wrestling / Columns

Handicapping the News 09.14.12

September 14, 2012 | Posted by Gavin Napier

There wont’ be a reader spotlight this week. My apologies to those of you that commented. I always appreciate feedback, and remain humbled that people actually take the time to read something that I wrote. You’ve got plenty of leisure time, and the fact that I get a few minutes of it each week is appreciated.

There won’t be a reader spotlight this week because I’m abandoning chunks of the format in order to deal with what was easily the biggest story of the year, if not the past decade or more, in wrestling. Obviously, that is Jerry Lawler’s heart attack on Monday night, which certainly qualifies as an unfortunate event, but thankfully didn’t make it all the way to tragedy status. That’s not to undermine the seriousness of what happened, that’s just to say that I’m grateful that it wasn’t fatal.

Lawler’s heart attack and pending recovery leaves a huge void in WWE. Immediately, an iconic voice is gone. A legend was almost taken from the sport in front of our very eyes and ears. It created chaos within the WWE and had internet sites buzzing with people trying to find out what had happened. There’s a lot of potential fallout from this, and I feel like it’s worth looking at. I’m not trying to exploit what happened to The King, and I’m not trying to make light of it in any way. You’ll notice that my normal feeble attempts at humor will be missing this week.

Jerry Lawler is a huge part of the wrestling industry’s past and present, and something like this involving him is far too big to ignore. So let’s peel back the layers on this and see what we can come up with, shall we?

Who takes Jerry Lawler’s seat?

We’ll address whether Lawler ever will (or should) come back in just a bit. For now, though, it’s obvious that he can’t be a part of the Monday Night Raw broadcasts. For the forseeable future, they’re going to need a substitute. As good as Michael Cole has become, and as professionally as he handled this past Monday night’s events, he’s no Joey Styles or Gordon Solie. The list of people that could successfully carry a one man booth in today’s professional wrestling climate are few and far between. There are a surprising number of options out there to take the seat next to Michael Cole, so let’s look at some of them.

JBL: 10 to 1
JBL stepped away from wrestling a few years ago and has been quite content to lay low in the world of wrestling. He delivered a magnificent Clothesline from Hell to Heath Slater, but that’s been it for a while now. After a near death experience of his own (though certainly not as near as Lawler’s) forced him to cut short his mountain climbing experiment, there’s been constant rumors that JBL would be returning to join a commentary booth. The only reason JBL isn’t given better odds here, is that I feel like he’ll end up on Smackdown as opposed to Raw should he come back.

Josh Matthews:5 to 1
Matthews has proven to be a servi cable commentator in the past, and has performed admirably when needed in a pinch. Could he be better? Sure. Could he be worse? Absolutely. He’s familiar with the current product, and he’s got experience with wearing the headset that has Vince McMahon or someone else’s voice in it telling him what to say and letting him know how terrible of a job he’s been doing. That’s not something to be taken lightly. Matthews has had some incidents that have seen him bumped around and he’s been given a fringe angle of threatening to sue WWE. However, it’s not like WWE’s never dropped something in a heartbeat in an emergency situation.

William Regal: 20 to 1
Regal has done some commentary down in FCW, and has at times sat in on Raw and Smackdown. Those were mostly one-offs, but Regal is a cult favorite. He would also provide a direct contrast to what we usually get from Lawler. Lawler’s voice tends to become high pitched and loud when excited and calling the action. Regal has a deeper, smoother voice and is reserved with a classic British accent and affect. While it certainly wouldn’t be a bad decision, I don’t see them pulling the trigger on this.

Matt Striker: 12 to 1
Striker is knowledgeable and has experience in a WWE commentary booth. Unfortunately, his time in the booth didn’t go over all that well with the powers that be. It also reportedly didn’t go great with Cole and Lawler, who no sold jokes, references, and generally made Striker appear to be the odd man out. Striker has settled nicely into a role as WWE’s main backstage interviewer, and I’m guessing that’s where he’ll remain. Never say never, though.

