Top 10 Pro Wrestling Commentators in History
Think of your favorite pro wrestling moments. How different would they be with other announcers swapped out for someone else, even if it was someone equally as good? Is Steve Austin's first WWF Championship win the same without Jim Ross screaming "AUSTIN'S THE CHAMPION! STONE COLD! STONE COLD!"? What about Goldberg beating Hulk Hogan without Bobby Heenan screaming "DO IT! DO IT!"
Announcers are an incredibly important part of the pro wrestling presentation. It's not surprising that Vince McMahon would micromanage his announcers to execute his vision.
A few notes before we get started:
- I know there are some awesome wrestling announcers that don't speak English, like Dr. Alfonso Morales in Mexico, but they're not listed here for what should be obvious reasons.
- This covers both play-by-play announcers and color commentators for their work in the booth as well as conducting interviews. Basically anyone but ring announcers, so no Howard Finkel, who only did commentary a few times.
- I get that many people will always love the announcers they grew up with, but some of them weren't very good. Most fans that grew up with Ed Whalen in Calgary love him. Everyone who saw Stampede tapes after the fact sees him as a terrible announcer who thought he was more important than the wrestlers and would kill the heels' heat. There are no Ed Whalen types on this list.
With that out of the way, let's start the countdown...
TIE: #10 Vince McMahon
Nowadays, Announcer Vince is mostly remembered now for the Hulkamania era, where he was the powder blue suits who laughed uproariously at dancing hillbillies. As a straight-up pro wrestling announcer, he was actually pretty awesome, though.
If they can pull off the announcing part decently enough, bookers can be some of the best wrestling announcers. They know exactly what details they want explained and how to get them over. To be honest, Vince never stopped being good at that, he just stopped fitting in with the modern product and seemed befuddled by innovative moves.
The above clip is my personal favorite Announcer Vince moment. The sheer indignation in his voice as he describes the heels' actions is amazing.
TIE: #10. David Crockett (Jim Crockett Promotions)
David Crockett was not as technically good as most of the announcers on this list, but he was much more solid than he gets credit for at calling a match. Like Vince McMahon, he excelled at getting angles over with indigence for the heels and enthusiasm for the babyfaces.
Take the above clip: Babyface Magnum T.A. basically sexually assaults heel valet Baby Doll and David Crockett does an amazing job of trying to convince us how awesome it is. "SHE LIKES IT!"
#9 Jim Cornette (WCW, LPWA, WWF, OVW, USA HWA and USA Championship Wrestling)
A great manager with a sharp wit who also happened to be an encyclopedia of wrestling history, Jim Cornette transitioned seamlessly into color commentary, which he started doing full time in WCW in 1989. Much of his announcing career in WCW, the WWF and OVW coincided with him being involved in the creative end of the companies, so like with Vince McMahon, he had a good vision of what needed to be put over.
The above example is from 1990. With WCW running a Clash of the Champions TV special in Corpus Christi, Texas, Mil Mascaras was brought in to help draw Hispanic fans. Being fed to him was a young Mick Foley, then prelim wrestler Cactus Jack Manson. Foley was worried that the match would be bad, so he took a crazy bump that he'd never used on TV before. Cue Cornette's call:
"CACTUS JACK IS DEAD! HE'S DONE IT THIS TIME!"
#8. Marc Lowrance (World Class and USWA)
When I think of what made Marc Lowrance a great announcer, one word always comes to mind: Gravitas.
With a great voice and a serious but friendly demeanor, Lowrance was well-suited to anchor the wild Texas wrestling going on around him. Who else could yell, "AND THERE GOES KEVIN INTO THE ORCHESTRA PIT!" in the middle of a Freebirds-Von Erichs brawl (which unfortunately isn't online) and not sound goofy?
The example embedded above was the culmination of a months-long angle. The "World Class Championship Wrestling" name had to be dropped for legal reasons, so a larger governing body named the United States Wrestling Alliance was introduced so that name could be used as a replacement.
World Class became overrun with corrupt officials like Tojo Yamamoto, so the babyfaces sided with the USWA. It culminated in a winner-take-all cage match for control of the company: Eric Embry (USWA) vs. P.Y. Chu-Hi (WCCW, an "Oriental assassin" portrayed by the very white Phil Hickerson of Jackson, Tenn.).
As bizarre as the premise is, Lowrance's announcing makes it work. When Embry wins and Lowrance compares it to other great moments in the decades-long history of the Dallas Sportatorium, you believe him.
#7. Bobby "The Brain" Heenan (WWF and WCW)
Bobby Heenan is the funniest announcer in wrestling history. There's not a ton of arguing with it.
Two things come to mind when I think of Bobby Heenan: Broadcast journalist.
