FIVE COUNT: Five Lessons To Learn To Be A Good Pro Wrestling Announcer in 2017

By Matt Seabridge, PWTorch Specialist

Michael Cole (art credit Grant Gould (c) PWTorch)


The role of the announcer is without doubt the most under-appreciated role in wrestling. They’re not just a big part of the show, they ARE the show. Virtually every segment they’re a part of. There’s no getting away from them. That’s why I feel that WWE’s current announce teams deserve a lot more of the blame than they get for the decline in popularity of the current product. They’re pretty much unbearable the vast majority of the time. You’ll always have wrestlers that you as a viewer can’t stand watching but it’s just one segment on a show, you can live with it because there’s enough other stuff that you do enjoy. With the announce team however, there’s no getting away from that.

So what makes a good announcer? That’s what we’re going to dive into in this latest edition of Five Count. I’m going to look at traits such as credibility, trust, timing and selflessness and how they contribute to an effective announcer as well as drawing on examples of announcers such as Jim Ross, Lance Russell and Gordon Solie who had this announcing shtick pretty well figured out along with looking at why so many of the modern day announcers struggle to recreate their magic.

(1) You’re Essentially A Salesman

A lot of people may think that the most important requirement for a good announcer is the ability to be knowledgeable about the product that you’re calling and to be great at calling matches. Obviously, they’re massively important but the most important requirement is the ability to sell the viewer into buying something.

The announcer is the wrestling world’s equivalent of a salesman. You’re job is to speak to your audience and get them to spend money with you. If you can’t do that effectively then all the knowledge in the world really doesn’t count for anything.

A major part of being a good salesman is building trust. Your audience has to trust what you’re telling them is the truth. You need to have credibility and believability to get the viewer to trust what you say. Without those you’re just not going to be a good announcer.

If you look at any good announcer throughout the history of wrestling, they’ve all had those traits. If Lance Russell told you something then you trusted every single word that he said. Lance would never lie to me! If Gordon Solie told you that something was important then you believed him. If JR told you that business was about to pick up then you knew that something a little extra was about to happen because he had the credibility not to oversell something.

Compare that holy trilogy of announcers to your modern day WWE announcers (yes I know the people producing them are as much if not more to blame). If JBL or Byron Saxton try to start giving you a history lesson you don’t trust them because you know that they’re spewing a false reality. We know that Stephanie McMahon didn’t start the Women’s Revolution. They’re the bad type of salesman who try to sell you on your dream home being flawless despite the fact that you can see all the glaring flaws right in front of your eyes. Once they start telling you something that you know isn’t true then the trust is gone and the ability for them to sell you anything is severely dented.

For instance, when WWE had Cole, Graves and Booker go into overdrive telling everyone that John Cena is the greatest of all the time, a large chunk of the audience will be sat there thinking “No he isn’t. He’s one of but not THE greatest”. Or the constant we listen to the fans line. No you don’t. You don’t need to be anti-authority by being honest to a brutal degree but sometimes in order to be a good announcer that the audience trusts, you need to look at some of the lines that you’re fed and either not say them at all or spin them in such a way that you do your job while also not telling blatant lies.

One of Michael Cole’s biggest problems is that he doesn’t have any credibility. He doesn’t have that credibility like JR always had where if he turns his sales pitch up to a higher level you sit up and take notice. When Michael Cole does the same you just roll your eyes at him. And yes, a big part of this is on WWE management for failing to deliver satisfying pay offs or content that fans really want to see.

So when Michael Cole gives you the big pitch that Roman Reigns is really in trouble, you as a viewer struggle to buy into the stakes suddenly being greater. Whenever JR would do his big yell at the top of the his voice call it was always when something big was happening. He wouldn’t start busting out the big GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY call for something like Braun Strowman slamming Roman Reigns into the wall. He knew when to pick his spots and because we as viewers knew that, we knew that he was credible enough that when he did go for his big calls that it was time for us to take notice of what was happening.

