Wednesday, October 11, 2000

Ringside Shadows #147: A Look at Wrestling's Unspoken Heroes

It's a role that's as easily overlooked as they come, yet one that's as integral to the final production of a wrestling program as the brush is to the creation of a painting. While it's easy to heap blame or praise upon the workers relatively evenly, the men behind the tables, the announcers, rarely receive any attention whatsoever unless they've done their job poorly. A prime example of this is Stevie Ray's work on last night's Monday Nitro program. Stevie was, admittedly, awful, and as a result drew my attention away from the matches at hand. He distracted me with his attempts to appear cool, took away from the workers by trying to put himself over on their time and pretty much blew his chances at a full time gig with a weak performance. While Stevie's is an extreme case, it offers a perfect segway into what made those that came before him (and those that will doubtless come after) so good at what they did.

In taking the role behind the monitors, an announcer is assuming the most difficult job in the sport. If a worker is having trouble getting himself over in the ring, the announcer must pick up the slack, enhancing his every positive aspect to the viewing audience and smoothing over or entirely forgetting his weaker areas. If this hypothetical wrestler is struggling on the mic, it's the commentator's job to give them a more memorable voice, one that's more likely to get across the point they're trying for. A good announcer must do all of this while maintaining a conversational tone with his comrades, calling the action in the ring and keeping himself as far in the background as possible. Rarely will you see a color commentator mentioned when perusing the lists of wrestling's all time greats, though they likely had as much to do with the ascention of the names listed as did the men themselves.

Probably the only real mention of these men that hasn't been fleeting in nature came in Mick Foley's autobiographical work, Have A Nice Day, where he gave his undying gratitude for Jim Ross and the work he did from the announcer's table in WCW. Though JR didn't do all the work for Mick, he did give his all where it counted and gave the future WWF champion the extra popularity it took to go somewhere in the sport. Given his non-traditional build and bizarre methods, I seriously doubt Mick would've gone anywhere near as far as he did without the help of JR early on. He realized it, and by making strong mention of it in his book gave me a newfound respect for those that have done the same. When an announcer accepts his job, he isn't doing so because he'll be heard by millions every Monday night. He isn't doing it to sell T-Shirts. He's either doing it because he loves the sport, or he likely won't be anywhere within another couple of years.

Throughout my time observing this sport, several announcers have nudged their way into my memory, be it through a stupendous call, the memorable building of an untapped talent, fantastic exchanges with an equally adept broadcast partner or by simply being in the right place at the right time. Below is a list of those men, as well as a brief explanation of what it was exactly they were doing right, wrong or otherwise. This one's dedicated to those unspoken heroes, the men who were our eyes and ears all this time. This one's for the heart and soul of the industry, the announcers.

Tony Schiavone
Though he's been the living, breathing pun of the industry for the last few years, Tony Schiavone was once a bright, worthwhile announcer who knew the game much more than he lets on today. Working for both the WWF and WCW, Schiavone was brilliant. He could call every move almost flawlessly, and though he was somewhat lacking in the department of storyline development, his blistering play by play more than made up for it. Unfortunately, Vince McMahon was becoming more interested in a good gimmick than a good match at this point, and as Schiavone's style became more and more outdated he was quietly released from the World Wrestling Federation. Since that time, Tony's attempted to reinvent himself more than once, but never really grasped the "entertainment" quite as much as he did the "sport" all those days ago. Though he's reached a niche as WCW's mainstay head announcer, it's come at some cost and I often find myself wishing he'd let this facade go, returning one last time to the play by play that brought him here in the first place.

Mike Tenay
Tenay, on the other hand, has filled that very void. A former Nitro regular himself, "The Professor" knows every different variation of every single hold, the complete history of every worker in WCW and probably your Social Security number, too. Tenay took the idea of a "wrestling historian" to a whole new level, giving audiences a true-to-life reason why the match they were watching looked so incredible. Like Schiavone, he wasn't much for advancing angles outside of the ring, but once the men stepped inside, it all made sense. Mike Tenay is like tuning in every week with a good friend, a guy who's known the sport inside and out for years. When a Buff Bagwell or Ernest Miller would step between the ropes, and occasionally find themselves struggling, Tenay knew how to make the match interesting again... simultaneously raising the workers' stock in the eyes of fans.

Vince McMahon
The most creative mind in the history of the sport was, unfortunately, also one of its biggest wastes as an announcer. McMahon was downright awful, and the sorry thing was everybody knew it, but was afraid to say so for fear of losing their job. As an announcer, Vince's opinion regarding the general viewer's gullibility was far too obvious. McMahon fancied himself the "down to Earth," public voice of the company, and he fell for everything. When Doink the Clown took off his cast and started beating Crush with it, McMahon went on for a full twenty seconds, screaming "Good god, he's torn his arm off at the socket! Right off at the socket! Now he's using it to hit Crush again and again! Auuugh!" Vince's announcing was responsible for a great deal of the silliness that plagued the WWF in the late 80s and early 90s, and it's not surprising that the circus atmosphere didn't begin to die down until he left the broadcast position for good several years ago.

