The Latest Episodes of INSIGHT with Chris Van Vliet
Jan. 20, 2022

Tom Phillips Is Making An IMPACT After Being Released From WWE

Tom Phillips Is Making An IMPACT After Being Released From WWE

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Tom Hannifan (@tomhannifan) is a play-by-play broadcaster and TV host best known for his time in WWE where he worked under the name Tom Phillips. He is currently signed to Impact Wrestling as their main commentator with D-Lo Brown. Tom joins Chris Van Vliet to talk about his time working for WWE, what his plans are now as a sport broadcaster, the pressures of calling matches on live TV, what he learned working with Michael Cole, making his Impact debut at Hard To Kill and more!

I think a lot of people were surprised when they heard you on IMPACT at Hard To Kill. But this just goes to show how talented you are. You just went in there like you’ve always been at IMPACT Wrestling.

“That’s nice of you to say. I think that because I was off the grid for about 6 months, and that was by design. I was talking to Renee [Paquette] about it, the amount of content that you have to be up to speed on every week in WWE, it’s like 6 regular weekly shows that you have to watch every single week. Then there is the travel and the whole grind of it, it’s a lot. So when I got released, it was like ok I don’t now have to watch all this stuff. It was elective if I have felt like it, and I haven’t, but at the same time it was like I don’t have to do all of this, I don’t have to spend all this time doing this. So it gave me a second to breathe and then step away from wrestling. Also it made me realize that I do miss this, it is a passion and I have spent a lot of time working on this. So alright, I still want to be in this.”

You were the constant in WWE for like 9 years. The thing is that you were on Raw, SmackDown, NXT and you just fit right in.

“One of the best experiences I had was at NXT UK, which is criminally underrated. Just having that opportunity to briefly be working over there in the United Kingdom with the extraordinary group of talented people that they have over there. Everybody that they have on that show wants to be there. That for me was an opportunity at the end of 2019. I had been taken off of SmackDown, I did 205 and NXT UK for a while, and then in 2020 I came back for the Rumble. But I just prided myself on staying up to date on everything, because at one point or another, I had to cover everything.” 

You had to keep up to date on all the WWE shows! I can’t imagine there is time to keep up with anything else, yet alone another wrestling program. So you go to IMPACT wrestling and you know a lot of the people there because they are your former colleagues, but it was like you had always been there. How much prep did you have to do?

“It was kind of 50/50. I was legitimately a fan, I grew up a fan of The Motor City Machine Guns, Samoa Joe, I loved the X Division. I remember Magnus’ World Title run being a big heel run. It was all these experiences where I had seen this show before, so it was just fun. I got a lot of people tweeting me saying I was fed stuff, but no, I did a lot of research.”

So we have heard the stories about Vince being in all the commentator’s ears in WWE, but who is in your ear at IMPACT?

“I will get fed the occasional note from the match producer if there is something important. My executive producer is Josh Matthews, but if you told me that a few years ago I would be like what? It is wild, we have crossed paths briefly in WWE, I was getting started as his time was coming to an end. But it's wild that you keep running across the same people, it’s like a quarterback going from one system to another but with another playbook.”

For most of your career you have been known as Tom Phillips, which is a stage name. You are starting to  figure out who you actually are as a wrestling broadcaster and just a broadcaster in general. So how did wrestling find you?

“When I graduated from Penn State, I was trying to get a job in broadcast journalism. I was applying everywhere, and there was a job lead that came through from WWE. I’m like this is a billion dollar company, I was surprised that this was on the website when you look at the other leads. So I’m like alright, give it a shot. I was a fan as a kid and watching TNA sporadically, but also I was watching Raw and Nitro, but I was not a die hard fan. I was so lucky to get hired at 23 and to interact with everyone that I did.”

So you reach out to WWE, and they reply, what material are they looking at?

