Call of the Wild
Announcing has been with us nearly as long as the sports themselves, and with good reason: it's hard to figure out what's going on with a sport you've never seen before without having someone on the inside telling you what's going on. As a huge hockey fan, I know this issue only too well. I've spent nearly half my natural life trying to explain to friends in various states of inebriation what exactly is going on at any given time. If you've never played a sport or watch it casually, many things can be confusing without the right illumination. That's where our friends the announcers come in. And out of any program or sport I've ever seen, professional wrestling announcers have the most difficult job to do well while also getting credit for how well they do it.
As a writer for TJR, I enjoy several staff perks. One of the biggest is getting to watch Andrew Johnson's complete ring entrance. Others would include being able to park my Segway in the employee lot (though obviously not in the first ten spaces), unbridled access to Gobbledygooker omelets (delish!) and reading my exorbitant amounts of fan mail, mostly from the nicest Nigerian princes. All of this pales in comparison, however, to my feeling that I can hopefully add to someone's enjoyment of this amazing business that I love through my writing. While I can't attest that everything I have to say is complimentary (not a paid shill, after all), I can state unequivocally that there is nothing like the feeling of someone hearing or seeing your views and having that affect their own outlook on any part of the business. Wrestling will always have a special place in my heart, and I feel paying it forward is the right thing to do.
Before this column slides any further into schmaltz, let's get to the point. Wrestling announcers can (and do) have a similar responsibility to bring you as a viewer or listener into the action. In a business populated with over-the-top characters and questionable writing, theirs is the task to make sense of it all and get us as fans to come along willingly for the ride. And this task, unlike mine, is a mostly thankless one. As many conversations as I've ever had with wrestling fans, I can count on one hand (sorry, Mae) the number of times they have told me that an announcer kept them coming back for more. They tend to get lost in the noise, as is the nature of a sport this loud. The WWE, of course, has had a number of great announcers over the years. Each and every one of them has added some unique perspective, and all of them have their fans and detractors. Without them, though, the feats we witness in the ring just wouldn't be quite so amazing.
Throughout wrestling's history, the job of the commentator began as any other, reporting the facts and letting the fans know what's going on. Gordon Solie, judged by many to be the best ever in the business, had this no-nonsense approach and became a legend. Over the course of time, though, this position afforded promoters a bargain: getting their ideas and messages across and over to the fans using these commentators in a way no other sport can. Picture yourself watching a baseball game and having the color commentator side with the pitcher using a spitball. It might sound ridiculous, but it would be funny as hell. Sports tends to take itself way too seriously, so inserting personality into the margins and letting it bleed all over the page is a tremendous way to encourage fan participation and get your points across.
There is no blueprint for the perfect announcer. Some of them are complete heels, like the gifted Bobby Heenan. Some are face-lovers, like the equally impressive Gorilla Monsoon. True synergy is reached, though, when the announcer and the promotion they work for just go together hand in hand. That's not always immediately obvious, either. Plenty of guys with personality have been horrendous at the announcer's table, while other people you may not expect have come along and surprised you. One name I always associate with this phenomenon is Joey Styles. Joey was the voice of ECW, and it wasn't a match that looked perfect from the start. Joey looked uncomfortable to say the least as he braved the elements of downtown Philly and participated in some angles that would make relatives blush. But that was the point. Having Joey there and reacting the way he did made it okay for you as a fan to do the same. He was a regular guy caught up in absolute craziness, and so were you.
Even more importantly, Joey (while clearly not the most polished announcer, particularly at the start) was able to take a unique approach to the matches that personified what it was to watch and experience Extreme Championship Wrestling at that time. When he made sarcastic comments about the big two promotions, you couldn't help but be entertained. When he ran down guys in the business with stuff that normally wasn't discussed, it was a big deal. And when he shrugged off the Clark Kent aura and got so into the action that he would utter the now-mythical "Oh My God!" you felt the energy from your living room. The two things went together so well that it didn't even matter who else was calling matches with Joey. While his WWE run was too short and involved far too much Mike Adamle, it was the right thing to do to move him behind the scenes because he'd never fit in the WWE the way he had with ECW. Letting him "go out" on an angle with the circus atmosphere was a nice touch. For this Philadelphia guy, though, I'll always remember Joey Styles as one of the unsung entertainers that made the business better and more fun.