Paul Heyman: 15 to 1
Paul Heyman has been making his presence felt a little more regularly over the last couple of months, and he’s always a heat magnet. He also has the benefit of being a recognizable voice on commentary, and he has a reason for being there. They can plug him into the chair beside Cole and immediately switch roles. Cole has played heel-ish to Lawler’s face commentary for a long time now. Heyman can remark about Lawler’s lack of respect for CM Punk, and how he forced himself into the position to make sure that someone on commentary recognizes Punk’s abilities and greatness. Cole then becomes a face commentator and things can flow naturally. Heyman has proven that he can carry his weight with no less than Jim Ross, so working with Cole shouldn’t be a problem for him. He’s the definite dark horse candidate here.

Mick Foley: 30 to 1
Mick has done a lot of great work for Vince, both in the ring and behind the microphone. If Mick could be coerced into getting back into the commentary chair, it would likely be as a favor and sign of respect for Jerry Lawler. However, Mick wasn’t altogether thrilled with having someone in his ear the last time he did commentary, so it may be a tough sell to get him to go back to that.

Vince McMahon: 100 to 1
How fun would that be? Vince returns to the booth on the regular after years and years away from it? Mr. McMahon’s commentary was occasionally cringe inducing, but there was always passion. It could be played up well, with a big announcement at the beginning of Raw to introduce the man that’s going to fill in for Jerry Lawler…only to have McMahon power walk to the announce chair and put the headset on himself. Unfortunately, this is just as likely as having Don West show up to fill in.

Jim Ross:25 to 1
Jim Ross exists in semi retirement, showing up for big events such as Wrestlemania. Jim Ross loves this business, though, and if at any point he felt like he could physically handle the travel that filling in on Raw would dictate, then nobody is better qualified to sit in the chair next to Michael Cole. The only person that keeps this from happening is Jim Ross himself, which is a good possibility.

Will we ever see Jerry Lawler on WWE programming again?

It’s an important question, and one worth asking. There’s something of a Catch 22 here for WWE, as there’s going to be an obvious groundswell of support for Lawler, and an overwhelming desire to see him back on television, even if it’s just for one night. Fans care about Lawler and will want an opportunity to at least give him a proper send off if he doesn’t make a return to announcing. On the other hand, there’s a certain bittersweetness that comes in seeing legends deteriorate before our eyes. I’m not saying that Lawler will be a shell of himself, only speculating that such a possibility exists. I remember seeing Gorilla Monsoon in his final years on WWE programming and thinking just how sickly he looked. Like Gorilla, though, Jerry Lawler is a trooper. If he’s able to be there, he will be. Should he be? That’s not my decision to make. That’s best left to doctors and WWE officials and Lawler himself. The easy decision is to say that he doesn’t belong on television anymore for his own safety. However, had he not been on television when the heart attack happened, we would likely be mourning the loss of Jerry Lawler instead of speculating about his future. With surgery, medication, and lifestyle changes, heart attack survivors can live healthy lives for years, if not decades, to come. Will we see Jerry again? If so, how often?

One time appearance: 10 to 1
Somewhere in the future, Jerry Lawler will make a somewhat surprise return at the beginning of Raw. He’ll do so by walking to the top of the ramp and waving to the crowd. There will be a huge ovation, Lawler and Cole and several other people will tear up, and it’ll be a nice moment. I fully expect Lawler to address the crowd, and maybe call one more match for old time’s sake. It would be fitting if it were a CM Punk match that sees Punk losing the title. Who knows if the timing for that as well as Lawler’s physical health will overlap, though? A one off that sees Lawler retire quietly to Memphis is a best case scenario.

Occasional appearances:3 to 1
Take the above situation, and keep the intro and address to the crowd, only add a promise that he’ll be seeing us again from time to time. When Raw wanders through Tennessee, or near Wrestlemania time, expect to see The King in action again. Once wrestling is in your blood, it never gets out. Staying away on a permanent basis will be almost impossible for Lawler to do.

