Friday, 11 July 2014

Black Hat, Bad Guy

The play-by-play commentator is an important figure in wrestling. When done properly the role is filled by someone who not only has an extensive knowledge of wrestling moves, holds and tropes but also someone how knows how to help tell the story the wrestlers in any given match are telling, understands how to get over characters and significant plot points that will be relevant at a later date, and someone who can lead a broadcast. It’s not an easy job because there are so many aspects to it, so it’s no wonder that there are very few really good play-by-play guys out there.

At this point I’ll note that Michael Cole describes himself, and is described by WWE and his colleagues Jerry Lawler and John Bradshaw Layfield, as a broadcast analyst. The reason for this is so that Cole has a get out clause whenever he’s accused of not being as good as other lead announcers. Basically he has a different job. And yes, WWE cares about giving key employees ways to get out of niggling arguments.

Michael Cole isn’t my point though. I just thought his job title was something worth mentioning. Due to the nature of the role play-by-play announcers have almost always been faces. It’s tough to have a heel perform many of the explanatory functions of the play-by-play gig because their prime function when wearing a headset is to be antagonistic. A villain explaining why fans are (or should be) rooting for a babyface simply doesn’t work within the confines of wrestling logic. There’s also the fact that play-by-play guys are essentially the narrators of wrestling shows. Having someone you can’t properly empathise with as the person explaining things to your audience really doesn’t work.

With all this said I’d like to remind you of something. In 1996 the WWF turned Jim Ross heel. He cut a worked shoot promo in which he described himself as the best play-by-play man in the business, buried the decision to put him in a toga, and knocked Vince McMahon for firing him in February ’94, shortly after he’d suffered his first bout of Bell’s Palsy.

Jim Ross is not a heel.
Yes, likeable, cuddly old JR was turned heel by talking about things which most people could fully empathise with. He was one of the best commentators in the business at that point (I’d argue Joey Styles was the best but I’m sure many would disagree in favour of Ross). The decision to put him (and other WWF personalities) in togas at WrestleMania IX was a bad one. And Vince taking the decision to fire him after he’d been struck with an illness was a low move even by shady wrestling promoter standards.

Ross was turned heel to introduce the short-lived replacements for Razor Ramon and Diesel. The reason they were around is a whole other story. Basically the WWF was being petty and trying to bury the opposition at the same time and it backfired. JR was selected for the role because of his role as head of talent relations (apparently) but it would have made far more sense to use a more experienced on-screen character like Jerry Lawler or Jim Cornette.  Ross hadn’t been linked to either of the originals on-screen and said nothing in his promo that explained his actions.

It was a dumb move turning a popular, talented face announcer heel. And they did it twice!

In early 1999, when he returned after time off with another bout of Bell’s Palsy (he’d been rehired after his firing), JR was reintroduced to TV as a petty, spiteful man unable to handle the fact that Michael Cole had replaced him at the announce booth. His answer to the problem was to have his own desk constructed in front of the regular desk, complete with his initials in place of the WWF logo. He called a single match while taking cheap shots at Cole before his table was (partially) destroyed and deemed inoperable.

In actuality it was pretty funny. JR referred to Cole as “the boy” and was so ill-suited to the antagonist role that he ventured into so-bad-it’s-good territory. On top of that he had ‘Doctor Death’ Steve Williams with him as a bodyguard. That was made all the funnier by the fact that Williams by this point hated his former pal Ross, blaming him for the embarrassing loss he’d suffered in the Brawl For All tournament 1 the previous year which had obliterated the tough guy aura he’d cultivated with years of working stiff in Japan.

But as funny as it was it was a completely stupid decision. Ross was clearly not cut out to play such a character either in 1996 or in 1999. And really, that’s all I had to say here. My work is done. I simply wanted to remind people that Jim Ross heel turns were things that happened and they were as ludicrous and painfully bad as you’d expect.


1 You may be unaware of Brawl For All. If so, count yourself lucky. All you need to know here is that it was a tournament featuring WWF wrestlers wearing boxing gloves in real fights which were broadcast on RAW. It failed to create any new stars and inflected a multitude of injuries on the roster. Everyone involved thinks it was a daft idea and, going on available evidence, it’s hard to understand how it happened in the first place.


  1. Nice article, wish it went a bit further though. Was expecting more on other announcers, not just JR.

    1. It's a subject I can return to. It was originally just about JR's turns. The intro stuff on the role of play-by-play guys came later.

      What else would have liked? I might be able to write something covering it.

  2. Just announcers in general, I don't think they get the focus they deserve, as they could truly make or break a show.

    A wee bit more background info like you did here for JR's turn. Anyone about what happened between the classic JR/Lawler setup to the current team, WWE/F has went through a lot of changes in that time.

    1. Noted. Can't promise it'll be any time soon but I'll probably be able to do something like that at some point.