Monday, November 4, 2013

The Importance of Wrestling Commentary

Watch this and read along.

This match isn't particularly good or memorable. It's Kerry Von Erich and Warlord filling time for 10 minutes before a count out draw. There's some nice bits to keep the crowd involved and  warm during a big show, which is important in the bigger picture of booking a complete card, but I'm not writing about the match itself. This is about the commentary.

We have a three man booth: "The Anvil" Jim Neidhart, Gorilla Monsoon, and Bobby "The Brain" Heenan. A current wrestler, a former wrestler, and a current wrestling manager. These characteristics are important to remember as it gives them "expert credentials" when giving analysis to the action in the ring. Anvil kicks things off by mentioning that Kerry is a "World Class" discus thrower and that he applies skills learned in that sport to one of his moves: The Discus Punch. While fans may wonder how discus throwing translates to a complete competitor, Anvil further explains that the training regimen necessary to launch a discus at a "world class" level, takes a lot of body work to get the proper "torque"  - and Kerry looks in great enough shape to make this claim credible.

Anvil then talks about the size difference, specifically referencing Warlord's legs and how much power they have. Brain and Gorilla discuss his bench pressing prowess and his toughness. They're building up both men as exceptional physical specimens, with very specific descriptions. It's not just "this guy is strong and powerful", it's "this guy can throw an object long distances" - and "this guy can bench press heavy objects not just once, but several times!" The point isn't that these statements are true or false, but that they can be believable. Because our sources are "credible" and because the two wrestlers in the ring look pretty damn impressive physically, we can buy the claims being sold to us.

The lines are further defined by Anvil claiming there to be a difference in being "gym strong" and being "wrestling strong". He's a successful wrestler known for strength, not necessarily physique, so he has credentials to back this up. This kind of talk elevates the "sport" or professional wrestling, as the commentators define character attributes needed to a create a complete wrestler, while at the same time teaching the audience that, while size is important, a smaller wrestler can defeat a larger wrestler, or at least hold his own, because he may be smarter or have a different type of muscle strength. Bob Backlund is a great example of this type of wrestler. He didn't look strong and he wasn't big, but he could dead lift Hulk Hogan off the ground and was WWF champion. So with the help of wrestling history, these claims are backed up. When Gorilla Monsoon sees Warlord run Kerry into the guardrail and utters "I'm glad I retired", he's effectively building up this current generation of wrestlers as not only a breed apart from normal athletes, but a step above the previous generation of wrestlers. That's character building that promotes the wrestlers in the ring and the company that employs them, and it was only four words. Simple and effective.

What's important about wrestling commentary isn't just the calling of moves or stupid jokes, it's creating a world for the fans to live in. This doesn't have to get super detailed, it can really be very simple. At its core, wrestling is a sport in which men square off with one another for money, titles and prestige. The more you work to define that conceit as "wrestling reality" the more the fans can fully live in that world. Even when we know it's fake, humans are generally more than willing to live in a fantasy and get emotionally attached. Wrestling is at a point now where they they think that since everyone knows it's all a show, that they can treat it like it's just a show. Wrestlers aren't wrestling for money or job security, they're wrestling to put on a 5 star match for fans. That's not tangible. And while this world view has produced some nifty matches in the past, it doesn't have the same emotional weight. The more tangibles you can put into a bout, the more attached fans can get to the characters in the ring. Kerry Von Erich and Warlord aren't just having a a dance for fans to enjoy, they're competing for dollars and the chance to move up the ranks and possibly an Intercontinental title shot. Winners move up, losers stay down. In current WWE, this isn't so much the case. Losers can eventually find themselves in US title match, which devalues not only the belt, but devalues all the bouts wrestlers compete in across the board. Gorilla doesn't do it in this particular match but he usually finds time to interject something about purse money in his commentary and whether guys would have to split it if there was a draw. It's not incredibly detailed, but the important specific is there and our minds do the rest.

This concept of money and value pertaining to the outcome of wrestling matches is further detailed by Bobby Heenan, a wrestling manager. His job is, in "wrestling reality" NOT to stand at ringside to get heat. His job is to sign his wrestlers to lucrative match-ups and insure his guys get paid (because that means he gets paid.). It just so happens that the way he insures these victories - cheating - gets him heat. This tangible motivation is something fans relate to, and the more that wrestling characters live those motivations the more the fans can buy into the action. Heenan does this by explaining that he makes sure Barbarian and Haku hit the gym all the time. Of course he doesn't really do this in real life, but we believe in it because it makes sense. He's trying to make good on his investments.

So the commentators have to define the characters, which they did in the opening, and they also have to define the world, which should come naturally as they call the action. The third important detail is to help tell the story in the ring. This isn't just calling out the names of holds, but understanding the psychology - possibly even more so than the wrestlers in the ring - of what's going on and why it's happening. Why doesn't Warlord fall down when Kerry goes for the sunset flip? Anvil prepped you for it before the match even started - look at those legs. Why did the discus punch not drop Warlord the first time? Because Warlord is not an average man. He's exceptional. Gorilla doesn't just call moves, he explains what they're damaging and explains the longer lasting effects of the holds, by citing the pain he feels in his older age. This not only adds to characters and their personal drama -they're wrestling for money but they're sacrificing long term health for it - but it also gives weight to the holds and maneuvers done in the ring. Every back breaker now means something not only in the short term - this match - but in the long term - Kerry and Warlord's life.

When Anvil talks about Warlord being confident about winning, it's Heenan who says overconfidence can lead to defeat, especially against the Texas Tornado. This is key for two reasons. One, Heenan has been talking smack about Kerry the whole match, so these moments where The Brain compliments him mean a lot, and two, he's preparing you for the possibility that Kerry can come from behind at any moment. The match isn't over, Kerry can still do this. He's actually cheer leading for the guy while bashing him. I point this out specifically because many heel commentators don't quite know how to put a guy over while they're trashing him. JBL is great at it. Go back to his first stint on Smackdown and listen to him call a Matt Hardy match. JBL talks shit about everyone, but when Matt's in the ring he will usually say "This guy is one step away from the world title, he just has to put it together." Then he talks shit about him again.

Good commentary is invaluable to professional wrestling, but it's pretty damn hard to find. Bad commentary can kill matches and make them unbearable no matter how good the guys in the ring are. I could watch the match with the sound off, but then I'd miss out on the crowd reactions and that's pretty darn important to me too. I'd tell some companies that if they don't have anyone good to do it, don't have any commentary at all. Let the wrestlers tell the story on their own until you can find someone to help, not hinder. Commentary is not the place for people to put their goofball friends on so they can make lame pop-culture references and scream cliches they gleamed off a Jim Ross call. The commentator creates the world for a fan to live in where a guy can whip another guy into some ropes and they will, for some insane reason, bounce off them and come running back. They're the ones who make the drama in the ring something the fans want to live through. I could have chosen a great match with a great call, like the 1992 Royal Rumble - but I chose this one to show that even in a match of no importance, Anvil, Heenan, and Monsoon make it have value. Giving seemingly worthless matches a sense of importance, improves the value of the entire card and the promotion as a whole. This is the power and responsibility of the announce team and it shouldn't be taken lightly.

1 comment:

  1. good stuff, Jae. I could never turn the sound off totally, too big a fan of audible selling, i.e. Flair, and I noticed Punk doing a good job of it last night on Raw against Luke Harper. I enjoy your stuff 'cause you're one of the few fans online I've read that enjoys stuff but hasn't lost that connection with what captivated you in the first place about westling