A full blown return to the booth, but no more matches: 50 to 1
This just doesn’t have the “comeback” feel to it. This feels like something that essentially signals the end of the Jerry Lawler era. Would I love to see him come back if it’s medically safe to do so? Absolutely. For all of the grief that he’s taken over the last few months in regards to his commentary, Jerry Lawler is what wrestling sounds like for a lot of people. His voice has been a part of what WWE has done for the biggest part of the last twenty years, and it won’t be the same without him. However, this is only an option that I want to see explored if it is determined that he’s at no greater risk of suffering another cardiac event than Michael Cole or Lillian Garcia would be. There’s no way to guarantee the health and safety of anyone, but there’s no need to put anyone at an increased risk, either.

Should the show have gone on?

There’s some precedent for what happened on Monday night, obviously. From absurdly grotesque injuries – Sid Vicious’ leg – to the loss of life in the ring – Owen Hart – there have been situations that potentially warranted pulling the plug on a major wrestling show in the past.

There are reports that there was internal debate about whether or not Monday night’s edition of Raw should have been stopped once it became acutely obvious how serious the situation was regarding Jerry Lawler’s health. Serious thought was given to pulling the plug on the whole show, and following up on Smackdown. It’s an understandable thought process, and I’m not sure that many people would have blamed WWE had they brought the show to a screeching halt.

However, Michael Cole sucked it up (which I’ll discuss further in depth below) and soldiered on, unaware of what was happening to his colleague and his friend. The wrestlers kept coming through the curtain, and they did their damndest to entertain both the live audience in the arena and the viewers at home. Given the circumstances, I think they did exceptionally well. The benefit was quickly obvious. Nobody stopped worrying about Lawler; he’s far too big a part of the show and too big of a legend for his absence on commentary to go unnoticed.

The mood was successfully lightened, though. The audience was given something to do other than dwell on the condition of Jerry Lawler. They had matches and promos to focus on. Intermittently, we received word on The King’s condition, and then we moved back into the regularly scheduled programming. Just because something is beneficial, though, doesn’t mean it’s right. Should the show have been stopped? I can think of one glaring reason to keep going at all costs.

Bret Hart.

I’m not sure how anyone could, with a clear conscience, shut down the show for a man who was still fighting for life and receiving medical attention at a Montreal hospital in the face of a man that saw a pay per view go forward after his baby brother died in the ring. That’s not to say that what was happening to Lawler wasn’t terrifying and a legitimate emergency. It absolutely was. However, at no point did it approach the level of Owen dying in the ring.

What was most likely this past Monday, and in the future should a similar situation arise?

The show must go on at all costs: 3 to 2
The only reason this isn’t even odds is because eventually there will be a death that will cause the postponement of a show. It will almost certainly come across as selfish, self serving, arrogant, and a bunch of other adjectives when it happens, but it will. At some point in the future, a McMahon is going to die. When that happens, if it should happen on camera or at a live event, then the brakes will be put on. I can all but guarantee it. For all the talk of doing their jobs and “what person x would have wanted”, there are always situations that will trump it.

A contingency plan is created for these situations to allow an early stoppage: 5 to 1
I can see “best of” footage or recent pay per view highlights being kept on standby so that if something tragic should occur, they can quickly shut down the live broadcast and take care of business. It’s a logistical nightmare with the television contracts and the live audience in the building, but having a backup plan never hurts. It will also help to take some of the pressure off of people that are in a position such as Michael Cole was and allow them to be a little more human. Cole, for his part, was incredible under pressure. Every bit as good as Jim Ross during the Owen Hart tragedy.