On the WWE side of the coin, I can't imagine anyone not regarding the dream team of Monsoon and Heenan as one of the best things during wrestling's 80s era. Monsoon, a notorious bad guy for most of his wrestling career, played against type by supporting every face of the day no matter what. Paired with the devious "Brain," it resulted in a very entertaining show, and very often their banter would eclipse whatever the hell was going on in the ring. I can remember hysterically laughing during several PPVs because the back-and-forth was so good it could have been scripted for a comedy show. If you've never heard these two together, I can only urge you to do it now. Heenan jumped ship to WCW, and did a very good job there in difficult circumstances, but the magic had ended. There was simply no point in trying to put Gorilla with anyone else. The current group of WWE broadcasters is still overshadowed by the aura of these two guys, and it proves the point that the right people at the desk make all the difference.
Speaking of WWE announcers, I'd be remiss to not mention my favorite of all time in Jesse "The Body" Ventura. Similarly to Heenan, Ventura would go toe to toe with anyone in support of the heels. While one can make the easy connection as to why I'd be a fan of that, it again allowed wrestling fans to feel that this type of behavior was okay. Maybe Jesse's right and cheating is okay as long as the referee doesn't notice? Why shouldn't the Honky Tonk Man get credit for having the Intercontinental Title for as long as he has? Without a great heelish announcer there to bring up the counterpoint, everything becomes monotonous. One thing the wrestling business can perish from is monotony. Jesse primarily went up against Monsoon and of course Vince McMahon himself to make his points, and nothing was off limits. Only the Body could insult the America the Beautiful singer, call Tito Santana "Chico" and call out the face announcer on supporting rulebreaking when the good guys did it. And all in the first five minutes!
As for Vince, his announcing style was never my cup of tea, but similar to Paul Heyman's decision to put Joey Styles at the desk, it was a great business move. Far before presenting himself as the owner of the company, Vince was able to exploit his own very large ego by getting right in the mix of the action each and every night, and between his outfits and his calls he did make it a spectacle. Can you imagine Vince on the stick these days, pushing who he wanted and burying the guys he didn't like? "What a maneuver!" will likely never rest in the pantheon of best calls I've ever heard, but it fits with the man we know him to be and his willingness to mock himself over it in the days since gets a big thumbs up in my book. Once he got too involved in the action, changes had to be made and he developed into the amazingly good on-screen character that should get as much credit for what happened in the Attitude Era as anyone else. In short, just like Joey, his personality fit what was needed at the time.
Most readers of this column will likely look very fondly at Jim Ross, and with good reason. JR is probably the closest announcer I've ever heard in wrestling to being the perfect sports announcer, meaning he could his thing in any of them and be great. We've certainly seen that to be true in the years since his active role, but during the biggest boom time in sports entertainment, he was the voice we heard every week. While other announcers like Mike Tenay definitely have knowledge, personality is a harder thing to gauge. JR developed his own personality, and didn't shrink away from the nearly insane things he had to do every week in the WWE. This is a man who wore a toga and was set on fire by Kane (though not at the same time, perhaps unfortunately) and kept coming back for more. His calls are perfect. Ross is extremely passionate about the business, has been around a long time thus giving him perspective, and knows how to translate emotion into a call without making it sound fake. Those are qualities that would work for any announcing booth in any pro sports environment. Put simply, he made the art of announcing legitimate. And good God almighty, he did it while talking about stomping mudholes.
I am less enthusiastic about the current group of announcers in the WWE, and I think that has a lot to do with the general blase attitude most fans have regarding it right now. I have no doubt that it's never been harder to have that role in the WWE. I had difficulty enough calling the matches in my plastic blue WWE ring during my formative years, and I didn't have Mr. McMahon yelling about what a crappy job I was doing directly into my earpiece. There are movies to sell, merchandise to move, apps to get over, and angles aplenty that wouldn't even have been dreamed up all those years ago. I don't picture Gordon Solie getting barbecue sauce dumped on him. That said, you can't force personality and I feel like that's what has happened in the WWE. Jerry Lawler was an amazingly good heel (people forget what a great job he did in that feud with Bret Hart) and is regarded as close to a saint not only in Memphis but most of the south. Presenting him longterm as a heelish announcer was not going to work. In the same vein, pushing Michael Cole as a heel at least made people care. Unfortunately, he's got Jim Ross to live up to, and that's something I wouldn't wish on anyone. You know what you're going to get from these guys, and while it's not a bad thing from a business standpoint, it makes me pine for those glory days something fierce.