Bobby Heenan
A good manager-turned great announcer. The day Heenan first picked up the mic was the day the game changed as a whole. Playing the first memorable heel commentator in the days of the WWF's big Rock'n Wrestling boom, Heenan fit the role like no other. He cheered (and often managed) the top heels, and tore down the faces consistantly, working his magic through reverse psychology. Fans absolutely hated Heenan, and often backed a man just because he'd expressed something of a dislike for them. Add to that his tremendous sense of humor and undeniable chemistry with Gorilla Monsoon, and Heenan goes down in history as one of the all time greats, certainly an innovator. My one regret is that he stuck around too long, tarnishing his memory in the minds of many.

Jesse Ventura
One of the greatest talkers in the business, it was only when teamed with another former wrestler, the late, great Gorilla Monsoon, that Ventura really began to shine. Like Heenan, Ventura played the role of a heel announcer, but made his arguments hard to ignore. Everything he said was based in fact. If the heel was dominating the match, Ventura exploited it. You couldn't argue with his logic, and you hated him for it. Still, he maintained a friendly, conversational atmosphere alongside Gorilla at all those PPVs and would sometimes even admit that the face had, in fact, been the better man on this night (often to close out the show.) He and Monsoon would often throw back to their days in the ring, leading to an interesting comparison or two. It really gave you the idea that you were getting a bit of insider information from these guys, despite the fact everybody else was hearing the same thing you were. Ventura's emotions, also a strong part of his presence, stressed the importance of a match and were generally very well placed.

Jerry Lawler
Far from the worst announcer I've ever heard, but also a ways from the best. Lawler treads the line between face and heel announcer, with his choice in athletes screaming "heel" but his attitude and actions remaining those of a face. Lawler has taken the role Heenan created and brought it into the 90s, where he makes jokes that are more with the times, and plays a great comedian to JR's straight man. The King may not know the technical name of many moves, but as a former wrestler himself, knows what it takes to make a good match. His screeches and wails have become as much a part of the Attitude era as Austin's stunners or the Rock's eyebrows, and for that you have to give him credit. He's one half of the announcing team of the decade, and it takes more than one man to make something like that work.

Jim Ross
Like I mentioned above, for every good comedian there's a strong straight man. Abbot had Costello, Laurel had Hardy and Lawler has good ol' JR. In more ways than one, Jim Ross is the announcer of the 90s, picking up where his mentor and long time partner Gordon Solie left off. He knows who to back and how to do it, what makes a good match tick and what his role in the fight should be. Ross is one of the greatest minds in our sport, both behind the scenes and in front of the mic, and he's modest enough to keep that to himself. Without JR's precise, on-the-money calls, we'd be out a whole lot of memories. While another may have become excited when Mankind took that infamous dive from the Cell in mid '98, nothing would have drilled the memory home like JR's call. "My god they've killed him! They've killed him!" It still sends shivers down my spine, and was truly the perfect call. Ross may have his flaws, but a more well-rounded announcer you aren't likely to find anywhere else in the world.

Gorilla Monsoon
Could've been your best friend. A giant in build but a softie at heart, Gorilla Monsoon was an oxymoron if I've ever seen one. He wasn't the greatest, nor the most technically sound, but Monsoon made up for it all with his good nature and honesty. If he backed a man, you knew you could trust that decision and vice versa. Alongside Bobby Heenan and Jesse Ventura, Gorilla was part of two of the most memorable announce teams in the sport's history. He had a personality that worked with just about anyone, and was always there to let us know when a move required "intestinal fortitude." Wrestlemania meant a little less this year, as the first to air without his familiar face somewhere on the program. He will be missed.

Gordon Solie
Finally, we come to "The Dean," the man all the above names have to look up to. Put simply, Gordon Solie was the epitome of a wrestling announcer. Alongside his rotating cast of broadcast partners, Gordon saw me through my earliest years as a wrestling fan, all the while expecting nothing in return. His words were golden. He could build a match in the ring, out of the ring or in the dressing room, and he could do the same with any given worker. Solie knew all the terms, all the holds, all the reversals and how each one could be integrated with the others. Even when he was in the frame, Solie knew the workers were the real stars of this show. While today's broadcasts see feuds built between Jerry Lawler, JR and Tazz, Solie played his part every step of the way. He stood in awe of these behemoths, and if one threatened him you cringed along with him. Gordon was the godfather of modern wrestling, and the sport lost a true hero when he passed away earlier this year.

And that, for me, is that. I may have left out a name or two along the way... the Lord Alfred Hayes, the Sean Mooneys, the Joey Styles and the Scott Hudsons... but for the most part, this list represents the highs and the lows of the unseen superstars, the announce team. Without these men, the industry wouldn't have reached the heights it sees today, and many of the workers that hold the straps wouldn't have advanced beyond stage one of their careers. So, for every time you're annoyed by a bad announcer, think of these men. Think of all the times you haven't given a second thought to the good ones.
until then, i remain

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