This is the same reason why a heel play-by-play announcer is never a good idea. When you’re trying to sell someone on something you try to be likeable. Even young children understand the basic concept that if you want something from someone you suck up to them and pretend that you’re being nice to them beforehand. If someone you work with is constantly a jerk to you and then one day they ask you to lend them some money you’re not likely to lend them the money are you? Contrast that with if someone at work who you really like asks you the same question then you probably will lend them the money.

If you’re Michael Cole or Josh Matthews and you’re spending the entire show being obnoxious and annoying and trying to get people to not like you, how on earth do you expect to be able to turn around and sell them same people on the upcoming show that you’re tasked with promoting? It just isn’t going to happen.

An announcer is a salesman. To be a good salesman, the buyer has to trust that you have their best interests at heart and that you’re not going to spin them a false reality. Announcers are selling events. Their job is to get you to pay to see the upcoming show that they’re tasked with promoting. If viewers don’t trust them and don’t believe in what they say, how are they going to convince you to buy something?

(2) Be A Man Of The People

Building on from the previous lesson, any good announcer also needs to likeable. And that’s not a trait that is easy to come across. Not everyone is just naturally likeable, no matter how hard they try. Again, look at all of the great announcers. They were all the type of guy that if you met them walking down the street you’d wave at them or if you met them in a bar you’d offer to buy them a drink and say a few nice words to them.

Compare that to if anyone reading this met Michael Cole. It’s sad but I’d put a lot more money on Michael Cole getting heckled than I would people stopping him to shake his hand. The best sales people are the ones that the audience feels is one of them. If we can relate to someone then we instantly have a greater affinity to trust them and believe in what they tell us.

Lance Russell is undisputedly in the very top tier of wrestling announcers. Him, Jim Ross and Gordon Solie, the holy trilogy. Lance didn’t get to that level by being the greatest caller of a wrestling match the world has ever seen. His best trait was that he was a man of the people. He was the voice of the people. He was the guy who said what we were all thinking while watching Memphis Wrestling.

In an interview with Lance he once said that he wanted his announcing to feel like he’s talking directly to the viewer rather than the masses and that’s exactly how it came off and why he was so beloved. It felt as though Lance was talking directly to you and because of that you felt as though you knew Lance and that you and he were friends.

Lance said something and everyone would nod along with it. Lance told you that this was a can’t miss show then you’d find a way to get to the show. Lance put over the babyface as being a swell guy then you liked the guy. Lance showed disgust at the antics of the heel then you were disgusted at the heel too. “Now what’dya have to go and do that for”. He knew what the viewers would be thinking because he was one of us. In this world of crazy and wild larger-than-life wrestlers, Lance would represent the people and be our surrogate on the show.

The role of the announcer is so much a position based on natural personality traits. Obviously with training and experience you can get better but the reality is that so much of being a good fit in the role is reliant on having the right personality traits. They’re not something that you can be taught. You can’t teach Lance’s ability to be so beloved by literally everyone that ever saw him. It’s not as much what he did but rather who he was that made him so special in his role. Michael Cole and Tom Phillips could spend their entire lives trying to recapture what Lance had and they’d never come close because it’s simply a core personality trait that guys like Lance and JR had which they just don’t have.

Frank Bonnema in Portland wasn’t the greatest announcer ever but he was so effective in that role because his personality was so naturally likeable. He might get something wrong and a minute later he’d realise and be all apologetic and everyone watching would just be like “ah it’s you Frank, don’t worry about it”. Or he’d cut one of his many plugs for the local sponsors of the show and they’d just make you smile in the loveable old Grandad way that he’d do it. And he could use that to get every aspect of the show over. If Frank told everyone that Roddy Piper was now one of us then by god if Frank likes him then that’s good enough for me.

If Tom Phillips tells you that Charlotte is someone that you should like then you don’t take any notice of him. He’s not one of us. He’s a corporate stooge in a suit representing the organisation. He isn’t telling us what we think, he’s telling us what they want us to think. It sounds like I’m ragging all over Phillips here but I actually think he’s good in the role in a quietly effective and inoffensive way. He’ll never be a great announcer though because he’ll never have that ability to be one of us and to be that voice of the people. He’ll forever be the voice of WWE management.