In an attempt to be more family friendly, shows are stopped in the future:25 to 1
As I mentioned above, it would have been hard to stop the show for Jerry Lawler going to the ER with Bret there. It would be almost impossible not to take it as a slap in the face if you’re a member of the Hart family, even if it isn’t intended as such. However, the WWE was careful with the situation Monday night to allow very minimal footage or camera shots of Lawler being attended to or taken out of the arena to be seen. It was a potentially traumatic situation, and it was already uncomfortable with what little we heard on the microphone. In keeping with the PG theme, I can easily envision the WWE powers that be deciding that these situations warrant pulling the plug while they gather facts and information.

WWE comes under a lot of fire for being among the basest forms of entertainment. Some of the allegations levied in their direction are that they’re crude, they’re demeaning towards women, they’re violent, and they’re designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. At various times in their history, all of the above have applied. I’ve been guilty of making some of those accusations myself.

When emergencies happen, though, there are few that are better than Vince McMahon and WWE. Watch a player get rendered unconscious in an NFL game, and you’ll generally see the game come to a screeching halt. The announcers speculate, they replay some footage, and they take a lot of commercial breaks. Once the player is off the field, the game goes on and they try to provide spotty updates until they can hand it off to someone else.

Monday night, a legitimate tragedy was unfolding next to Michael Cole. It wasn’t happening a hundred feet away while he watched through a television monitor. It wasn’t happening to someone that he occasionally speaks to or interviews and has a quasi-personal relationship with. It wasn’t even happening to a co-worker. It was happening to a friend, and it was happening three feet away from him.

Reports are that Cole had Vince McMahon and others in his ear telling him to remain calm and hold things together while they figured out what was going on and tended to Jerry. Jerry Lawler is a titan of the sport, a genuine legend that’s left over from the territory days. He made himself a superstar by way of feuding with Andy Kaufman, and may be wrestling’s greatest self-made star ever outside of Andre the Giant. He’s been with WWE off and on for nearly 20 years now both as an in ring performer and as a commentator. He’s survived the New Generation and the Attitude Era, and endured well into the PG Era. And he was laying beside Michael Cole, either dead or dying on the air.

That’s not intended to be crude, crass, or disrespectful. It is simply an honest statement about what was happening, and it’s important for the sake of the point that I’m trying to make that it is understood in its simplest terms. Jerry Lawler slumped over and essentially died next to his friend, while they were in the middle of doing their jobs in front of a few million people. You know what? Cole didn’t miss a beat .

Vince McMahon can coach him all he wants. He can have William Regal or Triple H in his ear telling him what to say all night long. It was on Michael Cole to hold it together and keep doing his job. He did, and he did so better than the vast majority of the world could ever hope to.

For all the hell that Michael Cole catches from people that either can’t tell the difference between a character and a person or people that genuinely don’t enjoy his persona on camera enough that they wish he wasn’t on camera (I’m guilty of the latter), he was a consummate professional Monday night. He proved that he deserves to be where he’s sitting.

Reports also came forward that Vince McMahon never left Lawler’s side. For all the hell that he catches as a businessman – and he’ll be the first to tell you that he’s as ruthless as a starving dog on a t-bone- Vince McMahon takes care of his own. Despite his heartless appearance as a businessman, Vince McMahon understands how important people are.

I’ve criticized WWE in the past, and I’m sure I’ll do it again. Monday night, through unfortunate circumstances, served as a reminder of why they’re the best. Greatness shines through in difficult circumstances. Monday night, Michael Cole, Vince McMahon,a nd the WWE as a whole were on top of their game.

Finally, as Jerry Lawler recovers from his heart attack, I can only say that I hope and pray it’s a full recovery. There’s been some talk of potential hypoxic brain damage, and there’s always a lingering fear factor when it comes to heart problems. Lawler is still a relatively young man at 67 – especially when I consider that my own father is 73 – and should have several years of life ahead of him to enjoy, with or without wrestling.

Long live the king.

That’s it for me. I’ll try to do better next time. You can message me on Twitter @GavinNapier411 if you want to tell me how much you love me or hate me, or just say hi. Odds are I’ll be back next week.


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