WWE’s Scripted Commentary Is A Real Problem
How many times do we have to see Michael Cole reading from a script before we lost all interest?
What an absolute shambles WWE commentary has become as of late. For once this isn’t an opinion shared amongst a small minority of wrestling fans. It seems almost everyone is quick to point to the audible mess spouted out on a weekly basis by the likes of Maggle Cole, Byron Saxton and Corey Graves. Obviously JBL has recently come under fire following accusations of workplace bullying, but that certainly isn’t the only crime he should be answering for.
How far has the weekly content fallen since the departure of the iconic commentating duo - Jim Ross and Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler? It almost seems that the art of calling a match diminished after they were separated (in one of the previous installments of the WWE draft) and Michael Cole was chosen as the man to throw away the cowboy hat and cement himself as the voice of the WWE.
This isn’t entirely an Anti-Maggle post. Everyone who dons a headset shares this responsibility, but nothing sucks the hype and the emotion out of me quite like the commentary soundboard. When you decide to take a little nostalgic trip back to the 90s and 00s, chances are you’re drawn in by the absolute passion and drama that was exuded from whoever was calling the match. The commentary table is made up of two or three distinct roles - The play-by-play, the relatable bystander and the antagonistic smarm; or in wrestling terms, the face and heel commentators. Whether it be Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura, Bobby Heenan and Tony Schiavone or JR and King, each table had characters which could perfectly fit into these roles. Each commentator would have significant knowledge of both wrestling lore and of technical manoeuvres, making them all seem genuinely capable at expertly describing a performance. However, as the times changed the nature of commentary has had to adapt.
Being constricted by the demographic and the maturity ratings, commentators have had to somewhat tone down the amount they could put into their reactions. Vince developed a regime for each colour commentator to follow, providing them with a specific list of phrases they were and weren’t allowed to say on air. This meticulously condensed what the commentators had to say and do to put over spots and characters. Consequently, the commentators and broadcast alike seemed to have the life sucked out of them, leading most popular names such as Jim Ross, Matt Striker and Tazz to all leave the table and seek out other ventures. Although all three of those names have ended up commentating elsewhere, nobody has come close to replicating the moments they helped narrate.
Some have criticised the likes of Striker and Tazz for being “too smarky” or too busy being focused on adding in pop-culture references rather than calling the in-ring action. But I defend their words by arguing that they’re at least saying what they want to say. Newcomers like Byron Saxton and Corey Graves almost seem to be running on the script, occasionally perking up to enter into the discussion with a quip or advertisement when Vince starts barking orders down the microphone. Michael Cole on the other hand remains as the un-enthused stone wall, very rarely managing to convince audiences of his genuine interest in the match itself, sounding as if he is literally reading the script word-for-word.
All three are downright cringeworthy, attempting to develop an on-air camaraderie similar to the banter JR and King would often have, debating over the wrestlers involved and picking sides to help create drama within each match. It seems none of the commentators can decide what their personal morals are, picking and choosing between the faces and heels as the ones they choose to put over on air. It baffles me how Michael Cole can go from bigging up Nia Jax as ‘the one to watch’, to then being disgusted by the likes of Braun Strowman. Corey Graves, who managed to win the hearts of the fanbase through his commentary on NXT, was poised to fill the role of the heel colour commentator upon call-up to Raw. However, even he seems to become confused as to who he wants to get behind.
This really all came to a head on this past episode of Raw, in the main event between The Big Show and Braun Strowman. You’ve probably seen by now that they decided to include the decade-old spot of the ring exploding under two super-heavyweights executing a superplex off the top rope. Great! Even though we’ve seen this twice before, I’m sure it’s going to do wonders for Braun Strowman and make him look like even more of a monster. What killed it for me, though was the commentator’s reactions.
