paid.


Professional Wrestling in a Nutshell


In a nutshell, the pro wrestling business is basically two or more people committing multiple felonies in their underwear in front of an arena full of witnesses, but for some reason, nobody gets arrested 99.9% of the time.


In truth, professional wrestling is two or more athletes providing the illusion of fights and rivalries while making sure they protect themselves to keep doing what they’re doing. When they get on the mic, they are actors, comedians, and storytellers. In fact, the whole business is storytelling. Just like VO.


Tying the Room Together


As I said, voiceover and pro wrestling are oddly very similar industries. To quote Triple H, one of the great wrestling villains, or heels, of his day, “We tell stories with our bodies.” That quote never works in any context without sounding gross, but it’s true.


To really understand the connection between the two, we need to go back to the early days, when each business was a well-kept secret within its respective industry. Each business was protected, and not nearly as easy to break into as it is now.


The Golden Years of Voiceover


Voiceover stems from radio, particularly serial radio programs from pre-television times. Once TV and films came to the forefront, it became all about the screens. But when a lot of those on-camera actors got a little older or work got slow, they would pick up voice acting gigs between screen and theater work. Sometimes voiceover became their primary source of income this way as they’d get more voice work than on-camera jobs. Voiceover work came through their agent and only their agent.


Folks like Percy Rodriguez, for example, would voice movie trailers in between his main acting jobs. Others, like Ed Grover, who was the voice of Nissan for years, aged into it, and it became their primary source of income. And of course, there were the main-eventers in the animation sector (your Mel Blanc’s, June Forays, Daws Butlers, and Paul Frees').


The work was pretty much exclusive to New York or Los Angeles, you only got work through your agent, and pretty much all of it went to the same hundred or so actors worldwide (including dubbing and international work).


Breaking in was a different animal altogether. You only broke in one of two ways: your agent or you knew someone. That’s it. The money was great and the voice actors were tough. They wouldn’t just let anybody in. They needed to protect the business, and make sure you had the chops to do it, the good sense to understand what this thing of ours is, and keep quiet about it. Once you were in, they turned out to be the kindest souls you’d ever meet. And as for the number of people who even knew that voice acting was a job, that too was a very well-concealed secret.


To paraphrase The Wizard of Oz, the world paid no attention to the man, woman, or child behind the microphone. And that’s how the industry liked it.


The Golden Years of Wrestling


Pro wrestling shares a similar story. Originating in the days of the traveling carnival, wrestling evolved from strongman competitions, where a jacked individual would accept challenges from folks in the crowd who were actually plants and fellow carnies. This turned into quite the spectacle and broke away from the carnivals to become its own unique industry. Carnie terms are still used in professional wrestling (and my everyday vocabulary) to this day.


Breaking in was incredibly difficult. Back then, nobody knew how to become a wrestler. If you were big and athletic, you were either scouted by another wrestler or you met one and asked. If they thought you had a shot, they told you where to go. Once you got there, they took your money, beat the crap out of you for hours, and told you to come back tomorrow, where the same thing would happen again. The few black and blue souls who came back enough times were deemed worthy enough to grace the squared circle, got smartened up, and began proper training. Then the camaraderie developed.


We all know now that wrestling is the illusion of an intense battle between opponents but back then it was considered a very real sport. And wrestlers had to keep kayfabe, meaning they made sure their gimmicks, or characters, were being lived at all times.


You want to talk about method acting? Try being a wrestler in the 70s, pal.


For example, if you were born John Smith and raised on a dairy farm in a very Irish Catholic part of South Dakota but your gimmick was Vladimir Crowleynov, the Russian Satanic cult leader, you not only learned the history of Russia and the occult, you were fluent in Russian and carried the Satanic Bible with you at all times. You even knew occult spells and were occasionally seen “practicing rituals.” And if you REALLY wanted to get folks to believe in the gimmick, you had an inverted cross tattoo on your left shoulder to match the hammer and sickle on your right.


And since you were a big-time heel, you could only be seen with other heels, doing heelish things like going to bars until closing and getting into fights all over the country (during this time a chunk of the top heels carried guns, knives, and other means of protection with them at all times). If your best friend was “Majestic” Mike Bambino, Mr. America himself, and the top babyface in the world, you couldn’t interact with him ANYWHERE unless you were in the ring or making a scene at the local mall to promote Saturday’s match.


That is until later that night when you’d turn babyface and rush to Bamino’s aid during a heinous three-on-one beatdown by the Albuquerque Assassins, “finding God” in the process. This means for the next few years, you’d be carrying a different book, speaking your native tongue, performing new rituals, sporting some new tattoos, and feuding with the bad guys. You would then only be seen with other babyfaces doing babyface things such as helping old ladies cross the street and doing autograph signings for charity.


All that for the sake of keeping the business alive.