The announcer should be the viewer’s mouthpiece on the show. They should know what we’re thinking. They should be able to get inside our minds and know what buttons to push to sell us on what they’re selling. The only way that an announcer can do that is if they are one of us.

And that will change from one promotion to the next. Excalibur is a great fit as the voice of the people in PWG but he’d be awful in that role for WWE’s audience. Frank Bonnema in Portland was a perfect fit but for a national promotion he wouldn’t have worked. It’s all about fit. It’s a natural ability embodied in your personality. If you can’t be a man of the people then you’re going to struggle.

(3) You Have To Command Respect

If you don’t have the respect of the viewer then how do you expect to be able to sell them on anything? How do you expect them to take any notice of you? There’s a reason the lead announcer is always a babyface and why heel play-by-play announcers don’t work. It’s the same reason why the big go home promo to sell a big match was always traditionally done by the babyface. The people that you respect are the people that you listen to and take notice of.

Back when you were in school, you’d have some teachers that you liked and some that you didn’t. I bet everyone reading this behaved better and worked harder in the classes where they had a teacher that they liked than when they had one that they didn’t like. Once people like you, you can use that to make them do things. That sounds a lot more sinister than I meant it!

If people like and respect you as an announcer then you have their ear. They’re not just listening to you but they’re taking notice of you. Whenever JR would say that business is about to pick up, it picked up. If he sold a match as a slobberknocker that you’re not going to want to miss then it became can’t miss. If Michael Cole gives you the big “the ring will look like a war zone” sell then you’re not taking any notice of him because you know it’s just a corporate shill line.

A huge part of the ability to command respect is being backed up by the booking. Tom Phillips could be the second coming of Lance Russell and it just wouldn’t work if he was being undermined by the product that he’s tasked with promoting. He can be great at getting the key character traits of the babyface over but if the promotion then undercuts the babyface by beating them repeatedly or scripting them to say things that undermine their personality then it undoes all of that work.

You look at every great announcer with a memorable legacy and they all have a great product in front of them. Jim Ross in Mid South and then WCW and then WWF was always calling a good product. Compare Ross calling the matches he’s done for NXT to how he sounded on the World of Sport special or to a lesser degree on the Mae Young Classic. It’s the same guy in the same era but everything works so much better with a strong product in front of them. Compare Lance Russell and Gordon Solie in their primes to when they went to WCW and were calling C-Show level TV matches.

I’ve already talked about how many of the key traits of a great announcer are virtually impossible to teach. They’re a part of who you are. Respect is much more open to outside factors. A massive part of an announcer being able to command respect is the wrestlers themselves showing them respect. If they don’t respect the announcer then it’s pretty unlikely that we will too.

If you look at each of the holy trilogy then you can strongly attach them with lead babyface during their peak runs. Jerry Lawler with Lance Russell in Memphis, Dusty Rhodes with Gordon Solie in Florida and Steve Austin with Jim Ross in the WWF. That’s not a coincidence. If JR was Stone Cold’s best buddy then he’s my buddy too. Even when Lawler was a heel there was always that undisputable admiration for Lance that would become before he’d take the mick out of Lance’s nose and laugh at himself for it.

One of the best angles ever involving an announcer was Roddy Piper’s babyface turn in Georgia. He originally came into the territory as a heel co-hosting the show with Gordon Solie but he wasn’t a beat the viewer of the head that he’s a bad guy heel. He’d play his role straight up and not act like it was beneath him. Roddy Piper was hosting the show with Gordon Solie and in Piper’s mind he was going to be the best host there ever was. He was there to play by the rules but every now and again he’d steer off course a little when he was interviewing Bob Armstrong or whenever Gary Hart would show up and they’d have their over the top mutual love in.

Within all of that though, the respect that Piper had for Solie was never in doubt. He might not like most of the babyface wrestlers and he might disagree with Gordon a lot when he’d be pro-babyfaces but you could always tell that Piper respected the job that Solie did. Respect can be contagious. If everyone on the show has respect for what Solie is saying then you feel compelled to show the same respect yourself.

