As one half of OTT Wrestling’s announce team Aonghus Óg McAnally is the play by play voice we hear each month from Dublin’s Tivoli Theatre. An accomplished 3rd generation actor and artistic director of Rise Productions, McAnally discusses his love of all things wrestling. We also discuss his famous family heritage and how the acting world was always on his path in life. Sitting Front Row was delighted with our interviewee’s honest and candid answers so sit back, relax and enjoy as you read on.
Firstly Aonghus thanks for taking the time to do this interview with Sitting Front Row. Before we delve into all things wrestling, and OTT in particular, lets start with your famous family roots. What was it like to grow up in the McAnally household as a kid? Was acting and entertaining always something that was in the blood for you? Absolutely. I’m a 3rd generation actor and there was never any question but that I’d go into the business. I can’t even remember a time when acting wasn’t on my radar, there wasn’t a moment when I “decided to become” an actor, it’s just who I am. My entire family are in the business: my Grandad Ray McAnally worked with some huge names, De Niro, Neeson, Sean Penn, Jeremy Irons, John Gielgud, the list goes on, and he had won 3 Best Actor BAFTAs by the time he died. His wife, my Granny Ronnie Masterson had a career on stage and screen spanning 8 decades. My Mam, Billie Morton was a member of the Abbey company and toured extensively across America with them, and my Dad, Aonghus Snr. was a massive TV and Radio star throughout the 80s and 90s. His brother Conor and his sister Niamh are both TV directors too, so it’s safe to say it’s the family business.
What age were you when you began to watch wrestling? Who were your favourite performers to watch back then? I’m just about old enough to remember the old World of Sport stuff on ITV, and I remember getting Big Daddy annuals for Christmas, but I wasn’t a regular fan. I got properly into wrestling in the late 80s and early 90s. Back then you could get WWE content on Channel 4 and on SKY when it first came to Ireland, before it moved to Sky Sports and you had to pay. There’s a famous story in our house about me driving home through the night with my Dad from a gig in Connemara, and just monologuing at him non-stop for the entire 5 hour journey about all the wrestlers and their various feuds and angles. In terms of my favourites, I seem to have had pretty good taste for a kid, as I was big into Mr. Perfect, Jake The Snake and Ted DiBiase. We would have had a lot of the old LJN dolls and Hasbro figures in the house, particularly any ones that came with “accessories,” so toys like Hacksaw and his 2×4 and Jake with Damien stick out in my memory. I also remember going to a house show at The Point in 1992, and my Aunt guessed the wrestlers would be staying at the Westbury, so she brought us there after the show and I got autographs from people like The Bushwhackers, Paul Bearer and Kerry Von Erich. Virgil was a little too “under the weather” to sign anything shall we say, and brilliantly, Undertaker stayed in character and scared the bejaysus out of my 5 year old brother shouting “GET OUT OF MY WAY!” when asked for an autograph!
Was part of the attraction for you the entertainment side of the business, the athleticism or a combination of both? I think as a kid you just enjoy it because it’s larger than life superhero stuff. I drifted away from wrestling through my teenage years in the 90s as we didn’t have the sports channels, and it was only in 2000 that I got back into it. I was finishing up my first year in Drama School, and my brother gave me The Rock’s autobiography. The whole 3rd generation similarity grabbed me, and I started to realise just how close acting and wrestling were, and that kickstarted a massive resurgence in interest. I grabbed everything I could get my hands on, biographies, autobiographies, histories, anything wrestling related and read it all. I’ve about 40 or 50 books on wrestling now. For a long time after I finished up my acting degree I thought seriously about doing a masters in wrestling.
In 2016 you were introduced publicly as one half of the OTT Wrestling announce team but this wasn’t the beginning of your association with OTT. Can you give us a little insight in to how you first became involved with the promotion and did you do some wrestling training with Main Stage Wrestling (MSW) in Dublin? This is the part I always find funny, as there was a bit of a backlash from certain quarters when the commentary team was announced. Don’t get me wrong, the OTT fans are some of the best in the world and a massive part of our success, and I’m eternally grateful for their support, but there’s a tiny hardcore of folk who could probably do with spending a little less time out-nerding each other on social media, and a bit more time living their lives in the real world. So, some people were upset that two members of the “Ward Section” were now the announce team. What baffled me was that anyone, particularly those who think of themselves as “smart marks,” (which is the greatest oxymoron of all) could think that one of the hottest promotions in the world would just randomly select two people from the crowd and stick them on commentary. Apart from the fact that Don was an award winning stand up comedian and radio presenter who had hosted the biggest wrestling podcast in the country, OTT and I had been in a working relationship since their earliest shows. I’d been on the payroll since 2015, and my own company, Rise Productions, had hired OTT guys for stunt work and fight coordinating. With Don’s background in radio, and with me doing a huge amount of voiceover work, we were just the right fit, and thankfully most people feel we’re adding to what is an already great product. And yes, part of that work with Rise did lead to me training at MSW, for nearly 2 years now. At 36 I doubt I’ll be making a run at the title anytime soon, but I really enjoy it – even the bumps!