When it came down to the work, there was plenty of the country to go around so it was split into different sections or territories. Wrestlers were rotated out and traded from one territory to another after they started to cool down or a promoter wanted to do a hot angle with another promoter’s guys in another territory. Each territory had a regional champion, but the world champion (your Ric Flair's, Dusty Rhodes', Harley Races and Bruno Sammartino's) worked everywhere.


The big company in the United States at the time was the National Wrestling Alliance or the NWA. The heads of each territory owned a portion of the company, and would pool together the money from each event and split it up. Everybody got paid, everybody had enough to go around, and there were only a few hundred wrestlers in the world.

Things went down very similarly in other countries, but I don’t have enough knowledge of the nuances to speak about Japan, Mexico, and the rest of the pro wrestling world.


Voiceover and Pro Wrestling Today


These days, things are very different. Just like voiceover, anyone can wake up and announce to the world that they’re a professional wrestler, get training, and can get in the ring in a few months. And although both industries have more work than ever, there’s also more talent and the average income is pretty mixed depending on who you are. You don’t necessarily need an agent to get voiceover work, and while we don’t necessarily have territories, we have our large and smaller markets. As for wrestling, territories haven’t been around since WWE and WCW pretty much killed that system off in the 80s and 90s (the NWA does still exist, but it’s a shell of what it once was).


Speaking of WWE, like Hollywood’s blockbusters, major gaming companies, and national commercials (sometimes for WWE material), the most money is going to a handful of wrestlers and voice actors represented by big agents. Some wrestlers are also represented by talent agents, but there are other types of agents that they have that are exclusive to that business (usually another wrestler retired from in-ring action that works with active wrestlers on the card to help produce their match for the night). You’ll even see both on panels at the same conventions sometimes — sometimes even the same panels (I’d use John Cena as an example, but we can’t see him)!


In both areas, there’s a large independent, or “indie” scene, where folks get their work from direct marketing, pay-to-plays, and various freelancer sites (voice actors) or in varying small promotions (wrestlers). Both can make a decent living this way. These communities are a lot more supportive than the old days and the wrestlers and voice actors training you are not as tough on new talent as they were back then. Neither business is a secret anymore.


That said, the quality of talent in both worlds can sometimes leave something to be desired, as you find plenty of folks in both arenas that refuse senior advice (like training and professional demos) and create odd echo chamber cliques. Some of them even become trainers/ coaches themselves. Many veterans of both businesses are not crazy about this stuff and feel it dilutes the industry and is the cause of declining pay rates.


The Differences Between Voiceover and Professional Wrestling


Although both are niches in the entertainment industry, there are stark and obvious differences between voice actors and professional wrestlers. For one, most of us don’t throw ourselves onto hard surfaces or get hit with steel chairs and other foreign objects on a regular basis (at least the voiceover artists I know don’t). We go into a booth and record stuff. And unless there’s a client attending a session, we don’t really have an audience.


Our training also could not be more different, although both businesses rely on varying levels of acting and character work. Wrestlers run the ropes, cut promos, and work on their moves. Voice actors do breathing exercises, pronunciation, dialect, delivery, various reading techniques, inflections, and other things.


Although they’re both done for the sake of promotion, our promos could not be any different. Whereas a wrestler is trying to sell a match by insulting their opponent, a voiceover artist is trying to sell a product, movie, or show by telling you to check it out because it’s awesome (we will not be taking on Tide Pods in a steel cage this Saturday at Summer Smash Fest in the George Washington Arena for the world heavyweight championship, where we’ll beat them clean in the middle of the ring for all the world to see. We will also not be dropping the big elbow onto Tide Pods from the top of said steel cage, nor will we be putting Tide Pods through a table).


Voice actors are also not usually on the road, we work from home and/or a local recording studio. Wrestlers, on the other hand, live on the road. The top jobs are on TV, where you’ll actually see these people perform. As for the top voice actors, we’re also on TV, and everywhere else, but you can’t see us (Hey, we DO have something in common with John Cena)!


Leaving it All in the Ring (and Booth)


When you take a look at voiceover and pro wrestling at a glance, they might seem like polar opposites but are more kindred spirits than you might realize. Both have similar origins in that they stemmed from one industry and branched out to form their own, and their inner workings were even kept under wraps until the last couple of decades. They’ve also changed in similar ways, where both areas that were once difficult to break into now are pretty easy for anybody to enter (levels of success will vary).


That said, they do have their share of differences such as training techniques, how and where you work, and the need for travel. And although you don’t hear about voice actors becoming professional wrestlers, you will see professional wrestlers transition to on-camera acting and voice acting (eg: John Cena’s many car commercials). There are, however, voiceover-adjacent jobs in pro wrestling such as ring announcers and commentators.


That being said, there should absolutely be a voiceover world heavyweight championship belt defended in every market.


Looking for a friendly, conversational voice for your project? Fill out my project contact form or shoot me an email to get in touch today!


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