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Howard Finkel Was the Voice of a Generation

The Fink boomed the names of every wrestler, big or small, as they walked to the ring. For WWE viewers, he’s been there from the beginning.

Ringer illustration

Howard Finkel, the WWE’s first full-time employee and longtime ring announcer, died Thursday at the age of 69. “The Fink,” as he was affectionately known, accepted a job with the then-WWF in 1975 and remained involved with the promotion right up to the present. All the other golden greats from whichever era captured your heart and solidified your fandom—“Superstar” Billy Graham and Bruno Sammartino in the late 1970s, Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage in the cartoon-hero 1980s, Bret Hart and Steve Austin in the “Attitude”-infused 1990s—left the promotion for extended periods of time, but not Finkel. Finkel, whose professional-caliber pipes lent gravitas to even the least epic WrestleMania match, settled in as the consummate “company man” at a company characterized by constant change, personnel churn, and brand reinvention. He was there for more than 40 years, he did the work, and boy did we love to hear him.

That drawn-out, exaggerated tenor voice framed every happening in the WWE universe. His full-throated “AND NEW” declamation punctuated each title change: “AND NEW INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPION,” “AND NEW WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION,” etc. Fans would linger after early 1980s Madison Square Garden shows to hear him read the next card scheduled for that famed arena. CM Punk, looking to enhance his credentials as the world’s best wrestler, employed Finkel as his personal announcer at 2011’s Survivor Series. And Finkel eventually wound up in the cast of the WWE’s old-timers reality show, Legends’ House, for the company’s streaming channel. “There were so many worthy in-ring competitors that I thought certainly would be more deserving than myself ... but after further discussion, it made perfect sense,” he said in an interview. That captures the core of Finkel’s character: He belonged on the mic, standing in front of the crowd while also standing behind all the worthy competitors he introduced.

Of course, he didn’t start off announcing matches. He landed his job at WWE—then the WWF—after badgering some event center and arena managers until they put him in touch with Vincent K. McMahon, a.k.a. Vince Jr., who put him to work doing a variety of odd jobs. “Back in those days, we were soliciting organizations to run live events,” he told veteran wrestling journalist Bill Apter. “I would take them by the hand and tell them they could make money, more money than any bake sale, take them through the whole promotional campaign, order the tickets.” While in that role, he worked right alongside Vince Jr. in an operation that was very “mom and pop,” very much driven by phone sales and personal connections. When the McMahons needed an announcer willing to go overboard on the wrestler introductions at their increasing number of arena events—somebody tied to their organization, somebody loyal, somebody who could sell the product to the fans—they promoted from within and gave Finkel the additional role for which he would become famous.

It was kismet. “As time went, I explained to Vince Jr. how I did public address announcing in high school and went to a broadcasting school,” he explained to Apter. His first announcing gig was a card in Worcester, Massachusetts, then cards in New Haven, where he lived, and finally, after Vince Jr. convinced Vince Sr. that Finkel had what it took, he debuted at Madison Square Garden in January 1977.

The rest, one supposes, is history—his history and ours, intertwined, as he put over talents both great and small. Finkel’s role was quite different than that of his later-arriving colleague Gene Okerlund, an everyman interviewer who, small and normal-looking as he might have been, interjected himself into nearly every angle and found himself name-dropped, as the euphonious “Mean Gene,” in nearly every memorable interview given by the likes of Jesse Ventura, Hulk Hogan, and Randy Savage. Finkel, by contrast, focused on lending his voice to the talent, highlighting their slow walks to the ring in a sport that was becoming much more about colorful entrances and pre-match antics. During the company’s first heyday in the 1980s, he combined credibility with cartoonishness.

The credibility came, as much as anything, from his extraordinarily long tenure with the company. He wasn’t an external talent imported at high cost to attract attention with a made-to-order catchphrase, like when WCW invested in the services of longtime boxing announcer Michael “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble” Buffer in the 1990s. Instead, he built his profile over time, leaning into the delivery that eventually became the company’s house style. And he showed up at every WrestleMania from its inception in 1985 until 2016, even when his work schedule had dwindled to one or two appearances a year. And his introductions will linger in the record books, as when he called out the stars in front of 93,000 announced fans at WrestleMania III—the event he claimed as his signature highlight.

Through it all, he kept logging time in the office. WWE was a tight-knit, family-run business for a very long time, and certain lifers—like wrestlers-turned-ring agents Pat Patterson and Gerald Brisco, and executive producer Kevin Dunn—wore multiple hats, performing assorted tasks at the company’s Connecticut headquarters. When former WWE and current AEW announcer Justin Roberts, then a teenage über-fan who read the company’s monthly magazine from cover to cover during the early 1990s, found a phone number buried at the bottom of the masthead and saw Finkel’s name there as well, he figured he’d call it and see what would happen. After all, he had already called in to stump Finkel, famed for his exceptional memory, on a radio segment called “Out-Think the Fink,” eventually receiving an “I Out-Thinked the Fink” T-shirt for his troubles. “When the receptionist answered, I politely asked for Howard Finkel,” he wrote in his autobiography, Best Seat in the House. “Then there was that distinct voice that I recognized from television. I froze and quickly gathered my thoughts. I would call Howard numerous times throughout the year and ask him about the various rumors I would hear from my friends and these other sources.”