“They did not want to see any conventional play by play, that was the edict. Granted Michael Cole who has been in charge of the announce team for a number of years, this predated that. I was speaking with the production team in Stamford. I just recorded a 2 minute production video with my buddy and put some b roll of me calling stuff. So I got very fortunate that the secretary had found my audition CD and showed it to her boss, we still stay in contact. I did the audition in June 2012 with Josh Matthews ironically.”

So then it’s off to Stamford?

“Yeah I went up to Stamford and it was with Josh. You may have heard Renee saying they want you to sell you a broom [Chris mentions a YouTube video where Renee is selling a battery pack]. I was handed the same thing and I thought it went terribly. I thought I did good with the play by play stuff, but that was not my strong suit. But that is broadcasting where you have to make something sound good in 30 or 60 seconds. I was taught that by WWE, but at the time I was a 23 year old kid who was like well I don’t know what to do.”

So when you got hired, what did they say that you were being hired for?

“I was being hired predominantly to start in Stamford for a show called Bottom Line, I think it’s still in existence? It’s an international wrap around show that recaps the big events on raw or SmackDown. So I was doing that for a while with Renee, and Renee taught me how to work in a studio and work with a prompter to off script, there were so many baby steps. After that, NXT in 2013 was morphing from the game show to what Triple H had envisioned. I had the opportunity to do a few backstage interviews and some play by play, which was very incremental.”

When did you feel like you were given a big opportunity?

“I would say it was the first time that I got called up to SmackDown, in retrospect I had no clue what I was doing, I had no idea what I was in for. I thought it was just calling a match, but there are so many layers to this. Thankfully the powers that be gave me a lot of opportunities to fail and to grow. I think that’s something where people just look at success, but no you need to fail and mature to get better. I feel like I was a success in WWE.”

Do you have like a “uh-oh” moment while on live TV?

“Yeah there have been a bunch. I can’t really remember what it was, but it was a Samoa Joe match with me [Corey] Graves and Byron [Saxton] because we were all tied at the hip. I got tongue tied and invented the calf bone, which Graves got on top of me and said ‘That’s not a thing Phillips, that’s a shin.’ My head just bounced off the desk and I’m like yeah, I will see myself out.”

I think a lot of people don’t appreciate that this is a television program. I think they look at it like a wrestling show. But it’s also a live TV program every week.

“You always hear the phrase ‘We’re making movies.’ That’s what WWE prides themselves on, they are an entertainment company. With so much of what they are doing, they are basically trying to make a live movie. The star needs to be in the right position, the right camera angles, they want it to be as polished as possible. On top of that, they also want the commentary to be on point with every incremental step of the show. That is a real challenge as it is like live commentary of a movie. Imagine you are doing a scripted tv show, you can’t see the script but you have lines. You have to learn that as it goes on and understand what fits where. It’s really challenging, but that's professional wrestling as a whole.”

Let’s say Raw, what does the average Monday look like?

“We start off with the production meeting and get the general feeling for the show. Things get changed throughout the day, so you can’t get tethered to too many concrete ideas. I learned as I began my career, my notes were gigantic, but they shrunk and shrunk until I could think of things off the top of my head, you have to adapt. You have to understand that the segment, the talent and the finish could all change entirely. There’s also the community outreach programs and what we are tied to each month. If I have this lead-in tied in my head, you are dead in the water.”

So what words can’t you say in WWE?

“I think the obvious ones are that you always refer to the fans as the WWE Universe. You don’t call them fans, the crowd or the audience, it’s to build the fans as a community. It’s just little things like, also like pro-wrestling, they don’t want us to say that.”

I heard that you always had to say the full name like Roman Reigns or John Cena, you couldn’t just say Reigns.

“No, I never experienced that. One thing that I was taught by Michael Cole and a number of tenured announcers was just don’t refer to guys by just their first name. If it was any form of combat sports, you wouldn’t say ‘Jorge hit him!’ It sounds too friendly and too casual.”

What do you think is the biggest thing you learned from Michael Cole?