Almost instantly after it happened, the shock and surprise was over. Michael was quick to feign interest in the welfare of the two superstars involved and jump on hammering in the replays and reaction shots of the audience. Even though the fans in attendance were going nuts, all we could hear is the three amigos underselling the scene. Looking back to when the spot was first used on an episode of Smackdown in 2003, Tazz and Michael Cole absolutely nailed reacting with genuine disbelief. With Tazz even managing to slip in a cuss word which has since been censored. If Maggle and pals were able to at least attempt to generate some form of excitement, concern or any emotion for that matter, then perhaps this iteration of the imploding ring might be one that people will remember.
Calling action in a way that’s relative to how you feel whilst watching it isn’t an easy task. Of course the commentators must remain professional and composed, to avoid sounding like more of a fan than a broadcast journalist. However, it’s certainly achievable even with Vince on the other end of a headset. Mauro Ranallo has been credited as being one of the better commentators of this era. Even though at times he’s fallen victim to the script, nobody can deny his passion for professional wrestling as an art-form.
I personally appreciate commentators being knowledgeable of each hold and describing the effects of each move. Aside from the occasional reference from Cole to a michinoku driver or a lariat, it seems nobody aside from Mauro is capable of coherently narrating a sequence of moves. Granted this is probably a credit to his background as an MMA commentator, but perhaps it should be a wake-up to the rest of the panel to start brushing up on their tapes. Despite the current heat on JBL, even he makes the effort to appreciate an individual’s wrestling ability - something which I think should be more of a focus now considering the depth of the WWE/NXT rosters.
Mauro’s work alongside Daniel Bryan during the Cruiserweight Classic was magnificent, managing to make each match feel like it was worthy of your attention. Although it’s no simple task to seem invested in endless hours of live wrestling, Mauro managed it and restored my hope in the Smackdown commentary table. But of course, no good thing can last forever, as Ranallo is rumoured to be heading to NJPW in the near future.
Drifting further away from the current style of commentary in WWE, is Lucha Underground’s pairing of Matt Striker and Vampiro. At first I was dubious, thinking that it was somewhat of an odd couple to be calling the action for an unknown promotion, but how wrong was I.
Striker and Vampiro epitomise vox populi, channeling their inner wrestling fan and putting everything they have into calling the bigger spots. Lucha Underground owes a lot to these two for helping make them seem different and unique to the mainstream, advocating that the fans - or “believers” - are as big of a part of the show as they are and creating die-hard passion and genuine appreciation for the wrestlers like no other team.
Jim Ross returned to the WWE commentary booth at this year’s Wrestlemania, adding his insight to the show-closing match between The Undertaker and Roman Reigns. It was a welcome addition to the match, presenting it as more of a main event than what it was originally set-up to be. JR did his utmost to help create an atmosphere throughout this match, setting the tone for it to be a no-holds-barred fight instead of a typical WWE structured match, and ultimately channeling the respect and admiration that everyone linked to the wrestling industry has for The Undertaker. I somehow can’t imagine that match, and it’s epilogue, having as much of an impact if it weren’t for JR. Ross has been one of the most universally recognised aspects of wrestling, alongside The Undertaker, which made it seem almost poetic for him to call his final match.
Fans have been pleased to find out that JR has since signed a two year contract with WWE, and shall be returning to call matches on specific dates over the course of the coming months. No details have been revealed to suggest when and where JR shall appear, but I for one am looking forward to hearing a return to the days of passionate commentary. Nobody has come close to being able to cement a character’s presence quite like JR could. The likes of Taker, Kane and Steve Austin owe a lot to his ability to make them seem like superstars. It’s without a doubt that the contemporary roster desperately needs someone to create an aura beyond their promos. Bray Wyatt, Finn Balor and Dean Ambrose could all afford someone to call their matches with a sense of intrigue and trepidation, making their efforts make more of an impression as opposed to being met by a classic Michael Cole sandbag.
Considering the recent events in JR’s personal life, it’s a true testament to his integrity and perseverance that he’s decided to make a comeback so soon after the tragedy. There I was thinking I couldn’t respect the man any more than I do.
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