When you think of favourite wrestling moments, you often think of the iconic lines that came with them. Namely, Jim Ross’ immortal cries of “he is literally broken in half!” Now, strictly speaking, Mankind wasn’t, in a literal sense, broken in half because that would have resulted in excruciating death. Yet, regardless of the inaccuracies and apparent absence of logic in his choice of words, we still remember Jim Ross as one of the greatest wrestling announcers of all time.
Unfortunately, people also forget that when ‘Good Ol’ JR’ was commentating in the WWE he was, for the most part, surrounded by misogynistic and bombastically inept co-commentators. And that’s just Jerry Lawler. In this modern era, specifically since the Brand Split in July, the commentary teams have improved and found the perfect balance of Heel hypocrisy and Babyface banality. Friends and wrestling fans alike have said to me that wrestling commentary “isn’t as good as it used to be”. Well, I think they’re wrong and I’m going to explain why today’s WWE commentary team is much better than people think.
It’s been widely documented (on highly reliable internet sources) that the WWE is very strict with it’s creative choices. This can be to the point where the announcers are given scripts and ear pieces with orders that must be followed, like the totalitarian you’d expect Vince McMahon to be. Whether it be the lead producer, Kevin Dunn, or Big Vinnie Mac himself, this often limits the individual creative freedom that the announcers in past eras would have possessed.
Given some of the things that used to be said without strict control, is that such a bad thing? Keeping the current commentary teams to a guided script may limit them in their own creativity, but if they’re good enough to be announcers for the world’s most famous wrestling company, then surely the script is there to keep them doing what they do best: giving more accurate story telling whilst giving play-by-play analysis. Having a script is a safety net for announcers so they wont stray off course if they find themselves in a bit of a pickle with their own words. There are few men that make it difficult for me to watch old matches on the Network and give reason as to why having a script in front of them would have helped them from boring us or even worse offending us.
The Bad Days
It’s no secret that Jerry Lawler is a bit of a philanderer. Maybe calling him a misogynist is too much considering he is quite the opposite. In fact, he adores women. We have come a long way since the days of Lawler screaming “look at those puppies” to the women formally known as Divas. Still, this wasn’t all too long ago. Admittedly, the Divas matches of yesteryear lacked quality but that’s due to women with actual wrestling talent being put aside in favour of women with big boobs. Even during the men’s matches, Lawler would constantly struggle with his own words, often contradicting himself in a matter of minutes. Maybe it was part of the inept Heel commentary shtick, but whenever I watch matches on the WWE Network (for the low low price of whatever they keep saying it is), I can’t help but cringe at the things he used to say. Then there’s the matches against Michael Cole – making the two fight was embarrassing and should never have happened.
Another man who would be king if he wasn’t so god awful at commentary was Booker T, which is quite apt considering he was once ‘King Booker’. In a recent Vulture Hound article, some of the team looked back at iconic Hell in a Cell matches. It was during my viewing of 2011’s Pay-Per View that I just had to skip to the main event. The sheer ineptitude of the commentary of Booker within the opening 10 minutes of the show was enough to break me. He repeated the phrase, “I gotta tell ya”, over and over to the point where I was replying with, “No, Booker, let me tell you!”. It’s no wonder he has been relegated to being a panelist on the kick off show. You only have to hear him say “shucky ducky” (whatever that means?) and you’ll be transported back to those dark days of the early Teenies where you would have to hear him every week. Shudder.
When it was Cole, JBL and Saxton on the Raw team, the balance was all wrong. Cole was consistently lackluster, feeding us with incorrect information. JBL and Saxton just seemed like a pair of children whose parents had chosen them each individually as their favourite. This made those of us watching it in our adult years very aware that the show is also aimed at a child demographic. What we needed was a change that allowed these styles to blend together in a perfect commentary smoothie of laughter, analysis and good storytelling.
The Good Days
Since the draft the existing commentators have been separated and have subsequently (and maybe inadvertently) created much better pairings that supplement each other perfectly. The two main commentary teams currently consist of Michael Cole, Corey Graves and Byron Saxton for Raw, and Mauro Ranallo, JBL, David Otunga and the latest addition of Tom Phillips for SmackDown Live.
It’s a sign of the times when all men involved in the announce teams are giving competitive analysis of matches considering Big Daddy Vince was always more interested in storytelling than in-ring calling. Instead of criticising former announcers I should be thanking Jim Ross for the influence he has had on todays creative process when it comes to play-by-play commentary.
Not only are we kept up to date with plot lines, but they keep us informed in a way that engages all of the shows mixed audience. It’s even noticeable how much better they all are with their play-by-play calling. Originally this was only prevalent in Mauro, coupled with his unique voice, he would call move after move as well as keeping the commentary relevant by relating it back to the ongoing storylines. These are great traits that have rubbed off onto his colleagues and now – Even Michael Cole, who become somewhat stagnant in his commentary ability in the last five years or so, seems to have gained a better grasp of in-ring calling. With Corey Graves at his side providing sarcastic remarks to Byron Saxton’s comments, comedic material is created for the audience. Adding to this, they both support Cole with well timed quips about each other. Their knowledge of wrestling is also impressive, particularly Graves who is just as good with move calling as Mauro.
Similarly on the SmackDown Live team, Mauro sits in the middle to act as the mediator between JBL and David Otunga. Though JBL is the Heel for the most part they still both balance each other in a way that only a rich banker persona and the husband of Jennifer Hudson could. Granted, neither of them are as good with the move announcing but when there is someone as good as Mauro sat in between them it’s not all too important, especially when he is shouting, “Momma Mia” at the top of his voice. This diverse team has helped keep all audiences engaged. From the children who laugh at Byron’s silly pop culture references to the adults, like myself, that just want to hear Mauro’s expert technical analysis, there is something that appeals to everyone.
It’s clear to see on a weekly basis how much better we have it for announcing when the team are given tighter instructions from their production staff. Having gone away from wrestling as a child and returning in my early twenties I appreciate wrestling more for its technical ability than for its storytelling. What I want to hear is someone telling why an Armbar is more effective than a Kneebar. I care less about the Bella’s personal lives with John Cena and Daniel Bryan. This more rigid form of announcing is less likely to offend and instead creates coherent information for us all to digest. With all the work that goes on backstage, to the efforts each individual member puts in to their performance , I hope you have enough reason in your mind to agree that WWE commentary isn’t as bad as people think. In fact, you could say “I love it, Maggle”.