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Is the biased wrestling announcer an antiquated concept?

It’s been a long tradition in wrestling and sports entertainment, but have times changed?

Without doubt, some of the great wrestling commentary of all-time emanated from the give-and-take between a babyface play-by-play announcer and an intentionally antagonistic color analyst. Whether it was Jesse Ventura standing up for Rick Rude as Gorilla Monsoon and Tony Schiavone both backed The Ultimate Warrior, or Jim Ross having to cool Jerry Lawler’s jets when Sable took off her shirt to reveal a sparkling purple bra, it’s always been a part of the story.

Throughout recent history, the heel broadcaster could actually provide more sympathy to the fan favorite, and turn a subjective love of one superstar into something more objective. When he lays out the facts in such an over-the-top fashion, it’s impossible not to see just how wrong or cherry picked the opinions are on the surface. I was asked a question recently about the value of what I’ll call the ESPN talking head debate brand of commentary, where the announcers take sides in order to create drama.

During a wrestling match, does it harm JBL’s credibility to be the jerk, even if we’re all relatively certain of his bullying at this point? If he’s an asshole off camera, is it more genuine to have him just be himself on camera? Or, should it be more objective, with explanation of motivations for both competitors in the ring mixed in? Is it possible to announce a wrestling match and not take a side, especially if you have a dog in the fight?

Jim Ross was a Stone Cold Steve Austin purist, and he became known for his unstoppably fantastic calls during Austin matches, and more broadly for his unmatched ability to turn any main event into something special. We believed he was on our side most of the time, up to and including the reveal of Vince McMahon as the higher power in May of 1999. He didn’t openly root for anyone, but we felt we knew where he stood. As passionate as he was, he made sure anything the heel did was covered as strongly as the babyface. He opined, but back in 1992, he admitted being a fan of Rush Limbaugh during Starrcade, which left Ventura nearly catatonic. It’s hard to be 100 percent objective, but Ross somehow managed to root without making it overly obvious.

Is it about the inflection? When Michael Cole screams as John Cena gets a victory, but sounds a little muted when AJ Styles defeats him, is that a problem? It’s not an easy question, because again, it’s tough not to see the inherent bias in an announcer. In other sports, it’s easier outside of the homer broadcasts to call the action without an agenda. Jim Nantz may love the New England Patriots, but his touchdown calls were based on the timing of the scores and the spectacular nature of the plays, not necessarily the people.

Nantz is a perfect example, because he may well be the most vanilla, yet solid and professional announcer in all of sports. If you include studio personalities, Ernie Johnson Jr. would also fit the bill. Some want more variety and more intensity, but these guys never have the yips. You’re sure you’d like spending time with these men, but you don’t generally know their interests. You know what they allow you to know about them. Jim went to school with Fred Couples, and has done interviews in the past talking about how he sobbed with Fred at Augusta when his friend made a serious run at the green jacket several years back. But, when he called the action on Sunday, unless you knew the story, Nantz didn’t alter anything but his emotions.

Color analysts like Dick Vitale are loved by many, but despised by more, because there’s a perception of bias. Cris Collinsworth has discussed many times that regardless of which game he called that week, those respective fan bases would light him up with emails or comments claiming he had it out for them. Earlier this year, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman dealt with a Green Bay Packers fan petition that garnered tens of thousands of signatures requesting they never be permitted to announce a Packers football game again. Even when it’s not there, fans will find a way to be perpetually offended. It’s the world in which we live.

The best comparison to pro wrestling, however, can be found within UFC, where Joe Rogan is a man with strong conviction and opinion, but still usually calls a fight objectively. I have no idea which combatants he loves or loathes, and I like it that way. I want him to tell me what I don’t know, or what I need reinforced, while the lead voice lays out the blow-by-blow account of the action. If he sees something egregious, his ire raises, but it’s within the confines of the fight, which makes it immensely useful.

