The Fantasy Book on Announcing Realities (The Good, The Bad, The Schiavone)

Good day, everyone. We’ve been doing quite a bit of work with the Fantasy Book on the road to WrestleMania, and frankly, we’re tired. But we don’t want to punish you, the readers, by not having a column this week. We would much rather punish you with a column.

Let’s talk about announcing. The common thought would be that a good announce team will call the action, add insight, and help with storyline advancement while staying relatively anonymous. Too often though, in this odd world of professional wrestling, the announcers become the focus. Or worse, and all to common, the announcers take away from the ring work in front of them. Let’s take some examples from the past and present to illustrate the importance of the announce team.

Tony Schiavone – It may be hard to believe, or even remember for those of a certain age, but Tony Schiavone was once actually good. Not just good, but one of the best at play-by-play broadcasters for wrestling action. But something happened. Schiavone’s style changed. All of a sudden, he was not content to just call the action. Instead, he had to proclaim everything that happened to be the GREATEST EVENT IN THE HISTORY OF ALL MANKIND INSIDE A WRESTLING RING TODAY TOMORROW OR EVER IN THE FUTURE EVEN IF ALIENS VISITED US NEXT YEAR AND TRIED TO TAKE OVER ONLY FOR SANTA CLAUS TO PILEDRIVE THEM INTO AN ACTIVE VOLCANO! Or something of the sort. This insane hyperbole made listening to him call matches extremely difficult. After all, it is hard to watch a wrestling match when your eyes keep rolling.

Vince McMahon – Yes, Vince McMahon used to commentate. In no way would Vince be considered a good commentator though. He obviously had financial interests and definitely thought he could shape the product behind the mic. For the most part, he did that. He was able to hype up major events, push storylines and characters he wanted pushed, etc. But when it came to calling the action, he was routinely sub-par. His greatest contribution to the announcing world might just be introducing the wrestling world to the devastating move – the WHATTAMANUVEUR!

Gorilla Monsoon – A mountain of a man, Monsoon did a very good job transitioning into the second phase of his career. His teaming with Bobby “The Brain” Heenan was one of the most popular and fun combinations behind the mic of all time. With all of the respect in the world, as Gorilla was great, but not everything was “literal,” dear sir. I did learn what a Solar Plexus was though from your commentary.

Bobby Hennan – Heenan was a solid wrestler, a world-class manager, and an hilarious announcer. He was great. True, towards the end of his career, he may not have been as solid as he was earlier, but his Hogan-bashing and ability to use crazy-person logic to get the heels over was ahead of its time. Jesse Ventura is another announcer in this vein and it is no wonder why both men are considered to be a couple of the best ever.

JBL – When John Bradshaw Layfield first began work as a color commentator, he was a wave of refreshment. He didn’t hold himself to pure heel/face guideposts like some announcers did. (i.e. – as a heel commentator, cheering on all the heels while summarily dismissing all the faces.) He openly announced when he was impressed with someone, which probably helped more than one person in their careers. Of course, he also held grudges and could be downright vicious when he didn’t like someone (see Blue Meanie or more recently James Ellsworth). But JBL also brought a sense of history to his commentary. He would reference someone or something you had forgotten about, but which made total sense. He would focus on the succession of a particular belt to showcase its importance. He did a very good job at that. At first. Recently, he has become more of a typical heel commentator, and his excursions into wrestling history sometimes border on the obscure and trivial. Still, when he is on his game, he brings a nice dimension to an announce booth.

Michael Cole – Cole does pretty well in a thankless and very difficult job. With Vince constantly in his ear, calling match play-by-play, trying to balance multiple color analysts, and pushing storylines all at the same time, Cole can get a bit grating at times. But he is definitely not the worst. He isn’t Jim Ross, nor should anyone expect him to be. Let’s also ignore his heel run (please). On a night in, night out basis though, Michael Cole delivers solid performances behind the mic.

