On the Mat: Turning Michael Cole

I’ve been keeping tabs on the comings and goings in WWE for several months now, after several years where I didn’t have the time or the interest in staying up-to-date on the latest twists and turns in spandex soap operas.

And I freely admit professional wrestling is a soap opera – one with fighting. I used to see those magazines entirely devoted to soap operas at grocery checkout lines and think “who could write so much – or READ so much – about daytime soaps?” Nowadays, even though I still can’t stomach daytime stories, I appreciate that, if soaps are anything like wrestling, there is PLENTY of material to ponder over, make predictions on and complain about.

After a long stretch where there was a lot to complain about in WWE, it seems the storylines are starting to gain traction and the creative department is finding better ways to utilize their top talent. To my eyes (and ears), nobody is exemplifying the shift from crap to cromulent than WWE’s lead announcer, Michael Cole.

In the recent past, Michael Cole has been employed as what we call a “heel” announcer. In effect, this means that as he would talk about the action taking place in the ring, he would espouse the qualities of the heel (or bad guy) wrestlers, managers and other characters in a given storyline. In the past, play-by-play announcers were largely “face” (or good guys) and a promotion would create tension by having them work with heel color commentators, who would deride the fan favorites and pump up the rotten characters as a supplement to the play-by-play man’s relatively neutral commentary.

At his peak heelness, Cole was sort of a work of art. He was genuinely unlikable, going out of his way to be as annoying and contrary as possible. In wrestling parlance, this is called “cheap heat,” because it’s not hard to just be annoying; it’s much harder to get people to boo you for your actual stances and underhanded actions. Cole was able to also build some real heel ability, as evidenced in the video above.

Because he was the main voice of WWE and not just another in-ring talent, though, the annoyance I felt toward his character bled through to being annoyed at the product in general. I love effective heels; they make the stories and matches much more dynamic and enjoyable. Having the heel viewpoint be the main viewpoint for the show, however, always felt incorrect.

In recent months, I think WWE started to realize this. Cole was still being scripted as rooting for the bad guys, but he stopped participating in in-ring action so much. He was still contrary in his opinions about the action, but called matches more down-the-middle, only occasionally stopping to antagonize his color commentary partner, Jerry “The King” Lawler, for his good-guy exposition.

But heel tendencies don’t work when a character can only go halfway with it. And recent storyline changes to characters have led to some rather ridiculous (even for wrestling) mental gymnastics for Heel Cole, such as when he called the formerly face wrestler Daniel Bryan a “nerd” and “boring” ad nauseum for months, then started praising him for his in-ring abilities and demeanor a few weeks later after Bryan started his own heel posturing.

The end of this week’s Monday Night Raw gave me a glimmer of hope for the continuing evolution of Cole as a more measured, neutral observer (or at least one that doesn’t seem so amoral). For the last several months, the Cole character had sworn allegiance to John Laurinaitis, the new general manager of WWE, who had taken a pretty subtle heel tack to interactions with the wrestlers. Cole played corporate toady to Laurinaitis, who was himself a corporate toady, albeit one with ambition to mold the WWE in his own image.

On air, Cole always applauded Laurinaitis’s decisions as visionary and bold. But when Laurinaitis’s main talent, former WWE wrestler and UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, badly beat and bloodied the face (literally and figuratively) of WWE, John Cena, at the last pay-per-view event, Cole expressed shock and even some disgust at the lengths Lesnar went to. When Cena defied the odds and wound up beating Lesnar, Cole professed admiration for the good guy’s guts. The next night on Raw, when Laurinaitis, himself a former wrestler, attacked Cena in the ring and announced himself as Cena’s next pay-per-view opponent, Cole reacted with disbelief. He called Laurinaitis’s attacks out of bounds and closed the show by shrieking, “Has the whole world gone mad?”

Melodramatic though it may be, I hope that line signaled a permanent shift in the Cole character’s worldview. I think having an announcer who questions everything and calls the actions of the other characters in a neutral, fair and introspective manner the way legendary WWF announcer Jim Ross did is a good idea. Many fans on blogs and message boards felt Cole’s position replacing Ross was forced, and it didn’t help Cole’s quest for legitimacy that he was picked to be the lead announcer over the arguably more talented Joey Styles, whose shrill “OHMYGOD!” signature call and enthusiasm on the mic was as integral to ECW’s success as any in-ring performer.

But if Cole can successfully drop the toady heel shtick and transition gracefully to a position of neutrality and respect, he may well earn his spot as the successor to the beloved Jim Ross, at least in my eyes.

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