You made a brief in ring appearance a couple of years before the announcing position delivering a stunner inside the squared circle at the Spiegeltent I believe? Being a trained actor, how did this experience differ from the normal feel you get threading the boards? Was the rush of doing this a different experience or would you see a lot of similarities with acting roles you’d played in the past? Hitting that stunner with Rocky Mac is one of the highlights of my career. In 20 years of acting, very few experiences have come close. It was the first time OTT had played the Fringe and we were sold out at close to 600 fans, many of whom were from the theatre community rather than OTT regulars, so the pressure was on. It’s very different to the kind of performing I’m used to, normally we’d have at least 4 weeks to rehearse and perfect a play before putting it in front of an audience, whereas with wrestling, there’s a lot more improvisation and “calling it in the ring.” It was an incredible buzz to be in a ring in front of that crowd, but a little terrifying too as it’s so far out of my comfort zone. My main concern that night was not to mess it up for the boys. We had a lot riding on that show and it was a great opportunity to take things a little more mainstream and get new eyes on the product. Joe had never seen me work at that stage so he didn’t know if I could bump or not, and the one thing he kept stressing was the importance of the timing on the double stunner. As it happens, a filmmaker friend of mine was sitting ringside that night, and caught the action in slow motion. Myself and Rocky synchronised perfectly on it, which I was delighted about.
Of course we can’t speak about the OTT announce team without mentioning your partner Don Marnell. Is it fair to say that you guys are as good as you are because of how you play off of one another in the announce position? Well firstly, myself and Don are mates, which is a huge help. He’s incredibly knowledgeable about wrestling generally and OTT specifically, and is one of the sharpest witted people I’ve ever met. He’s also just plain wet-your-pants funny, and I often have a hard time keeping it together calling matches with him. I think we have a good dynamic between us, and we’re settling into our roles a little more each show – don’t forget we’ve only been at this for 6 months – but I think Don as the colour heel and me as the play-by-play face compliment each other well.
Do you have an announcer past or present who inspires you when you step into your announcer role each month? I’m old school, and though I’m a massive fan of both Jesse Ventura and in particular Bobby Heenan, given my role with OTT I have been studying a lot of Gorilla Monsoon. He’s probably the closest reference point to what I’m trying to achieve each show. I guess it’s hard not to have echoes or influences of Jim Ross somewhere in the back of your mind too. You try and bring your own personality to it, and maybe try to improve on what you see as imperfections from other promotions, but ultimately my job is simply to help tell the story in the ring, help get the emotions across to the audience, and to have the good sense to shut up at times and let the workers do what they do best. In terms of current WWE shows, I think Michael Cole is underrated, I think Corey Graves is the real deal, and I’m enjoying the freshness of Mauro Ranallo.
2016 was a big year for OTT and wrestling in general in Ireland and the UK. For example who would have thought OTT would have a surprise guest appearance from Finn Balor (Fergal Devitt) on December 17th at “The Dream Before Christmas” in Dublin’s Tivoli Theatre. I felt the floor shake as the fans in attendance erupted around me that night. Did you feel a sense of unity that night that solidified OTT as a whole as Finn spoke and what was going through your mind when he was in the ring? What a lot of people don’t know is that myself and Fergal go back 15 years. When he and Paul Tracey opened up the (wrestling) school in Bray, I was the very first trainee through their doors. I trained for 4 or 5 months as I finished up drama school, and then as my acting career thankfully took off I had to step back from the wrestling. It’s funny, my last day there was Becky Lynch’s first, and it was also the day I gave Sean “Maxer Brennan” Guinness his first match. I told Fergal I’d just signed a big contract with the Abbey and wouldn’t be around for a while and he said “That’s no problem, just jump in the ring for one more match before you go” and proceeded to beat the ever-living jaysus out of me! One particular sequence involved a whole lot of knife edge chops in the corner, and I had his handprint on my chest for a full two weeks after! We’ve stayed in touch over the years and I always meet up with his parents when WWE come to town, so it was pretty incredible to finally share a ring with him properly, even if it did take 15 years.