Kevin Kelly – If you flipped over to Ring of Honor programming in the past couple years, you have probably heard Kevin Kelly calling the action. Kelly was very good there. Even more so when he had extended runs with particular color analysts like Steve Corino and Nigel McGuinness. (McGuinness in particular, has always used a very technical method of calling wrestling matches, providing some very good and welcome insight into the moves and actions of various competitors. He still is doing a good job of this over on NXT.) Kelly is not the loudest voice in the room and often, you could almost forget about him (isn’t that part of the job description?). But you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone, right? And when Kevin Kelly left ROH earlier this year, Ian Riccaboni took over the play-by-play duties. Riccaboni had done play-by-play before, including the Women of Honor events. It seemed like he was being groomed for this role. But when it came time to deliver, I felt a bit of a let-down. Riccaboni was fine, but he relishes in cliche and tends to give away storyline points well before they are intended to be discovered. It make me miss Kevin Kelly all the more.

Let’s just round out some other current WWE announcers before we get to the reasoning for this column –

  • Mauro Ranallo is awesome. He seems to have pushed his over-the-top level a bit since coming to the WWE, but he puts over every contender and always makes the match in front of him seem like it is important. His struggles with bipolar depression should not be treated lightly, and it is a personal hope that the WWE can use Ranallo to educate the public about this debilitating illness of the mind.
  • David Otunga is useless and should not be on the announce team. He is well spoken outside the wrestling universe, so he should be used for media-fronting purposes as often as possible. But there is really no need to listen to him on a weekly basis. Heck, create a role for him where he doesn’t have to talk for hours on end. Maybe he could be a Mike Pereira type figure, someone the announce crew checks in with when there is need for a rules clarification or something.
  • Byron Saxton plays the face announcer role on Raw. As such, he is annoying and ridiculous. On his own, he would become the target for ridicule very quickly. However, as a counterpoint to Corey Graves’ sharp commentary, and as a foil to Graves as they bicker on air, he comes across as tolerable and a good straight man to Graves’ jabs.
  • Corey Graves is the best announcer working right now, I would have to say. He brings an edge, an honesty, and frankly a factor of cool to the announce crew. Let’s compare Graves and JBL for a second on one particular aspect – displaying dislike for someone. As mentioned before, JBL gets very down on James Ellsworth. He is almost cruel and he is non-stop. In fact, if Ellsworth is at ringside, JBL’s commentary tends to ignore the actual match and becomes a running commentary on how horrible it is that Ellsworth even exists. Meanwhile, on Raw, Graves is no fan of the New Day and he makes it well known. But after the New Day gets to the ring, Graves tends to shut up and calls the action. Even when he talks bad about the New Day it is normally laced with humor and not meanness. But Graves also does one more thing which makes him fantastic at his job. He can combine this part of his commentator character with getting the talent over. For example, when The Revival debuted on Raw this past week, Graves was very excited for their arrival. But when they got to the ring and pushed over the New Day’s ice cream cart (which was probably THE BEST heel move of the week, and it was so subtle too), he excited said, “They (The Revival) are officially my new favorite tag team!” He pointed out that heel work by the Revival without overdoing it. He didn’t say, “That is the best heel move of any team ever!” or “That New Day ice cream idea is stupid and the New Day is stupid,” or “The Revival suffer no fools and the New Day are all fools,” or anything like that. He pointed out something awesome, put over a new tag team, and because he has established himself as someone who is on point about most things, gave The Revival some immediate credibility. Or watch how Graves handles the Cruiserweight division. He obviously like Austin Aries and pushes him as a huge star. But he also openly discusses how good Neville is and how worthy of a champion he is. Graves is really quite enjoyable to listen to during a wrestling broadcast.
  • Tom Phillips is pretty good but still very early in his announcing career. With time, I think he can be better than Michael Cole and eventually supplant him as the main guy.

Now, here is the reason I am writing this column. During WrestleMania, two announcers returned to “call” matches. Jim Ross was returned and called the Undertaker versus Roman Reigns match. It was a performance where I could not even pretend to imagine what Ross was dealing with. For those who don’t know, Jim Ross lost his wife Jan just weeks before after she suffered a catastrophic brain injury in a road accident. To then go out in front of that many people and announce the main event… I can’t even imagine. But he did it. And it was suitably J.R. For many years now, Good Ol’ JR has been a caricature of himself. Belting out cliched catchphrases and missing more in the ring than he really should, Ross has become more of a show than a bona fide announcer. That isn’t to say that Ross at this point isn’t better than a lot of people, because he is. But he is now a brand more than an announcer and that’s okay. We wanted to hear the hyperbole and catchphrases in the Undertaker/Reigns match. Hell, the match needed that to come across as bigger than it was. So I have no problem with Jim Ross coming out and announcing that match. It added to the emotion of the night. One last thing, Jim Ross knows when to shut up and just let a moment play out. That is a lesson that more announcers should really learn.