Imagine that: A young kid, digging through a company’s glossy fan magazine, picked up the phone and ended up speaking candidly with an announcer heard by millions on television and pay-per-view. Howard Finkel would continue taking those calls for years, eventually telling Roberts he expected to hear more from him in the future. Roberts, like many others, developed his own signature Howard Finkel impression before he landed his own gig in the WWE in 2002 (Finkel had politely rebuffed Roberts’s overtures in 1999, noting that he, Tony Chimel, and Lilian Garcia had the announcing duties covered). “I always loved hearing him,” Roberts wrote. “He had a very distinct way of dramatizing the wrestlers’ names. In years to come, when I made big introductions, my immediate superiors would mockingly refer to me as ‘Howard,’ meaning my intro was too long, too big, or both.”

Roberts’s time at WWE was met with a lot of criticism and some humiliation, par for the course for most of the talent passing through such a stressful and volatile environment. But Finkel never seemed to complain, never got his name in the dirt sheets, and did what he was told. In 1990, when the company needed a corrupt crony, a veritable “Fink,” to accept a bribe from Ted DiBiase to allow the “Million-Dollar Man” to announce the entrance of then–Intercontinental Champion Kerry Von Erich, in whose match he would later interfere, Finkel took the money and stepped aside. And when Finkel was attacked by the vicious Kamala in 1992, he became part of a multiyear feud with Kamala’s puny manager Harvey Wippleman, a long-simmering struggle that saw Wippleman rip off Finkel’s tuxedo at WrestleMania X in 1994 and Finkel make his in-ring debut against Wippleman a year later in a “tuxedo match” in which he stripped the manager down to his underwear. It was silly, certainly, but Finkel always did what was best for business.

Finkel’s involvement in story lines would evolve as the business changed, becoming more aggressive and in-your-face during the late 1990s. Balding badly—so much so that he struck me as a different person from his early-’80s likeness—he became embroiled in a feud with Jeff Jarrett that saw Jarrett shave Finkel’s head and X-Pac, defending Finkel’s honor, shaving Jarrett’s head at the conclusion of a “hair versus hair” match at SummerSlam 1998, a wrestling staple (Finkel would keep his thinning locks closely cropped thereafter, and complemented with a goatee, much like the era’s signature figures Steve Austin and Bill Goldberg).

The “Attitude Era” saw non-wrestlers of all sorts plunged into in-ring feuds. Jim Ross, whose second autobiographical volume Under the Black Hat discusses this period of time, was subjected to various humiliations, “blading himself” in feuds against the likes of Steve Austin and even fellow announcer Michael Cole. Ross was perplexed by this, as well as by skits in which Vince McMahon would openly mock him, because it seemed vindictive and unrelated to the core wrestling product. But if Finkel minded his treatment during this period, he never complained publicly. He found himself drawn into a role supporting rising-star heel Chris Jericho, who assisted Finkel with winning back (in story line, at least) his lead announcer role from Tony Chimel. The feud had its twists and turns, with Finkel assisting Jericho in a feud against MMA star Ken Shamrock. After Finkel, at Jericho’s behest, donned a mask and unfairly officiated a match between Shamrock and Jericho’s “enforcer” Curtis Hughes that Hughes won, Jericho “gave” Finkel to Hughes as a reward—one of many weird, vaguely racist and sexually suggestive (in a prison-rape sense) angles of that edgier time—and Hughes proceeded to “lose” Finkel’s services in a game of poker, transferring his “ownership” to the Acolyte Protection Agency. Finkel’s in-ring run came full circle in 2002, when the veteran announcer, still working as a “heel,” feuded with Lilian Garcia over the lead announcer position and ended up losing to her in a “tuxedo versus evening gown” match that saw him stripped down to a pair of red briefs in an ironic callback to his earlier feud against Harvey Wippleman.

After nearly three full-time decades with the company, Finkel stepped back from regular on-camera work, appearing sporadically as an attraction, a nostalgic throwback to the company’s great heydays. The fans still wanted to see him as much as possible, though. When CM Punk was due to face John Cena in an August 2011 match, Smashing Pumpkins frontman (and current NWA owner) Billy Corgan tweeted that he hoped a match of that caliber would be announced by the likes of Howard Finkel. Justin Roberts, who was actually set to announce that particular match, wrote in his autobiography about attempting to do his Howard Finkel impression backstage for Corgan, who remained unimpressed. When Finkel actually appeared to announce Punk’s entrance three months later at Survivor Series, WWE acknowledged what Corgan implicitly understood: there was simply no substitute for the real thing.

Finkel’s role on 2014’s Legends’ House was, as always, understated yet essential. He served as a kind of chubby sidekick on the periphery of all the major story lines, such as a heated feud between “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Tony Atlas, Roddy Piper’s various mood swings, and Pat Patterson’s decision to end decades of speculation and publicly state that he was gay. Finkel, struggling to keep pace in a Zumba class and cracking wise at the dinner table, was a constant presence, near the fray but not in it. The show, “worked” in the way that all reality television is, nevertheless revealed one key aspect of Finkel’s personality: This guy, the definitive company man and utility player, upset nobody and was at least tolerated by everyone.

Even Finkel’s passing was understated. He had faded from view, ceasing even his limited engagements with the WWE in 2017 and issuing his final tweet in April 2018, mourning the death of Bruno Sammartino, who was still drawing fans into Madison Square Garden when Finkel began working for the company nearly four decades earlier. Finkel’s death generated the expected outpouring of social media grief regarding the loss of a longtime player in the wrestling business, but what drew my attention was its staggering consistency, as was the case with the man himself: He was uniformly described as a nice person, a great mentor, an announcing legend. Some wrestling greats might be remembered for their off-stage brawls or self-destructive behaviors, but Howard Finkel was the type of person who could call champions to the ring while also finding time to take calls from an inquisitive young wrestling nerd who wanted to ask him about whether the Bushwhackers were going to sign with WCW.

Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at www.oliverbateman.com.