Three is not only a crowd; it’s also very loud and sometimes antagonistically annoying on WWE television.
WWE has had a recent fascination with employing announcer teams consisting of three members: One play-by-play commentator and two color commentators. The play-by-play straight man calls the action down the middle (while sometimes vouching for faces acting justly), while the color commentators serve as opinionated in-ring experts who act as an angel and a devil on the shoulders of the viewer, justifying or condemning a face or heel’s actions.
Is Booker getting on everyone's nerves?
— Dave Meltzer (@davemeltzerWON) January 2, 2018
Michael Cole was interviewed for ESPN.com in late 2016 where he mentioned he enjoys three-person booths even though he’s aware many fans are not. “The main reason is because it allows me to be right down the middle. I can just be an unbiased play-by-play guy, and let Corey [Graves] have his views, and Byron [Saxton] have his views, and they can go back and forth and debate and argue with each other while I can just do what I do, which is call a match and tell stories.
“I think sometimes when you’re in a two-man booth,” Cole continued, “I get bogged down having to be the good guy a little bit too much, or the bad guy as it used to be. It’s tough that way, but just having that straight play-by-play guy to tell your stories, be unbiased, and have your two guys playing off each other, it’s perfect.”
For Cole and his personal sweet spot as a commentator, that makes complete sense. But unfortunately, this set-up often leads to commentators having to talk over the other’s points or outright argue with each other during the middle of a match. It often feels like there are one too many voices without the necessary chemistry for success in the commentator’s role on a wrestling television show. With that in mind, WWE should strive to return to an old format of only two announcers on the call of a show.
The two-man booth of a play-by-play and color commentator is a stable and an easily digestible set-up for the at-home audience for a multitude of wrestling federations and sports for years. The play-by-play man should be equal parts a narrator of a Shakespeare play and Pat Summerall calling the Super Bowl. They should be someone with the trustworthiness of Walter Cronkite and the wrestling acumen of Bret Hart. Most importantly, they should be the straight man calling the action as they see it in front of them with a babyface ideal of good and bad, especially in contrast to the heelish color commentator.
A great heel commentator admires and essentially jumps out of their seat in excitement when a bad guy or girl acts like a bad guy or girl. They should have a distorted worldview where every way the heels act is smart, advantageous and the right thing to do, despite the ire and scorn from the fans in the arena. Basically, their job is to be antagonistic to the views of the play-by-play man (the “voice of reason”) as well as the audience, while not becoming annoying in the process. This is a fine line to walk, but the best of the best have found the happy medium between the two.
Naturally, certain roles can be reversed to suit a particular announcer’s strengths. As a former wrestler, Tazz would interject his veteran knowledge of the wrestler’s psyche and move-set that Cole would not be able to deliver with the same air of expertise while the two worked together on SmackDown in the early to mid-2000’s.
History shows us that some of WWE’s best announce teams came in the form of two-man commentary duos, as well (Monsoon-Heenan, Monsoon-Ventura, McMahon-Ventura, Ross-Lawler, Cole-Tazz and the much-praised alignment of Mauro Ranallo and Daniel Bryan during the Cruiserweight Classic in the summer of 2016). This structure and its success isn’t just limited to WWE, either. Lucha Underground has employed the entertaining duo of Matt Striker and Vampiro for its three season run while Impact Wrestling had success early on with line-ups including Mike Tenay and Don West.
Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule, as well. WCW Nitron and Thunder were able to work well with a three-man booth including some combination of Tony Schiavone, Tenay, Heenan, Eric Bischoff, Larry Zbyszko or Dusty Rhodes. Even Joey Styles made a name for himself in ECW as a solo play-by-play man with no other announcer to bounce thoughts off of. But in recent years on WWE television, the third color commentator on the team often has gotten left in the dust during conversation. On RAW, Cole drives the action of the match while Graves builds the tactics of dirty heels as acts of pure genius, while Booker T and previously Saxton are only able to add in quick quips about the action. On the “Blue Brand,” Ranallo and Jerry Lawler were prime announcing standouts in early 2016 SmackDown commentary as the exhilarated broadcaster and the brash heel, respectively. But, Saxton and David Otunga often were relegated to the third wheel of the group, barely getting a memorable quip or comment in edgewise.
My biggest gripe currently on the three-man teams in WWE right now involves the constant badgering and nagging between Graves and his counterpart on RAW or SmackDown in Booker or Saxton, respectively. Ventura and Monsoon would have disagreements that never went beyond ten seconds all while staying focused on the action in the ring. Graves and Saxton (as well as Booker) often have exhaustively long spats with each other where they snip at each other for a lengthy period of time, so much so that the viewer often forgets what they were arguing about to begin with. Again, it’s a fine line to walk. Bobby Heenan and Jerry Lawler were easily able to do it in their prime. This in-fighting derides the attention of the viewer away from the match and leaves the play-by-play man sitting silently in the middle of a childish tirade.
In the clip above from Clash of Champions a few weeks ago, it feels like Graves and Saxton are personally offended by the others views during the match and continue to grate at each other in snippy detail throughout the show. It takes away from the match and it makes plenty of viewers want to mute their streams or televisions during the show.
In an ideal universe, this is how I would break down the commentary teams:
RAW: Michael Cole and Corey Graves
SmackDown: Tom Phillips and Byron Saxton
NXT: Mauro Ranallo and Nigel McGuinness
If WWE is serious about having RAW and SmackDown stand on their own as separate, distinct brands, Graves needs to remain on one show, even if he is the best color commentator the company has at the moment. Percy Watson doesn’t have any outright bad mannerisms as an announcer, but he is without question the third wheel of the team next to the knowledgeable and excitable Ranallo and the wise and snarky McGuinness. Booker T has a tendency to go on long-winded tangents that don’t end at a concise point or argument. While Byron isn’t lighting the world on fire as an announcer, he certainly has potential and can be molded into a more intriguing voice through experience. The commentators that ultimately get chopped could potentially be reassigned to a backstage interviewer role like Renee Young or Charley Caruso.
While it seems minuscule, this small change can add a greater degree of watch-ability to WWE television in 2018.