By January, 1992, WCW had finally turned a corner. Jim Herd was finally gone. Kip Allen Frey was in charge and while he would not make the numbers work out quickly enough to stay in power for long, the change was a positive one. Wrestlers were rewarded for working hard on every show. They had a hot angle in the Dangerous Alliance and a hot new lead heel in Rick Rude. They were building to match with a lot of history behind it in Luger vs Sting. Fans were just starting to get over Ric Flair not being with the company. They weren’t nearly as vulnerable as WWF when it came to steroid allegations, though, of course, wrestling as a whole would take a hit because of them. Business wasn’t up much, but for the low bar of WCW, things were starting to look pretty promising, especially relative to the lows of 1991.
At the Clash special, they announced another piece of the puzzle. Jesse Ventura had been signed up through Superbrawl. According to the newsletters at the time, this was the most lucrative one show announcing contract ever. Ventura was something of a big deal, an action movie star, a beloved voice, even as a heel, associated with the highest high of the 80s WWF boom, currently in the news as he had just announced his lawsuit against WWF for royalties, and even the mayor of the third largest suburb of Minneapolis. He announced the main event of the Clash, Sting and the recently returned Ricky Steamboat vs the Dangerous Alliance members Rick Rude and Steve Austin and the difference between having Jim Ross and Ventura in the booth vs Ross and Tony Schiavone who had called the rest of the show was so noticeable and so striking that it’s impossible to blame WCW for meeting his high price tag. Over the next many paragraphs, I hope to break down exactly what the differences were and why they might matter.
An announce team should accomplish three major things. First, they should convey the action in the ring, meaning that they should help get the characters (and the story that said characters are attempting to tell) over. This could be talking about the wrestlers’ backgrounds, about their character traits, about recent storyline developments, as well as actually describing the action in the ring, the consequences of the action, and how these happenings connect to those traits and developments. Second would be to fulfill corporate needs, to sell upcoming live events and PPVs, to inform people about upcoming TV shows, to mention merchandise and sponsors or, as in current WWE, charity work and social media priorities. The third is to entertain. Very rarely do television viewers tune in for the announcing, but it’s a piece of the overall puzzle and having interesting and entertaining characters in the booth can make it a more compelling piece. The trick, of course, is to balance these elements so that one does not overshadow the other and that all of them work to highlight and enhance the wrestlers and the match they’re wrestling and not to take away from them.
While the B and C shows had various color commentators, such as Paul E. Dangerously, Michael Hayes, and Larry Zbyszko, the Clashes and Pay Per Views for 1991 were mostly helmed by Jim Ross and Tony Schiavone. Now, I like Tony more than most. His wrestling fandom and excitement came through very clearly for most of the years he was in the booth and he had a connection with the history of the territory and with at least a portion of the fanbase.
Ross is legendary, and for good reasons at that. He was able to channel research and preparation into a general sense of excitement that could make a bad match better and a good match great. Left to his own devices however, he could blather off endless sports connections and trivia which always left me feeling like what I was watching was less important. It came off as making the wrestling action in the ring look inferior, as if someone playing amateur football was more important than how many wins they had or how great their finishing move was. It felt like a desperation ploy to force legitimacy on something when one of the main goals of announcing is to assure the fans that the legitimacy is innate. Pointing out that the emperor has no clothes relative to someone’s dad playing for Rice University (as in the case with Austin) just made what I was watching look a little more bush league instead of like the greatest sport in the world.
So while I can appreciate Schiavone and Ross in the right setting certainly, that setting may not have been paired in the booth together. Despite some lukewarm efforts, they simply did not engage one another. They may have engaged the action in the ring, but in a dissonant manner that was stilted and distracting. At times, it felt like each man was in an echo chamber and could not hear his partner at all.
Let’s look at a specific example. I’m not usually one for big bomb throwing matches, but they have a general appeal and the match that started off the card was certainly in that category. The Steiner Brothers vs Harley Race’s team of Big Van Vader and Mr. Hughes was pretty much exactly what you’d expect in early ’92. The Steiners tossed Hughes and especially a very game Vader all around the ring. It was a short match but one full of memorable moments.
You wouldn’t know that from the criss-crossed commentary of Ross and Schiavone though. Ross would call the action, interject sports references, try to hit some of the corporate necessities and ignore Tony completely. Tony would try desperately to be heard with any sort of insight he might be able to muster, occasionally try to toss a thought towards Ross, and ultimately be left hanging in the most embarrassing way.
Ross began the call of the match by talking about football backgrounds. Scott followed that up by mentioning he’d spoken with Scott Steiner before the match. Then Ross called some action, only to go right back to football talk. Ross slipped in a few lines about upcoming events with Race on them and went back to calling the action. Tony tried to explain how the Steiners drew from the fans, but Ross wanted to talk about Race giving advice instead. By doing so, he opened things up for Tony to call ab it of the action for a minute. Once he took a breath, Ross took right back over, oscillating between calling the action and talking more about football. Then, Tony had the gall to actually mention Ross by name trying to start a conversation with “Jim, Steiner isn’t out of this yet!” He was ignored. A minute (and a WCW Saturday Night plug) later, Ross would throw it back to tony, about Vader’s strength. Tony decided to talk more about Steiner’s resiliency in response.
This continued for the rest of the match. Tony would try to engage Ross about the Steiners being in more trouble in this match since their last Japan tour and Ross would ignore it. Both men would stumble over each other’s attempts to stumble over the action, an impressive feat considering that there was dead air between them more often than you’d think. Ross missed Steiner shaking the rope to cause his opponent to fall off of it in a big transition moment and when Tony brought it up a minute later, he was ignored. Then, at the end, when Ross sends it to Tony for the final analysis during the replay, Schiavone managed some incredible bs that sounded something like “The Steiners won due to time to point to point execution.” I’ve rarely broken down a
match focusing on the commentary instead of the action and this made me never, ever want to do it again.