The first is Prime Time Wrestling. In 1986, Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon (who, while a great straight man for Heenan, I felt was too flawed to include here) replaced Jesse Ventura and Jack Reynolds as the hosts of Prime Time Wrestling, which recapped recent angles and aired matches from house shows. The real reason to watch, though, was the interplay between the two of them.
Heenan turned a largely throwaway show into an excuse to riff on everything, and Monsoon was his perfect foil. There's not a lot to say other than that it was brilliant. If you want to get check it out for the first time or refresh your memory, just look up "Heenan Monsoon Prime Time" and go wild.
As a color commentator calling matches, his undisputed finest moment is the 1992 Royal Rumble match, which is embedded above. With the vacant WWF Championship on the line, Heenan was pulling for Ric Flair, who he brought into the WWF. When Flair drew number three and entered the match just two minutes in, Heenan was horrified.
The next hour saw an incredible in-ring performance by Flair matched by an equally, if not better performance in the booth. He unabashedly rooted for Flair and would look for anything that could help him. If a babyface attacked the wrestler attacking Flair, he'd cheer him on, only to turn on him when he then attacked Flair.
While Heenan declined not long after he left for WCW, his prime was too good to not include him here.
#6. Jesse "The Body" Ventura (WWF and WCW)
Jesse Ventura gets the nod over Bobby Heenan because while Heenan was probably funnier, Ventura was usually the more effective pro wrestling announcer. That's not to say Heenan wasn't effective at getting wrestlers, matches and angles over as much as Ventura was more focused.
One key difference is that while Heenan declined in WCW due to the company's lack of structure, Ventura adjusted his style to the greater emphasis on in-ring wrestling and thrived. He still told jokes, he was still funny, but he settled into more of an "insight from a retired wrestler" role than he had in the WWF.
Ventura was also unique in that he didn't only cheer the heels. There were babyfaces that he regularly complimented, like the British Bulldogs.
He was at his best, though, when he pointed out the hypocrisy of the babyfaces and his theoretically "neutral" announcing partners. The above embedded clip from SummerSlam '89 is possibly his greatest moment. If you've never seen it, I won't spoil where it goes, but it starts with Ventura complaining that the Ultimate Warrior wasn't disqualified for hitting Rick Rude with the belt outside the ring...
#5. Gordon Solie (Championship Wrestling from Florida and Many Others)
For a long time, Gordon Solie was the consensus greatest announcer in wrestling history. He's still up there with the best, but increased exposure of both his contemporaries and his decline in his later years brought him down a few pegs.
Solie made a name for himself in Florida, where promoter Eddie Graham hired him after hearing him as the public address announcer at a race track. With a great voice and uniquely serious delivery, Solie also got very good at calling moves. He famously asked wrestlers to put holds on him with legitimate pressure so he could describe exactly what they did to the body.
Considered the top announcer in wrestling, in addition to working in Florida (where he stayed until right before the promotion closed in 1987), over the years he ended up in numerous other promotions, as well:
He was brought into Georgia Championship Wrestling in 1973 during a bitter promotional war where the original announcer left and became a staple in the area (and nationally when Georgia wrestling started airing on cable in 1976).
In 1985, when Southeastern Championship Wrestling was rebranded as Continental Championship Wrestling while moving their TV show out of a studio and into an arena, Solie was brought in as lead announcer.
That year, he also did a few tapings for Mario Savoldi's ICW in New England.
When Joe Pedicino took the Pro Wrestling This Week news magazine highlight show into syndication in 1986, Solie hosted it with him.
For much of his career from early '70s to mid-'80s, it was common for him to be announcing at least two promotions at the same time. For a brief period in 1985, he hosted the Florida, Georgia, Continental and ICW shows simultaneously.
The most famous call of his career was his last great one. He was hired by WCW in 1989, putting him back on TBS after a four year absence. That year, he was partnered with Jim Ross at Clash of the Champions: New York Knockout, main evented by Ric Flair vs. Terry Funk in an "I quit" match, which is embedded above,
"Five letters. Two words. 'I quit.'" Solie set the tone for a classic match with that one memorable and oft-quoted line, and his call of the match sums up his style better than anything else I can think of.
#4. Bob Caudle (Jim Crockett Promotions/WCW)
Bob Caudle was basically your kind grandfather watching wrestling with you and getting caught up in it when it got awesome. The main difference was that he was more resigned to the bad guys getting away with evil deeds than yelling at them. He got a whole lot louder when the fans did, though.
There's not a lot of nuance to him, but he was great. Here he is with Gordon Solie calling the Roddy Piper vs. Greg Valentine match at the inaugural Starrcade in 1983. Check out how much more enjoyable he makes the match.
