I find it hard to believe that we are only two weeks away from Wrestlemania XXX. With thirteen days to go, there are only five matches confirmed for the card. Two of them center around the WWE Title, one is the Undertaker’s annual streak, there is Bray Wyatt versus John Cena, and lastly we have the Andre the Giant Battle Royal, with only seventeen of the thirty participants confirmed. Elimination Chamber was four weeks ago last night, so they have had plenty of time to build the card. However, from their current output, it feels like they are scrambling to put together the show on the fly. Part of the problem was CM Punk’s unexpected departure, but that was right after the Royal Rumble, giving them plenty of time to adjust. Another has been their scramble to elevate Daniel Bryan to avoid the title match being booed out of the arena. Still, it feels like only half the card is ready. This shows a mixture of poor planning and wasted time on frivolous topics and over exposure of some matches. I expect a deluge of announcements on Raw tonight. This is certainly not shaping up to be a positively memorable Wrestlemania.
While there were several comments last week for my column about bringing Sami Zayn up to the main roster and using him as the corporate version of Daniel Bryan in the continued feud between Bryan and The Authority, few of the comments were about said idea. In a bizarre case of comment board stream of consciousness, the conversation went away from Zayn and onto Sheamus. A couple of commentators appreciated the idea, while one felt my writing was worse than the week before, which I admitted was poorly edited. Sometimes you try too hard to compensate. Other times, you cannot satisfy everybody.
Help Tell The Story, Don’t Change the Subject
A couple of weeks ago, I was at an art museum. One piece that held my attention was a variation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vetruvian Man.” The artist placed the classic human image as a shadow, centered in a triangle. He then added various newspaper clippings to the canvas. He had a “Made in the USA” clipping emblazoned across the shadow’s chest. Another clipping was a headline about George W. Bush ordering the invasion of Iraq located near the groin region of the shadow figure. Some of the other headlines and clippings were not readily clear either with their selection or placement. Next to the canvas was the museum’s write-up on the piece. It explained the artist was a Native American and all the clippings were from his reservation newspaper. It discussed the artist’s activism and the causes he put forward. After reading the description, I understood the piece much more. The triangle housing the shadow was meant to be a teepee; several of the clippings and their placement made more sense knowing the artist’s interests and activities. Thanks to the description, my understanding of the piece was heightened.
I bring up this artistic commentary to make a point about this week’s topic: professional wrestling commentary. When doing their job correctly, the commentary crew can elevate a match, assisting the competitors with telling their story in the ring. With the right words, a resthold can become a devastating submission attempt. A certain affectation by a performer can be discussed to help sell the character. A particular move sequence that is a series of counters can be used to discuss the history of the competitors and how well they know each other. A particularly vicious move highlights the heelishness of the character or the animosity he has for his opponent.
When done incorrectly though, commentary will not only take away from a match, but actually hurt it. If the commentary constantly shifts from what is going on in the ring, it does the wrestlers a disservice as it gives the impression that the match is not worth the announcers’ time, which makes viewers wonder why they should bother watching it. Next, it makes restholds feel exactly like what they are; a weak looking move that allows one or both wrestlers take a break in the middle of the match. Further, if the chatter from the commentators is annoying enough, people will tune them out, trying to focus more on the in-ring action, which leads to the audience noticing every little miscommunication, misstep, or flub. The worst case scenarios are that a viewer will put their television on mute to avoid the commentary, or just turn off the show because they find it too irritating.
Over the last few weeks, I have finally sat down to watch NXT on a regular basis. Aside from being impressed with the overall level of talent from several of the performers, I have been impressed with the quality of the commentary. In those few weeks, I have listened to Tom Phillips, Byron Saxton, William Regal, Alex Riley, “Jason Albert,” and Renee Young. Each one of them has their own style. The pairings all work together as they play well off each other. Even at times when they have up to four people in the booth, it does not feel crowded, and even when making jokes at each other, it is quick, seemingly timed correctly with the flow of the match, and has a way of coming back to the competitors in the ring.
Here are a few examples of the commentary that I was impressed with:
NXT Arrival, Sami Zayn vs. Cesaro: Phillips, Saxton, and Regal sold the history between these two and made it feel like the final battle in a long-standing war. Regal sold the dominance, power, and skills of Cesaro referencing his match against the Swiss Superstar. During a protracted segment of Cesaro dominating Zayn, the announcers referenced it started to feel uncomfortable watching Zayn seemingly unable to defend himself as Cesaro hit vicious move after vicious move. They discussed all the counters, emphasizing how well the two know each other. Their commentary helped tell the final chapter of this feud and made it something memorable.