There have been a couple of positive developments. JBL is extremely good on commentary, and while it can be a bit trite from time to time, his brashness is a breath of fresh air in a business cloyed with rhetoric. They also have a hidden gem with William Regal, who has done extensive work on NXT. If you've not had the chance, it's highly recommended. Regal is a consummate teacher and a badass in the ring, and he manages to get both across at the same time. You feel like you're learning and being entertained at the same time, and that's pretty excellent. Making some room for him on one of the big 2 shows would be overdue. I'm not sure on the interest level, but after their active competition days are over, could you imagine someone like Chris Jericho or CM Punk at the desk every week? The wrestlers of today who have been brought up in a digital age and seen it grow before their eyes are well equipped to use that know-how to exchange pleasantries and barbs in under 140 characters if need be.
Wrestling is one of the only places where the announcers are willing and able to be as big a part of the action as the men and women they cover. In a sport where bigger always seems to be better and less is never more, theirs is the role of breaking it down, making it matter, and ultimately getting us to plunk down money for PPVs. In those all-too-rare times, they can make a special event even more special. I don't expect people who don't follow wrestling to understand any of that. To them, the idea of someone explaining fake moves is ridiculous. But what we know, and what they never will, is that the trick is always harder than the solution. Wrestling announcers have to deal with the wild goings-on that occur in this over-the-top industry and connect with its fans each and every week. They have to convey what needs to be conveyed while trying to keep it as honest as possible. To those folks, I as a fan say thank you. Now get Regal on the bloody announce desk already, would you?
* The Wyatt Family inches closer to their non-NXT debut, and as previously mentioned in this space I cannot wait. I'm reminded of the days of the Straight Edge Society, or even Raven's Flock, who had unique looks and cult-like vibes. The WWE has handled the vignettes really well, and it's no surprise that the fans have reacted. How many times will we get things we've seen before, even last week? The best future superstars have a simmering charisma that goes along with their in-ring skills. While the second can always be improved, the first can not. Chances are if you didn't like John Cena's first interview, you didn't like his last one. Dean Ambrose unquestionably has it. Bray Wyatt has it as well, and more impressively, he has it already without most fans having even seen him in the ring yet. This could be the storyline of the summer.
* While I really enjoyed the AJ/Kaitlyn interaction on Raw and agree that it was a glimmer of hope in a division that has become tiresome, will there ever be an end to the romantic entanglements? Surely someone in the Divas locker room must be enough of a wrestling historian to see that it pretty much never works out. You don't want to be seen with someone, you don't want to have an admirer, and you definitely don't want to be married. Rarely do we have male wrestlers falling all over themselves in the ring because of a crush. Female voices in the writing room are in short supply, but if you're a decent writer you should be able to generate reasonable characters of both genders. I'm not saying this angle is never acceptable, but it shouldn't be the only option. Makes you wonder why they couldn't work with a unique character like Kharma.
*I am a huge fan of pairing Zeb Colter with Antonio Cesaro for obvious reasons. While the future of Jack Swagger appears to be in some doubt thanks to his legal travails, Colter's brought some energy and timely perspective to his return to the WWE and putting him with Cesaro makes total sense. Let's hope this ends up landing Cesaro in a decent feud for a change. One recommendation could be Rey Mysterio, whenever he makes his long-awaited return. A series of matches between those two would be something worth seeing. Cesaro is too good to be languishing in the lower to midcard, and now that Christian's back that could be another option that benefits both men. It's not hard: Present someone as a loser and you have to work twice as hard to get the cred back. Cesaro's unique look and offense are exactly what the WWE needs right now. Time to do right by him.
That wraps it up for this week. I'd like to take a moment to recognize Heather Hickey @kickyhick for fulfilling my dream in getting my Uncle Elmer photo. Proof that dreams really do come true. As always, you can get my unstable tweets at two in the morning @coffeyfan77 or reach me with requests for donations or sharing of personal information at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, this is Mike Holland saying have a great week, try the mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, and thanks for reading!