Wednesday 27 July 2011
Wrestling Commentators: The Good & The Bad & Everything in Between
“TYSON AND AUSTIN!! TYSON AND AUSTIN!! ALL HELL IS BREAKING LOOSE!!” – Jim Ross, Monday Night Raw, 19th January 1998.
“The boyhood dream has come true for Shawn Michaels.” – Vince McMahon, Wrestlemania 12.
“The irresistible force, meets the immovable object” – Gorilla Monsoon, numerous WWF shows, mid 1980s.
“DANGEROUS!!!” Gabe Sapolsky (as Jimmy Bower) – countless ROH shows from 2002-2004.
“Oh my GOD!!” Joey Styles – ECW, 1993-2001
Those are just a few of my favourite commentary lines during the past twenty or so years that I’ve been watching pro wrestling. I’m sure you’ve got your own favourites. With the wealth of commentary talent that has worked in wrestling down the years, no doubt there are hundreds of great lines people can instantly remember. The kind of great commentary call that sticks with you to such an extent that when you think about a certain wrestler, you instantly remember that one piece of commentary that relates to them.
Hell, Jesse Ventura, Jim Ross and Bobby Heenan could fill at least 3 IPods each with their fantastic commentary work. Let alone some of the best commentators of the ‘old days,’ guys like Gordon Solie, Lance Russell or Larry Matysik, who most wrestling fans of today won’t have even heard of, let alone heard commentate. What a crime.
So, commentators. The Voice of the show. Without a doubt one of the most important elements to a successful wrestling show on TV or PPV. So what the fuck happened? Where did all the talent go? How did we end up where we are today? Let me explain...
While watching the Money in the Bank PPV these questions hit me. I was enjoying the show immensely (as I mentioned last week) but I found myself on at least three occasions shouting at the TV, “will you fuckers just shut up and call the damn match!?” Something I’ve found myself doing regularly when it comes to WWE and wrestling in recent years.
At two points during the show, mid way through another pointless, boring and cringe worthy bickering session between the horrendous Michael Cole and the unintelligible Booker T even Jerry Lawler was moved to say, “how about we talk about these guys in the ring?” I’m not sure if that was a call from someone in the back – word is Stephanie was producing the announcers for this show rather than Vince. But I’m certain I wasn’t the only one watching that was agreeing wholeheartedly with The King – who in his prime was one of the best colour commentators around.
If you think about it, it really isn’t that difficult to create effective wrestling commentary for your viewers. Of course it takes a high level of skill, charisma and chemistry to be able to convincingly comment on what is happening in the ring and draw the viewers at home into the action. I’m not saying anyone could walk off the street and call a Wrestlemania main event. But let’s be honest, in terms of production and execution, it’s not rocket science. Even the most low level indy show should be able to put together an effective commentary team to enhance their product.
The tried and tested method for the past twenty five years or so (bar ECW where Joey Styles was assisted no end by an off mic Paul Heyman) has been to employ a straight laced play by play guy (Jim Ross, Tony Schiavone, Gorilla Monsoon) and a smart ass, wise cracking heelish colour commentator (Bobby Heenan, Jesse Ventura, Jerry Lawler). One guy calls the action, sells the angles, focuses the viewers on what’s important and why they should care about what’s happening on the screen. The other guy adds the colour to the presentation. A few jokes, maybe a wise crack about why this heel is better than that babyface. He’s the counter balance to the play by play guy, as JR himself loves to say, “the steak and the sizzle,” which we know every wrestling show needs.
It’s a simple formula that most viewers are accustomed to and one that down the years has resulted in some highly entertaining moments and most importantly of all helped to greatly enhance certain characters and angles. Which should be the ultimate goal of all commentators. It’s about getting over what’s happening in the ring or on the show in general – not about giving the mic men a chance to get themselves over.
So where did it all go wrong? How did we end up in a situation like Money in the Bank, where a heelish play by play guy was arguing about what the cartoon character colour commentator did in high school, while at that exact moment 8 guys were risking their lives in a chaotic ladder match for a shot at the World Title!?