NXT Arrival, Mojo Rawley vs. CJ Parker: My first impression of Parker was that it was a goofy gimmick. The hippie wrestler has been done before, and usually very poorly. However, the commentary crew helped sell him. He’s not just a hippie; he’s a left-wing activist. Parker goes to extreme levels to violence to force his position on the environment and society onto others. With those couple of sentences, he went from seeming like a goof, to a legitimate threat and helped explain why someone from a hippie commune would be in professional wrestling.
NXT Arrival, Paige vs. Emma: I mentioned this a little last week in my Second Thoughts on women’s wrestling in WWE. The commentary played up the talent of these two women and made it seem important. They discussed how even though Paige and Emma are both fan favorites they did not like one another because they are very different personalities. Regal could discuss the beauty of both women without being creepy about it; but still took a potshot at himself about being creepy to find Paige so attractive since he has known the girl since she was born and has been like an uncle. Regal also helped re-establish Emma as a legitimate competitor by talking about what has been shown of her on Raw and Smackdown is only one side of her; the side that cause people to take her for granted. In two sentences, the announce crew rehabilitated Emma’s character from her three weeks on the main roster. The main focus of the commentary was on the talent of the two women and the viciousness they delivered on one another, all in the name of being declared the best by capturing the NXT Women’s Title.
NXT 3/13/14, The Ascension vs. two jobbers: At the start of the match, Riley made a joke about seeing if anyone would take money on the jobbers versus the dominant tag champs. However, when there was a moment where the jobbers got the upper hand, Albert was quick to compliment and note this is how a competitor makes a name for themselves. The momentary control by the challengers emphasized that they are wrestlers as well and that if they show the talent, it can be possible to come out on top. It was short lived and the commentary noted that it was because they gave the Ascension an opening, something that cannot be done.
NXT 3/20/14, Mojo Rawley vs. Bull Dempsey: Another example where the obvious jobber in Dempsey (the man who did not receive an entrance) was played up. They talked about his gimmick as the last of the old school wrestlers and that his power was devastating. It made the victory by Rawley appear impressive and not just academic. Phillips was even able to get in a mention of the celebrity in the audience (football player Rob Gronkowski) without taking anything away from the match.
NXT 3/20/14, Adam Rose vs. Camacho: This really impressed me as they had four people in the booth for this match (Phillips, Saxton, Regal, and Young). Renee provided a wonderful foil for Regal with their back and forth of Young trying to be Regal’s date to one of Rose’s parties. They were all able to gang up on Saxton being a geek and not having any chance of getting in. They talked about Rose’s flamboyance and spirit, but noted it only goes so far and that he needs to show talent in the ring and cannot take his competition lightly. They helped sell the outrageous character, but still note he is a wrestler.
In each example, the in-ring competition was made better by the commentary. Only two of the matches I mentioned above were of any real note (Zayn vs. Cesaro and Paige vs. Emma). However, because of the commentary, I was engaged in the action with the other matches. I felt entertained and enjoyed watching wrestling.
This is a sharp contrast with the commentary crew of the WWE’s main shows. Michael Cole, JBL, and Jerry Lawler cover Raw while Cole and JBL also handle duties on Smackdown. There are many times where I find it almost a chore to watch the shows. Part of this is due to the fact Raw is three hours long, but another part of it is due to the commentary. Looking back to the past few weeks of Raw and Smackdown, there is nothing I can think of that stands out as being memorable from the commentary in a positive way. The biggest thing I remember of the commentary from them was the Memphis show where it was endless jokes about Lawler’s shirt. Often during a broadcast, all three seem to be in competition with each other over who can come up with the wittiest zinger, or can get in the most time talking. They will go whole matches where they will give only a casual mention to what is going on in the ring; either discussing what happened earlier in the night, or something that has no connection to anything pertaining to the WWE. The animosity between Cole and JBL goes well beyond a heel/face dynamic. Neither one lets the other have a chance to make their point; instead trying to twist each other’s words before they’ve had a chance to finish a sentence.
I know part of the problem the Raw and Smackdown crew face is the increased pressure of topics to discuss and play up during a show. They have to shill the pay-per-views, their sponsors, and other storylines as they are broadcasting to a different audience. While the NXT crew just has to focus on their small universe of developmental talent, Cole, JBL, and Lawler must try to sell everything in the universe. However, there seems to be too much emphasis on the ancillary factors and as a result, the in-ring action suffers. Further, I have seen examples of hitting all the necessary points without taking away from the product. This week, I watched Main Event for the first time, curious about the commentary team. Phillips and Saxton were the duo in the booth, and they were able to smoothly discuss events from Raw and Smackdown, get in the necessary “hashtag” reference, and shill various sponsors; all without taking away from the action in the ring.