#3. Kent Walton (ITV World of Sport)
Kent Walton was the voice of British wrestling for decades, and I cannot possibly imagine that anyone else could have done it better. Even more so because old-school British wrestling was a lot different from American style wrestling.
Like most of Europe, matches took place using a round system, and most matches were the best 2-out-of-3-Falls (a fall would end a round). Rules were numerous and strictly followed: Most notably, 10-count knockouts were common, you couldn't attack a grounded opponent except to immediately follow up a throw with a hold and minor infractions led to "public warnings" by the ring announcer (too many would lead to a disqualification). This is on top of the common rules used around the world but not always enforced, like no hair pulling and no closed fists.
As a result, the style was very technical, and it was similar to Lucha Libre in that it can look overly balletic and "wrong" to fans of American and Japanese style wrestling. Walton called the matches almost as if they were tennis or golf, quiet and serious. He wouldn't raise his voice at all unless the heels started cheating (even then, not by much) and he was similar to Solie in that he had made a point to learn all of the holds and the psychology behind them.
Embedded above is one of my favorite British matches: "Judo" Al Hayes ("Lord" Al Hayes in the US) vs. Steve Veidor. Hayes is the heel, so he had recently returned from the US where he wrestled that uncivilized "all-in" style, he cheats up a storm. Walton gets it all over perfectly and his frustration with the cheating is palpable.
#2. Jim Ross (Tri-State Wrestling, Mid-South Wrestling/UWF, WCW, WWE and SMW)
(No, I'm not embedding Mick Foley being thrown off the cage, because you've all seen it and I'm pretty sure Jim Ross genuinely thought Foley had just been murdered when he screamed "GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY, THEY KILLED HIM!")
You all know why Jim Ross is great. Passionate, knowledgeable, great flare for the dramatic and so on. You may not know he was (arguably) even better before he was in WWE. Sometimes, especially when he was younger, he was maybe too excitable, but it never really felt artificial.
Embedded here is one of my favorite Ross moments, and arguably the one that really put him on the map as one of the best announcers in the business. UWF promoter Bill Watts, Ross's boss and mentor, had taken issue with heel Eddie Gilbert waving a Russian flag when he managed Korstia Korchenko. An apologetic Gilbert came out with the flag rolled up and asked Watts to come out. I'll let you watch the rest. Ross's call takes a great angle and puts it over the top.
#1. Lance Russell (Memphis/CWA/USWA and WCW)
With all due respect to everyone else, there was no way I could put anyone else at number one.
Other than maybe Kent Walton, no announcer was as perfect for the promotion he called. Memphis was different from other territories, to the point nobody there got any respect from their peers, including Russell for decades. The main events were often the wildest brawls in the country, while the TV show featured much more humor than any other territory. Naysayers saw it as shortcuts and unnecessary silliness.
Lance Russell was the calming voice in all of this chaos, a more versatile version of Bob Caudle. A long-time television station program manager, he was ostensibly in charge of the broadcast end of the show and would get frustrated when wrestlers would come out unannounced and bump planned segments. A friend of mind once compared him to Kermit the Frog trying to run The Muppet Show, which is oddly apropos.
He could do it all. When Bill Dundee had a clean chain wrestling match with Tony Charles, Lance was clearly thrilled on commentary while he kept up with every hold, and made a point of showing it on TV the next week. When a brawl suddenly broke out in the concession stand, he was there dragging camera operator Randy West over to shoot it and trying to help the fans keep up with the chaos.
Nobody was better as a wrestling interviewer and sometimes catalyst in angles. If a green wrestler was struggling, Lance would help cut the promo himself. In one angle I won't spoil if you haven't seen it, the climax occurs off-camera and his face falling is the first indication something has gone horribly wrong. Most importantly, he was the Howard Cosell to Jerry Lawler's Muhammad Ali, his straight man both on TV (Lawler appears to have lost it and turned into a drunk) and off (if they happened to be pulling a prank on the athletic commission doctor).
Hell, when he went to WCW, not only could be be funny, but he even adjusted by using a more "neutral" sounding accent.
The video I chose to embed above is the first part of a series documenting Ric Flair's only appearance in the Memphis studio. Lance goes from politely dealing with Flair's backhanded compliments to laughing at Lawler's jokes to calling their match to being accused by a ranting Flair of helping Lawler scheme. It's a brilliant angle and Lance Russell is every bit as integral to it as Flair and Lawler, and nobody could fill his shoes.
David Bixenspan has been Bleacher Report's WWE Team Leader and a contracted columnist since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @davidbix and check out his wrestling podcasts (including two with Lance Russell, who's everything you'd hope he would be) at LLTPod.com.