The Art of Commentary in Professional Wrestling
Commentary is the spice that helps create magic in wrestling. Who are the commentators that defined their craft? Who would make the perfect team?
It’s amazing how we remember things. ECW is often remembered for the bloodletting and extreme wrestling we all recall fondly, but the man who was at the microphone for almost all (if not all) of those moments was Joey Styles. His “Oh mah Gawd!” was the signature of extreme wrestling and will be what Joey is known for until the day they likely etch it onto his tombstone.
The Art of Commentary
Every era of commentary seems to have been defined in part by the men you saw the least. That’s the magic of commentary. Those voices behind the headsets that give that audible flavor to the action we’re seeing going on in the ring. They do more than simply tell us what’s happening, the crank the emotion of everything up a notch. Effective commentary can make a moment legendary, but poor commentary can also distract from great action. Every era had their greats, and the commentary position has evolved over the decades.
The Golden Age of the WWF, let’s call it pre-1991, featured Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura. Lord Alfred Hayes and Vince McMahon would start during this time as well, but the first WrestleMania was called by this iconic duo. Gorilla leveraged his job as a buyout when Vince purchased the WWF from his father and Monsoon. Gorilla sold his shares for a job for life, and he found his home at the commentary table. He had the perfect foil in “The Body.” Before he was a politician, Ventura was a larger than life Ric Flair on steroids type of character. His feathered boa and deep sexual innuendo were way ahead of his time. His claims of having women, particularly celebrities, swoon over him were often exaggerated, but in some cases absolutely true.
The Heel Commentator
Moving forward into the next era, we would see the birth of the quintessential heel commentator. No one man embodied that better than Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. He was one of, and with all due respect to Paul Heyman, perhaps the best manager the WWE has ever had. Heenan’s support of his “Family,” the ragtag group of wrestlers he managed, was always there to be the counter to the ever positive Gorilla Monsoon. While Jesse Ventura had given the perspective of a heel wrestler who had actually been in the ring, “The Weasel” (as Gorilla called Heenan) would give Monsoon and his future replacement the chemistry that kept fans involved and excited about wrestling in the early to mid-1990s.
Monsoon’s replacement would be none other than Vincent Kennedy McMahon. While he’d been doing some bits of interviews and other moments behind the microphone as early as the mid 1980’s, it was his voice on commentary that sticks in the memories of the earliest episodes of Monday Night Raw alongside everyone from Bobby Heenan to Steve “Mongo” McMichael, and even “Macho Man” Randy Savage for a time. Vince’s life on commentary didn’t last, as one fateful night in Montreal, Canada and a huge chunk of spit from the lips of Bret Hart after he got “screwed” forever etched in our minds the image of the Chairman of the Board, Mr. McMahon.
The Voice of the Attitude Era
This is probably the most undeniable name when it comes to commentary as someone who truly defined an era, and that’s none other than “Good Ol’ JR,” Jim Ross. Adorned with his legendary cowboy hat, Jim Ross delighted us with his description of government mule beatings, how a certain rattlesnake would stomp mudholes, and the electricity in the building when the People’s Champion would arrive. Those sounds certainly dominate the memories of my childhood, as I would sit and take in all of what made the World Wrestling Federation so great.
While Ross is now well known as the iconic Oklahoman voice of the WWE, that was not the start of his career in professional wrestling. He initially worked for the AWA, and more notably with WCW before heading to the WWF during Eric Bischoff’s rise to power down where the big boys play. JR would go on to run talent relations and have a key role in the creative direction of the show, helping stars like The Ringmaster, Rocky Maivia, and Hunter Hearst Helmsley find their groove. As those stars evolved, it was the voice of Jim Ross that could be heard describing the mudholes being walked dry by The Texas Rattlesnake, the sheer magnificence if witnessing The Most Electrifying Move in Sports Entertainment Today, and the dissection of opponents by The Cerebral Assassin.
At his side for much of the Attitude Era, Jerry “The King” Lawler, once a Memphis wrestling legend, brought an odd perversion and obsession with “puppies” that fit with the edgier push to the programming during that time. Ross was also joined at times by Paul Heyman, who gave an interesting flavor to commentary after his recent departure from ECW, but there’s no denying that the true voice of the Attitude Era will always be Jim Ross. His “no nonsense” calling of the action and backing of the good guys would be the background of the icons that were created during those years. Jim Ross was heard by up to 10 million people live during the heyday of the Monday Night Wars, and his place in history is as large as the ring ropes themselves.