Thus, when I hear Nigel McGuinness explain why a certain hold is effective, or why more work needs to be done to lock that same hold in, that’s valuable information. I don’t really care who Nigel wants to see win the bout. That’s not his job, and as pro wrestling has increasingly become reliant on more spots, more holds, and more action, the stories need to be told during the lighter moments. Within WWE, I’m afraid too many fans aren’t being educated on the nuance of the waltz. They’ll never be able to dance, but if they can’t understand the dance, that’s a concern.

Amidst a rest hold, maybe that’s the best occasion for the booth to discuss the characters, the story, and the angle in front of them. During the comeback, let’s call the moves, build the excitement for the bell-to-bell action, and periodically intersperse the sports entertainment side with the wrestling side. Being a pro graps announcer is a different animal than pure sports, but the variance isn’t as stark as it once was. Watching The Masters this weekend, every linksman has a story. Jordan Spieth’s quadruple bogey last year, and the quad he somehow overcame during his first round on Thursday. For Jason Day, it’s dealing with vertigo and inconsistency. For Sergio Garcia, it’s never winning a major, despite being one of the young guns alongside Tiger Woods. For Rickie Fowler, it’s putting four good rounds together.

Stories flesh out sports, and give people someone to care about. However, when Luke Maye took the jumper that ultimately defeated Kentucky two weekends ago, that was the only narrative. We can talk about the 1992 Regional Final afterward and we can talk about North Carolina exercising the Villanova demons, or John Calipari failing to reach another Final Four at the helm of a team jammed with NBA talent.

Each of those points are valid and important, but not in that moment. Pro wrestling is even more about story than just about any sport, because it’s the superstar and his reason for being in WWE, TNA, NJPW, or anywhere else that gives you a reason to tune in. Where are these men and women coming from, and why do they do the things they do? Without that knowledge, we’re just watching a bunch of choreographed maneuvers.

It’s about timing and what’s proper. Corey Graves is excellent at what he does, and is has nothing to do with his predilections towards the villains. He’s good because he makes sense, moves the action along, and provides a non-irritating soundtrack behind the bumps, the high spots, the dives, and the pinfalls. There’s a fine line between being entertaining and being overwrought, and we’ve seen many instances of both.

I’m not suggesting we’ve reached the point where a heel announcer has no value, because I’ve enjoyed people like Bobby Heenan so much for so many years. The answer, as I see it, is it just needs to fit your business. Don’t shoehorn a heel in just because you think you need one. Put the most qualified, capable people in those chairs and allow them to be who they are. If that’s a heel, that’s great. If it’s more objective and psychologically based, that’s also great. Don’t assume you need a heel. This goes for every classification. No promoter should be ticking off boxes on any style of diversity sheet simply to do it. If the right person isn’t available, even if a certain “type” is desired, that’s just the reality of the situation for the time being.

Make sure the booth is comprised of the best, whether that’s Kevin Kelly and Steve Corino doing New Japan last year, Jim Ross and Josh Barnett, or Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan. My favorite pairing of all-time was JR with Bob Caudle, as I grew up in Virginia and North Carolina. When those two called Pay Per Views, there was no heel. It was an incredibly easy brand of commentary to listen to, and because so little time was spent bickering, it left far more time to actually call and analyze the action.

The goal must be to enhance the product to its maximum potential. However that’s most efficiently achieved should be the common and followed best practice for a wrestling promotion. But, in 2017, I do think it’s worth exploring whether the heel commentator has run its course, just as the heel authority figure did many years ago. Sarcasm and jokes work well, but as it always is with announce work, it’s all about timing.

You don’t talk over an emotional moment. You sit back and let that snapshot tell its own story, then contextualize after the history has been made. You don’t run over a play-by-play call of a game winning play. You shut up and let the lead voice get through those sentences, with the understanding that it might be played across the world the next day and your words are in the way. Preconceived babyface and heel needs from the broadcasters shouldn’t be the focus of a television program, except on very special occasions to provide added power to a deserving feud.

Here’s a good rule of thumb going forward.

The fights need to happen in the ring first, not in the announce booth.

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