A typical match in pro wrestling (or “sports entertainment” as WWE has branded it) features a good guy and a bad guy. Fans can usually tell who they are immediately, then they react to them in the appropriate manner and the match goes on from there. When it comes to the announcers, they typically follow that same dynamic because the commentary team is a part of the show as well.
The announcers are characters just as much as the men and women that step inside of the ring. The play by play announcer and color commentator have to get over whatever the storyline is for every match. Sometimes there is no story, so that makes things difficult, but that’s still their job.
For most wrestling fans that grew up watching the sport in the last 32 years since WrestleMania became a part of pop culture, one of those announcers is usually a bad guy – also known as the heel (the good guy is the babyface). The role of the heel is to upset the fans, get them to boo and more importantly, to cheer their opponent. The heel does that in the ring, but the commentary team assists them in “getting over” based on the words they say too.
The Brain And The Body Deliver In The 1980s
Fans that grew up watching World Wrestling Entertainment in the 1980s (then known as the World Wrestling Federation) will recall two main heel commentators: Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and Jesse “The Body” Ventura. There were others as well, but those were the guys featured on WWE’s major shows like pay-per-view events, Saturday Night’s Main Event specials and weekend shows such as Superstars.
Both Heenan and Ventura got into the business as wrestlers. They played the role of heels most of their careers as well. Heenan was also known as a very skilled manager – some might say the best manager in wrestling history.
Heenan was the perfect heel announcer because he used humor in his broadcasts to get his points across. He was usually paired with the late great Gorilla Monsoon, who was a former wrestler that became a beloved play by play guy as well. There were so many funny moments with them where Heenan would say the most ridiculous things, Monsoon would argue with him and it was like you were sitting on the couch watching the show with your two uncles that loved each other, yet always found something to bicker about. Monsoon’s classic line of “Will you stop?” as a reply to Heenan is the kind of thing old school wrestling fans think about with a smile.
What made Heenan the perfect heel announcer was the way he always sided with the bad guys. A lot of the time he was managing them or used to manage them, so it was pretty easy for him to support them. What was telling during the 1980s was that he almost never sided with the most popular good guy – Hulk Hogan.
If Hogan was in a big match, Heenan would root for the other guy. When Hogan found a way to “Hulk Up” to win the match, Heenan complained about it. He would make up stories about how Hogan cheated or how the referee messed up. It was hilarious because we knew he was lying, but that fit his character. The Brain was never the good guy or the hero, nor did he ever try to be that. He was always the one that was against whoever the top good guy was and that made him stand out from the pack.
If you want to check out the signature performance of Heenan as an announcer, play close attention to the 1992 Royal Rumble match. The way he supported Ric Flair during that win was incredible. He was so over the top in rooting for the Flair win that when something bad happened he would yell that “it’s not fair to Flair.” Then when Flair won the WWE Title that night, Heenan celebrated as if he was a kid that just saw his favorite baseball team win the World Series.
Ventura never got to that next level as an in-ring performer, so he settled in on commentary and it was the perfect spot for him.
Ventura has one of the most distinctive voices in wrestling history. Having the right voice is so key for an announcer because when a guy like Ventura spoke, people listened. If he yelled, everybody was going to hear it. It also helped that he had wrestled for many years before becoming an announcer. It’s similar to a professional sports announce team that often times features an analyst that played the game. They didn’t have to be superstars, but if they knew the game (or the business of pro wrestling in this case) then they could fit in really well in that role.
While Ventura worked with Monsoon a lot as well, he was paired up with WWE’s owner Vince McMahon most of the time. A lot of us grew up not knowing that McMahon owned the company, so to us he was just this regular play by play guy that Ventura mocked all the time. It was always funny to see them on screen with Ventura wearing his typically brash wardrobe that was very colorful while McMahon would always wear some normal business suit.
Ventura understood his role just like Heenan too. He was always against Hogan, which was always seen as a real life thing because the two men didn’t get along that well. Ventura and Hogan both tailored their looks after the legendary “Superstar” Billy Graham, so there was definitely some professional jealousy when Hogan took off as the biggest star of that era while Ventura never really became a top guy in the ring. It’s 30 years later and Ventura will still rip on Hogan if somebody asks him about the Hulkster.
Chances are if you watched any WWE in the 1980s, you’re going to laugh when you think of Heenan and Ventura because they provided us with so many positive moments as well as the ability to be a great heel announcer.
All Hail The King In The 1990s
In the early 1990s, Ventura and later Heenan jumped ship to World Championship Wrestling. Since WCW was a growing company, they threw a lot of money at popular WWE guys and were able to lure their key heel announcers. Lucky for WWE, they were able to find another wrestling legend waiting in the wings to take over: Jerry “The King” Lawler.
When Lawler arrived in WWE in late 1992 he was a 43-year-old that had been a successful wrestler all around America – especially in his native Tennessee, but he wasn’t that well known to all of the WWE’s fans. He was still running his own promotion out of Memphis and wrestling fairly regularly, yet he was also smart enough to know that announcing in WWE was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
Lawler was an amazing heel announcer through the 1990s because just like Heenan and Ventura, he was a heel wrestler too. He was able to mix in being a jerk with his comedy bits as well. Lawler famously would rip on Bret Hart’s family any time Bret was doing his thing in the ring because Bret was the top face through much of the 1990s. While Bret’s parents may not have loved the jokes most of the time, they became a Lawler trademark.
