An ocean, sun and a thousand years of history may separate us, but I have no doubt we?ll see eye to eye on this. Cast your mind back to a sporting memory of choice and ponder what made it so special. Quite possibly lost among the emotion, electricity and personal significance of the occasion will be the accompanying vocal tones of the commentator. He will have enunciated every motion and elucidated every twist and turn and drawn you into the event as a willing and active participant. So often underappreciated, the commentator is a major component in the impact of a sporting expression.
I have discussed the importance of the commentator before, when contemplating the end of the career of Jim Ross after his latest attack of Bell’s palsy. My feelings haven?t really changed since then, but I feel the urge to expand on my overarching concerns for what is a vital part of the flavour of the business. Make no bones about it; a strong voice at ringside is an essential component of the pro-wrestling experience.
The announcing conundrum is something you often fail to appreciate the full scope of until you sit down and think about it. In TNA, Mike Tenay has ridden the political and financial waves and now finds himself as quite possibly the last acceptable ?old school? announcer (Ross aside) in wrestling. I was personally dismayed by the treatment of the steadily improving Don West, who was discarded in favour ex-WWE colour man Taz. Taz has improved considerably over the years and, truth be told, his tandem with Tenay is light-years ahead of any current WWE equivalent.
Jim Ross has praised the attempts by WWE to take the existing commentary dynamic in a new direction with the Michael Cole/Josh Matthews team on WWE-NXT. On this point I?m not sure I agree with good ol? JR. The commentary for NXT is a reversion to the established combination of a heel and a babyface announcer. Generally, the commentary across all the major WWE shows over the last couple of years has abandoned this time-tested format in favour of inane babble and irrelevant sound bites designed to cater to the lowest common denominator, and as such represents a quite dismal devolution of an underappreciated skill.
It is well known that the various ?talking heads? – propped at the announce desk like so many mannequins ? are not entirely to blame for the degradation at work here. As the former voice of WWE, Vince McMahon has his own views on what constitutes quality announcing. Though Vinny was (and remains) an outstanding orator, he is guilty of failing to evaluate the individual merits of a specific announcer in favour of imposing his own views and methods whether they succeed or not. In that way, the issue of the commentary in WWE is a compelling microcosm of the paranoid and inflexible mentality that plagues the league.
It just goes to show that this negative attitude is both systemic and ubiquitous. Joey Styles acquired a reputation as a knowledgeable and passionate announcer with a flair for real sports and theatricality. Once signed by WWE ? and for no reason other than Vince McMahon’s jaundiced view ? Styles was chastised for his approach and ?converted? to a clich?-ridden conversationalist in a matter of months. His removal from the ECW commentary team was one of the first major indications of just how detached ?WWECW? was destined to become. At a time when WWE desperately needs first class commentators, Joey Styles is otherwise engaged with WWE.com and his own feckless musings on Twitter. I?m sure that makes sense to someone, somewhere.
Prior to their collective loss of enthusiasm, Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler represented a marvellous example of an announce team. Together, they energised the WWE product with their chemistry and banter over the course of many years. WWE has been attempting to replicate the quality of the Ross/Lawler combo for a considerable amount of time, with very little in the way of genuine success. John ?Bradshaw? Layfield was a fantastic heel colour man, and Mick Foley showed promise as an announcer once he applied himself fully to the task. Both men were lost by WWE; owing primarily to their opposition to Vince McMahon’s constant barracking and aggressive instructions. As capable, wealthy and independent ex-wrestlers, they didn?t need the stress of appeasing a perfectionist. Thus, the task has fallen to the less capable, timid and expendable likes of Todd Grisham and Josh Matthews.
Finding a suitable replacement for Jim Ross has been (and remains) a major ambition ? and obstacle ? for Vince McMahon. He has long despised the fan’s reverence for and appreciation of the proud Oklahoman; whose love of wrestling and seemingly effortless aptitude for wrestling announcing has rendered him virtually indispensable. Vince has ritually humiliated him in front of his friends and family and routinely scripted burials and snide jokes at his expense, but the unbreakable Okie has taken it all in his ample stride. As a result, Vince’s personal disdain for Ross is considerable. That Vince needs him only infuriates the WWE Chairman still further. It says much to Ross? continued value that WWE will sign him, resentment, disability and all, to a new deal to stave off the very definite interest of TNA.
Undoubtedly, Ross? very public friendship with Steve Austin and affable manner have endeared him to a usually fickle populace, but the continued respect Ross enjoys owes much to his one-time brilliance. Though a mere shadow of his once stellar self, Ross is still the finest practitioner of Vince McMahon’s preferred commentary style available to WWE, and is ironically beloved by fans for his clich’s and hyperbolic tendencies. The fact that he was once peerless in the role is of huge importance when evaluating precisely why the WWE Universe vehemently despises long-time WWE employee and perennial Ross stand-in, Michael Cole.
Unlike Ross, who is regarded as a student of the game and a time-honoured wrestling institution, Cole is seen as a hairdresser with a journalism degree. Though a former war correspondent and a seemingly presentable professional, Cole is an arrogant marionette with virtually no knowledge of wrestling outside the WWE bubble. His slavish adherence to WWE dogma and almost legendary incompetence have done nothing for his reputation. Neither has his propensity to lash out at his (numerous) critics and appallingly basic grasp of why said sources hate him so. His attitude is unhelpful, but the simple truth is after twelve years of working in wrestling, Michael Cole is still bloody useless at his job as a wrestling commentator. His willingness to prostitute his dignity and credentials in favour of a pay cheque has seen him retain his position, but no amount of snide posts and embittered protestations can disguise the fact that Cole is ignorant, uninteresting, incapable in the extreme and thoroughly unlikable. He is wrestling schadenfreude.
You might be wondering why I?ve said so little about Jerry Lawler thus far. His omission on my part is a not so subtle nod to the average Lawler performance, in that there’s absolutely nothing worth mentioning, as the one time ?King? of colour stopped caring almost a decade ago. He’s even less jocular these days without his long-time friend Jim Ross at the table with him, and poor old Michael Cole is too busy listening to Vince McMahon to coax anything interesting – let alone funny – out of the once majestic ?King?. One of the things that so enticed my interest when I returned to wrestling was the utterly absorbing camaraderie that existed between Ross and Lawler. Listening to the King trading lifeless barbs with the eloquent but otherwise generic Matt Striker at Royal Rumble was a soul-destroying experience. The King of Memphis would have eaten the garrulous Striker alive back in the good old days?
The truth is, Vince McMahon has repeatedly allowed his ego and insular mindedness to drive his genuinely talented options underground or overboard, whilst promoting a legion of hacks and no-accounts whose chief virtues consist of a nice suit and an overdeveloped resistance to being screamed at for several hours straight. Rather than addressing the issue at hand or embracing variety, Vince has settled for mediocrity and simply decided that everyone other than himself and those who work for him are at fault. This is why the commentary booth ? a one-time WWE strength ? has degenerated into a bland, irrelevant and altogether worthless element of the WWE product. It is also the reason why World Wrestling Entertainment is thunderously dull and littered with the uninterested, unworthy and unusable. Now and for the longest time, Vince McMahon has needed to rediscover his joy d?vivre and zest for dynamic entertainment. He needs to do this now, lest he run out of things and people to blame. In fact, and to paraphrase Jim Ross: Business needs to pick up?
Daniel R. Browne.