Imagine my surprise when only ten seconds of Ventura interacting with Ross made me want to complete this exercise for them. That’s how night and day the difference was. First, though, let’s take a look at what Ventura brought to the table.Past the publicity and moderate level of fame, he was very good at what he did. He brought in-ring experience, even though he was never a great wrestler. He had been both babyface (in Portland) and heel (in three or four other territories), a tag and singles wrestler, all over the card. He had a great sense of storytelling, a quick wit, a pompous attitude, and the most consistent sense of morality of any announcer ever. He’d spent years frustrating Vince McMahon by bringing up double-standards in the ring that Vince didn’t want to talk about, when the heroes did what the villains were supposed to do. While it might have been a frustration to the cleancut style WWF was trying to market itself as, it made everything feel more legitimate and true and honest in an organic way that mentioning college football accolades could never accomplish. He also spent a lot of his attention outside the wrestling bubble so he could relate what was happening to the real world in a way a lot of announcers never could.
Jesse was announced for Superbrawl, but to give everyone a taste of it, he announced, with Ross, the main event of the Clash: Sting/Steamboat vs Rude/Austin. Ross immediately made this match seem relevant by noting that these were the 1-4 ranked wrestlers on the WCW Top Ten, and Jesse responded immediately (to what Ross said, which Schiavone never seemed to manage, and vice versa) by noting how special that was and how dangerous it was for Sting who had the title match upcoming. Then something even better happened. Austin made a clean break in the corner, and Ross said it was a “surprisingly” clean break. Ventura jumped all over that asking why it was surprising and then if Steamboat would return the favor. JR responded in kind and within seconds of the bell ringing, they were interacting with one another and bantering, even though it was all focused on the action and the characters within.
Ross continued his call, mentioning how Austin’s father had played for Rice and that athleticism ran in the
family. Ventura, scoffing, responded that no one cared about Rice because they hadn’t been in a bowl game in forever, and that was pretty much the end of Ross’ “real” sports talk for the match. In truth, Jesse didn’t give Ross a moment to ramble on in that direction, or any direction that didn’t involve the match at hand. He’d respond to almost everything that JR said, and do so in a manner that inspired an immediate response back. Sometimes, they’d keep the ball in the air four or five times before moving on to the next call, when Schiavone and Ross may have interacted with each other one time, for one comment, their entire match.
This had another side effect. Ross had to both respond to Ventura’s reactions and call the match. It meant that he was always scrambling a half second behind the action instead of anticipating it or having plenty of time to laconically get his words in. Thus, his announcing picked up the pace. I don’t think that the main event was intrinsically more exciting than the Vader vs Steiners match but it felt that way because of the energy that Ventura forced out of Ross.
By the end of the match, they were working in a surprising unison. At one point Austin found himself wrapped up in a victory roll. Rude interfered to save him and Ventura commented. “All’s fair in love and war,” and Ross rolled right into “And indeed this is a war,” before continuing the play-by-play. That sounds like a small thing, but it would have been unimaginable earlier in the night, and it was as relatively impressive, in its own little way, as the smoothest blind tag off the ropes. It was as if Ventura, by his presence and his aggression, had awoken a sleeping giant in Ross.
Ventura did not pop buyrates. He didn’t draw packed crowds into stadiums. He didn’t turn WCW’s business around, despite his price tag. Maybe he was part of the larger machine that at least got them somewhat out of the dumps of 1991, but certainly not quickly enough to save Frey’s job, and not in a meaningful enough way to keep Watts in power. Bischoff took over. Hogan came in. Ventura left and moved on to even more fame and fortune outside the wrestling arena. The energy he created, however, made the first and last matches of the night feel like they were put on by entirely different promotions. The first half of 1992 is considered a golden period of WCW by some, and Ventura’s voice calling the action was its own Midas’ Touch.
I am torn on this piece Matt. It’s provocative as ever, but I don’t fully agree with it.
I am the biggest Jesse mark around and think he’s the best colour man by a long, long way. And I did love the love letter to him here.
What I’m less sold on is the idea that the JR and Tony team wasn’t good, I think 91 as a colour guy might have been Tony’s single best year as I’ve mentioned before on the show.
So totally agree on Jesse, but don’t agree on the JR/Tony team.
Also, as much as I love Jesse, I have thought for years that the Jesse/ JR combination is his most awkward pairing and the two of them have no chemistry. That’s something I’m interested to revisit now. I’ve maintained that the Jesse / Tony partnership is light years ahead of Jesse / JR, even if the latter is a “dream combo” on paper. Jesse works better with a shill like Vince or a company man like Tony I reckon.
On Tony, I think there is a lot of positive to say about the opportunities he had to color commentate in 1991. He worked very hard to try to analyze what was going on and provide context and quite often he would come up with a salient point. That said, when Ross refused to engage him on those points, it rendered them far less potent.
As for, JR and Jesse, I’m going to be curious to listen to them moving forward. As I stated, during this first Clash Main Event, I think that Ventura engaged with Ross’ call of the action, forced Ross to engage with him back if he wanted to keep his credability and then also kept Ross constantly on his toes. By the time he managed to react to what Jesse said, he had to call the next move. Therefore, he couldn’t stumble off into laconic tangents about college atheletes or last week’s bowl game or whatever. It gave the match an energy that the opener, despite being a bomb-filled match did not have.
All that could have been because Jesse took Ross, a noted preparer, by surprise. Maybe in later events, he will be able to contain and constrain Ventura in a way that Schiavone never could.