Just think about that for a moment. Cause that’s what they were doing. That’s what they do every damn week on Smackdown. It’s eased up on Raw since the seemingly decade long feud between Cole and Lawler ended a few months back. But seriously, consider some of your favourite commentary moments. Remember the emotions they stirred up. Remember how much they enhanced and improved what you’d just saw on TV…now think about Michael Cole and Booker T arguing about who was the bigger nerd because one was a band major and the other was a cheerleader in school. Yeah, no fucking wonder Lawler had to step in.
As always, in WWE, the blame lies with one man. The man who has final say on everything we see on WWE TV. The man who for over two decades was a commentator himself and should fucking know better. Yep, Vince McMahon. I always wonder if Vince’s father would have let Vince spend most of his time on commentary putting himself over and bickering like a fishwife with his fellow commentators. I highly doubt it. There were angles to put over. Wrestlers to push. Up coming events to hype. MONEY TO BE MADE.
So why has Vince allowed WWE’s commentary team to become such a mess? Personal amusement? Boredom? It can’t be to enhance his product because all it does is hurt it. I mean, Michael Cole? Seriously. Lead commentator as a heel? The lead commentator is the guy who is the voice of the company. He is supposed to talk directly to the fans. He is supposed to sell the angles. Enhance the talent. Hide their weaknesses and spotlight their strengths. That’s his fucking job and Michael Cole, for what feels like over a year, has failed at every aspect of what a play by play man should do.
I know Cole gets tremendous heat coming to the ring and that perhaps that’s why Vince has him act the way he does on commentary. But there’s an important point being missed here. Cole didn’t and still doesn’t get that heat because he’s an effective heel, it’s because he sucks as a commentator and everyone wants Jim Ross back. He receives ‘go away’ heat which is the death knell for any performer. Cole is so bad I know of one popular Facebook group that is petitioning for him to be replaced with a mop! Plus, how does Cole being a heel on commentary draw any kind of money for WWE? Unless he’s going to be constantly feuding with people and NO ONE wants to see that.
Vince obviously enjoys living vicariously through Cole. See his rants against Daniel Bryan and the internet fan base for proof of that. Cole was also especially verbally vicious in the Lawler feud any time Jim Ross was involved, belittling him and everything he does and stands for. Which as we’ve seen for the whole time JR has been in WWE is one of Vince’s favourite pastimes.
Unfortunately all this ranting and raving and heeling up all over the show by Cole does very little to enhance anything. Angles can’t be taken seriously. Great matches are ruined with pointless bitching. Cole could be a great manager, but as a commentator he’s one of the worst things to happen to WWE in quite some time. A lead commentator should never make you want to change the channel and Cole has done that to me regularly for far too long.
This dearth of good and effective commentary is not limited to WWE. TNA suffers badly from a commentary team in Taz and Mike Tenay who have very limited chemistry and who come from two completely different styles of commentating – which don’t mesh very smoothly. Thankfully they don’t spend too much time bitching at each other. They’re too busy reading 6 inch thick scripts (on camera on occasion) to try to cover and explain the multiple zany plot lines Vince Russo has ‘expertly’ woven into the show. Sometimes Taz and Teney must be just as confused as the viewers watching at home!
They also have to talk so fast and reel off so much content that I rarely hear much of what they say. Plus this constant ‘storyline explanation’ means there a lot of occasions where they talk right over whole matches. That isn’t an exaggeration folks, an Impact match will regularly go under 3 minutes and I’ve heard Tenay talk about shit that went down earlier in the show through a whole match, bar screaming about the finish. And I still have no clue what’s going on.
Even the indy scene isn’t safe from this commentators curse. ROH have recently employed Kevin Kelly and Eric Santamaria on their IPPV and DVD releases. Kelly is a solid play by play man who works hard on putting over angles and has vastly improved his knowledge of moves and holds since his WWE days. But that Santamaria guy!? My God! Without a doubt one of the most boring and uncharismatic commentators in history. He makes Jonathan Coachman sound like fucking Jesse Ventura!