The Next Voice of the WWE
As the World Wrestling Federation transformed into World Wrestling Entertainment, we saw the foundations of the commentary teams that we see to this day. When SmackDown was created, Jim Ross could not, or simply would not, work both shows and the Pay-Per-Views. The WWE wanted a distinct voice to bring the new show to life, and they found it with none other than Michael Cole. While Cole would still be the butt of some jokes by The Rock, be asked to repeat himself hundreds of times by Steve Austin, and have Chris Jericho never get his name right, Cole would become the voice of SmackDown.
He would most memorably be teamed with Tazz as they formed the foundation of SmackDown commentary as the Ruthless Aggression Era was ushered in after the brand split in 2002. As the years progressed, Cole found himself paired with other commentators such as JBL, another great combination, and less than ideal partners like Booker T. While there was some flux, it was over the years since he solidified his place on SmackDown that Michael Cole has become one of the most iconic voices in the WWE today. While he rubbed some the wrong way as he shifted his support for good guys to bad guys and back over the years, he still has come out as an undeniably important voice at ringside.
I left some members of commentary off this list for varying reasons. There have been plenty of short-lived members of the commentary booth, from CM Punk to Mick Foley. Other personas have shuffled through the third chair on shows, whether it was Jonathan Coachman, the myriad of celebrities during the early WrestleManias such as Bob Uecker or Elvira, or others who have made less of an impact over time. It’s too early to tell if some of the current voices will prove to be as iconic in the long run. Mauro Ranallo is showing promise as a play-by-play man cut from the same mold as Gorilla Monsoon. The quick wit of Corey Graves and the constant berating of Byron Saxton is always entertaining. JBL is gaining status among commentary legends, and Michael Cole continues to be the stalwart.
The Dream Team
With Survivor Series having come and gone, a show in which we see superstars who normally steer clear of one another come together to form an ideal group, I feel it’s only fitting to create that same kind of combo from the commentary perspective. Now, my criteria for this is based on the amount of big matches they have called, overall talent, place in history, and position on the announce table. So Funaki, even though you are “SmackDown…#1 Announcer!”, and a member of the Japanese announce team, you didn’t make the cut. The three positions are a play-by-play man, color commentator, and a third man to be the final complement to them.
The play-by-play man has to be Jim Ross. It’s an easy pick, really. With all due respect to Gorilla Monsoon, Michael Cole, and Vince McMahon, Ross was the man behind the microphone during the biggest wrestling boom in history. His descriptions of the rise of The Rock, the evolution of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s career, and the triumphs and tribulations of just about every wrestling star for nearly a decade make him the man most remembered giving us a rundown of the action.
The color man will be… Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Sorry JBL and Jerry Lawler. The Body gets this for his beautiful portrayal of a heel announcer. His work in the early WrestleManias were quintessential wrestling perfection. Everything from chastising Hulk Hogan for acting in No Holds Barred to claiming he only helped with two pounds of pressure when Dino Bravo tried to set a world bench press record showed how he could amp up the moment with his own spin on things. The eventual Governor of Minnesota turned Conspiracy Theory host continues to this day to have been one of the greatest color commentators we’ve ever seen.
The third man behind the desk is Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. From here, he can gang up on Jim Ross with Ventura in verbally attacking Good Ol’ JR for siding with the goodie two-shoes wrestlers. On top of that, Heenan can continue to be a manager, AKA “The Weasel,” and interfere on behalf of his “family” during their matches by having the benefit of always being only feet from the ring in critical moments.
Commentating is not for everyone, but it’s a key piece of the puzzle that comes together to provide memorable entertainment in the form of professional wrestling. For certain superstars, the highlights of their careers seem to fall to the voices of one man. For Hulk Hogan, we’ll always remember Gorilla Monsoon describing “The Irresistible Force meeting The Immovable Object.” For Steve Austin, we’ll always remember Jim Ross screaming “Stone Cold! Stone Cold! Stone Cold!”
And like it or not, we’ll always remember Michael Cole serenading us with quips like “vintage” and “Oh My!” during some of the biggest moments of John Cena’s career. Commentary has a way of becoming a part of someone’s career. Much in the way that Stan Musial and Ozzie Smith has Jack Buck, Ernie Banks and Ferguson Jenkins had Harry Carey, Orel Hershiser and Clayton Kershaw had Vin Scully, the voices behind the moments become as synonymous with the names as their faces. That’s one of the amazing things about wrestling, and it’s not going anywhere.
Who would be on your Dream Team at commentary? Who do you think will be the next voice of the WWE? Let me know in the comments below!