“The Dream Before Christmas” also featured the unforgettable match of Ricochet vs Will Ospreay. That must have been a fun match for you and Don Marnell to call? I’ve never seen anything like it. Talking to the two lads after, they both felt it was better than their infamous BOSJ match, and they put that down to how amazing the OTT crowd is. That was one of those matches where most of the moves are so innovative they don’t even have names, and they’re coming at you so thick and fast that you couldn’t call them anyway, even if you tried, and so you just let the boys work their magic and trust that the audience is getting everything they need. Our job as commentators is to help get the in ring talent over, and those two simply didn’t need any help.
Of course 2016 had many other highlights. There was WrestleCon in October which featured Marty Scurll vs Ryan Smile 2 as well as appearances from such imported talents as X Pac, Abyss, Grado and Chris Hero amongst others. Who can forget the “Invasion Supershow” or The Father Ted inspired card “AH TED”. What were some highlights for you from 2016? Ah Ted was amazing because it was the last show before we introduced the audience cap. The Tivoli atmosphere feels like a pressure cooker at the best of times, but there was close to 700 people in that night and it was electric. Luther winning the title was an emotional moment, and perfect long term booking in my opinion. Night 2 of WrestleCon was pretty special, and it was the first time myself and Don felt we were really hitting our stride. I really enjoyed the Limerick and Galway shows we ran because of how passionate the fans were straight out of the gates, and having Cabana over was pretty cool as we struck up a good friendship. But more so than the in-ring highlights, it’s the road trips with Hero or Scott Hall or the dinners with XPac or Marty Scurll that stand out for me. It’s a privilege to be working with such world class talent, and it’s a pleasure to hang out with them.
Last year we saw Pete Dunne come into his own and eventually become a two time NLW Champion. Already this year we have seen how hard work pays off with the emergence of Ryan Smile who has stepped up to the plate and become the current NLW Champion. What are your predictions for Smile in 2017? The entire UK and Irish scene has been turned on its head in the last year, so all bets are off and there are huge opportunities out there for all our guys and girls. Ryan is deservedly seeing a resurgence all across the UK, and for a guy with his talents, the sky is the limit. However, he’s going to have a lot of hungry wrestlers biting at his ankles looking to take that NLW title away. It’s a really exciting time for everyone, fans and crew alike.
Are there any as yet under utilised talents that you see big things for in 2017 in OTT? Rocky Mac is the obvious one. He’s the current MSW champion and the guy just oozes charisma. He connects with an audience so naturally, which is something you either have or you don’t, and he can do it all in the ring, plus he’s in the best shape of his life. Damien Corvin is a guy who I think could walk straight into a main roster spot anywhere in the world right now and not be out of place. And in terms of new talent coming through, keep an eye out for Scotty Davis: a high flyer with an incredible amateur wrestling pedigree. The smart money is on him following Devitt and Devlin to WWE in a very short space of time.
April 2017 sees OTT host its biggest card to date in the 2,000 seat capacity National Stadium. 1,200 seats sold out in the first 20 minutes of the tickets going on sale. You must be extremely excited about this event? What are you most looking forward to on the night? Walking out there and looking out at 2000 OTT fans will be incredible. How Joe Cabray has grown this company to be a legitimate global player is nothing short of miraculous, and he deserves so much credit for it. Don’t forget, on our whole island we’ve a population less than that of Manchester; that’s how much we’re punching above our weight. And knowing OTT there’ll be a few surprises on the night, so I’m looking forward to hearing those megapops.
Hypotheticlly if Vince McMahon came calling and offered you an announce position with WWE which brand would you choose, Raw, Smackdown, NXT or 205 Live? With the current form of AJ and Cena, plus the fact that I’d get to call Becky’s matches, I’d probably have to go with Smackdown. But then again, who says Vince won’t be offering me a job to announce OTT soon…?
Aonghus thanks once again for taking the time to answer these questions and best of luck in 2017!
Sitting Front Row