Pro wrestling’s appeal is mostly in its outsized storylines and in-ring theatrics. It’s fair to say that this combination is, by any measure, the primary reason why fans tune in. A side spectacle to this is the pro wrestling announce team, that duo (it’s almost always a duo) who sit ringside, calling the action, lending equal parts knowledge, gravitas, and lost in the moment credulity to a televised event.
The announcing world in pro wrestling is currently undergoing a shift. Both WWE and NJPW are integrating old hands to lend their programming a bit more gravitas, in the forms of Mauro Ranallo and Jim Ross, respectively.
Ranallo is a big hire for WWE, stepping in as announcer for the revamped Smackdown as it moves to the USA Network. He comes primarily from the world of boxing and MMA, where he carved out a niche as an excitable narrator for the sport. He got his start in pro wrestling, however, and it shows in his style; he’s perpetually one step away from “step right up” carnival barkerism, something which didn’t always seem to sit easily with some MMA and boxing observers. He was, in short, a guy made for pro wrestling, not the “real” sports he was making his biggest paydays on.
His highest profile pro wrestling work was serving as the voice of NJPW’s American exports on AXS TV. Ostensibly, this is why WWE snatched him up: when the guy explaining Japanese wrestling to folks not immersed in it is available, you pay attention, especially when he does as good a job as Ranallo does. This is not to mention that NJPW isn’t just the top Japanese promotion in the world but the second largest promotion in the world, one which has a burgeoning international reputation, higher accessibility via its streaming service and American cable deal, and which just lost a handful of its top stars to WWE.
One cannot view the Ranallo hire without thinking of the impending arrival of Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles. Ranallo will be immediately familiar with their recent work and, even if their debuts end up happening on Raw, can lend a credibility to the newcomers which might otherwise be lacking. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Ranallo’s visibility at WWE is a probable marker that Nakamura, Styles and the Bullet Club will all be treated seriously by WWE, at least at first.
For its part, NJPW hired Jim Ross, the former voice of WWE, to replace Ranallo on its AXS TV show. Ross called NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 9 in 2015 and did an admirable job, teaming with Matt Striker on what seemed like short notice to work with wrestlers he wasn’t terribly familiar with. Ross’ drawl was welcome and familiar for the American fan tuning in to see what was at that point perhaps NJPW’s most highly visible show.
Unlike WWE’s hire of Ranallo, NJPW’s relationship with Ross feels a bit odd. Despite the familiarity of good ol’ JR’s drawl wafting from the speakers, he seems somewhat like a spent force. Nostalgia’s a powerful pull in pro wrestling and it’s worth examining what Ross is rather than what he was. And what he is is a man having a hard time adjusting to wrestling’s new emphasis on self-awareness and postmodern spectacle. He sounds tired, mostly, and he’s entitled—Ross has put in 30 odd years in the business, from the territory days of the UWF to the neon early ‘90s of WCW until he found his greatest fame in the Attitude Era WWE.
What made Ross so great in his prime was his ability to convey shock while never losing the veneer of expertise which made announcers like his mentor Gordon Solie so compelling. He’d shout in surprise, as in the famous Hell in the Cell match which saw Mankind fall off the top of a cage and through the announcers’ table below, and it heightened your experience because he was articulating your surprise. That’s yielded over the years to what sounds an awful lot like weariness and confusion—at the complete death of kayfabe, at the move toward smaller wrestlers, at the prevalence of borderline unbelievable moves.
Still, he’s infinitely preferable to his replacement in WWE, Michael Cole, who seems confused half the time, despite the fact that Vince McMahon is feeding him his lines through an earpiece. Like most things WWE these days, the key is to be in control while seeming to not be. WWE’s forgotten that in the mad dash toward consolidation of power after vanquishing their rivals, WCW and ECW, last decade. You can see it in the ring and hear it in the promos, but you can also hear it in the voices of Michael Cole, Byron Saxton and JBL. The dirty little secret of pro wrestling is that Vince McMahon hates pro wrestling, hence the by-the-numbers commenting which studiously avoids too much of that old time pro rasslin’ talk.
In that sense, both hires make sense. NJPW gets an immediate connection with those American fans who discover their AXS show by accident in the form of Jim Ross’ immediately recognizable voice. WWE gets a former MMA and boxing announcer—a high profile one—to lend their theater the appearance of non-wrestling legitimacy. For their parts, Ross gets back into the wrestling game without having to travel—NJPW’s AXS episodes are meticulously curated clip shows sent in from the home office—while Ranallo gets back to his roots and first love.
The question will be where the men go from here. Ross is at the tail end of his illustrious career and can close it out by calling NJPW’s big events in Japan. With those being the best shows in the world at the moment, that would be a fitting twilight to his announcing career if he chooses to follow it. Ranallo’s future is murkier. He’s almost certainly not going to be content forever working WWE’s B-show, yet his personality is too forceful to play second fiddle to the abysmal Michael Cole. But McMahon wants company men and women, not the unpredictability of the swearing, shouting Sanallo when the filter drops. The question becomes whether McMahon can bring himself to once again value quality over a loss of control, and history makes that seem unlikely.
Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.