His terrible commentary work was particularly evident on recent ROH DVD releases, ‘Revolution Canada’ and ‘Revolution USA.’ I’ve never heard anyone reel of a list of moves in such an uninspired manner. He actually made a Davey Richards vs. Kenny King match boring! The Briscoes vs. Hass and Benjamin was nearly dragged under by his coma inducing comments, which are delivered with all the enthusiasm of a man ordering his final meal on Death Row, from a list which contains ‘cow shit, dog shit and Amy Winehouse’s spit’ as the only choices.
He is so bad during his in-ring pre show intro at Best in the World IPPV he was getting booed by the crowd before he could finish the intro. Just because he sounded like a nerd who shouldn’t be in the ring talking about the hard hitting ROH product! I have no doubt he’s a good guy who loves wrestling but seriously, his lack of any kind of charisma on commentary really brought the usually exciting ROH product down a few notches. Dave Prazak has never been more missed!
PWG is an indy promotion that takes a different approach to most things and commentary is no exception. They use a funny and charismatic masked man called Excalibur to provide the play by play and various wrestlers on the show join him to provide the colour. This can work really well when a wrestler like Austin Aries, Chris Hero or Kevin Steen joins him. Those guys are students of the game and they really add some great insight and genuinely funny moments to the matches they commentate on. This formula can fall apart though when too much time is spent on cracking in-jokes at the expense of the action in the ring. Or when someone who isn’t quite as good on the mic as those three joins the commentary - it can become pretty clunky.
Sadly, the best commentary team of the last few years no longer gets to work together and that’s Dave Prazak and Lenny Leonard. Leonard can still be heard plying his trade in EVOLVE and Dragon Gate USA where he excels. Leonard has just the right mix of play by playing calling but also filling in the characters and different moves of the various wrestlers (many of whom will be new to viewers.) He also has a true sports commentator delivery and a passion for what he does that elevates a lot of what he says and really does help put the product over. His work with Prazak in ROH a few years back is greatly missed these days. I have no doubt if Leonard was 15 years young and about 100 pounds lighter, Vince would’ve hired him a long time ago.
You guys should know, despite the previous 2000 words, I don’t actual like to be negative about wrestling. I try to find the best in bad situations and give the benefit of the doubt. But this lack of good commentators, from WWE all the way down through the indy scene, really does grind my gears. It’s such a lost art but one that is essential to any wrestling product being successful. A great commentator can make an average match seem good. A poor commentator can make a good match seem average.
There may be a light at the end of the tunnel though, at least where WWE is concerned. With the recent happenings on Raw resulting in JR returning to the commentary booth we can at least be safe in the knowledge that important angles will be given the focus and support they so badly need. Younger wrestlers won’t be buried, they will be enhanced and some of their characters will be pushed and explained to the viewers. Maybe some of them will start getting over.
With the good though, must come the bad and no doubt we can also expect more ribbing of JR through Vince’s mouth piece Michael Cole at the expense of the product. Although I’d expect JR to just brush it off and get on with his real job. A small price to pay for some decent commentary on Monday nights again!
As a side note, anyone wanting to get a real insight into the importance of the commentator should check out the book, “Drawing Heat The Hard Way – How Wrestling Really Works,” by the extremely knowledgeable Larry Matysik. A man who made his name as a commentator in St Louis back in the 70s and 80s (on Wrestling at the Chase, one of the hottest and most watched wrestling shows of all time) and also worked for Vince for over a decade. His knowledge and experience of being behind the mic on TV every week is truly eye opening and his thoughts and opinions on the subject really do need to be read and appreciated.
Well I’ve kept you long enough this week folks. Before I go, a few questions. Who’re your favourite wrestling commentators? Any great calls or moments of commentary that stand out for you? Am I completely wrong, is wrestling commentary as good as it always has been? If you’ve got an opinion, then I’d love to hear it.
Remember you can follow me on twitter @EFKDuckman and I’ll be back next week with more wrestling related rambling! Thanks for reading.