“While I did not have a ton of patience he was very patient with me. It was just to be patient, keep working and not give up on circumstance. I was moved around shows on the carousel, and I was so freaking young. For him to be patient with me, that was the biggest thing.”

You were the person who was also interviewing the younger announcers. From the outside looking in, it seemed to me that you were like the heir to Michael Cole.

“I appreciate that and that was the model that I had to work off of. As you mentioned, this is the modern day play by play guy for WWE, so it’s like yeah, follow that path and see what he is doing. I fell into a lot of habits that he fell into and I got a lot of tweets saying ‘You sound like Michael Cole.’ Well a) that is a huge compliment, and b) I understand the core of that, the phrases and the mannerisms, sound similar. So I think it is now an opportunity to differentiate, I can now separate from Tom Phillips and be Tom Hannifan. It’s scary but it’s also exciting.”

A lot of people were shocked when they saw your name on the release list.

“Thank you. It was a shock and it was a surprise. It was an emotional and heart-breaking day, but this is a business, it's budget cuts, and the pandemic has hit a lot of different businesses in a lot of different ways. I kind of understood how things were going, Adnan Virk was brought in in April, then they made the move to Jimmy Smith. I saw the way that things were going but that’s just business. It took me a while to separate my personal feelings from what happened to a business standpoint.”

What were your feelings when they told you that Adnan Virk would be replacing you?

“My first thought was wow, Adnan is a heavy hitter. I’m proud to say that Adnan is a friend and we do talk once in a while. I have tremendous respect for him, I had seen what he had done on Sports Center, and this guy is good, he has the chops and can cope with the traffic. Before anyone can say ‘I’m going to call WWE because I can call a good boxing or MMA match.’ That really doesn’t matter. If you can’t handle the flow of a 2 or 3 hour live show, or a pay-per-view, then you are dead. I knew he could handle that traffic. So I was very much like well this is serious, now I have to do 205 Live, be a producer on NXT and do what I can to compete.”

There will be people out there that are aspiring commentators. So what do you look for?

“I always look for people that showed adaptability. I always looked for people who had that conversational style. And you hear that and what does that mean? Well it means that you don’t sound like a newscaster and go [in an enhanced voice] ‘Well this morning a cat fell out of a tree…’ No one talks like that. Michael Cole, that is how he talks, it’s just amplified. If you sound like a weatherman, it just sounds so unnatural. People do pick up bad habits, but I try and tell them that it is positive, but change it slightly if WWE is your endgame.”     

What is your favorite call of all time that you did in WWE?

“Oh gosh. I mentioned Kofi Mania. I loved the call in the conclusion of that match. I will always remember TakeOver Dallas where Corey Graves called Shinsuke’s arrival in NXT and Sami Zayn’s last match in NXT. The building is shaking and Graves and I are just freaking out, we had Goosebumps and everything. But there were a lot of individual moments that I was proud of that call. But for every good one, there are 100 bad ones. I have a perfectionist mentality. But I will watch it back and lighten up on myself, I think a lot of people need to do that in general.”

Did you ever think about taking some bumps or getting trained?

“Oh God no! So there was one instance where we had to learn how to take a bump. It was a safety measure, say you are doing an interview in the ring and there is an attack from behind, you are caught in the melee, so you might have to take a bump or get out of the ring. Escaping the ring is not that easy, so I remember being at the Performance Center, it’s me and a handful of the announcers, and we had to learn how to take a bump. Michael Cole is there watching, Matt Bloom is there watching, and I took one bump, forgot to breathe, my legs stayed straight up and the wind is knocked out of me. Cole and Bloom are there laughing hysterically and they are reminding me that I have to sell, I’m like [raspy] ‘I am selling!’ It just sucked, and I’m thinking about the guys who are taking horrific bumps in the center of the ring and in the corners, and I’m like what is wrong with these people? But you understand the glory of being a superstar. But it is just not for me.”

I end every interview talking about gratitude. What are 3 things you are grateful for?

“A fantastic family, a wonderful group of friends and a bevy of opportunities.”

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