Ring of Honor has been a breeding ground for some of the best young in-ring performers in wrestling over the past 15 years. From the company's early talent like Daniel Bryan to CM Punk, and more recent performers such as Seth Rollins and Kevin Owens, ROH has found an ability to cultivate future stars better than any non-WWE promotion in the world.
But until recently, ROH hadn't been pressed to duplicate those efforts in finding talent outside the ring. Longtime play-by-play commentator Kevin Kelly, who formerly served a similar role with the WWE during some of its brightest moments, joined the company in 2010 and has been the voice of Ring of Honor ever since. Kelly has developed a relationship with ROH and its fans over the past seven years, calling events for the company all over the world in the U.K., Japan, and throughout the United States.
Although Kelly continues to thrive at the announce table to this day, he started the search for his future replacement three years ago -- and as his role with the company changes and evolves, he may have found a future star of his own.
"It's kind of a long, winding road how I got to Ring of Honor," said Ian Riccaboni, who, as of Feb. 25th, assumed a new role as lead play-by-play announcer for ROH.
The beginning of Riccaboni's broadcasting career couldn't have been much different from where he's ended up, despite the fact that it's been his dream to become a wrestling broadcaster since he was four or five years old. Riccaboni's first shot in broadcasting came when his friend Kris Fried started a public access show in their hometown of Allentown, PA in 2010. Riccaboni was the co-host of the show, and pulled double duty as the bass guitar for the house band.
"So how I got started, it kind of all started because my friend Kris Fried was pursuing stand-up comedy," said Riccaboni. "He worked on 'Saturday Night Live' and 'Conan,' and because of that public access show, that really started the ball rolling, which is kind of a crazy way to think about it.
"If it wasn't for that show, I don't know if I ever would've ended up at Ring of Honor."
One of his other passions manifested around the same time, as Riccaboni started writing for a Phillies blog. It was through this endeavor that Riccaboni, through his contacts with the public access show, helped start a Phillies Nation TV show on Service Electric, a local outlet in Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. Riccaboni's main beat for Phillies Nation was to cover famous Phillies fans, one of whom happened to be former ECW wrestler The Blue Meanie.
The Blue Meanie, whose real name is Brian Heffron, asked Riccaboni to come out to the Monster Factory in Paulsboro, New Jersey, for the interview. While he was there, Riccaboni couldn't help but pick the brain of Monster Factory owner Danny Cage while he had the chance.
"While we were there I asked [Heffron] and Danny Cage and said, 'hey, if somebody like me was interested in becoming a pro wrestling announcer, or if my friend was, how would we go about doing this?' Riccaboni said. "He said, 'start coming to the events. Learn how to tear down and set up a ring. Get to know the guys and we'll talk.'"
For the next year, that's exactly what Riccaboni did -- he paid his dues like anyone else coming up in wrestling, learning the business from the inside as he got some reps in on commentary. Eventually, Kelly hosted a seminar for the Monster Factory wrestlers, and Riccaboni asked Cage if it was alright for him to attend. He got cleared, walked into the room in a suit, and instantly caught Kelly's eye without saying a word.
"Kevin was giving some real great coaching until finally he said, 'alright guy in the suit, it's your turn. Sell me some tickets,'" Riccaboni said. "After the seminar Kevin approached me and said, 'I can't guarantee anything, but I know that we're looking to build a bench.'"
As ROH planned out a few different online projects, like their Future of Honor prospects show and Women of Honor concept, Riccaboni was positioned to become one of the voices identified with the product. By July 2014, his foot was in the door. Riccaboni impressed early on, and slowly, but successfully, transitioned from the world of baseball to professional wrestling.
It may come as some surprise, but moving away from baseball actually made his job easier.
"One of my horror stories writing my book, 100 Greatest Phillies of All Time," recalled Riccaboni. "I set up an interview with Hall of Famer, Senator Jim Bunning through a baseball card convention. Everything was hunky dory but that was an experience I won't forget for all the wrong reasons.
"Meanwhile, working with Ring of Honor, everybody checks their egos at the door."
As a new father to his now seven-month old son Zach, Riccaboni is able to channel his love of both wrestling and his progeny to forge relationships with the talent that help him to perform his job.
