There are two things that any play by play voice needs in professional wrestling to be both credible and popular amongst a wrestling fan base of virtually any type. Let's attempt to keep it as simple as possible as it will become increasingly clear that Michael Cole, despite his spot of gold, is 50% of the performer he needs to be to change history's impression of how well he replaced the best that ever spoke into a microphone.
Some things never change.
Cole would take over, though Ross returned to call Austin/Rock at WrestleMania XV in Philadelphia, at Austin's request, and much to Cole's apparent on-camera chagrin. Again, at this point Michael was serviceable to respectable, not earth shattering and certainly not a world-beater, but better than adequate and still fresh enough that his shortcomings weren't immediately annoying...but that would come.
Now back to our premise, the two things a play by play voice needs to not only be good at, but be consistently great at to truly be considered solid at the job.
UNO: GET OVER THE ANGLE
Michael Cole is pretty good in this facet of the job, even if he gets quite a bit of it through an earpiece. In the early days, Jim Ross would often reportedly be backstage feeding Cole information and lines and would help him during matches. Of course, Vince McMahon would do the same and still does the same. The angle is the soap opera and Cole gets it.
DOS: GET OVER THE MATCH
When is the last time Michael Cole got over a match for what it was, not what it would be months later and just called the action in the ring...or maybe has he EVER done it for the mid card?
Michael Cole did not attend the figurative school that teaches and emphasizes the concept that helping tell the wrestling story in each match is central to respecting the effort of the workers in the ring. Cole's deficiencies in this area range from simply not calling moves, which he does continually, to the even more disappointing tendency to completely bury what's happening in a lower card match in favor of basic jokes and ridicule with his cohorts or to sell some product for the company. While the latter is likely a mandate from above, "above" deserves just as much disdain.
Withleather.com's Brandon Stroud told me last week that he's discovered that many WWE fans now attend shows to see the wrestlers, not the matches. He's right, but why should they? The audience has absolutely no reason to get deeply involved in a match for the reasons that Jim Ross, Gordon Solie, Joey Styles, Lance Russell, Gorilla Monsoon, and even Tony Schiavone among many others provided on a weekly basis. Solie was the gold standard for such a long period of time because he was committed to the craft of providing actual COMMENTARY on a WRESTLING MATCH, not just the guys in the ring but the actual moves, blows, and transitions. The reason Ross surpassed him is because he was able to get over both the match but also the angle to an immense degree.
Imagine if Jim Nantz or Gus Johnson or Marv Albert or the best play by play man in sports, Mike Emrick, didn't call the action on the field, court, or ice and instead talked about other games in that sport or constantly tried to sell you fattening food from Sonic or reminded you that Jingle All the Way 2 is indeed a thing...and sadly, it is. It's impossible to know how much of what annoys us about Michael Cole is directed from on high, but it's patently obvious that he simply does not call the match. Even a four star match between Cesaro and Daniel Bryan happens without a trace except in the biggest moments, but the sheer quantity of smaller nuances that take place in the mid card matches where the participants are trying to make an impact is impossible to ignore.
I feel for those whose characters and gimmicks are lacking but who can work their butts off...because Cole makes it very apparent that the work doesn't mean a damn thing. Storytellers in the ring are completely forgotten by many because there's no voice dedicated to making that story special. Furthermore, the story in the ring is neglected...and it may well be because the man given the all-important job of telling that story in actual words...
is completely incapable of doing so.
I use the phrase "main event syndrome" to describe the propensity of a worker who reaches the main event to cease all innovation. A mid carder who is beloved often has charisma but also has a wide array of offensive weapons in the ring mixed with a solid ability to sell. The philosophy of main event wrestling from the very beginning is that fans want to see two big guys duke it out with punches and kicks and just a bit of variety outside of the brawling. When most wrestlers hit the top of the card, everything becomes a pattern.
When Michael Cole was a mid carder as an announcer, Michael Cole called wrestling matches. When he became "the guy," he quickly stopped with all that nonsense and simply hit his own verbal version of the running strikes, the power move(Vintage), and the finish. All the little stuff that separates the good from the iconic, that stuff either faded away...or maybe it was never there. Michael Cole caught a bad case of MES and unfortunately, it's contagious. Matches have minor impact outside of the main event to many fans past the wins and the losses, especially when Cole lacks energy. You want bad? Listen to Cole on an overseas tour, tired and jet lagged.
And so at 50% passable, missing one of the two requirements he needs, the case is incontrovertible. Michael Cole is insufficient at this time.
He can sell a mean order of tater tots though.