Finally, we come to this. Something at WrestleMania bothered me more than anything else. More than any of the booking. More than any of the decisions regarding who was on the show or not. More than seeing Pitbull on my screen. Jerry “The King” Lawler came out to do commentary on the John Cena/Nikki Bella versus Miz/Maryse match. Now that match was going to suck anyway. Everyone knew it. Everyone knew Cena would notlet Miz get the better of him at WrestleMania again. Plus they had that creepy and stupid proposal to do after. But here’s the thing, it was almost like the WWE admitted it knew they were booking this match wrong. On the pre-show, Booker T even said that Miz had the best year of his career and probably the best year of any WWE superstar that year. In fact, I believe almost everyone on the pre-show panel picked Miz to go over here based solely on his great performances this year. And then The King showed up.

Jerry Lawler is a very important figure in professional wrestling. Current fans probably only remember him as an announcer. Or maybe a washed up wrestler at the end of his career having a feud with Bret Hart that involved an evil dentist and some gross foot shit. But Lawler was also the architect of the Memphis wrestling territory, arguably one of the most important territories in the United States based on talent and impact. Lawler was also the chosen one, literally the one chosen by Andy Kaufman, to put over professional wrestling on a national stage (David Letterman’s stage to be precise). Lawler has interesting insights, a first-hand perspective on the history of the sport, and an authoritative voice when he tries to describe the technical “sport” of pro wrestling (see his and Jim Ross’ call of the famous Triple H/The Rock Iron Man match). So, why am I spending this much time on Lawler? Because

Lawler was a complete embarrassment at WrestleMania. In a match where the rest of the WWE announce team, and obviously the crowd, felt that Miz deserved respect and maybe even the victory, Lawler came out and was ridiculous. Lawler spent the entirety of the match insulting Miz and Maryse, making childish and insulting jokes at their expense, and even spouting insanely offensive rumors towards Miz and Maryse in the name of “humor.” He derailed any chance the match had of being effective as well. I say that because JBL had to spend the majority of the match yelling at Lawler that the shit he was saying was stupid and false.

Now, I know that Lawler probably had instruction from Vince McMahon to go out there and do that. For one, Vince can’t let anyone look like a bigger star than Cena. For two, Vince seems to like this pathetic and bullying type of joking. For three, Lawler has always been a good soldier and will go along with whatever he is asked to do. But Lawler has also become the caricature that is a horny old guy who screams about puppies. His on-screen character has devolved over the years into a sexist and insulting creep who just likes to make jokes at other people’s expense.

I don’t know if this is Jerry Lawler in real life. In fact, I doubt that it is. But the character of Jerry “The King” Lawler has tumbled down a horrible path. And in today’s professional wrestling, hell, in today’s world, there is no place for someone like that. Lawler should be benched from announcing at this point, and Vince should accept that the world has changed. There is a place for Jerry Lawler in professional wrestling, but behind a live microphone as an announcer is not it.

 

P.S. – I will add one more item to the Jerry Lawler story. The Fantasy Book suggest turning this de-evolution of The King’s character into a full-fledged angle. Lawler is The King, right? How far would it be to extrapolate that to Lawler going insane like some many kings and rulers have in the past. Think Nero. Think Caligula. Think George III. Think Nebuchadnezzar. Think Donald Trump. The resulting scary and completely out-of-touch Jerry Lawler could be gold for a man who deserves a strong final act. He could even become someone’s manager to get him on TV and use his mic skills to get someone over instead of tearing people down.

 

Next week we may visit Ring of Honor, who, from what I am seeing, are developing some interesting storylines. Maybe we’ll try to nudge them in a direction or two. Until then, sound off in the comments and let me know your thoughts and feelings. We’re a community here. One of us. One of us.

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