WWE Michael Cole Corey Graves An AA illustration of WWE’s Michael Cole and Corey Graves.

If you’ve provided the soundtrack to professional wrestling, chances are you belong to an exclusive group. Since the 1980s, only a few have voiced the prominent wrestling promotions. That number only tightened at the turn of the century once WCW and ECW became phased out. Jim Ross and Michael Cole… that’s pretty much it. Joey Styles’s brief run was best remembered in ECW in the 1990s. To his credit, Tony Schiavone was the lead voice for WCW and is still kicking at All Elite Wrestling. That reinforces the point, mainly since J.R. also operates the booth at AEW. So when WWE tabbed Corey Graves, who’s spent nearly a decade as a color commentator, it was a bit of a surprise. But that hasn’t seemed to deter anyone behind him.

Ahead of Graves’ next assignment on Friday Night Smackdown this week in Dallas, Awful Announcing spoke with Michael Cole, WWE’s lead voice since 2008, about the decision to tab Graves as the lead voice of Smackdown, why he thinks he’s the right man for the job, and why he will have sustained success.

“Holy cow, Corey can do this!”

Behind the scenes, prior to that call being made, it was like a lightbulb went off.

Graves had spent nearly a decade plying his craft as a color commentator. He had been in NXT, WWE’s developmental proving ground brand, and had been an active competitor in early 2014. Then, the innovative WWE Network launched with the one-hour WWE NXT show as a centerpiece. No one quite knew it at the time, but NXT was months away from a boom and ascent that radically changed pro wrestling in the United States. Graves, unfortunately, couldn’t partake in the fun between the ropes. Concussions took a toll on him. Graves was forced to retire from in-ring competition in Winter 2014 and debuted as a commentator at NXT TakeOver: R Evolution in December 2014.

He was a hit from the start. Some fans went so far as to liken him to the immortal Bobby “The Brain” Heenan as a potential future heel commentator who’d excel. While Heenan is in a league of his own as an announcer, Graves has been a fixture on WWE main roster TV since the Summer of 2016.

“We had tried some people,” Cole explained. After the company parted ways with Tom Hannifan, known to WWE fans as Tom Phillips, WWE rolled through Adnan Virk, Jimmy Smith, and, most recently, Kevin Patrick as lead voices for the flagship, Monday Night Raw. They had their fair share of struggles, though all three were professional and often put in unenviable spots. Cole had referred to the three of them as “great human beings” during the conversation.

“What we do from a play-by-play standpoint, and even an analysis standpoint, is so much different from every other sport out there,” Cole explained. The esteemed voice of WWE likened their commentators to actors, narrators, play-by-play guys, storytellers, traffic cops, commercial readers, and a plethora of other things.

Amid all that, Cole had confidence in Graves. He commended him for his acumen and his quickness in learning on the job. Cole said he’d already had “a bit” of experience, so it was just, in Cole’s mind, “A matter of giving him the opportunity to sit side by side for many years, to watch, learn, study, and see how I do things.

“And at the end of the day, when we gave him the shot? He’s been killing it. I believe he’s the heir apparent.”

“I don’t think it was in anyone’s mind”

Corey Graves, lead announcer? It wasn’t on anyone’s radar, really. And to be fair, there was no indication it would be either.

Graves remained a color commentator through several of WWE’s attempted reshufflings. He remained a constant presence through several arrivals and departures—not to call matches, though, but to provide his analysis, wit, and humor.

Even as WWE kept trying to find new voices, the prevailing thought still wasn’t on Graves’ side.

“Corey was the veteran in the booth,” Cole explained. “What happened was as they were learning how to do the role on live TV, Corey naturally just began to morph into doing some play-by-play. Handling some of the traffic, doing some of the stuff a normal play-by-play guy would do. He just started doing it more and more and more to the point where, a few months ago, we said, ‘Wait. We may not be doing the right thing and doing us a disservice. We may have the person right here under our nose. And I think that’s how it came out. It’s like a lightbulb went off.

‘Holy cow, Corey can do this!'” Cole recalled saying.

Things are a bit different now at WWE with Vince McMahon ousted. The disgraced McMahon recently and officially left his longtime post after sordid and vile allegations were levied against him. “It’s a different world,” Cole said, alluding to the changes.

“Corey came in at a good time,” he said. He explained the differences previously but said, “Under the new regime now, things are looser. The direction’s different. There’s a lot more trust in commentators now than there was before. We are having the opportunity to be ourselves. Open up, develop character, call pro wrestling, sports entertainment, the way we want to. Corey was able to jump in under this new regime, and it was the perfect chance to make a switch. This was the time to do it.”

“I think he’s the one guy who has an opportunity to sit in that chair for a very long time”

Why is Corey the right man for the job? Passion.

Cole waxed poetic about his PLE colleague and the lead voice of Smackdown, explaining why he is not only the right man to call the shows but also his heir apparent.

“He’s one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met in our business,’ Cole said. “he had this unbelievable love for what we do. He wanted to be a performer. He had his career cut short because of injuries but didn’t want to give this up. He did everything he could, busted his ass, and finally got the opportunity in a commentary role to be himself. Have a character and edge, and be part of the business which he’s loved since he was a kid.”

Cole spoke highly of Graves’ drive and said he’ll succeed primarily because of Graves’ passion, work ethic, and willingness to listen. “I’ve been here 27 years now, and there’s a reason I’ve been in that chair for that long. I think I’m doing something right. Corey’s had the opportunity to watch me operate, and now he takes what he’s learned, the fundamentals of what he’s learned, and takes them and makes them his own.”

“Corey now has a Corey Graves Voice,” Cole continued. “A lot of the issues we had were that we tried to develop commentators to be Michael Cole,” he admitted. “Now we have a chance to develop Corey Graves. I truly, honestly believe he’s going to be the one to replace me. He’s an incredible human being. He has a great opportunity.”

On Graves replacing Cole, WWE’s lead voice stressed that his exit may come “in a few years.” But there’s seemingly no doubt who’ll be the favorite to do so.

Few commentators have achieved long, sustained success in pro wrestling. But Corey Graves will have plenty of support to be the next one on that exclusive list.

About Chris Novak

Chris Novak has been talking and writing about sports ever since he can remember. Previously, Novak wrote for and managed sites in the SB Nation network for nearly a decade from 2013-2022