When you establish norms in wrestling, you’re not just conditioning viewers to expect certain things to happen, you’re also creating the potential for something to really get over in the rare instance when you do go against the norm. Nobody ever put their hands on Gordon Solie. So when Don Muraco comes in and starts pushing him about it means something.

And that’s what made the babyface turn with Piper come off so well. We as viewers respected Gordon Solie and when someone stars disrespecting someone that we respect, we’re appalled. We’re clamouring for someone to step in and stand up for our guy and when you create that feeling you’ve created an easy angle to get a babyface over. If you have a promotion where you’re not respecting the announcer then you can’t build up any equity to then cash in on the rare occasion when someone does disrespect them and a babyface has to run in to stand up for them.

It’s not just signs of respect, it’s also signs of disrespect. The moment that you start disrespecting the announcer, even as a heel, you start diminishing their ability to be effective in their role. If they start getting pushed around then they start looking like weak pushovers and nobody respects a pushover. If you have the wrestlers constantly berating them and they’re not allowed to fire back then they look timid and that’s not something that commands respect either. If we don’t respect the announcer then we’re not going to pay attention to what they say which means they’re fighting a losing battle when they try to sell us on whatever they’re trying to promote.

(4) Tone & Timing Are Critical

Now these two traits aren’t part of one’s organic personality and are something that can be learned and developed. You’ve got to have the right tone, or more accurately the ability to change your tone at the right moments. Which also plays into the timing aspect. Sometimes you’ve got to know when to let the moment speak for itself, MICHAEL.

Much like how wrestlers need to have the ability to turn their performance either up or down depending on their role on a card, a good announcer also needs to have the same ability. An undercard match shouldn’t be called the same as a main event and a comedy match shouldn’t be called the same as a spotfest. Part of the reason why I’d personally put Gordon Solie on a level just below Lance Russell and Jim Ross is that he could be somewhat one dimensional. That dimension was perfect for the product he was calling but in the rare moments where he did find himself outside of his comfort zone he wasn’t the best at adapting and excelling in less familiar environments.

It’s the same reason why I don’t think Mauro Ranallo is a great announcer. If you hear him call an epic main event match in isolation then he is pretty great but over the course of a two to three hour show the effect soon wears off because he calls everything the same. Every match gets given the big top of your voice call. It’s the announcing version of Indy wrestlers going out and having the big epic match every single show.

If you’re doing that match every single time then what do you do in order to turn it up when you want to put something over that little bit more? It’s great trying to push the content that you’re calling up a level but you also should respect that different segments on the show are at different levels. Otherwise you lose credibility and in turn the ability to be an effective announcer.

Then there’s timing. Michael Cole is absolutely horrific at not knowing when to shut up and let a moment speak for itself. Countless major moments throughout the last decade are tainted by him yelling his corny phrases over them. It just takes you out of a great moment that you’re excited for. It’d be like watching a heartbreaking movie scene that’s really moving you and the person that you’re watching it with starts doing this overly dramatic weeping. It’d take you right out of the moment because they’re not letting your organic reaction just naturally flow out.

Going back to someone like Mauro, it’s knowing when to turn it up and being in sync with the audience when you do it. If you’re trying to give a moment the big dramatic call and everyone watching isn’t into it at that level then you’re damaging your credibility as the voice of the people. You need to have that knack of being able to feel when the product is catching fire and probably more importantly when it’s meant to be catching fire but is barely producing a flame. Jim Ross was always great at this. He knew when something was red hot and required a harder call, he knew when something was less serious and required a more laid back call and he knew when something wasn’t a hit and didn’t require the big sell.

A good announcer isn’t trying to get themselves over either. The stars of the show are the wrestlers, not the announcers. They’re the ones that people come to see. They’re the ones that sell merchandise. If as an announcer you’re trying to get yourself over and become popular with fans then you’re taking away from the assets that do draw money. Announcers aren’t on a show to draw money. They’re on a show to enhance the ability of the performers to draw money. They’re a key part of the show but they’re nothing without the wrestlers.

