The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflectthose of WrestlingINC.com or its staff.
Commentary in professional wrestling has been an integral part of a promotion and its success for decades. A lot of fans earliest memories center around hearing the voices of legendary commentators like Gordon Solie, Ed Whalen, Jim Ross, Vince McMahon and others. Both the play-by-play man and the color commentator(s) play important roles in providing insights on the action and getting the performers over.
I have a pretty basic thinking process when it comes to wrestling commentating. An average commentator neither adds or subtracts from the wrestling show. A poor commentator takes away from the show, while a good commentator adds to the action. Basically every commentator can be classified into one of those three categories, and from there the impact they have on the shows can be assessed.
The WWE has had a significant commentating issue since Jim Ross was phased out of doing work full-time for the company. Michael Cole is an average commentator, perfectly capable of playing the basic everyman character that plays against the heel color-commentator. His heel run was atrocious and is something that should never be attempted again. Since he turned back to being a face, he gets a solid B. If there is one thing I don't like about Cole it is that he never calls any of the wrestling moves by their actual names. I doubt this actually Cole's fault, it is more likely a decision made by the WWE, but I would hesitate to say that kids who listen to Michael Cole know the difference between a belly-to-belly suplex or a hip-toss.
Jerry Lawler has been a serious determent to Raw over the past few years. King was never meant to be a face commentator, and in the P.R. consciousness of the PG Era, King has been really handicapped. Although King is one of the all-time great heel color guys, as a face, his bad jokes and backing of the babyfaces seem to fall flat. I would really be in favor for either a heel turn by King, where he would back a young heel in the ring and then turn heel on the microphone. That would really help the WWE's commentating situation and put some heat on an up-and-coming wrestler.
I have no doubt that John Bradshaw Layfield is a great heel commentator. Every now and then he says something incredibly outrageous that makes you wonder how he got it past the censors. I am not a big detractor of the PG rating for WWE television, but I really do think it holds someone as creative as JBL back from really becoming a top-flight commentator in the WWE.
Perhaps the WWE's best commentator lies in the developmental territory of NXT in one William Regal. Regal has long been one of the most articulate and intelligent speakers in the WWE, and it seems like a given that he would go on to be a great commentator. I seriously doubt that there is another human being on this earth who knows more about actual wrestling holds then Regal, and this is reflective in his commentating. Actually, the fact that Regal knows so much about the actual holds and focuses on that while commentating might be one of the reasons he is being held back from appearing on major WWE television.
While the WWE is far from perfect, TNA has also had some issues commentating, mainly concerning Tazz. While with the WWE on Smackdown and later on ECW Tazz was amongst the best in the business, ever since he has been in TNA he has been brutal. Tazz consistently mispronounces wrestlers names, gets sidetracked from the action with long-winded side notes that have nothing to do with anything and just flat out sucks. When Botchamania names an entire segment after you, it is never a good sign. Tazz is clearly capable of better work, but like some other people in TNA, he seems to just be mailing it in every week.
I am actually in the minority when it comes to Tazz's counterpart Mike Tenay. I think that Tenay is one of the best play-by-play guys in the business, as fewer know the facts behind wrestling better than Tenay. I know people like to rag on him for overselling moments, but wasn't it the overselling that made us love JR? Mike Tenay has an almost infinite knowledge of professional wrestling, he truly is the professor, and he can fill a match with terrific and insightful anecdotes.
Outside the two major companies, commentary differs wildly depending on what company is being represented. Kevin Kelly is a bad fit for ROH, his commentating skills were made for the WWE, a place that couldn't differ further from Ring of Honor. Nigel McGuiness is wonderful when given the chance, but ROH's color commentary spot is in a constant flux. Lenny Leonard is very good for DG USA, as is Leonard Chikarason for Chikara. My favorite commentator in wrestling is probably Bryce Remsberg for Chikara, who is truly a delight to listen too. Excalibur and whoever he is paired with in PWG are always entertaining, as their commentary constantly delves into sinister dark humor. The forever nomadic Dave Prazak is also very good, wherever he may be (currently calling the action for Shimmer.)
I think the WWE's commentary team is currently limited by what they can say and the fact that VKM and WWE management basically control everything that they say, which really hurts them. TNA has one terrible commentator and one great one, which even out. The best commentating is by far on the independent seen, but it is difficult for any of them to get great exposure. Overally, I think commentating is in a down period, but hopefully it will pick up over the next few years as the foundation of pro wrestling continues to change.