The main play by play guy through most of the 1990s was Vince McMahon. Later in the 1990s, WWE settled on Jim Ross as their main announcer, which was a smart move because Ross is the greatest play by play man in wrestling history. Part of the reason he was so good in that role was because of Lawler. They fed off each other so well and they were great friends that had a chemistry that was undeniable.
As good as Lawler was in the early 1990s, he was even better in the late 1990s when Vince McMahon became the company’s top heel. The way he sucked up to Vince and his family was hilarious. He would always find ways to go against whatever the majority of fans were thinking or feeling about a particular wrestler because he always wanted to support Vince. When people think of that Attitude Era they will think of Steve Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker, Mick Foley and Vince, but it’s fair to say that the Ross/Lawler announce team was the best ever at that time as well.
Mistakes Along The Way
What’s interesting about the way WWE produces their commentators is that they’ve made errors in judgment too. It’s something that should be so easy to figure out with a good guy calling the action and a bad guy providing the analysis, yet they have got it wrong a few times.
When Jim Ross was off television a few different times in the 1990s due to being fired as well as bouts with Bell’s Palsy, WWE decided to bring him back as a heel. In 1996 he was out there promoting a fake Razor Ramon and fake Diesel, which failed miserably. Then he was a heel manager for “Dr. Death” Steve Williams. They had Ross out there acting as if Michael Cole was there to steal his job. Fans didn’t want to boo JR and those storylines were forgotten by the masses pretty quickly.
In 2010 and 2011, for whatever reason WWE decided to turn Cole into a heel play by play guy. By that time, Lawler was mostly a legendary face announcer, so management must have felt the need to have a heel voice.
The problem with that was when you have your main announcer out there acting like a jerk for 90% of the show and then he’s trying to tell you to spend your hard earned money on a WWE PPV (this was before WWE Network), are fans really going to listen? No. We hated him and wanted him to shut up. To his credit, Cole did get a lot of heat, but he was featured way too much and it’s pretty ridiculous how much time they devoted to his character instead of trying to develop younger wrestlers.
In the last five years, WWE has tried to go back to the more traditional role of having a heel color analyst although there’s a twist.
Current WWE Announcers Trying To Find Their Voice
The difference between WWE announce teams in the 1980s, 1990s and most of the 2000s with today is that the company is insistent on having three man teams on both Raw and Smackdown. WWE’s best show – NXT – currently has a two-man team with their best announcer Corey Graves serving as a mostly heel analyst in support of Tom Phillips’ play by play work. Graves is the best announcer in WWE that should be featured more than he is.
On Monday Night Raw, Cole is still the lead play by play guy flanked by Byron Saxton as the face color analyst and John Bradshaw Layfield (a former WWE Champion that is a future Hall of Famer) as the heel announcer.
It’s fair to say that JBL has had mixed reviews as an announcer, but I’ve always felt like he has done the job well. The difference between this role and what Heenan/Ventura experienced is that JBL has to give time to two other guys instead of one. It’s a lot easier to argue with just one guy than it is to have to be quiet for a few seconds so that both guys can counter the things you are saying.
JBL is consistent in his role because he will always support the heels. There are times when he might give praise to a babyface, but it’s usually done in such a way that he comes off as a former WWE Champion that respects the work of the guys in the ring. He’s not as critical as the classic heel announcers were, so fans are vocal about that too. They want the heel announcer to be the biggest jerk out there all the time, not on occasion.
If you watch present day WWE and pay attention to the announcers, JBL does a really good job of putting over the heel work of Triple H, Stephanie McMahon and Vince McMahon. A problem with the company right now is they don’t have enough strong heels. When he talks about the better heels like a Kevin Owens, that’s when he is at his best. They just don’t have enough bad guys in key spots right now. That’s why two of the top three WrestleMania matches are face vs. face matches this year.
Over on Smackdown, the decision was made in January when they moved to USA Network that Lawler would be the heel announcer to counter play by play guy Mauro Ranallo and Byron Saxton, who for some reason is on both shows.
For the past decade or so, Lawler was a face announcer and fans often complained about how he wasn’t as good as he used to be. With all due respect to him, the criticism was fair. Some guys are just better as the bad guy. It was the right call to make Lawler a heel again because he’s way better in the role. After the first Smackdown episode of 2016 on January 7 on USA Network, Lawler was on Twitter retweeting fans that praised him for being back to his old self.
It’s hard to know how much longer Lawler will be calling matches in WWE, but it’s obvious that the end is near. Lawler is 66 years old and if he calls matches for WWE in 2017 that will mean he’s been an announcer for them for 25 years. For now at least, he’s back in the role that has made him one of the best announcers in WWE history.
That’s A Wrap
There are ways that WWE announcing can improve. The best thing they can do is go back to a two man announce team because it’s a lot easier for the announcers to interact with one guy than it is with two. While that might be for the best, there’s a reluctance to do that because management likely wants to keep Saxton out there to continue to develop him.
If they went to two man teams, it would likely be Cole/JBL on Raw and Ranallo/Lawler on Smackdown with Graves as the next man up since he’s more of a heel announcer too. Graves should be on the main two shows right now anyway, but that’s another story for another day.
What WWE should do is have JBL and Lawler act like even bigger heels than they currently are. When we were kids, that’s what we hated about Heenan and Ventura the most. It’s also what made us appreciate them more when we were adults. Those guys were always in character, never changed the course and seemed to have a lot of fun doing it.
Always remember that in pro wrestling not only is okay to be a jerk, it’s encouraged. That goes for the announcers too.