Now I bet there’s someone reading that and thinking Bobby Heenan was an amazing announcer that was trying to get himself over. The difference is that Bobby in WWF was a manager at the same time so he was in a position to be drawing money. Not to mention that Heenan was actually fantastic at getting the performers over through his announcing.

Take someone like Matt Striker though. He would always be trying so hard to get himself over either by needlessly showing off his wrestling knowledge or by trying to cosplay someone like Heenan or Ventura and it would take away from the product that he was calling because we as viewers were thinking about him and not what’s happening inside the ring. That’s the difference between someone like Striker and someone like Heenan. With Bobby you’d smile at his announcing but it would never distract you from the events in the ring if something important was happening.

You look at any good announcer and there’s certain traits that they all have in common. They all knew when their moment in the spotlight to do what they do best was and when it was the moment for the wrestlers to shine doing what they do best. You never had Jim Ross shouting all over a big surprise return or Lance Russell doing the big disgusted sell at a timid angle or Bobby Heenan goofing around to get himself over during a marquee match. They knew when the right time was to dip into their bag of tricks and change the tone of their announcing.

(5) Don’t Kill The Lead

Announcers are a part of the show to sell the viewer on money drawing assets. If they’re not contributing towards the promotion drawing money then they’re not doing their job right. In the modern wrestling climate there’s an apparent requirement to have a heel announcer as part of the announce team and a big feature of the heel wrestling announcer is to rag on the babyfaces. There’s a very fine line however between ragging on a babyface in order to get the audience behind them more and just burying a babyface in a harmful and damaging manner.

The art of being an effective heel has been largely lost in the modern climate. Nowadays heels when trying to cut down a babyface are truth tellers. They try to cut the babyface down by pointing out all of their genuine flaws. Frankly, they’re excellent at cutting babyfaces down. The problem however is that’s not what an effective heel should be doing. You shouldn’t be nodding along in agreement with the heel. The heel should be trying to point out flaws in the babyface that either the babyface themselves or the babyface announcer can turn around and easily refute, thus showing that the heel is full of crap and distinguishing the difference between the good character and the bad character.

The same goes for any heel announcer. Your job is to put the babyfaces over, not yourself. JBL was terrible at this during Daniel Bryan’s rivalry with The Authority. He’d constantly be ragging on Bryan for being small by calling him a dwarf and it did Bryan absolutely no favours. Obviously Bryan had more than enough going for him that it wouldn’t be something that prevented him from getting over but the only purpose that it served was pointing out a genuine shortcoming (hahaha) of one of the lead babyfaces.

Bobby Heenan would never ever point out the fact that Hogan was balding despite the fact that everyone knew it. He never did it because it would be undercutting the money drawing asset and that wasn’t his job. No doubt he could have come up with a very witty line about it that would have made everyone laugh but Bobby was good at his job and knew that it was more important to get Hogan rather than himself over.

Obviously Heenan would rag on Hogan but the key was that his claims would always be ludicrously scandalous. Everyone watching knew that whatever Heenan was accusing Hogan of being wasn’t true. Everyone knew that Hogan wasn’t really a selfish backstabber (on air) so when Bobby would try to run him down it got him over as a heel by being full of shit and reinforced the idea that people should get behind Hogan because his reputation was being trashed on by this weasel spewing unfounded lies.

If Bobby was calling Kurt Angle’s return match at TLC he wouldn’t have been burying Kurt so hard for something as genuine as being old and out of his depth like Booker was doing. He’d pick something obviously preposterous to rip on him for that didn’t expose any of Kurt’s real weaknesses and put him over by showing the lengths that he has to go to pick out any flaws of the star babyface.

Any good heel knows that their role should be to get the babyface over, not themselves. The same applies to announcers as well as wrestlers. If you’re undercutting the babyfaces’s ability to get over and draw money then you’re doing your job all wrong.

NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: FIVE COUNT: Five Lessons To Learn For Anyone Trying To Compete With WWE

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