"One of the coolest things about Ring of Honor and one of the biggest differences that I've noticed, when I say family environment sometimes it's very literal," Riccaboni said. "It's really cool being a new dad and almost kind of having a support group. The Young Bucks, Christopher Daniels, Bobby Fish, Beer City Bruiser, Vinny Marseglia, all these guys are dads and it's really neat to find somebody else who's going through the same things and the excitement and challenges of being a dad."
- Ian Riccaboni (@IanRiccaboni) June 18, 2017
Riccaboni continued to learn from Kelly as he worked towards his ultimate goal of calling bigger shows. Kelly would help him with subtle things like timing and storytelling and, perhaps most importantly, when to let the work in the ring tell the story.
"The key is to talk less, react more," Riccaboni said. "There are very limited situations where describing what's happening is more powerful than actually seeing it and feeling it. It's one thing to hear it -- it's another thing to see it, [and] an even more powerful thing to feel it."
Kelly's mentorship of Riccaboni culminated in a conversation that put things in perspective for the aspiring broadcaster.
"I always thought Kevin was joking when he would say... I remember after a pay-per-view last year he pulled me aside, and he's only been like a big brother, a mentor," said Riccaboni. "He pulled me aside and we were rooming together, and he gave me the Lion King speech he said, 'someday, everything that the light touches will be yours.'
"I thought, that's great. Maybe five years, 10 years, whenever Kevin's ready to wrap up or move on or go to a different part of his career, that'd be cool."
One year later, Kelly stepped down as the lead play-by-play announcer of ROH, moving into a part-time role for big events.
With that, Riccaboni became the new voice of Ring of Honor.
"It did shock me how quick it came, but I'm really thankful for a lot of the things fans didn't see," Riccaboni said. "The hours that Kevin would spend with me on the phone. The production guidance that he would give on dark matches that have never aired. I gotta give a lot of credit to Kevin for getting me as prepared as I am and getting me in the position I'm in.
"Before I got the news officially, Kevin had made an overture, but I thought it was just him giving me good advice again, and him keeping me motivated. It was a few days later that everything started to break. I had gotten a phone call before the news broke explaining the situation. It's simultaneously thrilling and it's a dream come true to be a lead guy on a wrestling broadcast. It's also really cool too that Kevin's still there. Your first instinct is, 'I'm getting this once in a lifetime opportunity, am I ready for it?' One of the first people to call me was Kevin, to reassure me that I was ready."
- Ian Riccaboni (@IanRiccaboni) April 2, 2017
The move was bittersweet for Riccaboni, and also more jarring than just the reduction of Kevin Kelly's role. In a short window, ROH's color commentators Steve Corino and Nigel McGuinness each separately left ROH for different opportunities in the WWE. But in the time before the departures were made official, Riccaboni developed a close bond with Corino over their mutual love of the Phillies.
"I wish [Steve Corino] all the best. I text Steve every day about baseball and very infrequently about wrestling," Riccaboni said. "Steve was one of the first guys that was very instrumental in welcoming me to the locker room. He was the first guy that independently approached me and asked, 'hey, we're really excited that you're here.
"So specifically, [with] Steve, I was very sad to hear that he went. [But] he's a born leader. He's a great coach. Steve's somebody we'll certainly miss, but me personally, and I think I could speak for everybody, we're really happy with the opportunities he's created."
Riccaboni has yet to find a full-time partner with Corino (now a coach at the WWE Performance Center) and McGuinness (a commentator on NXT and WWE U.K. events) no longer with the company. He's taken turns working alongside Kelly, Bob Evans, Silas Young, and, on an increasing basis, veteran wrestler Colt Cobana.
At the moment, Riccaboni isn't too worried about finding a long-term partner. Instead, he's focused on becoming the star Kelly always thought he'd be.
"One of the things that Kevin did so well, and continues to do so well, is having that very familial relationship with Ring of Honor's audience. For me, I'm looking to build and establish that trust, and make my voice a familiar voice for the Ring of Honor fans to hear," Riccaboni said. "Every day that I wake up and I think about Ring of Honor I get really excited to call Ring of Honor matches. In terms of ambition, my ambition is to be the best Ring of Honor broadcaster. I hope I've found a home with Ring of Honor."