In comparing and contrasting all the styles of the various commentators, here is where I find the key problem: the main announce team is trying too hard to be memorable. Cole appears determined to be the next Jim Ross; JBL wants to be the next Heenan or Ventura; and Lawler is holding on to his glory days of announcing. They make the commentary about themselves, not about the product in the ring. They all have their lexicon of hackneyed shorthand phrases. We all know Cole’s “vintage” and “controlled fury.” There is also JBL’s “Mexico’s greatest export,” and “goat-faced troll.” In listening to Phillips, Saxton, and all, I did not hear a single repeated phrase. The only commentary I heard to the point of annoyance from NXT was Mojo Rawley’s “I don’t get hyped, I stayed hype” catchphrase. That is not the fault of the announce crew though, given Rawley’s one dimensional character. Further, I give the announcers credit trying to come up with different ways of playing up his “high intensity” and “hype” so they could minimize the use of the phrase. To put it simply, I could not come up with a drinking game involving Phillip, Saxton, and company. With Cole, JBL, and Lawler, I came up with a variation that would leave an average person being treated for alcohol poisoning after one episode of Raw.
This raises the question, what to do with the announcing in the WWE? Ever since my first column, I have been advocating Smackdown be taken over by Renee Young and William Regal. The two have a chemistry that is undeniable and has not been seen since JR and King in their glory days or Gorilla Monsoon and Heenan. Regal is the savvy veteran who can smoothly transition between rooting for the heel while still putting over the face. Young holds her own with any of the men in the WWE, which is an accomplishment for any announcer, regardless of gender. Try as some have to embarrass her or play her down (New Age Outlaws for example) she holds her own either with a quick comment or facial expressions that surpass any possible verbal retort. She can fawn over the men without seeming creepy or shallow, and portrays a confidence and knowledge of moves, history, and storylines. In my opinion, the WWE is sitting on a goldmine with a broadcast duo of Young/Regal and are fools to not permanently team the two up and give them Smackdown.
If Vince though wants to hold on to his misogynistic ways and cannot imagine a woman calling wrestling on a weekly basis on a main show, there are still options. Give Young and Regal NXT and Main Event and move Phillips and Saxton over to Smackdown. Those two also have a strong chemistry (though not as dynamic as Young and Regal) and also portray a confidence, coolness, and professionalism that bring credibility to the shows they call. My one complaint with the two is that I find their voices to be similar and at times was confused who was who when they were part of a three-person team. As a duo though, I am able to distinguish. I was impressed with their performance on Main Event and actually want to watch the show on a regular basis.
Personally, if it were up to me, I would give Young and Regal Raw, Phillips and Saxton Smackdown, Riley (with a little more grooming for play by play) and Albert NXT, and Cole and JBL Main Event. I do not know what it is about Cole but after all these years I am not impressed with him as a commentator. I do not know if it is because he must parrot everything Vince tells him to, or it is his lack of ability to find a better way to express the intended meaning. He still gets moves wrong on a regular basis, gets too wrapped up in his perceived wittiness, and just overall detracts from the in-ring performance. His effort to make himself a character, be it his feud with Lawler or his shameless mockery of the women on NXT Season Three is just embarrassing. He seems more interested in making the shows an extension of “The JBL and Cole Show,” with him as the star. As for JBL, he and Cole did have a good chemistry at one point several years ago, but it has since disappeared. The give and take they had as a duo is gone, replaced with a bickering that I cannot tell if is in character or an honest animosity between the two. Whatever it is, it hampers the shows, and if their positions were based on merit, they deserve relegation to a secondary show.
Last, but not least, it is time for Jerry Lawler to call it a career on commentary. His commentary makes him feel like a third wheel on Raw, and that he knows it. He tries way too hard with his jokes and quips. There are times where you can hear him fighting to keep his sexist comments within the confines of TV-PG to avoid getting yelled at. I will give him credit that about once every 3-4 weeks he says something that is truly funny. But with performance that low, it is time for him to be cut. I would not even relegate him down to be a third commentator on NXT as I fear his quips and jibes would hurt the development of the new talent.
There it is, my shuffling of the WWE announce crews. I am very curious on what people think of Phillips, Saxton, Young, Regal, Riley, and Albert. Am I alone in my appreciation of their work? Do you agree or disagree with my take on Cole and company? I do not usually ask for comments from people but this is one where I actively want to hear your take on the announcing in the WWE. It is such an integral part in the selling of their product and I want to hear if I am not alone in finding that their current “A team” is detrimental to their roster.
Until next time, I relinquish creative control.
Tags: byron saxton, jbl, Jerry Lawler, Michael Cole, Raw, Renee Young, Smackdown, William Regal, WWE